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Rebellion against God

To Believe to Be No Longer Able to Believe


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2008, P. 26-36
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


In the last years the flourishing landscape of esoteric was a sign that the parting of God can be accompanied by religious reverence for cosmic forces and diffuse energies. Softer versions seemed to be the heir of the militant atheism of the 20th century, which got his strength mainly from negation. There was spreading now on the ruins of the great atheisms "ungodliness friendly toward religion" (Johann Baptist Metz) serving the need for religious wellness without bothering about the intellectual possibility or impossibility of the faith in God. That has changed now.

A new, fanatically sharpened tone determines the dispute about the faith in God. Authors like Richard Dawkins talk of "God delusion" and see in the biblical monotheism the actual root of violence, war and other evil in the world. They talk and act with a fighting spirit like previous apologists of Christianity, who in harsh rhetoric wrote against those who denied God, without seeing in their own untrustworthiness even one of the reasons for the loss of acceptance of faith. But as believers, if they are honest, cannot dispose of their faith but are always exposed to challenges - the diary of Mother Teresa published in September 2007 is an eloquent testimony of such a darkening of God - so also the one who thinks that he can no longer believe knows, if he is honest, situations in which he begins to doubt his God doubts. Disbelief or semi-belief become for a moment crumbling. May it be an aesthetic experience - a picture by Rembrandt, a symphony by Mahler, a sonnet by Shakespeare or the relief to have just escaped a fatal accident - also the belief in disbelief is not safe from doubts and temptation.

Differently as statements in black-and-white terms suggest - here the talk of a "God delusion" is just as little differentiated (unterkomplex) as that of "dictatorship of relativism" - there are possibilities to come to an understanding, when agnostics and confessional atheists admit that they cannot leave the question of God because fundamental questions are on their mind. Perhaps is the hope that is inscribed on the word "God" not a mere illusion.



After all, at the end of his life the Marxist-inspired philosopher Ernst Bloch was able to leave behind the categorical 'No', when he thoughtfully answered the question whether he believed in a life after death, "Peu-être" (perhaps). And a poet like Gottfried Benn, who had warned against the word "God" as bad style principle, could in view of the atheism problem note:

"A Jesuit Father, who had the courtesy to write to me, said, 'Somebody who like you sees God so independent and so in the distance I prefer to someone who always refers so closely to him and expects everything from him. I add, nobody is without God, that's impossible; only fools believe they are autochthonous and self-regulating. Everybody else knows we are created, but everything else is totally in the dark. Hence the question is not whether God or Non-God [exists, E.F.], the only question is whether one processes God in one's life, whether one makes use of him and immediately needs him for one's life.'" {1}

It is significant that the overly self-assertive and insistent talk of God is felt as repulsive. Elias Canetti too warned against a rhetoric showing off with one's knowledge about God, when he drew in his character collection the figure of the "God swank" (Gottprotz) {2}. Though he knew that where God is bracketed or concealed the danger grows that essential dimensions of man's existence are no longer brought up. There are empty spaces that open up when God is missing as a potential addressee of human self-understanding. The heavy burden to have failed - to whom shall we turn? "He has no one whom he could ask for mercy. The proud disbeliever! He can go down on his knees before nobody. His cross." {3} Or an unexpected stroke of luck - to whom shall one address one's gratitude? "The heaviest thing for the one who does not believe in God is that he has nobody whom he can thank." {4} Or the complaint about the appalling injustice in the world? Does it die away in nothingness, if there is no instance to which you can appeal?


Pascal Mercier's "Night Train to Lisbon

Not only classical writers of the modern age as Benn and Canetti - the series could easily be continued - have given their view on the question of the possibility or impossibility of the faith in God; also in a much-read book of the present urgent queries to God have a central place - and that not in the sense of a simple negation of God but in the sense of melancholy-tinged thoughtfulness, which arises from the grief over the fact that one can no longer believe. "The Night Train to Lisbon" {5} by Pascal Mercier (alias Peter Bieri) is a book that is about a classical philologist and teacher, who is a bit odd and suddenly leaves the lesson, packs his bags and travels to Portugal in order to get on the track of a poet whose recordings he had by chance bought in an antiquarian bookshop, and whose language power and precision made a lasting impression on him.



