Monday, June 21, 2010

Cuts and Motives

So, here comes the budget.  And here come the cuts.  It's going to hurt.

But permit me, for a moment, to delve into something which I think is important: the motives for these cuts in public spending.  A lot of people I know have already started banging the 'evil old Tories' drum - you know the one: the Tories love the rich, the Tories hate the poor, the Tories want to protect the privileged whilst grinding the worker into the dust.  That sort of thing.  I find it painful to listen to, and I want my friends to understand this. I believe in these cuts.  That doesn't mean I think they're going to be great.  Some of them I think are a good idea, like tightening up the welfare system and making sure it pays more to work than it does to claim.  Others I think are an unfortunate necessity in the economic climate, like not building a visitors' centre at Stonehenge, or cutting arts funding.  And I understand that for many people - including people I know and love - these cuts will mean personal hardships and even tragedies.  I get that.  But I think it is necessary for us as a nation to spend less - much less.  There it is.

Now, I wonder whether my friends think I hate the poor?  Maybe they do.  If that were so, that would make me a rubbish Christian, and, let's face it, a pretty awful human being.  But I promise you it isn't the case: I genuinely believe that this is better for all of us in the long run.  Of course, you may think I'm wrong.  But do you also think I'm evil?

I hope not many of my friends think that I am evil.  In which case, I want to ask them to hold off on assuming that Dave, George and co are necessarily evil.  If, just for a moment, we assumed that the people we disagreed with might have good motives, wouldn't that lead to a more constructive debate about the way forward?

To put it another way, it would be very easy for me to write off all my leftish friends as people who hate success, are driven by envy, and desperately want to take away economic freedom.  That would, of course, be facile and frankly idiotic analysis.  I don't think that.  I think my leftish friends are wrong; but I think their motives are good.  It would be nice if the compliment were extended in the opposite direction.

End of rant.  As you were.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Nineteenth Century

I am just approaching the end of a term spent studying Protestant theology in Europe and America in the 19th Century.  It has been fascinating, but only in the way that a documentary about the Titanic or a train-wreck might be fascinating.  The 19th Century sees the complete marginalisation of orthodoxy within Protestant theology, and a move toward man as the measure of all things which is utterly destructive.  By the time we get to the First World War, we are faced with the terrible sight of German theologians enthusiastically supporting the Kaiser's war, and theologians across Europe not only failing to protest the war but actually talking it up as a war for Christianity and civilisation, as if these two were the same, as if they were both in desperate danger, and as if leaving the youth of the continent dying in the mud would save them.  And that was not a blip; it was the logical end point of the mainstream of theology over the previous century.

What went wrong?

Well, firstly, in the 18th century, theologians argued that Christianity was reasonable, and therefore ought to be believed.  That doesn't sound like the precursor to a disaster; the whole exercise was in fact considered as necessary to stave off disaster and to equip Christianity to survive the Enlightenment.  But at some point there was a switch.  Instead of arguing that the whole of Christianity was reasonable and therefore to be believed, suddenly theologians were arguing that only what was reasonable was to be believed, and therefore Christianity must be subjected to a critique that removes everything reason cannot accept.  This was, in many ways, just a frank acceptance that the 18th century apologetic project had failed.  This failure was not immediately obvious.  But as 'what can be rationally believed' gradually shifted, the ground upon which the 18th century theologians had taken their stand was eroded and eventually destroyed.  A bare kernel of 'Christianity' was left.

Secondly, theology failed to assert the transcendence and immanence of God.  Kant stressed the transcendence; Hegel in protest stressed the immanence.  The former made God inaccessible, and was not hugely attractive to theologians (although philosophers liked it); the latter seemed much more likely to provide theology with what it felt it needed - a plausible philosophical basis.  But for Hegel God was locked inside the system of the world, and especially human culture.  The logical development of his thought was the 'History of Religions school', which sought to trace the development of religion in history in order to see the revelation of God.  Protestant Christianity was seen as the highest point (absolute religion for the likes of Schleiermacher and Harnack; the best so far for Troeltsch).  In this movement, revelation came to be identified with cultural development.  It comes as no surprise that a theologian like Harnack, who wrote that Protestantism was the genius of the German national spirit, would ultimately fail to criticise the War.  (In fact, he signed a manifesto in support of it).

What do we have to learn?

Firstly, to be suspicious of our felt need to make Christianity rationally acceptable to those around us.  We could succeed in this apologetic task and still be putting down a time bomb in the church which will be devastating in a hundred years.  In particular, we need to remember that there is not some timeless standard of rationality to which we can appeal; what seems reasonable to someone today may not seem so reasonable in a few decades.  So we mustn't rely too much on the rationality of those around us.

Secondly, we need to be on our guard against moving with the times.  Revelation always stands over against culture and critiques it from its own place.  Whenever anyone discards a piece of Scriptural teaching on the grounds that it is old fashioned (and this happens often, under different guises), we need to ask whether the surrounding culture has been allowed to smother the voice of the apostles and prophets.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The sacrifice of God

Once one sacrificed human beings to one's god, perhaps precisely those whom one loved most; the sacrifices of the firstborn in all primitive religions belong here...

