From the “Good Letters” archives

Finding Something to Worship

originally posted Friday May 11, 2012

By Vic Sizemore

The New York Times obituaries from Sunday, March 11, 2012 include an article about William Hamilton, the man at the center of the “Death of God” controversy in April of 1966. The controversy was sparked whenTime published a cover article about his ideas, with the famous cover: on a simple black background, the question, “Is God Dead?” The Times had already run a headline in January of that same year, the one Elton John’s song “Levon” mentions, declaring the death of God.

I wasn’t yet born at the time, but I was enclosed in my watery cradle, rocking to my mother’s heartbeat. I grew old enough to pay attention, and the controversy hadn’t gone away, at least not in the churches where I grew up.

I remember one evangelist who explained it to the students in chapel service at the little Christian school I attended. He told us these people believed God had become so heartbroken by the evil of humanity that he’d given up hope, rolled over and died.

Hamilton’s ideas have nothing to do with the actual death of any divine being. “The ‘death of God’ is a metaphor,” he told The Oregonian in 2007. “We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God.” This was not nearly as radical as it sounded, at least not to academic theologians, who had been dealing with this at least since Nietzsche.

When Nietzsche trumpeted the death of God, he was announcing the death, not of God, but of the “metaphysical logos,” as Martin Heidegger terms it in his book, Nietzsche. An end to any overarching meaning, any whole and entire explanation for why we are here and what our purpose is. Nietzsche’s point was that God never existed in the first place; what died was the illusion that we can explain our existence in any meaningful way.

I think of the logos of the Ancient Greeks, the principle governing their whole cosmos and the basis for all human reason and understanding. I think of the logos of Judaism, the word of God, the way in which he communicated with them—more than that, this word was a force, a creative power in its own right.

If you were raised in a Christian church, as I was, you have already gone to the first verses of the Gospel of John—In the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God and the logos was God—the passage which unambiguously identifies the person of Jesus Christ with this metaphysical logos.

Hamilton’s “death of God” is an attempt to find, in the skeptical light of the modern world, a livable religion stripped of this particular meaning, stripped of any divine presence.

This seems to me remarkably similar to what Alain de Botton is proposing in his new book,Religion for Atheists. I haven’t yet read it, but I listened to an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio. He spoke admiringly of religion, of all the human needs it meets, and said his hope is that atheists can co-opt what is good about it without bringing along its ancient and disproven superstitions.

Next interviewed was Adam Frank, author of The Constant Fire, and Frank went a step further saying that not believing in God does not mean he cannot believe in some kind of spiritual reality, or at least leave open the possibility. He bases this on personal anecdotal evidence: he has had his own epiphanies, and cannot bring himself to admit they are no more than reactions firing off in his wet brain.

Maybe you say these are soft atheists, not good examples, not real like the so-called New Atheists who take a harder line. But what about the New Atheists?

Listen to how reverently they speak of science, of reason. Go to the Symphony of Sciencewebsite and watch the “Wave of Reason” video.

Richard Dawkins speaks of the “new wave of reason, where superstition had a firm hold,” his voice auto-tuned to sound like singing. Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco says, “The same spiritual fulfillment that people find in religion can be found in science by coming to know, if you will, the mind of God,” as the praise and worship music plays.

Tell me, isn’t this apotheosis of reason not new at all? It certainly goes back further than the Enlightenment, at least to Ancient Greece. As I see it, their worship of reason is a call to none other than the logos of old.

I think now of the t-shirt I once saw. On the chest were the words, “God is Dead: Nietzsche,” and just under that, “Nietzsche is dead: God.” Doesn’t it seem that the metaphysical logos is not dead, nor does it sleep?

Doesn’t it seem that Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is right about this? By the name God, or by the name reason, or by any other name, there is “nothing a free man is so anxious to do as to find something to worship.”

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