CZECHOSLOVAK SOCIETY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
The Shadow of a Dead God?
"God is dead" - between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries this message made its way across Europe. It is a sentence that can have many different meanings.
Nietzsche, with whom this statement is usually connected, first puts it in the mouth of a madman, who, one day with a lantern at a marketplace, is asking for God. He meets with mockery: the people in the marketplace are no longer interested in God. The society in which Nietzsche lived consisted mostly of people who were not asking the question about God - they were comfortable dwelling in the securities of their conventional religion or an equally conventional atheism. Through the mouth of the Madman in Happy Science, Nietzsche not only formulates the question, but also announces the answer: God is dead! We killed him! But shortly thereafter Nietzsche, through the very same character, pronounces that people are as yet unable to understand the consequences of their deed, accept responsibility for it and transform the death of God into an opportunity to attain a higher type of humanity, the superhuman.
Nietzsche knew, however, that the death of God is not a matter of moment. He mentions a legend: Buddha used to meditate in a cave and his shadow stayed on the wall even long after his death. Nietzsche adds that the shadow of the murdered God also remains among us and that we will have to deal with it.
It is not easy to understand what exactly Nietzsche meant by God, the death of God and the shadow of God. If God for Nietzsche means a symbol for the metaphysical basis of Western culture and at the same time for the Christian "board of values", then we can understand that the shadow of God for Nietzsche also means modern science, modern political ideals that include socialism and democracy and in the end even the grammar of speech itself. Nietzsche prophesizes a time in which all values will be reevaluated and in which nihilism, "the most unpleasant of guests", will enter through our doors. And this nihilism, just like the death of God, is ambivalent for Nietzsche - it is both a threat and a chance.
Nietzsche's sentence "God is dead" is one of the possible answers to the question of where God is today - it is one of the possible interpretations of God's silence. Nietzsche died at the turn of the 19th century -- a century in which many were shaken in the securities of their religion and their atheism. Many people went through the experience of God's silence. However, they understood this painful experience in different ways and found different answers to it.
Some thought that God's voice perished in the noise of the grandiose building site of the city of man. Those who perceived God as a competitor and an enemy to people's freedom understood the development of human power as a victory over God. God Himself appeared to thinkers as Feuerbach, Freud and Marx as a mere shadow of man, a reflection of his wishes, anxieties or unjust social relations, a product of internal or external conflicts. These thinkers and their pupils promised that when man overcomes religious alienation and understands God as a human project, the voice of God inside him will silence forever. God should ask no more disturbing questions from Man's victorious reason.
But the 20th century brought yet another experience with God's silence. Many have waited in vain for God's answer, facing the suffering of millions in wars and concentration camps of the two most horrible regimes in human history, Nazism and communism. For some of them, the protest against the evil of the world grew into a revolt of the conscience against God - and this revolt was their last prayer. They refused to continue the dialogue with God, who either appeared weak or apathetic, cruel or non-existent. With Dmitri Karamazov, they "refused the ticket" into the world in which children have to suffer.
Many of those, who in this century of wars and dictatorships went through valleys of suffering and death, rejected God as a guarantor of the best of possible worlds and found no other religious answer to their protest and painful questions.
But the Bible knows protest and painful questioning as language, in which man can communicate with God. Jesusī prayer struggle in the Getsemane garden and his painful question on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" was preceded by the struggles of Jacob, Job, Jeremiah and by the disputes of many patriarchs and prophets with God.
Hegel related the sentence "God is dead", the expression of the desolation of modern man, to the event of the cross, on which the one who was both Man and God died. For Hegel, the cross is not just an event of the remote past, but it is a part of the "history of Being." The "death of God" is an inner moment of "Godīs biography", the roads of God through history. Modern atheism is participation at the "Good Friday of history", an important but not the last stage of the history of the spirit.
