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The Missing God (1)


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 14/2012, P. 157 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The modern age has left the image of an angry, punishing God behind. This liberation, however, does not exempt us from the question about the innocently suffering victims in history.


The history of Christianity can be told in different ways - also as a history of anxiety. The fear of God's wrath has gagged people for a long time. The imagery of the Last Judgment, of indescribable torments of hell is deeply engraved on the collective memory of cultural areas shaped by the Christian faith. When the faith in God has entered the state of crisis, when the dispute about God is less and less sought, when people prefer cosy-spiritually to seek the consent to life instead of asking the biblical question of justice, this is also owed to the fact that they could no longer put up with this God.

His features were all too familiar, all too human. In "Beyond Good and Evil", the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) spoke already of the religious neurosis, which had come over mankind. And in his book "God-Poisoning" of 1976, the psychoanalyst Tilmann Moser got even with this history of God's contempt of life. Such an image of God can make you sick. It is, however, a different matter, whether you may only therefore, as an alternative, "believe in a God who knew how to dance," as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote.


Nietzsche, Kant, and Amos

Nietzsche's new "God" is beyond good and evil. In the works of Nietzsche the symbol of dance is exemplary for the lightness of being, which has to be regained; it is directed against the spirit of severity. The 'Yes' of the coming man should approve of existence without ifs and buts. It is, however, not an expression of indifference; it is heroic and at the same time easy: without deduction and with the awareness that life is a life "without a final." It goes away, as it comes. For Nietzsche, neither salvation history nor justice does still exist. Man should go playfully through life and no longer suffer from it. Temptation and danger make life interesting; they allow the dance on the ice. "Smoothest ice / A paradise / To him who is a dancer nice," said Nietzsche. Life itself becomes a "god".

Is not it then better to keep to an agnosticism that can admittedly no longer trust God but is also not willing to transfigure the world? Just because he is no longer able to endure the God who seems to have no qualms about exposing countless people to gruesome torments of hell, man needn't wish for coming into a world where everything is permitted. Nietzsche has time and again vehemently polemicized against Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The Königsberg philosopher only wanted to lead on new secret paths to the old Christian ideals.

Kant wanted to imagine the condition under which it is possible for human beings to be moral. His crucial insight reads: Morality means that I give me a rule, with which I then comply. Morality exists only in the form of autonomy, of self-legislation. Moral self-determination then takes place exclusively for its own sake, and not because God is commanding something. In other words, I can't help being morally attentive to each other human being, because this corresponds to me, and because I find my counterpart in this attitude. But as long as I consider the dignity of man to be absolute, it is out of the question to accept life as it is. Everybody should be treated, if possible, with fairness - even the dead. The countless humiliated and murdered people in the course of history should still experience justice. It is therefore to be hoped that a God exists who makes such justice possible.

Nietzsche has exactly seen that Kant does not release man from the religious question. Not knowing whether God exists, Kant declared hope for God's existence to be the moral duty of man. Kant conceives a challenging concept of religion. It is at the same time a clear criticism of a spirituality that transfigures this world. If spirituality solely transfigures life, if it does not include the suffering from the dark abysses of human history, it avoids what is possible for man: to be mindful of damaged life.

In contrast to it, in many spiritual trends of the present time the main concern is that you become mystically united with all that exists. But then God is no longer of importance. He is replaced by a vague Divine. One does neither suffer still from an image of God that once got on one's nerves, nor is there any memory of the biblical speech of God's wrath. You need only read the prophet Amos: God is furious about human injustice, bigotry and mercilessness. The tabernacle out of which many of the spiritualities of the present time are fed is harmlessness. While some retreat to the private sphere, to the spiritually warming corner behind the stove or to their parish on the spot, others indulge in a completely content-free, truly unworldly [entweltlicht] enthusiasm for Rome.


Simplifying Theology of Sin

But another story has to be told. The word "crisis of faith" circulates currently within the Church. There is talk of a loss of knowledge of faith, as if people wanted no longer to believe. But is this so? When the distance grows to the Christian faith tradition, this is perhaps due to the fact that people are no longer able to endure a God who, according to Augustine (354-430), brings the vast majority of people for reasons of justice to eternal punishment, and saves only a few people by grace. While already the biblical texts developed a reliable feel for the fact that human life is more complex than a simplistic world-darkening theology of sin admits. Life is determined by ambiguities, and innumerable hardships. This was known in the biblical texts, without playing down man's abysmal inclination to malice. However, the real situation is often more complex. "For you have hidden your face from us and given us up to the power of our misdeeds," it says in Isaiah (64:6). The verse shows that already the Prophet know a reflection on the experience of missing God. And they know that the lack of real opportunities in life can undermine the confidence in God. Life has always been under the verdict of death, and man knows it. Accompanied by the fear of death, struggling for life resources, and then also longingly striving for a little recognition: From this point of view it can be quite understood why man time and again falls a victim to the dynamism of escalating self-assertion. And it is a short way from securing one's life to the mad assumption that one could make oneself immortal by revolutionizing history. Those who imagine God as the one to whom this world owes its existence, who has power over history and who could intervene in his omnipotence, will have to burden him with the realities of this world.