It would be worth a separate investigation to ask about the motivation for this sudden departure and to discuss how unexpected events can shape the biography of a human being and determine its identity. It would also be quite attractive to portray the winding paths in which Gregory, the fugitive teacher gets mixed up in his search for traces in Lisbon. A whole maze of relationships opens up here, which goes back into the era of the right dictatorship in Portugal. The literary strategy is cleverly chosen. The memories of others let little by little rise anew the figure of the prematurely deceased noble poet doctor Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado. The pieces of the memory puzzle fit for Gregory together to a more and more complete picture, which remains however fragmentary. Added to it are Prado's unpublished notes, which Mercier has sunk, as it were, as philosophical intarsia into his Night Train to Lisbon.

But the attention shall here be directed to a remarkable speech that the seventeen-year-old Prado made on the occasion of his school-leaving celebration before the assembled teachers and students. It is titled "Speech about Awe of and Disgust at the Word of God" and includes a criticism of the biblical faith in God's that is hardly to surpass in sharpness. Probably not by chance Amadeu (sic!) has been described by his friend as "sacerdos ateu" - as "godless priest" (see 290). The speech provokes a theological comment, which does not claim though to be able once and for all to answer the issues raised. The already by Anselm of Canterbury presented assumption that faith can learn by the queries of disbelievers {6}, that the own view can win in clarity by giving serious thought to foreign perspectives, suggests a proceeding that first follows Prado's queries to the faith in God, in order to set then counterpoints by counter-questions, to supplement it, and to steer it into a different direction.

The Resistance Potentials of Religion

Prado's speech is no atheistic manifesto that wants to replace God with man. On the contrary, first the impressive features of church architecture and piety are acknowledged. The speech begins with a brilliant declaration of love of the beauty of cathedrals, the bewitching sound of the organ, and the quiet dignity of prayer:

"I do not want to live in a world without cathedrals. I need their beauty and grandeur. I need them against the commonness of the world. I want to look up to luminous church windows, and to be dazzled by their ethereal colours. I need their brilliance. I need it against the dirty standard colour of uniforms. I want to be embraced by the bitter coolness of churches. I need their imperious silence.



I need it against the dim-witted bellowing of the barrack square and the witty chatter of mere supporters. I want to hear the roaring sound of the organ, this flood of supernatural tones. I need it against the shrill ridiculousness of march music. I like people who are praying. I need their sight. I need it against the insidious poison of superficiality and thoughtlessness. I want to read the powerful words of the Bible. I need the distant and unreal power of their poetry. I need it against the neglect of language and the dictatorship of slogans. A world without these things would be a world in which I do not want to live." {7}

The resistance potentials of religion are here taken into account against the day-to-day realities of a dictatorship: silence against bellowing, prayer against slogans, organ sound against march music. But this declaration of love of beauty and grandeur of religion is not the end. It seems rather as if these sentences were only the counter-foil for the then all the sharper charge:

"But there is another world in which I do not want to live: the world in which one denigrates the body and independent thinking and brands things as sin that belong to the best we can experience. The world in which we are to love tyrants, cruel and ruthless slave-drivers, and treacherous murderers... It belongs to the most absurd things that have been asked of people from the pulpit: to forgive such creatures and even to love them. This commandment, this crazy, abnormal commandment of love of one's enemies is suitable to break people, to rob them all courage and self-confidence, and to make them supple in the hands of tyrants, so that they may no longer find the strength to stand up against them, if necessary with weapons." (198f.)

The commandment of love of one's enemies is called "absurd" and "insane". Does it in the context of brutal dictatorship and oppression not lead to the fact that one lets the perpetrators do their machinations, and thereby betrays the victims? Becomes the appeal to renounce violence not on the quiet an instrument of adaptation to the oppressors? Does it not suffocate every resistance against perfidious malice? Love of the enemy as means of pacifying and blockade of resistance? With these queries, which the listeners of the speech feel as "blasphemous" (see 192f., 338), Prado puts the secret centre of Jesus' message under the microscope. As is well known Jesus has not only preached his demand (cf. Mt 5, 43-48), but also kept. Even in death he forgave his tormentors and put in a good word for them: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23, 34). With this prayer a rejection of any condemnation of the perpetrators is given. Despite their misdeed they are seen as people who need forgiveness. The spiral of violence is broken by renouncing the use of force. But must the renunciation of the use of force exclude that injustice is called injustice? That crime is denounced as crime and condemned? It is an unreasonable demand that one is to love the person of the perpetrator despite his crimes - especially for the victims of a dictatorship.



