How many of your gods are dead?

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One of my greatest joys as a philosophy teacher is being consistently bad. There were a number of people I was told little about growing up, other than that they are dangerous and should be avoided like the plague. I am now working my rebellion against these restrictions by ensuring that these thinkers make as many appearances on my programs as professional integrity allows.

So I teach Darwin with enthusiasm in the interdisciplinary program I attend, and I took great pleasure in hearing an older Benedictine monk – a biologist by training – say years ago that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all the theologians put together.” I will take pleasure in a few weeks from now in making sure that the pupils of my mainly parochial school, educated with honors, know that Marx is not just a four-letter word and, more importantly, that he isn’t useless just because the Berlin Wall fell over 30 years ago.

I hope it was more than a perverse contradiction that prompted me to place books by Sigmund Freud, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on the curriculum several years ago for the semester spent studying contemporary philosophy of religion with 20 philosophy majors. I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed seeing the shocked faces of the ten Catholic seminarians in the class when they saw the program.

At the start of next semester, I will have the privilege of introducing a group of sophomores with honors to the most wicked thinker of them all: Friedrich Nietzsche. The extent of my knowledge of Nietzsche growing up was roughly the depth of the graffiti I occasionally found (and still find) on the wall of a men’s restroom stall:

God is dead: Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead: God

Although no one ever said so, I assumed that not only was Nietzsche dead, but that he was struck dead by God as soon as he wrote the blasphemous sentence. If God hit Uzzah for putting his hand on the ark of the covenant in Second Samuel because it was going to topple, then imagine what happened to Friedrich. How was I to know that once I met him in college, Friedrich and I would become friends? And above all, who would have thought that not only is “God is dead” not blasphemous, but also, in many important respects, it is profoundly true?

Nietzsche has been dismissed as one of the most vocal and rabid atheists in Western history, both by people (like the graffiti artist) who have never read a word written by Nietzsche and by scholars and agenda-driven believers who, after reading the work of man, should know better. He was indeed an atheist. Only after many years of reading Nietzsche, trying to separate the abundant chaff from the still more abundant wheat, teaching his thought to undergraduates, and especially taking seriously his infamous claim “God is dead “, that I came to understand what Simone Weil meant when she wrote that “atheism is a purification”.

Nietzsche was one of the most God-obsessed thinkers who ever lived – he wasn’t making the absurd claim that there once lived in paradise an old man who died near the end of the 19th century. On the contrary, “God is dead” is a devastating three-word commentary on what happens when, without our realizing it, an idea, a concept, an image loses its ability to move and inspire.

I have sought, in various ways, to take seriously the sacred, that which transcends us, as far back as I can remember. It requires consciously questioning my assumptions, representations and practices regarding the sacred in a consistent and courageous way. Although I like to believe that I am a forward-thinking, liberal, and creative thinker, I find that I am often encouraged to push further when aided by those who are outside of every conceivable box. Nietzsche provides that help more than anyone I’ve met, the insistent voice of a half-mad parent saying “Are you sure? Is it life affirming? Is it important? How does it work for you to lug that corpse around 24/7? »

Although I am not a scholar of Nietzsche in the narrow and deep academic sense, I enjoy teaching Nietzsche more than any philosopher. I’ve told colleagues that if you can’t piss off students about Nietzsche in class, you should go into another profession. Yet over ten years ago, it took me several months of sabbatical at an ecumenical institute on the campus of a Benedictine college and abbey before I began to personally understand that “God is dead.” in my own life. At that time, I made a partial list of divine corpses in my story, a list that I continue to revise and complete:

  • A God who ceased to communicate directly with human beings centuries ago after the dictation of the printed divine word was completed.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language”.
  • A God who “wills no one to perish, but all to come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An exclusively male God.
  • A God who cares more about the length of male hair and female skirts than the breadth and depth of his spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose main concerns are our positions on sexual orientation, same-sex marriage, abortion or universal health care.
  • A God who manages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects and oil spills.
  • A God who is honored more by self-reliance than compassion for those in need.
  • And, most recently, a God who ordained Donald Trump to be president and wants him to be president again.

A good friend once told me that when she spoke with someone who claimed not to believe in God, she asked that person to describe the god she or he did not believe in. She invariably responded to her description with “I don’t believe in God”. Neither does God. Logic.

Joan Chittister says that “our idea of ​​God is the measure of our spiritual maturity”. For most of my adult life, I have been locked in a perpetual spiritual childhood by various ideas of God that don’t correspond to anything living. By finally saying “these gods are dead” and meaning it, I am not committing to denying the sacred – just attending the funerals of particular conceptions of God.

It is an intensely and exclusively personal death. I have parents who grew up in the same religious atmosphere as me, who in their adult life continue to be nurtured and supported by the belief and worship of the same God whose funeral I regularly celebrate. I honor them, and maybe even envy them a little. But I’m no longer sitting in the back of a funeral home waiting for something to happen.

“Atheism is a purification” marks a period of transition between funerals and the signs of life. The God Who Didn’t Die has many traits that I continually discover now that the funeral is over. The best place to start for me when I was on sabbatical years ago was with the enticing possibility that God, rather than anger and judgment, would respond to my deep need for acceptance and love. I still keep an eye out for dead gods. Many years ago a book called If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! was furious. It’s too aggressive for me, but I understand. If I meet God on the road, I’ll at least check to see if she has a pulse.


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