Then, during the moral epoch of mankind, one sacrificed to one's god one's own strongest instincts, one's "nature": this festive joy lights up the cruel eyes of the ascetic, the "anti-natural" enthusiast.

Finally - what remained to be sacrificed? At long last, did one not have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn't one have to sacrifice God himself and, from cruelty against oneself, worship the stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, the nothing? To sacrifice God for the nothing - this paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty was reserved for the generation that is now coming up: all of us already know something of this-

Thus Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, section 55.

I wonder to what extent this clarifies the death of God. It is not, in fact, a mere murder, but a cultic murder. God has not been merely killed, but sacrificed, in a final self-consuming act of religion. Again, it is to Nietzsche's credit that he recognises that this is a sacrifice. Of course, he thinks it will set humanity free in some sense, but it is nevertheless a suffering, a cruelty inflicted upon oneself which in some way forms the logical highpoint of asceticism (which Nietzsche considers to be the heart of religion).

The sacrifice of God plays out in different ways in the Christian tradition. The most basic statement that can be made about it is that God sacrifices himself - again, this is an event in the history of God, not merely a human event. Therefore the BCP can say of Christ's death that he "made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world". Perhaps the question to ask Nietzsche here is whether his own concept of the sacrifice of God is not merely an insufficient echo of the gospel.

More directly relevant, though, to Nietzsche's theme is the requirement that the gospel puts on Christians to be continually sacrificing God.

Now, before you think I've gone all Roman, I should say that I have in mind a mental process, and that strictly speaking I do not have in mind God. What I mean is this: the revelation of God in the gospel - in the face of Jesus Christ - teaches us that all of our ideas of God are wrong. Jesus Christ continually crashes through every symbol, doctrine, thought, image, or idea of God that I am able to devise. So I find myself in this position: I must have these symbols, doctrines, and ideas - without them I cannot think of God at all; but I am continually reminded that my symbols, doctrines, and ideas are inadequate - in fact, they are not truly representative of God.

So I am always sacrificing my image of God, always laying it on the altar - no matter how comforting or inspiring an image it is to me. I sacrifice it, to receive afresh the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And as soon as that knowledge has passed into memory and symbol, I am called to sacrifice it.

Is there, then, nothing steady - nothing lasting - in the knowledge of God? Yes - but the steady, lasting thing is Jesus Christ himself, from whose grace my inadequate (and in itself idolatrous) knowledge of God can live.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The death of God

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Thus Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Gay Science. The whole passage is very powerful and well worth reading. There are a whole load of things I'd like to say about this. I'd like to draw attention to the fact that Nietzsche, unlike many of the contemporary atheists I come across, understands just what the death of God entails, in terms of the loss of all values. I'd like to explore the history of the death of God as a concept, and ask some questions about whether Nietzsche is the inevitable result of trends in western philosophy and theology. I'd love to explore the extent to which the madman represents Nietzsche himself in this parable.

But for this post, I want to settle on one thing: the death of God is an event. It is a happening.

It seems to me that Nietzsche is not so much an atheist as a deicide. I don't mean that Nietzsche believed in an existent, metaphysical entity called God, an entity which humanity has now killed. I don't think he had much interest in metaphysical entities of any sort. But the vivid imagery of the death - indeed, the murder - of God is not the language of the man who has just realised that there never was any sort of deity after all and therefore we can all enjoy our lives. Something has changed. There used to be God - this earth used to be chained to its sun, there used to be warmth and light, there used to be meaning. Now it has all gone. And we have done it. What is left is the nihilism from which Nietzsche hopes to provide some escape (but only for some?) through his philosophy.

Now consider this stanza from a hymn of Faber's:
O come and mourn with me a while,
and tarry here the cross beside.
O come together, let us mourn,
Jesus our Lord is crucified.

The subject is, of course, the death - of God? I think we could be so bold as to say so. Because in Christianity, also, the death of God is an event, a happening.

There is debate about whether we can really speak in this way - is not the death of Christ really the death of his human nature, and not at all the death of God? I think there is good reason to reject this approach, although I recognise it has been the majority position in the church. Perhaps I'll write something about this at some point.

I suppose the main difference between Nietzsche and Faber is the little phrase "a while" in the hymn. For Nietzsche's madman, God is dead and remains dead; for Faber, there is just a little while to mourn the death of God. How is that?

For Nietzsche, the death of God is an event in human history, for which human beings must take responsibility, the aftermath of which it is up to human beings to sort out. For the Christian, the death of God is an event in divine history, for which God takes responsibility (though indeed, it is true that we have done it), the aftermath of which God has sorted out by raising Christ from the dead. The madman is driven frantic by the responsibility. We have killed God; now what must we do? Must we not become gods ourselves to be worthy of the deed? The Christian agrees: we have killed God. We will mourn for a while. But ultimately we know that God himself has taken responsibility for our - murder? deicide? - and has completely undone what we have tried to do.

O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried,
and victory remains with love
for thou, our Lord, art crucified.