Long before Hegel, the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, taught that there are periods in the life of a believer when he seems to be walking through darkness and desert and when God seems distant and silent to him. According to John of the Cross, the experience of deep desolation by God, the night of the spirit, is a necessary step on the way towards spiritual growth. The period of Godīs silence belongs inseparably to Godīs pedagogic. In such times, one cannot return to our common forms of traditional devotion, one cannot look back. God Himself leads us into such crises and through them, He gives us a chance to grow towards mature Christianity.
I am asking myself a question if what John of the Cross and many mystics were discovering as an important stage on the level of individual life and the "history of the soul" also applies to the history of religion and history of human culture. Are there not also similar stages in the histories of nations, do not such "collective nights of spirit" exist ? Is not "a dark night" only another description for the time that Nietzsche called the epoch of the "death of God" ?
At present, I am working on a book with a working title "Atheism as a kind of religious experience". Not everything that is usually called, or that sometimes even calls itself, atheism, has to be perceived by faith as its antithesis. The antithesis of faith is idolatry. Christian faith has to lead a spiritual struggle against the temptation to promote particular and relative values over absolute ones, it has to be opposed to uncritical conformity with this world. It has to defend the integrity of the human person and culture against all attempts to restrain vertical dimensions of human life. The Christian message about incarnation, the cross and resurrection connected the spiritual and the material and Christians have to defend this unity against attempts to place one dimension of life against the other.
But the experience of night that was felt by so many face to face with the Gulag, Auschwitz and other hells of the 20th century is something that faith needs to take seriously if it is to survive in the one making his way through the desert towards freedom and through the night of the Cross towards the light of hope.
When I follow development within the church itself, one thing becomes obvious to me. We cannot become arrested in the infantile stage of those who in the fundamentalist form of Christianity see their motherīs skirt in which to hide their faces against the problems of the contemporary world. Neither can we become arrested in the adolescent phase of "Oedipal struggles" with church authorities and traditions. We have to mature into free adult children of God who integrate freedom with responsibility.
I keep coming back to John Paul II.īs appeal to Czech Catholics during his first visit in Prague in April, 1990: "You shall now build the temple of free life of your church not by returning to what was here before you were robbed of your freedom. Build it in the strength of that to which you matured during persecution."
I think those who went through the dark night of communism could and should by the power of their spiritual experience not only help build the temple of the church, but also contribute in their part to the cultivation of a global civilization that is growing in place of the former bipolar world.
But to what have we matured? Suffering does not automatically help character to mature. It is not just necessary to "endure" pain, but also to make internal use of it. The experience of suffering can lead to reevaluation of values in life and to higher sensibility towards the suffering of others - but the point is that this fruit of suffering should not just be a passing flash of lightning that we soon forget about and that we oust from our consciousness. I feel anxious about how superficially most Christians from Central and Eastern Europe have dealt with the not-so-remote past, how little we have learned and how little we have contributed so that this chapter of European history would enter into the treasury of historical experience of mankind.
Sometimes it seems to me that during the dark night of communism when we were deprived of institutional recourses of faith, we experienced something that anticipates the future form of Christianity. I am convinced that at the threshold of the new millenium, the world stands before big changes of the paradigms of our civilization and that these changes place us Christians before new tasks. I do not share the romantic dreams about the future "Christian civilization". In the global village of tomorrow, we Christians will be one of the cognitive minorities. It is even more important that we should not close up within ourselves but learn how to communicate with others.
Over the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to travel across the world, not only lecturing at universities but also listening and learning to join in common reflection, learning to see the world through others' eyes and understanding those whose cultural and spiritual experience is distant from my own. I have had the opportunity to talk with Catholic thinkers, not only in the Vatican but also in Latin America, with Jewish rabbis in Israel and the USA, with Orthodox clergy in Moscow, with patriarchs of Buddhist monasteries in Japan, with Hindus in India and Nepal, and with Islamic intellectuals at the university of Al Azhar in Cairo. The common denominator of all those meetings and talks was the question: what sources of moral strength and spiritual inspiration are available to humanity at the present time in order to cope with the complex problems posed by life on the threshold of the new millenium? Are there any commonly shared values and experiences that we can use as a basis to learn to live together on this planet, which in many respects is becoming too small?