But is it not also a demand that - to speak with George Steiner - "radiates a mysterious light" {8}?

"I admire God's word, because I love his poetic force. I detest God's word, because I hate its cruelty. Love, it is a difficult love, because it must constantly differentiate between the luminosity of the words and the powerfully eloquent subjugation by a self-satisfied God. Hatred, it is a difficult hatred, for how can one permit oneself to hate words that belong to the melody of life in this part of the earth ... words, without which we would not be what we are?
But let us not forget: There are words that demand of Abraham to slaughter his own son like an animal. What do we do with our rage when we read that? What is to think of such a God?" (199)

In this passage the ambivalent attitude toward God's word is already linguistically staged by the antithetical style. The admiration for the poetic power of the Bible is accompanied by the loathing of God's cruelty. Love and hatred enter into an explosive combination. Prado's disgust flares at the dark story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22) {9}. In fact, one should not ignore the enormity of that story. God demands of Abraham the impossible: He is to slaughter his only son and thus to ruin the just fulfilled promise of offspring. The amazing thing is: Abraham does not rebel, he falls into line with the divine command. In the name of God he goes out to do the impossible. He does not understand what he is doing, and yet he does it - in the blind trust that God will give a good turn to his doing.

Can the readers accept that? What kind of a God is that, who demands the sacrifice of understanding - sacrificium intellectus? And does the face of God not turn into a demonic hideous face, when he orders the father to sacrifice the only son? What does happen in Abraham? Does he in secret rail against God or accept the monstrous command? What words were spoken on the three-day way to the mountain Morija - or was heavy silence?

Attentive readers as Soren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka or Jacques Derrida have tried to fill the empty places of the text {10}. But the dark mystery remains. In view of the inscrutability of the story the theological information God could not be fitted into the categories of human understanding appears as all too frivolous excuse. That God is different, greater and unfathomable may be a legitimate topic of the Negative Theology, which rejects the idea of a moral God and deciphers it as conceptual idol. But would an immoral God be still God? Can a God who eludes human understanding and demands obviously something inhuman still be a God for people?

Prado's displeasure at the unreasonable divine demand is justified, but the story continues. The pieces of firewood are piled up, the son is bound ... but in the last moment an angel steps in, so that the knife does not reach the son's throat.



The saving turn is to make clear that the God of Abraham is no God who demands human sacrifices. But the turn is won by a deep distraugthness. Can God, just because he is God, demand of man the suspension of ethics? Or should - as the introductory verse one of Gen 22 says - really only Abraham's faith be tested.

The story is silent about what Isaac thought. It tells nothing, except that he on the way asks his father about the missing sacrificial animal. Has he been traumatized by Abraham's behaviour? Later a rabbinic interpretation has attributed to Isaac, who was carrying the firewood, readiness to become the victim and related him to the suffering servant of God (Isaiah 53) - a figure that takes the burden of others upon itself and carries it away. The Jewish Christian Paul, who had been trained by rabbis, has further extended this line: God himself had done what he had spared his servant Abraham. Does the dark mystery of the binding of Isaac therefore secretly point ahead to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross? Has Paul wanted to hint at that in the letter to the Romans when he noted: "He has not spared his own son, but has sacrificed him for us all - how should he not give us everything with him?" (Rom 8, 32)


Forgiveness Instead Subjugation of Freedom

Prado's speech does not stop at the suspicion that God is a cruel God. It goes ahead and raises the accusation that he limits and undermines the freedom that he himself has given to man by demanding obedience, nothing else but obedience. God has freed us for freedom, says Paul (cf. Gal 5, 1). Prado retorts to it that God had freedom reduced to the point of blind obedience:

