The Undeath of God.
God is dead: If there is a more paradigmatic, concise, and ecstatic expression of nihilism it has yet to be uttered. God is dead: there are no transcendent values, no eternal grounding for our laws, nowhere and no one to appeal to in order to give the world meaning, purpose, reasons. In The Gay Science Nietzsche is unequivocal about what the consequences of this are: it is the collapse of ‘the whole of European morality’. The whole of European morality. The entire edifice of European values, and with it the grounds for such an enterprise. This is not simply the end of a moral system, it is the exhaustion of metaphysics. The Christian God, the God who is dead, is the God who is present everywhere, at all times, to all depths. This God who is present, this immanent God, really the Catholic God, is the God who has died. At other points Nietzsche will call Him the Moral God, a phrase that immediately draws up the image of Old Testament wrath, but must no less refer to the Incarnated God who stood on the mount and rebooted the Ten Commandments in that one simple command: love thy neighbour. We stand without foundations, without any exterior assurances, and in the cold shadow of the recession of presence. Among the philosophical inheritors of this death, among those who dwell on this death, and who attempt to make it shine, to be seen and heard as Nietzsche put it, is obviously Derrida. The Derridean deconstruction of this metaphysics of presence amounts to the idea that things (bodies, events, incorporeals like time and language) never fully disclose themselves, always remain shy about standing-forth, moving fully into the open, and presence remains divided from itself.
I am racing ahead. It is impossible not to race ahead. We must return to Nietzsche before tumbling forward. The famous scene in which the madman, running through the streets holding a lantern, first makes the untimely declaration:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
God is dead. God remains dead. This is the first moment to consider. Its a strange thing to say. When a nurse informs a patient’s family that their loved one has died they don’t feel the need to say “so and so is dead and remains dead”. Why this emphasis on remaining? God is dead and He remains dead. I don’t think the madman is telling us that the dead stay dead, anything less would mean some state approximating death but eliding it- sleep, coma, persistent vegetative conditions- and so some way of hanging on to life and to vitality. The madman is also not referring to the impossibility of resurrection: resurrection belongs to Christ, a figure for whom Nietzsche expresses admiration and whose event is repeated in the doctrine of eternal return. This is not God-the-Son but God-the-Father, the one who lays down the foundations, who furnishes us with the Law. Thus if God remains dead we might be able to think that God remains as dead. This is the persistence of the divine that lags behind the moment of its destruction. God is dead but there is still His empty space and his Corpse: the evidence of his absence, the traces.
Who is this madman that runs out into the brightly lit market place carrying a lantern, looking for God and finding only a Corpse? The is indeed and echo in the history of philosophy in the story of Diogenes of Sinope, the dog. It is reported that he would go about the market place carrying a lantern in search of an honest man. Diogenes the cynic who placed everything under suspicion, regarded by his contemporaries as something of a lunatic, the fundamentalist of ascetic simplicity, was also the man who went out with a lantern in broad daylight searching. If a thing is present then it is present in the light of day. Already the notion that something is withdrawn, that something visible hides itself in invisible. If a connection can be made between the madman and Diogenes it is that they are both looking for the source of truth. Not truth itself, but the place from which it issues: with Diogenes, from a man who knows the truth and can speak in fidelity to it (the parrhesiac), and with the madman, the ultimate guarantor of truth and of all discourse. So the death of God is not just the death of the metaphysics of presence and Christian morality but is also the death of the possibility of the absolute truth and of the possibility of speaking it.