Mass communications media, transport and information exchange are more and more efficient while the capacity of various groups of people to understand each other is increasingly deficient. "Technology has overcome all distances but has not created any intimacy," Martin Heidegger once wrote.
None of the existing religions or cultures has a chance nowadays to become a common basis for understanding, and often not even at a national, let alone global, level. Efforts to create some sort of new universal religion only end up creating obscure sects. Schemes to create a single culture for the entire planet could easily turn into a nightmare reminiscent of George Orwell's novels. The only answer that I can see is dialogue among existing cultures and religions. In spite of all the mutual influences and all the risks of misunderstanding, these will retain their identity but will learn mutual respect and the art of living not only among one another but also together. Maybe, however, we can surpass the model of mutual tolerance and learn to widen our horizons by sharing our specific experiences.
Now I am going to try to give a brief account of the experience that Christians in the heart of Europe underwent in the 20th century.
The disciples of those who saw in God of the Bible the "poison from Judea" or the "opium of the people" tried to create a healthy town of man, in which -- just like in the heavenly Jerusalem according to the Apocalypse -- "there will be no temple". Temple -- religion, church -- is an institution of pilgrims, a sign that human society is still on a historical path. In heaven or hell, there is no temple. Totalitarian regimes wanted to abolish history and fulfill eschatological longing and hope immediately. Democracy, on the other hand, is an expression of the kind of patience and carefulness to which the Gospel exhorts those who want to separate wheat from weeds too soon. Those who try to create heaven on earth usually end up creating hell for the people. Neither the conception of new civilization in Nazism nor in communism had place for a temple, for the God of the Bible. Not a trace should have remained after Him, not a memory, not a shadow. Communism, having more time and wider space at its disposal, started to demolish churches and to either brutally liquidate the church or at least subject it to the bondage of the state as a museum, ghetto or an instrument of state propaganda. One great Georgian movie, released in the last years of the Soviet Union, ends with a question of an old woman, who after years in a concentration camp returns home and finds out that the church at the end of the street where she used to live had been demolished: "What meaning has a road that does not lead to a temple?"
Both totalitarian regimes started to build their own temples and their own religions - their own cult rooms, rites, ceremonies, holidays etc. Unlike the Jakobine "civil religion" of the French revolution, there was no "Goddess of Reason" on the altar. Nazism knowingly leaned towards the irrational instincts of tribal and racial belonging to blood and earth. Marxist socialism proclaimed science as the winner over "religious superstitions", but in reality science in communist countries was under heavy control of the Party inquisition that guarded the untouchability of the dogmas of Marxist ideology.
Marxism started as philosophical criticism of religious ideology - Erich Fromm even interpreted Marx and his criticism of religion as a continuation of the tradition of prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the prophetic criticism of idolatry. In Marx himself (if we compare young Marx with the Marx of Kapital) and especially in later Marxism, there was a transition from critical to dogmatic thought.
Marxism was a kind of Christian heresy. Chesterton called heresy "truth gone mad", a particle of truth that wrenched itself loose from its context and expanded into dreadful dimensions. Marxism was a kind of inversion of Christian eschatology into the time-space of historical future, which can be planned and realized through revolutionary interventions into history. "We will order the wind, the rain, when it has to blow, to fall" went one of the songs of Communist youth. Communism consummated the hybris that was latently present in the tradition of the Enlightenment: man has to take upon himself everything - nature and history, fate of the people and their souls, hearts and consciousness.
Marxist ideology counted on religion dying away automatically in the moment when economic relations change because, according to Marxīs teaching, religion was "nothing other than" superstructure and reflection of the class society, an expression of estrangement and the split personality of man. When the experiment of socializing the production processes came into force, the revolution in the superstructure did not take place. Christianity in Soviet Russia and later in its satellite states refused to die away. The violence that the communists started to use against churches and believers was in fact proof that their theory failed in practice. Not even violence helped.
