On God’s Death
An Orthodox Contribution to the Problem of Knowing God
Paulos Mar Gregorios
We are now assured that the Death of God ‘theology’ has already become passé. It has been weighed and found wanting. All the way from its recent origins in the Theologische Hochschule in Berlin, trying to adopt a methodological atheism in response to Bonhoeffer, down to the challenging absurdities of William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer, the movement seems to have helped merely to raise again some old questions about the issue of our faith in God.
The movement is really more significant than the theological establishment is willing to concede. For it marks the final spasm of the Western intellect trying to deliver itself from the paralysing grip of its basically corrupt Augustinian tradition of theology. The Death of God movement is not simply the flower or even the ripe fruit of the Reformation and the Renaissance. It marks the last effort of Western Christian thought stemming from Augustine of Hippo, and pervading both the Catholic and Protestant forms of Western Christianity. It was 1789 the year of the beginning of the real protest within Western Christianity, not 1517. When the French monarchy collapsed, bringing down with it the landed aristocracy and the established Church, then began not only the questioning of Theodore Van Leeuwen’s ontocratic principle1, but also the dethronement of theology from the intellectual tradition of the West.
It is significant indeed that no Christian theologian figures prominently in the intellectual tradition of the West since the time of Luther and Calvin. Such German giants like Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack do not occupy a position of prominence in the average Western intellectual’s heritage -- not to speak of contemporary German and Swiss giants like Barth, Brunner and Bultman. Kierkegaard might very well have been an exception, but then, was he a theologian?
In a very brilliant recent article, Harvey Cox affirms that the Death of God movement signals the dead end for a certain type of theologizing, characteristic of the West. He now wants ‘to move away from any spatial symbolization of God and from all forms of metaphysical dualism’. He is ‘trying to edge cautiously toward a secular theology, a mode of thinking whose horizon is human history and whose idiom is political in the widest Aristotelian sense of that term, i.e. the context in which man becomes fully man’.2
Cox wants to avoid, in the course of this cautious advance, certain traps. He regards as deadly both ‘the mystical-atheistic monism of Thomas Altizer’, ‘the uncritical empiricism of Paul van Buren’ and the ‘inverse pietism of William Hamilton’.
As two possible lights to illumine the forward path, Cox proposes Teilhard de Chardin and Ernst Bloch. They both affirm the responsibility of man for shaping creation – which previously used to be all God’s work. We human beings were, in that kind of theology, just the creation, and He, God, was the Creator. This won’t do for the future. We now cannot evade our responsibilities as men by projecting everything onto the transcendent. Human beings have more than a passive role in the shaping of creation.
In fact both Teilhard and Bloch contend that the pressure of the transcendent is the pressure of the future which breaks into the present. Reality is an open-ended process, in which man lives by hope. Teilhard lives toward the point Omega. For Bloch, a Messianic Marxist, man is ‘man-as-promise’, and his concern is with ‘the ontology of the not-yet’, which in more complex terms is called Futurology or Zukunftwissenschaft.
Bloch, of course, is not a Christian theologian. He is a Jew and a Marxist philosopher. His Christian counterpart, Jurgen Moltmann, owes his Theology of Hope3 to Bloch’s The Principle of Hope.4
Cox’s final conclusion is that the God of the future is to be sought
neither ‘up there’ nor ‘out there’ but ‘ahead’. God is not, but it is ‘He
An Eastern Qualification
of the God of Western theology, if it does lead to the resurrection of a
‘God who comes’, would not be such a bad thing – for the God who comes is
the God of the Old Testament, who is the God, and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ – ‘the God who came’, who was and is and is yet to come.
Living towards the future was all right for the children of Israel. Even they had constantly to look back to the past when He had done great things. It is on the basis of the past that we look forward to the future. But for Christians who believe that the ‘coming one’ was already in history and is now, a theology of hope can only be a corrective to a static theology, but not an adequate substitute for it.
Here perhaps an Eastern theologian had no option but that of Christian forthrightness. The Eastern theologian has to say that Augustinian tradition of mapping God-man-world relationship was fundamentally wrong, and that without radically questioning that tradition, there is no way forward for the West to find an adequate theology.
The fourfold distortion of Christian thought, for which Augustine and not merely the Augustinian tradition must accept major responsibility, can only be summarized here.
Towards Applying an Eastern Corrective
It is not
possible to discuss a so-called Eastern doctrine of God except in relation
to the vexing questions of God-world and God-man relationships.
A more balanced Easter Orthodox doctrine would require a historical treatment of the Cappadocian Fathers, through Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene, Gregory Palamas, Vladimir Soloviev, and contemporary theologians like Evdokimov, Schmemann and Nissiotis. Here we have to attempt something less ambitious, limiting ourselves largely to the fourth-century Fathers of Cappadocia.