Yet God remains dead, remains as dead. The corpse of metaphysics; the corpse of morality; the corpse of truth. Derrida tells us that what remains, the remainder, is not the thing, is only trace of the thing, and that this trace is neither a “residue” or what remains after a “subtraction”. The remains are ‘like ashes’, ‘remains without a substantial remainder’: they can’t be grasped or accounted for, can’t be totalised or identified. What remains isn’t a being: there is no presence in what remains only in its remainder-effects, which themselves merely gesture towards that which remains. Derrida’s example is of lecture notes: these are remain-effects but not the actual remainder of a lecture, which remains somehow ineffable, somehow withdrawn, perched in the shroud of absence, resisting materialisation. So to with the corpse of God. Just as the madman can’t find God’s living body (where would you look?) neither can he find his corpse. It is the absence of the corpse that tells us of the event; the remainder-traces (the end of presence, a certain morality and certainty grounded in it) that inform us of the death of God.
If this sounds too idealist then let’s rephrase it in a more corporeal language: the remainder is akin to a pathological process that we can’t identify, perhaps because it is a global process, a process like ageing which slips from development to decline without a clear discontinuity, and the remainder-effects are akin to the symptoms of the pathology. I can experience pain but this pain is not itself the pathological process, it is merely the neurobiological sign of that pathology. Or, better, let me speak from experience. I have fairly loud tinnitus, an imaginary ringing in my ears that is constantly present without any stimulus. When I went to see and audiologist a few years ago he explained to me that the ringing was caused by a kind of damage and death and that because of this audiological death I could no longer detect certain sound frequencies. Apparently my brain finds this absence of those frequencies intolerable and, as it expects to find them there, simply invents noises to cover the cracks. My tinnitus is based on a kind of death but is not the remainder of what has died, it is the symptom of the absence that is left in that death’s wake. In effect, tinnitus is like the symptoms of the death of God, the remainder-effects of a remainder that fails to appear.
Again in The Gay Science (357) Nietzsche links the death of God to Europe and Europe alone. Corresponding to this death is the rise of ‘scientific atheism’, itself a strange phrase (what makes atheism scientific? Why not “atheistic science”?). Yet science and its resultant “scientific image”, the competitor and destructor of the “manifest image”, remains wedded to a Christian perspective of the truth. Science does not destroy truth but it displaces it from God onto its own shoulders. Today, the Diogenesian madman would not look for a man or a God to tell him the truth but a scientific textbook. As long as scientists and atheists remained within the orbit of this concept a Christian concept of truth (ie. as singular and as absolute) then they too remained disavowed believers. In other words, at the time that Nietzsche is writing, and as far as he can tell, the science has not realised the meaning of the death of God and thus has not introjected that death, as Freud would later put it. While God may have died, science inherits God and keeps him alive. Here we can see one of the senses in which God can be said to remain as dead. God persists within scientific atheism.
We could question whether or not we have left this fact behind. The conservative philosopher John Gray sees God at the very heart of the work of the new atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins; we also see the secularisation of debates regarding the sanctity of life in discussions of bioethics and biopolitics; many scientists continue to be motivated by religious belief; the continuing appeal of a progressive concept of time and the idea that humanity can overcome its material conditions in some absolute fashion; and the myths of the techngnostic singularity keeping alive ideas of a final transcendence of the body. It is not long ago that popular scientific journals were awash with talk of finding the so-called “God Particle”, a telling parapraxis of the popular reception of contemporary scientific discoveries.
We should be careful to note that it isn’t that there is no difference between scientific truths and God’s Truth, but that for Nietzsche they are pursued in the same spirit. The scientist and the believer are both truth-seekers in an old fashioned sense. This can be seen in the continued elevation of “Man” or humanity in the contemporary rationalist movement, a move that Stirner had already accused Feuerbach of merely deifying Man in God’s place so that the latter may live on (humanism as one of God’s remains) when he writes that he is a pious atheist. The Feuerbachian inheritance lingers on today when Badiou states that
Classical humanism without God, without project,without the becoming of the absolute is a representation of man which reduces him to his animal body (2005, p.174) [my emphasis].