When the revolutionary terror of the 1950s exhausted itself and Communism grew older and fatter, the euphoria of one part of society and the fear and anger of the remaining part was replaced by general boredom. Two attempts to revise communist regimes - in 1956 and in 1968 - fell through. After 1968, in the majority of communist states, communist ideology changed into a curious type of state religion - nobody believed in it, not even its own high priests.
Marxism had been dead in communist countries long before the fall of communism. It was the official ideology, but in reality almost no one had believed in it for many years. There were far less convinced Marxists in the East than in the West. Not even the vast majority of communist officials believed in Marxism - as a rule they were simply cynical apparatchiks.
What kept communism in power was not belief in an ideology, but instead an unwritten pact between the rulers and the ruled: so long as citizens conformed the state would ensure them a certain degree of social security and would tolerate all sorts of things - poor working morale, petty everyday economic crime with respect to the "people's property", etc. That secret "social contract" bred an odd kind of human that Josef Tischner has termed "homo sovieticus" - a person without creativity, initiative or responsibility. In totalitarian society everyone lived a guilt-free existence like in a Franz Kafka novel: the rulers did everything in the name of the system or future happiness, the ruled had no freedom and so had no sense of responsibility. No wonder so many are pining for that paradise where they had no burden of responsibility.
There is much talk in Eastern Europe about the need to "come to terms with the communist past" - and clearly that important task has yet to be fulfilled. Condemning communism is not simply a matter of bringing to trial a couple of communist criminals or distancing oneself verbally from the old regime and its ideology. It means pointing clearly to the "anthropological roots of totalitarianism", to those forms of behaviour and character traits that enabled the totalitarian regime to survive for so long. It is a thankless task and it is no wonder, therefore, that politicians in particular - and above all those who indulge in populism to maintain their popularity ratings - painstakingly avoid the topic.
During the period of "Eastern Bloc" communism, it wasn't Marxism but miasma that ruled - and that has not been removed to any great extent. It represents a great opportunity and challenge for Christianity only in the sense of long-term treatment of this condition, not that of "ascending the throne" vacated by state ideology.
Young democracies in post-communist countries - also in such countries that belonged to the most stable and solid European democracies between the World Wars, as did Czechoslovakia - still experience the distressful way through the desert. People are exposed to all kinds of temptations. I heard a story about Indians who were being removed by colonists from their original settlements and brought to new ones. Before the end of the trip, the Indians asked for a break, explaining: "Our bodies might be almost at the end of the trip, but our souls are still in those old homes. We have to wait for our souls". Whenever I meet with various tokens of imperfection of the renewed democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, I remind myself of these words. We have to wait for our souls.
The first decade of freedom brought a bitter realization: to change political and economic structures is not enough, because the homo sovieticus is not able to hold his ground in a free society. The persuasion that the mere existence of a free market and the privatization of property will give life to a new, better human type is as naive as was the Marxist expectation that this could be reached by collectivization and socialization. Man is simply not primarily determined by economic factors of social development, as Marx thought or as is the belief of some theoreticians of "upside-down Marxism", the postcommunist market fundamentalists.
I am convinced that it was the globalization process that swept away communist regimes. Regimes based on a rigid state-planned economy and the censorship of ideas were unable to withstand the onslaught of competition and the free market of goods and ideas. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe won back their independence and with it came an increased sense of national identity and pride. However, the logic of globalization now obliges these same countries to increasingly respect decisions of supranational bodies in the economic and political fields alike. Attempts to resurrect a free culture and spiritual life of their own face competitive pressures from local television, which, for commercial reasons, opts mostly for the cheapest and most inane products of the American entertainment industry. Churches have rapidly lost their aura of martyred institutions and have become a favorite whipping boy of the media. No wonder, then, that many believers are among those who suffer in present post-communist society from 'agoraphobia' - to borrow a term from psychopathology -- namely, an abnormal fear of open spaces, or literally: fear of the market.