From the Bible spoke "a joyless God who is remote from life and wants to constrict the enormous scope of a human life - the great circle that it can describe if one gives freedom to it - to the sole point of obedience. Bowed down with grief and guilt, dried up by subjugation and the disgracefulness of confession, with the ash cross on the forehead we shall go to meet the grave, in the thousand times disproved hope for a better life at His side. But how could it be better at the side of one who has previously robbed us of all joy and freedoms?" (200)

With freedom the opportunity for opposition is given. And the possibility remains rarely pure possibility. Who thinks that he was without guilt deceives himself. On the other hand the church has repeatedly taken advantage of the fallibility of man. Who would be able to deny that the fear of sin was also therefore stirred up to consolidate the pastoral power and that the doctrine about the original sin has been used to legitimate theologically the church's authority?



If freedom on its own initiative is not able at all to find the good, so the suggestive argument, must it not be told to it from the top? The danger of paternalism and deprivation of the right to decide is obvious. Hence enlightened minds called the theology of original sin the actual original sin of theology. But had Enlightenment itself not to be enlightened once again about its dark sides? Was a possible overestimation of human freedom not to be averted by the doctrine of the universal interconnection of guilt, which knows about man's fallibility and does not expect too much from him? The reminder of the fact that man remains dependent on salvation and redemption creates a certain resistance to utopias, a healthy reserve against secular promises of salvation, which want - behind the mask of humanity - to carry out social experiments that do not shrink from terror.

The confession mentioned by Prado can be a place of degradation and humiliation, but it can also give to people who are burdened with guilt what they cannot give themselves - forgiveness. Prado is unable to see in the sacrament of penance anything else but an instrument of subjugation of freedom. The embarrassing questioning by confessors, who use moral casuistry as basis, may here be in the background. But a conversation, which was carried by the divine joy at every sinner who is willing to return could lead to the truth, bring the concealed to light, and make possible a fresh start. It was the rejection of the questionable art to say, 'I have not done it', what always leads to the fact that others have done it. A freedom that admits one's own guilt and allows to be freed from it - would not that be the only truly responsible freedom?

The ash cross too is felt by Prado as heavy symbol, diminishing the joy at life. Conversion and penance, reminder of transitoriness - that seems to stand for rejection of life. But does the rite of the marking with ash not also keep alive the memory that human existence stands under the angle of inclination of mortality? "From dust you are taken, to dust you will return." That stands not only against the latent delusion of immortality of bio-politics and the aggressive youth cult of today's media, but also against the widespread suppression of old age and death.

But Prado is not a militant atheist, he knows about what he has lost with the loss of his faith. By acknowledging the poetic power of the biblical language he also evokes the grief over the loss of faith that had everything given to him when he was a child:

"And yet they are of bewitching beauty, the words that come from Him and go to Him. How have I loved them as server! How have they made me drunken in the light of the altar candles! How clear, clear as daylight, it appeared that these words were the measure of all things. How incomprehensible was it to me that other words were important to people, since each of them would only mean reprehensible distraction and loss of the essential!



Even today I stop when I hear Gregorian singing, and for an inattentive moment I am sad that the earlier drunkenness gave irrevocably way to rebellion. A rebellion that like a jet of flame leapt up in me when I first heard those two words: sacrificium intellectus.
How should we be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubts and arguments? Without joy of thinking? (200)

Man lives - always also - from the glance that others cast at him. Is he recognized - or has he still to earn the recognition of others? Is he allowed to be who he is, or has he to justify himself for what he thinks, speaks and does? It is crucial, whether it is a benevolent look that accompanies him or a controlling one that suspiciously estimates him. "The others are your court", it said once in Prado (319). In a language that takes some beating has in contrast Psalm 139 expressed the security that can grow out of the experience of God's inescapable presence. But if that trust in God has been as 'key signature' erased by certain experiences, his omnipresence becomes an oppressive burden that must be removed {11}. Prado refuses to join in the biblical hymn on God's omnipresence. He sees the human privacy injured by the divine eye. The assumption of a divine spectator is unbearable to him:

"The Lord is in his ubiquity somebody who is watching us day and night; he keeps a record of our doing and thinking in every hour, every minute, every second ... What is a human being without secrets? Without thoughts and wishes that only he alone knows? " (201; cf. 319)

St Augustine's word, that God is more inward to us than we ourselves (interior intimo meo and superior summo meo) {12}, puts the threat that endangers man's identity in a nutshell.