For Badiou, in order for humanism to proceed there has to be a God, even if this God is not the actuality of the believer. This idea that God persists His own death is already there in The Gay Science at 108 when Nietzsche writes that the nihilism that spreads across Europe remains but ‘the shadow of God’; so to humanism remains the shadow of God. We can see from this a certain theological necessity in Badiou’s philosophy (which I confess I grasp only at the most initial level): in order to have the possibility of the Idea, and to be able to live for an Idea, to be a militant, one must have this divine dimension. Lacking God, even a dead God, means that we are reduced only to being animals in our self-representations.We can almost detect the shudder running through Badiou’s spine when he speaks of this reduction to the “animal body”, a symptom itself of a kind of somatophobia. It is the same somatophobia that runs through the West from Plato onwards, surviving in today’s popular modified Cartesianisms: psychiatry and psychotherapy.
Yet this fear of the body is not really a consequence of the death of God at all. After all, the Christian religion is frequently seen as being dismissive and deriding of the body and its Gnostic antagonists saw in the body nothing but evil (hence the ban on reproduction and the weirdness of the Cathar prohibition on all sex except anal sex). In fact, when placed beside Gnosticism- especially as an early internal competitor for what would become orthodoxy- the traditional Christian relationship with the body appears as entirely affirmative and celebratory, with far less prohibitions on pleasure and sexuality. While fear of embodiment isn’t the central thrust of this post it nonetheless appears as an important side consideration, especially as Badiou links an “animal humanism” to the disappearance of communism and thus to the impossibility of equality. The preference for Plato and mathematics that makes him an ‘idealist-materialist’ (Laurelle ,p.93) makes him too much of an idealist for a post-nihilist praxis to pursue his ontology very far. The body, after all, is not a substrate to which we are reduced, and claiming that no communist politics could be predicated on the body appears as the presupposition of this idealism, rather than a consequence. It remains entirely possible for Badiou to realise that man is, in Ernest Becker’s words, “a theological animal” or an “animal trying to be a God with only the equipment of an animal”.
Returning to the main point, God is dead but persists after his own death. This may explain the long death of God in the succession of “decentrings” that have swept over the history of Western thought and are aligned to that well-worn series of names: Copernicus, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and the resurgence of philosophical realisms, materialisms and our appreciation of the meaning of finitude in geological and cosmological time. Still God remains with us as a trace, a shadow, a vanished corpse. If God is both dead and remaining, perhaps it would be better to speak of God as an undead being.
From the preceding sketch of the situation it should be clear that I am staking the claim that post-nihilist praxis is a post-Christian phenomena. This might come as a surprise to those people involved in running this site, especially Michael who is very clear on his declaration of “no New Gods”. Part of the meaning of the death of God, part of the meaning in a more banal sense of “God remains dead” is to state that the Christian God can’t be rehabilitated or saved by last minute surgery. Yet what we see after the death of God isn’t the death of belief. A few years ago I remember seeing the comedian Stephen Fry on a TV show called Room 101, a show based on the idea that the guests could nominate to place pet-hates into Room 101 and thereby erasing them from existence. I can’t remember what it was that Fry was putting into the room, whether it was atheists or believers, but I do remember his reasoning. In a very agitated performance of astonishment, he set about complaining that once people stopped believing in God they didn’t stop believing per se but, perversely, believed all the more…believed in anything. So it is that we get a massive explosion of vague belief systems, that phenomena of the person who is “spiritual” but not “religious”, that person who does yoga or meditates but doesn’t follow the ethical precepts of Buddhism, that person who calls herself a gnostic but doesn’t regard physical reality as evil. In a sense we’re familiar with this story from another perspective. It is the story that Lyotard told in terms of the death of grand narratives. In Europe God was the grandest narrative, the only show in town. Now we get the explosion of micronarratives, personal beliefs, hybridisations, none of which can claim any singular foundation. We see the emergence of new “Gods” (whether we like it or not), chief among them Capital. We see the revival of religious fundamentalisms with the Christian Right and the fundamentalist forms of politicised Islam, the revenge of some spurious “essence” of religions against their popular dissolution. We see the reactionary return to religion and the emergence of a new market faith. Old rituals (funerals) give way to new rituals (digital memorials, memento mori tattoos) and the Gods live on in disavowed form. The remains remain; the shadow still falls.