Everything just Fate?

The American novelist Philip Roth has consistently taken up these questions in his novel "Nemesis". The hero, Bucky Cantor can be interpreted as a modern Job. He is not an intellectual but a sports teacher, and cares for children and adolescents on a sports field of Newark, New Jersey. The year is 1944, the Second World War is raging. Due to an eye complaint, Bucky Cantor was not drafted into the army. He is committed and sensitive to the needs of his children - an unassuming, responsible man. Then, in the city polio breaks out. In the forties, this disease was not yet prophylactically controllable. More and more children were infected, and need to be connected to iron lungs for artificial respiration, or they die. Those who survived were crippled for life.

His girlfriend Marcia hassled him to come to the summer camp in the mountains where she worked - far away from the disease. In the end, Bucky moved to her. He had long refused. He wanted to go into the city, and not to leave alone his children in this desperate situation. Also in the mountains polio broke out, and worse for Bucky:



The suspicion was confirmed that he has introduced the disease. He admittedly survived, but remained crippled. What is more tormenting for him than his physical deformity is the spiritual: the feelings of deep guilt because he had betrayed the children of Newark, had not endured together with them the situation, and infected also others.

The story told by Roth is hard to bear: It is about guilt, but even more about the distressing question of who is to blame ultimately. The people? Marcia, his loyal girlfriend, tried to comfort him, at least to redeem him of his shame caused by his sense of guilt. "Bucky, you have always been so: You were never able to look at things from the right distance - never. You always think you're responsible, even if you're it not. Either the terrible God is responsible, or the terrible Bucky Cantor is responsible. But as a matter of fact: neither of them is responsible." And then she adds, "Your attitude toward God is childish, just silly."


A Job named Bucky

Marcia wants to relieve Bucky of his feelings of guilt. He is not responsible for the epidemic; he should not feel guilty of the sufferings of so many innocents. And God? No, she rather prefers to accuse Bucky to be childish than to attack God. God is God and therefore good. But Bucky, an obstinate Job, stands by his God and opposes Marcia, "Listen, I do not like your God. Do not bring him into play. He is too vicious, for my taste. He spends too much time with killing children."

A harsh reproach. But does not Bucky just take the faith in God radically seriously - the God who created heaven and earth? But then also the creator of "all corruption", as the poet Ernst Jandl once wrote? Marcia, who loves Bucky, is in despair at his state of outrage at God, into which he works himself deeper and deeper. She resorts to a last argument, which has a long tradition. It was "nonsense" to accuse God of murdering children. The fact that Bucky had polio would "not give him the right to say ridiculous things. For you have no idea what God is! Nobody has a notion!"

Marcia uses the theologians' strategy of reductio in mysterium. In view of the incomprehensibility of why people suffer, in view of the protest against God which is triggered by that incomprehensible suffering, God himself is now withdrawn from comprehensibility into the sphere of mystery. He is elevated to a great mystery. If God is such an boundless mystery that he is beyond every human understanding, then the question of why people suffer resolves itself. But with it is also destroyed the belief in a God who wants to be a God for the people.

The one who believes takes a stand. He does not enter silently into an emptiness that at the same time is supposedly abundance. And the biblical theology does not know a God about whom one can only say that there is nothing to say about him. But Bucky remains steadfast, he wants to understand. He would like to believe in God and trust him. But such confidence requires a minimum of comprehensibility. The story is told from the perspective of Arnie. On him, too, polio had left its mark. Arnie asks Bucky, "Do you still believe in the God who is reviled by you?" "In God, the great criminal?" "Is it that what you believe?" "Yes. Someone must have created all this," replies Bucky. He wants one last reason, one who is ultimately responsible for what takes place, in order not to remain alone with the burdensome sense of guilt: you have infected others. Arnie ponders, "He possibly thinks that the whole thing is a theological mystery?" If the universe is at all created by a God, says Arnie, then only by a hostile deity. "Only a hostile deity was able to create a disease as polio ... Only a hostile deity was able to create the Second World War."

He continues his analysis: "For me as an atheist, such a God is not more ridiculous than the gods in whom the billions of other people believed. And I find Bucky's rebellion against him absurd, simply because there was no need for it. He could not accept that the polio epidemic ... was a tragedy. The tragedy has to be transformed into guilt. There must be a necessity for that what happens. He must ask, Why? Why? He is neither satisfied with the fact that the whole thing is pointless, random, absurd and tragic, nor with the fact that the cause is a strongly spreading virus. This martyr seeks desperately after a deeper reason. The search for a 'Why' becomes a mania. And he finds this 'Why' either in God or in himself or - mysterious and mystical - in the terrible union of these two into one destroyer. As much as I sympathize with him, in view of the multitude of calamities that have befallen him, I have nevertheless to say that this is nothing but stupid hubris: not the hubris of will or desire but the hubris of a fantastic, childish concept of God. We have already heard all this, and we do no longer want to hear it, even if it is said by a thoroughly decent people like Bucky Cantor."