Has the horizon of experience, e.g. that one has in times of dictatorship to be on one's guard and must everywhere suspect spies, repercussions on the perception of God? Does the merciless expectation of parents for the son's performance (cf. 358ff.) here shape the image of God? Such a suspicion of projection, which is in Prado's case not entirely unjustified, would probably misjudge the seriousness of the question: What does it mean for the self-perception of the faithful that God knows everything? If he knows everything, as faith asserts, then he knows every stirring of the heart, every thought - no matter how inscrutable. Is the faithful really aware of that? Prado, who does not reckon with the indulgence of the divine gaze, risks the heretical query: "Has the Lord, our God, not considered that he steals us by his unbridled and repulsive curiosity our soul, a soul furthermore that is supposed to be immortal? (201)

Thus the speech leads into an emphatic rejection of immortality. It is connected with a plea for a life in the horizon of limited time. Also later records of Prado show that he kept turning the problem of the elapsing time and of the singularity of experiencing over in his mind (see 271f., 284f., 348-351). The passage reads:



"Who does seriously want to be immortal? Who does want to live for ever and ever? How boring and stale it would be to know: It does not matter today what happens in this month, in this year. There will still come countless days, months, and years. An infinite number, literally. Would anything still count, if it was so?" (201)

Can it be that time goes on and on? Can it be that every decision made by us can be revised, that it is possible always to begin quite differently again? If so, this would subvert the consistency of a life form. In the horizon of an evolutionary and unlimited time one could nothing miss, one would not need to hurry up, it would be completely irrelevant whether one tackled a matter today, tomorrow or in the distant future. "Millions of omissions would become to nothingness in eternity, and it would not make any sense to regret something, because it would always be time to make up for it" (201). Furthermore, the feelings would fade. The density of the first experience comes not so easy for the second time. Surprises cannot be repeated. The end would be surfeit and yawning boredom. Should the immortal man at the end be redeemed from immortality itself?

Prado thinks he can the time that he knows straight transfer to eternity, which he does not know. He understands eternity as a chronological axis that is extended into infinity. Thus indeed, the paradise of immortality becomes hell from which man must be liberated (see 202). But does the time experienced not include in itself a promise of permanence? How is it about experiences of succeeding love that does not want to leave the other in death? And how about projects that remained fragment and ask for completion? Prado's queries mark the difficulty to think the completion of time as transformation of time. But if completion and fullness are linked together as faith hopes it, can surfeit and boredom then be elements of eternity?

The Memento mori, which in the night train to Lisbon is time and again of importance, appeals to the uniqueness and preciousness of life. It becomes also for the one who thinks he can no longer believe an impulse to lead his life with greater awareness:

"Mindful of death [I am ready E.F.] to straighten the relationship to others, to end an enmity, to apologize for inflicted injustice, to say a few words of appreciation to which one was not ready out of small-mindedness" (394).

Life under the sign of the loss of God needs not necessarily arouse inhumanity.



The Devout Atheist has his Reasons

In a later recording of Prado is said:

"There are things that are too great for us human beings: pain, loneliness, death, but also beauty, grandeur and happiness. For them we have created the religion" (469).

Hence the questions with which man cannot cope cause his need for religion. Though it is in dispute among believers and non-believers whether the belief in God only springs from a human need. As the non-believer cannot refute the faith in God, the believer cannot simply push the motivations for disbelief aside. The devout atheist has reasons that he can no longer believe. He often knows about what he has lost together with faith. "The devout atheist", Hans Blumenberg says, "is one who suffers from the fact that he cannot let God exist." {13} And Imre Kertesz once remarked: "If God existed, I would believe in God." {14} It would be unwise here to react only with apologetic defensive reflexes. A small quota more readiness for irritation would be good for those faithful who are resistant to irritation and isolated by the inner-church semantics of a special group; and it was vice versa desirable that the recently again missionary atheists found to a more sceptical attitude toward their own scepticism about God. Not only must the faithful go through the purgatory of atheist queries; the atheist too sees his credo exposed to the query whether the God denied by him is the construct fabricated by him {15}.

