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One-God-Faith under Attack


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 7/2010, P. 77 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Who is God? What is God? In the tension between personal and non-personal images of God today many people are at a loss. From a philosophical point of view the Münster Professor Klaus Müller deals with this issue and explains the reasons why the traditional view of the one-God-Faith needs an extension that redefines the relationship between God and world. We will publish his contributions in irregular sequence.


Between early 1784 and late 1788 the physicist and writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote down in one of his "Sudelbücher", "If the world exists still a countless number of years, the universal religion will be a refined Spinozism. For when reason is left to its own devices nothing else will be the result, and it is impossible that it causes something else." "Spinozism" means a religio-philosophical thinking about God that goes back to the Dutch scholar Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). According to it the absolute God is that substance to which alone existence belongs, and without which nothing can be truly understood, so that everything that exists must necessarily be included in it [see No. 136].

Today, two and one-quarter centuries later, we see large-scale shifts in the Christian awareness, which reach deeply into the spiritual milieu of the main churches and prove Lichtenberg's prediction right. Excellent evidence is e.g. provided by the debate over "Zen, Christianity and Images of God", which was initiated by Willigis Jäger and is documented on the website of the CIG (, page 2). It is worth noting also that there is an internationally known author, David Steindl-Rast, a member of the Benedictine Mount Saviour Monastery in the U.S. state of New York, who honestly welcomes the increasingly apparent collapse of theism, i.e. the belief in a personal God, as an unstoppable process and substantiates it by Christian theological thought.


Fulfilled Prophecy

On the occasion of a series of articles with answers by various public figures Steindl-Rast was asked by CiG what he estimated at Christianity. At that he explained that it was the greatest achievement of Jesus - like Buddha before him in a different way - to escape from the spell of theism, because he had - as it is proved by his using the word "Father" when he addressed God - experienced himself as "alive with God's own life" (see CIG No. 39/2003, p. 325 f. [see above]). The attempt to recover conceptually Jesus' participation in God's life or (as Steindl-Rast puts it) to stuff, like the leak in a boat, Jesus' intellectual breakthrough - in the form of the dogmas defined by the early church - had despite all efforts led to no convincing result. On the contrary, the "mystics of all ages and traditions ... agree that deity in the theistic sense - the god or goddess with an Olympic individual existence - is pure invention. The theistic god is only one step higher than Santa Claus and is the product of becoming entangled in concepts." But if sharp reflection on the Christian doctrine of God is connected with the fire of personal experience of God, the overturning in sentimentality is fended off and at the same time the theistic ice of the dogmas begins to melt.

Steindl-Rast even goes so far as to ascribe the moral irresponsibility, of which he accuses the present time, to the impact and failure of the theistic image of God; he favours a non-theistic concept of God in the sense of God's presence in the entire cosmos as the basis of a new ethos that is founded on respect and responsibility. Such a conception of God would above all have the advantage that it needn't be proved or believed by anybody, because those who listen to their heart hear that it tells of God's presence.

In the book "Fülle und Nichts" [Abundance and Nothing] (Freiburg, 1999) Steindl-Rast conceptually gets to the heart of this matter, "A transcendence that is worthy of God must be so transcendent that it transcends our logical border-line of transcendence and is therefore entirely consistent with God. Would not it be presumptuous to deny this? The fact that I am not God does hardly need a proof. And yet, as Piet Hein (Danish mathematician and writer, 1905-1996, editor's note) says, "Who am I / To deny / That, maybe, / God is me?"

All this is strong theological stuff for an average Christian consciousness. It goes well together with it that a reputable publishing house of theological literature issued the German translation of a book by John S. Spong, a former prominent Anglican Bishop in the United States, where he diagnosed the extensive decline of theism, and declared that it had intellectually and theologically come to an end and was morally bankrupt ("Was sich im Christentum ändern muss. Ein Bischof nimmt Stellung" [Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile], Düsseldorf 2004). This is by no means a lone voice, as it is proved by the publications of the Protestant theologian and author Klaus-Peter Jörns in the German language area. Among Protestant pastors his books are very popular, as for example, "Notwendige Abschiede. Auf dem Weg zu einem glaubwürdigen Christentum" [Necessary Farewells. On the Way to a Credible Christianity].