These fourth-century fathers are as modern as the twentieth century in the breadth of their imagination and in the scope of their ‘secular’ knowledge. To cite just one illustration, here is a passage from St. Gregory Nazianzen:
having read that if anyone accuses our ancient fathers of believing naively
in a three-story universe or a spatially located God, it shows only how ignorant,
naïve and misinformed we moderns are. It was clear to the fathers not only
that God was not intellectually comprehensible, but He was not to be comprehended
in any way whatsoever.
Any kind of qualification or prediction that we dare to apply to God is in the form of symbols – ways by which we can chart our own relationship to the ultimate reality that we call God.
Once this basic incomprehensibility of God is grasped, we can seek to conceptualize His relation to us and the world in symbolic ideas, which are actually the creation of our minds, but which help us to become related to God and to His universe. The theology offered here, therefore, is already pre-demythologized. It should be taken symbolically, evocatively, rather than conceptually, descriptively.
Gregory of Nyssa12 suggests three possible ways of knowing God: by concept (jnanamarga), by obedient devotion (bhaktimarga), and by ecstasy or mystic vision. But none of these can penetrate to the Divine Essence which remains in light unapproachable, beyond the reach of created intelligence. Only the energies of God are accessible to the created order, and any attempt to go beyond leads to ‘Vertigo’ (hilligia), to dizziness and to destruction. The only real knowledge of the essence of God possible to us is that it is unknowable.
But beyond our intelligence, we can only conceive of ‘nothing’. This ‘nothing’ or non-being is not the absence of being, but the ‘unlimited, undetermined, pure potentiality of all being’. ‘One does not really know God except in the awareness of the very incapacity to apprehend him.’13 Thus the knowledge of God is a ‘taught ignorance’, a knowledge of our own limits. It is the knowledge of God’s non-being (where being means determined existence).
The Freedom of God
was basically skeptical about human freedom. Freedom was necessary for him
to explain the origin of evil without attributing it to God; but that freedom
was not a great value in itself for Augustine.
This should not be interpreted as mere immobility, there is no change necessary in His being, but he can initiate change. He is the perfection of all good, and there is nothing to be added to him; he needs no change. His will and actuality are always co-terminous. He is what he wills to be and he wills what he is. That will, however, is a dynamic will.
But in his becoming immanent, he initiates change. Matter itself comes from God and is ‘in God’. It comes from spirit and is ‘spiritual’ in its essence, according to Gregory. This is an insight which accords well with modern physics, which regards all matter as charges of energy, rather than as simply composed of particles. Matter is not opposed to the spirit, but identified with it by St. Gregory.
The creation is an act in which God becomes immanent, so to speak, but without change. God’s ousia or nature remains veiled, but it is His energy that becomes immanent in creation. The creation is neither a part of the divine ousia or nature nor is it an extension of or an emanation from him. It comes from His will, not from His being. In fact Gregory says that the creation is God’s will and energy. It has no other being of its own.
The creation was set in motion by God’s dynamic will. He established in the ‘moment’ of creation ‘the principles, the causes and the dynamics’ of all created existence, by an act of His will. The creation is thus God’s will in concrete actuality – it is the ‘substantification’ of God’s will. In his life of Gregory Thaumaturgus, Nyssa says:
If the universe is thus the will of God in concrete, God is immanent in it, not by ousia but by will. The will, with its dynamic energy, is the motor of the universe. Therefore the universe itself is dynamic – stretching forward to its own salvation which is the completion and perfection of creation.
God and Man
But there is no identity here between Paramatma and jivatma. The latter is not even an emanation from the former. It is a mysterious communication of God’s own being to man, which is best expressed in the formula: ‘God created man in His own image.’ The image, eikon, means more than mere resemblance. The eikon is the visible manifestation of an invisible reality. Jesus Christ, the new man, is the eikon of the invisible God. That is what man really is - the visible manifestation of God.
Man is therefore free- like God; potentially capable of all good, all wisdom, all power, all love. This is quite contrary to the Augustinian evaluation of the world and of man. For Augustine, sin is the central category for understanding man. For Gregory, it is man’s freedom and his vocation to be in the image of God. The only differences between God and man in terms of potentiality are the following:
That which distinguishes man from the rest of creation is his parentage – that he is born of God. His creation was not simply an act of God’s will, it is the consequence of a deliberative decision – ‘Let us make man in our image’. Man is constituted by the divine breath which was breathed unto him. In this sense God indwells man in a manner different from immanence in creation which is latter is entirely a matter of will. In man the divine breath is his constitutive reality, though he participates also in the creation by will, since he is made of the dust of the earth.