The questions raised by Pascal Mercier by his figure Prado are real questions: How can you make the commandment of love of one's enemy accessible to the exploited and poor without cheaply concealing the unjust conditions? How can you honour Abraham as "father of faith" without keeping quiet about the inscrutability of the binding of Isaac? How can you pass on the liberating message of the Gospel without passing the mortgage of bondage that weighs upon the history of Christianity?

The answer to these questions must not turn out in the sense of atheism. On the contrary: The reasons for a denial of God can be opposed by other reasons. The key, however, to the question is: As long as believers and non-believers are struggling to find an answer to question about the possibility or impossibility of the faith in God they are disquieted by essential questions for which the religious indifferentism and his twin sister, the neo-pagan feeble-mindedness have only a shrug of their shoulders.




{1} G. Benn, Monologische Kunst? Erwiderung an Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1952), in ibid, All Works (Stuttgart edition), volume 6, 80-87, 85.

{2} See E. Canetti, Der Ohrenzeuge. 50 Charaktere (Frankfurt 1977) 86.

{3} E. Canetti, Das Geheimherz der Uhr. Aufzeichnungen 1973-1985 (München 1987) 126.

{4} E. Canetti, Die Fliegenpein. Aufzeichnungen (München 1992) 64.

{5} P. Mercier, Nachtzug nach Lissabon (München 132006), page numbers in brackets in the text. Also in other books of Pascal Mercier the unforeseen loss of natural things plays is of great importance. In "Perlmanns Schweigen" (München 1995) it is the sudden inner distance of a linguist to his previous research, in "Lea. Eine Novelle" (München 2007, 42f.) a surgeon suddenly loses the motor memory of his hands, so that his painstakingly developed self-confidence breaks off and he has to give up his profession.

{6} Anselm productively introduced the outward perspective of the disbelievers in the self-understanding of faith, see ibid, Cur Deus homo. Warum Gott Mensch geworden, Latin-German (München 51993) 15 (Chapter 3): "For it is reasonable that I, if we try to discover the reasons for our faith, present the objections of those who do by no means want to agree to this belief without reasons. Although those namely ask for reasons because they do not believe, we, however, because we believe - it is one and the same what we are looking for."

{7} P. Mercier, Nachtzug (A. 5) 198; at the end of the speech it is resumed again to compose the framework, 202f. The phrase is also inserted in excerpts in later passages (see 298, 469).

{8} G. Steiner, Errata. Bilanz eines Lebens (München 1999) 81.

{9} At another place is take offence at the exodus tale: "'God punishes Egypt with plagues, because Pharaoh is obdurate in his will', he exclaimed, 'but it was God himself who has made him so! And he has made him so because to be able then to demonstrate his power! What a conceited, complacent God! What a show-off!" (254f.; resumed in 312).

{10} To Kierkegaard und Kafka see, V. Lenzen, Kiddusch HaSchem, Jüdisches Leben u. Sterben im Namen Gottes (Zürich 2002) 49-86. See J. Derrida, Den Tod geben, in: Gewalt u. Gerechtigkeit, edited by A. Haverkamp (Frankfurt 1994) 331-445.

{11} T. Moser, Gottesvergiftung (Frankfurt 1976). But see also, the same, Von der Gottesvergiftung zu einem erträglichen Gott. Psychoanalytische Überlegungen zur Religion (Stuttgart 2003).

{12} Confessiones, III, 6, 11.

{13} H. Blumenberg, Notizen zum Atheismus, in: Neue Rundschau 118 (2007) 154-160, 160.

{14} I. Kertesz, Dossier K. Eine Ermittlung (Hamburg 2006) 220.

{15} See A. MacIntyre u. P. Ricœur, Die religiöse Kraft des Atheismus (Freiburg 2002).


    {*} Authors like Richard Dawkins have triggered a new controversy over the question of God. With reference to Pascal Mercier's novel "The Night Train to Lisbon" JAN-HEINER TÜCK, assistant professor at the University of Freiburg, questions the faith in disbelief.


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