In this respect it is actually no longer surprising that similar tendencies can be seen also outside theology in a debate critical of contemporary culture, which then of course - detached from any theological consideration and fired by motives from other sources - escalate into furious anti-theistic tirades. Thus, the British biologist and zoologist Richard Dawkins, who is in the meantime known as hate preacher of a militant atheism, wrote in the newspaper "The Guardian" (15.9.2001), "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used." New York's Twin Towers, which had four days ago been caused to collapse by Islamic terrorists, gave Dawkins the ideal apocalyptic scenario by which his polemic would appear to be true by itself.

The content of the thesis that monotheisms are structurally prone to violence, is really not so new. It is therefore worthwhile first to look a bit back in order to become aware of its driving motives. It also turns out that the question of the connection between violence and thought of God is only a part of a much larger net of problems, namely of the question of whether it is still possible to speak in intellectual honesty about God at all, and if so in what form. It is only from this depth of diagnosis possible to hold a reasonable discussion with the current serious criticisms of monotheism, which is presented e.g. by Jan Assmann and Peter Sloterdijk with recourse to the violence argument.


Lodestar Plato

The beginning of the debate can be dated quite precisely. Around the middle of the 15th century there is in Western thought for the first time such a thing as a decidedly anti-theistic, anti-Christian revolt. Its pioneer is Georgios Gemistus Plethon (1355-1451), a Byzantine scholar, who was sometimes labelled by his future biographers as the last ancient Hellenian and the first modern Greek. On the one hand he was often invited to take part in councils, and a later cardinal was among his disciples. On the other hand, in the eyes of contemporaries he got the reputation of being an anti-Christian, pagan heretic. Pletho was incidentally the philosophical consultant of that Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II, who was quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Lecture in 2006, which has therefore attracted so much attention.

Pletho's bad reputation was due to the fact that he made a highly controversial comparison between the ancient thinkers Aristotle and Plato. He stigmatized Aristotle lock, stock and barrel as innovator who tends to atheism and betrays the tradition. Plato, however, was honoured all the more by him.



With his philosophy that was obviously based on religion he had - through the agency of Pythagoras and the so-called Chaldean Oracles - followed the sacred wisdom of Zoroaster, which for its part had not simply come from this wise man but was as old as the world. Zoroaster is the founder of a religion from the eastern Iranian region. It is difficult historically to grasp him but he is all the more alive mythically. His birth is dated somewhere between the 10th and 6the century BC. His thinking is strongly characterized by a one-god-faith that is marked by the struggle between good and evil.

With it the assertion of the Church Fathers was rejected that Plato was a disciple of Moses. Rather, instead of the biblical conveyer of the divine commandments, Zarathustra is celebrated as the greatest and oldest teacher and legislators of mankind. Although Pletho obviously did not try directly to achieve broad impact, he nevertheless built something of an intellectually demanding reform of religion. It planned a separate calendar, knew a Zoroastrian credo and a special cult. The whole thing had polytheistic traits, which are admittedly embedded by a flowery, allegorical understanding in the horizon of a cosmic unity of humans and gods.

Plethon's work includes significant references to political interests. He wanted to remove the differences between Christianity and paganism by tracing both back to an ancient religious wisdom that existed before this distinction, in order to overcome the denominational division between Eastern and Western Church and at the same time to resolve the tensions between Christianity and Islam. Due to the experienced loss of credibility by schisms and religious conflicts Pletho regarded the existing Christianity as an interpretation of the "prisca theologia", i.e. of the immemorial theology, that had gone astray and had therefore to be abolished. The mystery of all-unity, i.e. a cosmotheism that embraces God and the world, is in the center of this primal theology - and Christianity has obviously betrayed this unity of all.

The extent of the claim of this criticism is documented by several reliable contemporaries. They report that Plethon was convinced that within a few years, everyone would "accept with one spirit and one sermon the same religion." When asked whether this religion would be Christianity or Islam, Plethon had replied, "Neither of the two, but one that does not differ from paganism" (quoted from Michael Stausberg, "Fascination Zarathustra", 2 vols, Berlin, 1998).


Fascination "Egypt"

According to a legendary trace of remembrance the humanist Cosimo de 'Medici (1389-1464) had on the occasion of the Florence Council in 1439 attended lectures of Plethon on the Platonic mysteries and then contemplated re-establishing the Academy in Florence as the new Athens. This happened actually a few decades later in a very modest form by the translation and intensive discussion of a Plato codex. But it really happened - and the mastermind was the translator and interpreter of Plato, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). With more than seventy relevant references to Zarathustra, one must refer to him as the founder of the modern Western imparting of Zarathustra's teachings.