Having been accustomed to playing a major role in traditional society from the very distant past, the churches of Eastern and Central Europe learned in the course of almost half a century to stand up to totalitarian regimes and state-imposed atheism. Of course the degree to which religion was persecuted varied from country to country and the church likewise adopted more than one strategy for survival. Within the framework of a single, local church one could find a whole spectrum of responses to pressure from totalitarian regimes, ranging from collaboration and compromises to the martyrdom of hundreds of believers. Many subconsciously expected that the fall of communism would herald a return to the situation they knew before World War II. However, instead of the traditional pre-modern situation, a complex post-modern vista has opened up. Traditional society, in which the church virtually merged with the prevailing culture, and the subsequent totalitarian state, with its militantly atheistic ideology, represented quite distinct situations for religious institutions and called for distinct strategies. Pluralistic democracy and the post-modern cultural climate represent a third type which requires the church to re-define once more its social role and evolve a new and quite distinct strategy.
In the churches of post-communist Europe, however, nostalgia for the perceived pre-modern ideal still prevailed and with it a strategy of restoration. When that strategy was frustrated by subsequent developments, certain churches adopted vis-a-vis the liberal environment the strategy of hostility and circular defense that they had learned from their confrontations with the communist regimes. As a result, the churches alienated large groups of those who had sympathized with them at the time of communism's collapse and who had also invested great hopes in them on the threshold of democratic renewal.
Now the situation in certain post-communist societies in many respects mirrors the situation of religious organizations in secular societies of western Europe - the only difference being that both the representatives of secular liberalism and the churches lack the experience of decades of mutual coexistence and have not yet learned to communicate to any great extent. The Second Vatican Council allowed Catholics to conclude a 'gentleman's agreement' with secular humanism and the civilization that grew out of Enlightenment ideals. However, many of the promptings of that Council have yet to be sufficiently assimilated by the churches of post-communist countries. Moreover, the 2nd Vatican Council did not prepare Catholics for the booming interest in religion and spirituality at the end of the 20th century. As a consequence, many spiritual seekers -- particularly young people -- sought their answers from groups and spiritual leaders espousing Eastern spiritual traditions. It looks as if Christianity stands on the threshold of another of its historical metamorphoses. Over the centuries it has undergone a whole series of transformations, the depths of which it was not always able or willing to acknowledge; the emphasis on the continuity of tradition -- since tradition was an important factor in its legitimacy -- somewhat overshadowed the radical nature of the paradigm shift. The difference between the sect within Hellenic Judaism that the fanatic Saul came to suppress and the civilization of the late Middle Ages that embraced every area of human life is as great as the difference between medieval christianitas and the modern form of Christianity as a 'world viewī (Weltanschauung). In the latter years of the modern era Catholicism and Protestantism have established themselves as 'isms' among other 'isms'; they are still often regarded as ideologies tied to institutions offering scope for a particular subculture or even 'counter-culture', an alternative 'parallel polis' vis-a-vis the world of modern secular civilization. The ideologization, institutionalization and 'church-ization' (Verkirchlichung) of faith has proceeded in pace with the secularization of the West and Christians' loss of ability to 'leaven' the entire 'dough' of society; religion has now become an area of life alongside others and the church has ceased to be an all-embracing community and instead become an institution alongside others.
Christians today find themselves in the situation of a shift of paradigms, not only the paradigms of the civilization they live in, but also the paradigms of living and expressing one's faith. It looks as if the modern form of Christianity as a 'world view' alongside other philosophies will come to an end in the same way that the medieval form of Christianity -- christianitas: the Christian empire -- expired.
In my view Christians face a new task that is no less momentous than the erstwhile task of creating a civilization on the ruins of the Roman Empire. I believe the task is one of enabling communication between two worlds that are beginning to blend as part of the globalization process, although they are spiritually at opposite poles. On one side stands the secular civilization of the West and on the other the traditional world of religions, of which Islam is the most vigorous. I believe that Christians (and probably also certain currents of liberal Judaism) are in certain circumstances capable of understanding both those worlds, because they share certain features with them both.