Is the World Absurd?

Arnie accurately identifies Bucky's problem. According to the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), man should not be only a "useless passion", in a world that is absurd because it is random. He should not be just the most unhappy result of an evolution - unhappy because he has the ability to distance himself from the world and therefore to suffer from it. And he cannot come to terms with the fact that people suffer. Bucky wants a reason. Somebody has to be blamed. Arnie, on the other hand, refuses even to put the question of whether God has willed all this or at least allowed. "We have heard all this before; we do no longer want to hear it." If no pathway leads past the suffering, he does at least no longer want to wear himself out with the agonizing question of 'Why'? God is dead; and the history of inquiring after him should come to an end. It is necessary to come to terms with it. Man comes and goes.

Philip Roth's character Bucky is similar to doctor Bernard Rieux in the novel "The Plague" by the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960). A small town is afflicted by plague; more and more people die. One desperately started the fight against the plague. But it was soon beyond people's strength. One is beset by doubts. The eternal question of 'Why'? is gnawing in their heads. The Jesuit priest Paneloux tried it initially with the old answers of theology: God wants to move the people to repentance, and put a stop to moral decay. The plague as God's punishment, as an educational measure. The purpose must be somewhere between punishment and educational measures. However, even the priest sees finally that these answers give no support; they are cynical.


Life in Rebellion

It comes to a fierce dispute between the Jesuit and Doctor Rieux, another modern Job. Rieux does no longer give in like the biblical Job for the sole reason that God points to the infinite difference between him, the Creator, and his creature. For it is not his own suffering which makes him despair of God; it is the suffering of a child. They had tested out a serum on a child, hoping to be able thus to rescue it. But instead of freeing it from the disease, its agony was only prolonged.

Even desperate prayer did not help, once again not. "Paneloux gazed down at the small mouth, fouled with the sordes of the plague and pouring out the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages of mankind. He sank on his knees, and all present found it natural to hear him say in a voice hoarse but clearly audible across that nameless, never ending wail: "My God, spare this child!" But the wail continued without cease and the other sufferers began to grow restless. A gust of sobs swept through theroom, drowning Paneloux's prayer, and Rieux, who was still tightly gripping the rail of the bed, shut his eyes, dazed with exhaustion and disgust. "I must go," Rieux said. "I can't bear to hear them any longer." But then, suddenly, the other sufferers fell silent. And now the doctor grew aware that the child's wail, after weakening more and more, had fluttered out into silence. Around him the groans began again, but more faintly, like a far echo of the fight that now was over."

Rieux was at the end of his psychic strength. He knew that it would be treachery to go away. He perceives it as guilt, that he is no longer able to endure the situation. And God? He has not intervened helpfully. And the theologians' strategy to find still a guilt that absolves God is no longer effective. Rieux swung round on him fiercely. "Ah! That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do!" The doctor brings up a painful subject. St. Augustine's strategy of absolving God by pointing out that since Adam the human race as a whole was guilty is devious. Rieux does no longer allow to be appeased by the tyranny of theologians: It labels people as sinners and devalues life. He insists on the fact that there is innocent suffering: the suffering of children. He feels only anger in view of the raging plague.

And Paneloux? Muttering, he resorts to the theological argument that also Marcia used with Bucky, "I understand ... That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand." But this always-heard answer is nothing else than mindless preacher rhetoric and only provokes a sharp riposte. "Rieux straightened up slowly. He gazed at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all the strength and fervor he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head. "No, Father. I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."


Mysticism of Open Eyes

There it is again, the argument. Friendship presupposes mutual comprehensibility. A relative comprehensiblity at least must be given, so that confidence can grow, and the friendship is able to give support. What applies to the friendship between people must certainly also apply to the relationship between God and man. Rieux despairs because he no longer understands. In view of the agony of innocent children, for him the limit has been reached. He has a different idea of love. God is silent, and man is left behind alone, stunned. This characterizes the situation of the modern age. Also the modern age is anything but an innocent lamb. It has engraved a tremendous trail of violence in human history. But it applies also to it: After the initial euphoria, when atheism was still celebrated, as the Berlin philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach wrote, as "a monument of liberation", "a gasp of relief, a godlessness in the sense of 'At last we are rid of the old man!'" the modern age is marked by a deep melancholy. With a frenzy of activity one tries to conceal it. Not that people do not want to believe. They would like to believe, but they are not able to do so. What there appears, Schnädelbach writes, is "a mixture of sadness and anger that all this is not true."

Whether it may not be true, and I stress 'may', has still to be examined. But a security religion where God is always charming and where the Job question is omitted, a religion that serves only for the embellishment of life lags behind man's capabilities and becomes inhuman. By closing its eyes, it betrays the sufferings, especially the sufferings of the innocent, and is without memory. The biblical mysticism, however, is a "mysticism of open eyes," said the Münster theologian Johann Baptist Metz. A mysticism that wants God as God, as Creator and not as the always existing All-One, because only such a God is able to save.
(There follows a second part)


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