Of course, what I have traced out above is not entirely bad. It is essentially the thesis shared by Zabala and Vattimo that we remain Christians in Europe (if not in America, but there are political rather than historical reasons for that) because it is the death of God, the dissolution of religion, the “weakening” of the metaphysics of presence (or “objectivism”) that allows for the opening of a space for pluralism. In After Christianity, Vattimo constantly repeats that the death of the grand narrative is what allows for the flourishing of micro-narratives, for the emergence of difference and, eventually, for the contesting of meanings and the naked emergence of antagonisms. This weakening is a task that has been conducted historically in and through the decentrings mentioned above and by the political movement in Europe away from overt totalitarian regimes and towards the liberal condition we found ourselves in (at least, prior to 2008). This has all gone apace with secularisation, the movement away from religious orientations to explicitly non-Sacred public systems of meaning production. In Vattimo’s eyes, secularisation is a profoundly Christian processes insofar as it expresses both the principle of kenosis (the self-emptying of God) and the Christian ethic of truth as charity or friendship, involving the creative process whereby provisional truths are negotiated. For Vattimo, the principle of charity means taking up a model of living without asking for transcendent foundations. In this way, his writing partner on Hermeneutical Communism is able to state that:
The death of God is something post-Christian rather than anti-Christian; by now we are living in the post-Christian time of the death of God, in which secularization has become the norm for all theological discourse”
It is the death of God, a Christian event, that initiates the opening of the space of “Babel-like” pluralism. Vattimo in The Transparent Society:
A secularised culture is not one that has simply left the religious elements of tradition behind, but one that continues to live them as traces, as hidden and distorted models that are nonetheless profoundly present (p.40).’
God’s remains remain, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. If their is a continuity between Christianity and modernity then nihilism is a Christian phenomena- an outcome of that kenosis: Christ is incarnated (no somatophobia here) and dies on the cross, effectively tendering God’s abdication from a position of divine Sovereignty. The secularisation thesis was popular once but has fallen out of fashion, although thinkers as diverse as Zizek, Eagleton, Caputo and Vattimo have begun to revive it. From the post-nihilist perspective, secularisation is nothing but the history of nihilism as expressed in theology.
Today it’s not the death of God that ensures our inability to leave the need for a God behind but it is rather our attempt to pretend that God never died or to place new Idols in His place. As such, it is the refusal to be nihilists that maintains us in our nihilism. We proclaim that we are atheists but our atheism is very pious indeed. Well, I suggest that, impossible as it is to jump outside of our nihilism (this would only be to ignore the problem) we should accept our impious piety. In order to prevent the spurious resurrection of God and/or the continued proliferation of new Gods, and to pose a challenge to the religion of the markets, we constitute ourselves as post-Christians in order to be post-nihilists. The only way to rid ourselves of Idols is to hold faith to the God who is dead, the God who inaugurates nihilism in His dying.
If nihilism is the death of God, then the being post-nihilist means being post-Christian. This position is neither theistic nor atheistic but what closer to a mood or style that relates to religiosity and belief as non-theistic ( a term I’ve used pre-dating Timothy Morton’s Laurellian deployment). Theism and atheism seem to me to be ludicrously stupid positions in our situation, neither being able to appreciate fully what the events of the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ signify within and for Christianity (entirely regardless of whether they were events in actuality). Moreover, the evidence tends to speak for itself that this debate is one that hasn’t really moved on since it began…indeed, it seems hard to see the theist vs. atheist war as anything but an invariant reciprocal anatagonism beneath which lies reactive forces entirely dependent on one another for their existence. Obviously, I don’t intend to offend any atheists by saying so…its just that I take God too seriously to be an atheist, and I lack the belief to be a theist. Indeed, a Christian without religious faith…what is belief in God without faith in God? EM Cioran answers that it is pure obsession. Yet, in the absence of transcendent value and a ground to situate them on, what else is left but obsession? All philosophical thought is simply the work of an obsessive trying to articulate the core of an her obsession, failing to do so in this language so picking up that one. As obsessives we are already on the ground that Vattimo has stalked for years, that of nihilistic hermeneutics; its interpretation all the way down. Where we disagree with Vattimo is in seeing this interpretation as only ever a human labour and, specifically, an epistemo-phenomenological operation.