Ficino is the beginning both of a religiously philosophical and a religio-philosophical current of modern thought, which ranges - to name but a few - from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola over Giambattista Vico, Giordano Bruno, Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Voltaire up to Friedrich Nietzsche's "Zarathustra" and does even there not end. With these references to Zoroaster, it is always about the withdrawal of difference and multiplicity into a previous unity.

But this is not the only religio-philosophical and theological effect that has its origin in Marsilio Ficino. Two more are added, a structural and a material, which are jointed together so closely that they can be thematized only simultaneously.

The structural effect results from the fact that Ficinio - irrespective of the "prisca theologia", i.e. the immemorial theology - so to speak, turns around the target of the argument, which has been strengthened by Plethon, by 180 degrees: what mattered for the Byzantine thinker was the reintegration of the Judaeo-Christian tradition into a pagan theology, whereas Ficino understands all relevant pre- and non-Christian thought as the anticipation of the Christian theology, which he regarded as the perfection of all the true speech about God. This had the effect, inter alia, that Ficino in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence occasionally, in the guise of Christian sermons, gave lectures on Plato (which indeed corresponds to the Platonic self-conception that philosophy is essentially "Epopteia", initiation into the vision of the mystery.

With it we already enter the material dimension of this structural change of direction. Marsilio Ficino must be regarded as the communicator par excellence. He transferred Plato and the thinking of the Plato-oriented traditions into the modern times. In the course of this project, he translated parts of the so-called Corpus Hermeticum before he attended to Plato's texts. With it he brought up the mysterious figure of Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice-great Hermes"), which is also rather a mythical figure and the embodiment of the ancient wisdom regarding God. According to Ficino this Hermes, who is also recognized as top-class authority by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), philosopher, theologian and cardinal at the threshold between the Middle Ages and modern times, did not only in a complex way belong to the continuing tradition from Zoroaster up to Plato but - even more thrilling - he regarded Hermes also as a younger contemporary of Moses or as identical with Moses. In another place, he even endorses the famous word of the Platonist Numenius of Apamea of the second century AD that Plato was nothing else but a "Moyses atticus", i.e. a Moses who spoke with a Greek voice.

What matters is always that the pre-Christian philosophical wisdom and the biblical tradition are basically one. Such a 'liquefaction' of personal identities is not the result of a superficial, accidental theoretical association. There is rather expressed the nature of the pre-modern psychology. It is also found in the Gospels, when Jesus asks the disciples 'Who do people say the Son of man is?' and they said, 'Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' (cf. Mat 16:13-14 and parallels).

Not individual originality is crucial for the importance of a figure but how it adapts itself to other grand figures in a continuous stream of thought - and this corresponds exactly to the "integration program", which was a matter close to Ficino's heart. What is always present is the motive "Moses in Egypt", which is widely described in the Old Testament and in the New Testament confirmed in the Acts of Apostles (7:22): this Moses was taught "all the wisdom of the Egyptians." The subject has been varied and embellished up to Sigmund Freud's enigmatic last book "The Man Moses", and then again by Thomas Mann in his magnificent novel tetralogy "Joseph and His Brothers".


Is All One?

Taking all that together - by passing many other things over in silence - then it is obvious that here the material is atmospherically concentrated from which the question must and will arise, 'How do the two belong to each other: that All-One of the Egyptian mysteries behind the pictures and hieroglyphics and the sole God of the Ten Commandments, of whom even Moses is allowed to see only His back (cf. Ex 33:23) and who is beyond all pictures?'. Is the one dependent on the other or vice versa? Or are they even one?

The icon "Egypt" represents the great "fascinosum, the attraction that the Bible describes very tangibly as a personal being, an issue that in the eyes of many educated people until today needs much elucidation. The religious-metaphysical dynamite that here accumulates explodes in 1785 by a trifle. It is about the so-called pantheism dispute where the point at issue was whether the absolute being of God is identical with the world. This dispute was a first act of a whole series of philosophical and theological conflicts the seismic waves of which determine until today the course of the debates on critique of religion and cultural critique.
(Further contributions will follow)


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