When one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, counterposed faith and 'religion' and many of his pupils started to speak in terms of a 'non-religious interpretation of Christianity', it was admittedly one-sided, but it did pinpoint one aspect of the question. Besides, much has been written about the influence of the Biblical understanding of the world, nature and politics on the secularization process. In my view, Christians and Jews can find many points in common with a civilization that is inconceivable without the initial input of Biblical values and the Bible's spiritual and moral impetus.
On the other hand, one cannot deny the fact that the prevailing form of Christianity in history has been religion and that Christianity has much in common, or much that is analogous, with other world religions, whether it be the shared 'legacy of Abraham' of belief in one God, or the spiritual traditions of the East (I would refer, for instance, to the literature about the similarities between 'negative theology' and certain currents of Christian mysticism, on the one hand, and certain traits of Buddhism, on the other). Most likely the same could be said of Judaism.
There is a widening gulf between the world of the traditional religions and the secular world of the West. One of the paradoxes of globalism is the fact that the efforts to prevent any religion or religious community from dominating the shared world, so that 'public space' remains strictly secular, are having the effect of turning secularism itself into something sacred.
It is no wonder that from the perspective of traditional religions, this tendency appears to be a threat that the "naked public place" will in reality be occupied not only by areligious, but by the antireligious ideology of secularism and that in the name of the struggle for freedom a certain kind of liberalism could endanger one of the most basic freedoms, namely the freedom of religion. I understand the fears of some Christian circles that after the fall of state-enforced atheism in the East, the state-imposed secularism of the West might win.
In spite of this I think it is very important that these fears should not rush Christians into the fundamentalist camp. I am firmly convinced that Christians (and probably also Jews) can reach out to both sides, that they can understand what is valuable and true not only from the view of traditional religions, but also from the view of secular culture, and that they can replace the mutual fear by a dialogue between them. One of the most important tasks of mankind on the threshold of the new millenium is to transform the process of globalization into that of communication.
I myself have found faith amidst people who in spite of the pressure of militant atheist dictatorship have not become people with closed minds. At a time when communists tried to establish the hardest variant of closed society in my country and the attempt to kill God in peopleīs minds was part of the attempt at abolishing the freedom of political, economic and cultural life - at least some Christians realized that it is necessary to leave the ghetto mentality behind and accept as their natural allies all those who search for truth and love freedom.
When my non-believing friends ask me what faith is and what it's good for, I reply that faith gives one the strength to accept reality fully and in its entirety, because it is based on the conviction and experience that there is a meaning to reality, that our life is not a succession of accidents nor - in the words of Shakespeare's Macbeth - "a tale told by an idiot... signifying nothing." Faith is the confidence that in all of life's situations there is meaning, opportunity and hope. It is not up to me personally to invest life with meaning - meaning is already here and challenges me to find it and strive to understand it as fully as I can. So I don't have to despair and flee from reality however complicated and harsh it may be. Nor do I have to dress it up in illusions. That is why I believe that faith is the ally of realism and critical thinking and the enemy of superstition, prejudice and illusion. It is the courage of truth. The priest who many years ago introduced me to Christianity used to stress that there was one commandment that pre-dated all the Ten Commandments, namely: Thou shalt not deceive thyself nor the Lord thy God.
During the communist period, in common with many Christians, I discovered that faith gives us the strength to stand the test in the difficult circumstances of persecution. For many Christians who stood the test during the period of persecution it is hard to stand the test at this time of freedom. They grew too used to a time when the world was black and white, when it was clear who was with us and who wasn't, and where the boundary between good and evil was situated. They find it even more demanding and complicated to live in freedom that opens up a many-hued palette of opportunity and requires one to make choices over and over again. I am firmly convinced, however, that a real and healthy faith is the courage to be free. It gives us strength to accept freedom with all its risks. I believe that God summoned us to freedom, even though he knew all the risks entailed.
Prof. Tomas Halik - "Shadow of the Dead God", p. 17
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