The principle believe of kenotic Christianity is that Christ’s incarnation, his decision to incarnate as a body, a vulnerable corporeal being, meant that Christ abandoned any claims to divine sovereignty. In becoming flesh Christ is not strictly speaking the Word made flesh but the separation or the abandonment of the word from the flesh. In order to become an embodied being Christ is God minus Logos. This is the sense in which kenosis implies the self-emptying or abasement of God by God qua God: somehow still divine but stripped of all potencies of divinity (omniscience, omnipotence, ubiquity- but therefore also, being all-loving, all-merciful and/or all-wrathful), Christ represents the death of God as the living flesh. The theological “mystery” of incarnation resolves itself, although is far from resolved, into the philosophical ambiguity of flesh: at once passive and active, at once master and slave, at once self-mover and already in-motion. The incarnation is thus the a kind of self-undoing of the Moral God by Moral God as the humanised God that mirrors the processes of secularisation of Europe as the self-undoing of Moral Christianity by Moral Christianity as secular Christianity.
In Beyond Interpretation, Vattimo states that through an appreciation of kenosis our nihilism can
‘rediscover its own authentic meaning as nihilistic ontology only if it recovers its substantial link, at source, with the Judeo-Christian tradition as the constitutive tradition of the West. In other words: modern hermeneutic philosophy is born in Europe not only because here there is a religion of the book that focuses attention on the phenomenon of interpretation, but also because this religion has at its base the idea of the incarnation of God, which it conceives as kenosis, as abasement and, in our translation, as weakening (p.93).
In his Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. Suzuki makes a great deal out of the fact that Christ dies vertically while the Buddha lies lying down. The former expresses the verticality of the authoritarian nature of Christianity, while the horizontality of Buddhism is akin more open to plurality, more anarchic in its spirit. Yet via kenosis we see that there isn’t a sovereign being winched up on the cross, but rather a human the same as any other (although nonetheless divine, although in such an “abased” form its hard to know how to take this divinity seriously). We may prefer to say that Christ’s death represents God being hoisted up and mocked in a spectacular execution (“we have murdered him”) and thus conceive of Christ as a kind of willing victim: to some extent he can’t help but appear as a masochist, a lover of suffering and wounds (and thus not a victim in the sense of Levinas’s persecuted radical passivity).
Incarnation as a specifically Christian myth is precisely the event that weakens the Christian concept of God and allows for that God to be put to death on the cross. Kenosis, or secularisation, is thus the site in which the explosion of micronarrative takes place, where the pragmatics of meaning as a corporeal hermeneutics takes the place of the doxa of scriptural orthodoxy and Church authority. Vattimo’s plurality can only appear within the space opened by Christ and the death of God on the cross. In that myth it is the Sacred itself that departs from the Sacred and allows itself to be put to death. “Father, why have you forsaken me?” becomes the plaintiff cry of a suffering divinity that puts divinity to death. If Jesus can be read as an apocalyptic prophet it is because he prophesies the catastrophe of his own death: the death of God.
I am aware that this post is more gestural than it is exhaustive but I want to suggest that in Vattimo’s view I have found an argument that justifies something I’ve personally felt since my own days being educated in religion at a Catholic school, and which I think forms an agreement (or a friendship) with a post-nihilist praxis: God and the death of God are equivalent if not identical. For Vattimo, the abandonment of the Church and its authority, and the increasing atheism of Western societies (esp. Europe) is not the evidence of the destruction of Christianity but its very fulfilment. Salvation does not consist of a salvation through belief but a salvation from belief.