This man with the divine breath in him is the image of the creator, the eikonic presence of the invisible God. God made man in order to manifest Himself through him. The incarnation is only the fulfillment of the creation of man. In Jesus Christ, the true man, the purpose of God to manifest Himself through man is realized.
God thus indwells man. Gregory comes fairly close to the traditional Hindu understanding of the relationship between Paramatma and jivatma. Not that they are identical, but rather that the jivatma is a mode in which the absolutely transcendent Paramatma becomes immanent in freedom in the created order and manifests himself through his operations. It is also significant that for Gregory it is not just the soul (jivatma) which is in image of God. The body itself is part of the image and not something to be escaped from. So also we should note that the orientation of the jivatma is not simply to recover its relation to the Paramatma. The historical manifestation of the jivatma has its own purpose – namely to reveal God in His creation, and to rule over the whole creation by His reasoning power and too-making capacity.
But man becomes able to reveal God only when he is liberated and becomes free – i.e. one who by his own wisdom, love and power chooses and creates new forms of good.
The liberty itself can be obtained by faith, by self-discipline, by worship, and by working with ones’ own hands in order to serve others. This, in time, man manifests God in the process of the very struggle for liberation, in faith, worship, discipline and spirituality. But time itself is something from which we have to be liberated in the end. Death this becomes the door to the Resurrection, where a new kind of freedom is experienced. The body, which has been such a drag on our liberty, now becomes reconstituted and participates in human freedom. The body of man was originally made by the hand of God. It is now to be restored to its original purity as it came from the hands of God.
Man thus truly becomes man in the Resurrection, participating still in the created order, integrating in himself truly the intelligible and the material worlds. That is the image of God as can be made present in the creation.
It is not then God’s death that is the truth, but the Death and Resurrection of the God-Man Jesus Christ in which we are called to share.
Gregory also insists that man’s reasoning and tool-making powers constitute a major aspect of the image. Thus Gregorian theology has already anticipated the contemporary notion that science and technology are God-given instruments for man to gain control of his environment.
Gregory also knew that man had a double existence – in memory and hope. But memory and hope are never evenly balanced. This is man’s basic asymmetry. The past is constantly receding, leaving only traces in the memory. Hope pulls man on, but he is afraid to move, because of his fears accumulated from past errors, from his fear of judgment and condemnation. Liberation from guilt and despair is what sets him at liberty to move on towards his guture.17 Christ alone is both free and freeing by forgiving our sins and removing the fear of condemnation.
Classical theology is by no means inadequate to deal with problems of contemporary humanity. Our mistake is to have been bedazzled by the intellectual and spiritual brilliance of Augustine, and been led to a dead end. The universal tradition of the Church, which Augustine by no means represents, poses no conflict between the interests of God and the interests of man. Man can become mature without patricide. It is that God of the authentic Christian tradition who needs to be made manifest in the life of the Church today.
1 The ontocratic principle
implies the identification of God with the cosmos and finding the manifestation
of this God in the league between throne and altar or state and religion.
Martin Luther himself basically followed this principle in his ‘as
Ruler, so Religion’ policy.
2 Harvey Cox, ‘Death of
God and Future of Theology’ in William Robert Miller, Ed., The New
Christianity, New York, 1967, Delta Edition, pp. 382-383.
3 Theologie der Hoffnung, Munich, second
4 Das Prinzip der Hoffnung,
5 Sermon CCL XIV:4, Eng. Tr. Erich Prywara, An
Augustine Synthesis (Harper Torchbook, 1958), p. 294.
6 In Ps. CIX:5; In Ps. CXVII:22, op. cit.,
7 De Genesi ad literam VIII xii: 25,27,
op. cit., pp. 306-307.
8 In Ps. CVI: 14, 15.
9 In Ps. CXXXVI: 3,4, op. cit., p. 269.
10 In Joan. Evang., XXIII, op. cit.,
11 Gregory Nazianzen, Second Theological oration,
X, Eng. Tr. In Nicene and Post-nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol.
VII, p. 292.
12 I am grateful to Jerome Gaith, La conception
de la Liberte chez Gregoire de Nyssa, Paris, 1953, for many of the
insights in this paper into St. Gregory’s thought.
13 See contra Eunomium I. 373.
14 Augustine is not a father or doctor of the universal
Church. He was never accepted by the whole Eastern tradition.
15 PG. XLVI: 920 A.
16 PG. XLIV: 1137 B.
17 Gaith, op. cit., p. 141.