It is on these very grounds that I have claimed that we require faith in the dead God, which is actually a kind of obsession with the dead God. This is a faith that does not “believe” in God or gods but that does not quite relinquish them as determinations of thought either- why should Christian’s get to monopolise God? Why should atheists be the only ones to “kill” God? The act of murdering God and thus of allowing the fulfilment of kenosis and therefore of enacting the liberatory moment of nihilism (such as post-nihilist praxis sees nihilism) is an act of supreme fidelity to the Christian God who wants to die. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms from Dis-enclosure (2008):
Should it [faith] not form the necessary relation to the nothing: in such a way that we understand that there are no buffers, no halting points, no markers, no indeconstructible terms, and that dis-enclosure never stops opening what it opens (the West, metaphysics, knowledge, the self, form, sense, religion itself)? (p.12).
That faith is the necessary relation to “the nothing” can be read according to the preceding as the only possible relationship to God’s absence which is the result of his emptiness and subsequent death. We can’t jump outside of the problem of God and God’s death, this would be to disavow the historical problem of atheism itself, and so we are obliged to (ie: it is necessary that) we form a relation to “the nothing” which is God. Faith is thus faith in nothing, but not as Nietzsche’s “will to nothing”. Instead, as Nancy’s accelerative language has it, there are no ‘buffers’, ‘halting points’, ‘markers’, nothing to decelerate, to stop or to point the way into or out of that nothing: we plunge into the abyss with the realisation that that abyss is “God” emptied and so “opened”. What first appears as an abyss, as a bottomless pit without any final surface, is in fact the opening that we sought; and this opening can never be closed (nihilism can’t be un-accomplished) but only pushed further.
Thus, faith in the dead God is paradoxically also fidelity to the opening open. There is nothing halting us from participation in the opening of the open and radicalising it. Nihilism is the “opening up” of the West and of metaphysics; to be post-metaphysical is not to be anti-metaphysical but to radically explode metaphysics. Therefore it is not to say “reality is naively as it is” or that “things merely are”, and nor is it to be satisfied with a post-Kantian correlationism. Instead it is to recognise that it is no philosophy that is speculative but reality itself that is speculative. Thus, fidelity to and participation in the opening open is also a willingness to dive into that speculative maelstrom of the sharing of the open. This implies acceptance of our vulnerability (of open wounds) but also of the ecological implication and interpenetration of bodies with one another, what seems almost like an eros of being.
A conclusion would only remain
From this perspective a challenge emerges: how to think the consequences of thinking nihilism as a particularly Christian heritage and, more importantly, whether Christianity has anything to offer the development of a post-nihilist praxis beyond what has already been suggested. In previous writings I have begun to sketch our situation as catastrophic and post-apocalyptic, even beginning to link this to the revelatory mode of thought (today necessary for revolutionary thought), and these styles of thinking avowedly belong to a Christian way of thinking. The challenge is to think religiosity nontheistically rather than as a partisan of the false dichotomy of religious enthusiasm and to do so in order to discover what it means to remain faithful to a dead God, or to the absent God. To begin with, I can only suggest that the importance of the incarnation to developing post-nihilist praxis can’t be underestimated. The death of all Idols and the rapid descent from- the crash out of- all realms of Ideality have delivered us squarely to the transcorporeal realm of bodies human and non-human/animal and non-animal/ organic and in-organic. It is this transcorporeality that we share and which is the site of the opening open. The irony then for a religion that is typically seen as a renunciation of the flesh is that today, to speak of fidelity to a dead God, means to have fidelity to the empty space of God. It is also to recognise that the wisdom of Christ is not the wisdom of some suprasensible otherwordliness but is the very name of the wisdom of the ecstatic (and so dangerous) wisdom of the body. It is the mystery of incarnation that lies at the core of a faith without hysteria, or belief. To hold such a faith is to hold it not in any Idol or its remains; it is faith in the empty space of God.