Faith In Secular Times: How to Repent of God in Order to Follow Christ

I sometimes bend over backward to find ways in which faith can still be relevant in our secular post-Christian society (just as I bend over backward to understand why I bend over backward.) I write from a Western-Europeans context. However, just having lived in the USA for the past 8 years or so, gives me a good grasp of the situation there as well. What I propose in this essay is applicable to the North American context as well, even though the USA is patently more religious than Europe.

The Christian god, as the god, the god who stands behind worldly affairs as the ultimate authority, has been erased. It has become completely meaningless. The god is now only a triangular eye on the dollar bill, a grey beard on an ancient painting or a character in a satirical cartoon. At first, it was kind of scary: Let’s see if there’s going to be lightning from the sky! But there was no lightning. Nietzsche’s madman warned that the foundations of the world had come unhinged with the death of god. Two world wars later, it turns out things are quite okay.

Rather, it appears that it doesn’t matter too much whether people believe in god or not. We see this at the individual as well as the communal level. Apparently, people are quite capable of being good citizens without god. During World War II in the Netherlands, for instance, atheists of all people showed great courage in protecting Jews at their own peril. After that war, we Europeans have become much better at honestly sharing our resources while today we worry–without god–about equal rights for everyone. You can hardly say that that this notion of equality is genuinely inspired by the way Christian values are lived out by Christians today.

No, god has really disappeared and we are not worse off. True, there is among philosophers and intellectuals a certain interest for a recovery of the Christian roots of our Western society but this interest hardly signals a Christian revival. On the contrary, an important thinker like Slavoj Žižek, who is known for being in dialogue with Christian thinkers and the content of the Christian faith, remains the materialistic atheist he has always been. The word god has become a symbol without any ontological content, i.e. there is no genuine entity behind that word and if there is one it seems impervious to what people say about that word or do with it. God has become a word without content that offers only inspiration to expensive Hollywood productions in which bad scripts are compensated for by an overload of CGI.

Now that we have played with this word, god, for a couple of decades, we slowly realize that our previous use of that word, when we were still very religious and invested it with all kinds of lofty ideas, also did not possess an ontological status. If not today, then not in the past. We have woken up from an illusion; there is no entity behind the word god that is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-seeing, all-knowing, or omnipresent. No, that past use of the word god, however much it was done in the understanding that there truly is a supernatural being, God, was no more than a construct, a mental construction, a symbol, a metaphor. We finally know how this works.

God Today

I would not like to make the claim that the word god should no longer be used; even less that I myself have become an atheist. All I want to say is that the search for the relevance of the word god has become virtually an impossible one. This is not only caused by what we secretly have come to know; it is also because the word god has played a rather weird role throughout history. So often we’ve heard god say that god cares about the poor while at the same time god nicely continues to facilitate the powerful in their attempts to exploit said poor. That simply doesn’t work. An additional problem is the contemporary behavior of godself who seems to have no problem with the widespread unbelief we witness today and who doesn’t seem to mind that without god the world still turns. If god exists it is quite impressive that god is not bothered by any of the stuff that happens on this planet. To be honest, I think it is rather lousy of god—no, I don’t express myself strongly enough. I think it immorally reprehensible of god that we hear nothing. Precisely at a time when the world really needs god.

In the first place, I look like an idiot, together with all these other believers. There we are, praising god, preaching the gospel, for 2000 years, mind you. And now it appears that it was all nonsense. Secondly, and this really makes me mad, god should, even if not because of god’s honor, at the very least care about the injustice that is taking place around us. God could look after those who are oppressed, do something about the destruction of the earth, or at least help a little in our search for solutions to the big questions that humanity is facing today. But no, no divine intervention. Not on the left, not on the right, not from below, not from above. Silence! You could say that God is rather godless. This lack of divine action is not merely a slap in the face of divine relevance; it marks the end of it. Faith in god is no longer relevant because there is no way in which the term god can still be meaningfully employed in our Western society.

This situation is exacerbated by the use of god that still remains. The “God Bless America” or the “In God We Trust” refers to the use of the god for political ends by people who want to grasp power and justify it with reference to a higher entity. The Church in the West is itself not exactly innocent, of course. With never-ending references to love for the neighbor and the example of Christ, the Church hardly worries about climate change or social justice. For some believers, the ecological apocalypse even comes in handy because it makes the end-times they have been preaching for decades so much more concrete. No, the Western Church stands guilty of all the sins that marked Western colonialism and imperialism. Whether we talk about the state church or a small flock that separated itself from the evil outside world or a powerful transnational church with lots of political power, the status quo was not to be disturbed. Clearly, Marx was the devil incarnate; after all, he wanted real change to the system.

The God-Provers

Now that we are talking about the Western Church, I want to discuss a particular ridiculous response to the increasing lack of relevance of god. Some were of the opinion that something could be done about this relevance by filling the word god with ontological content again, i.e. by proving that god really exists. That turned out to be rather difficult. Many god-provers thought they could simply accomplish the task by using logical arguments. But no argument, how compelling it may be, will convince me of the unicorn. The Christian god faces exactly the same problem. On the one hand, the god-provers were children of the Enlightenment with their irredeemable trust in the capacity of the human mind. Yet, in their logic, they referred back to Aquinas and Aristotle. Not a clever move since the West was on the move, not just away from god but also away from those thinkers of old.

I mean, Francis Bacon was already not exactly enamored by the Aristotelean science. He developed a new method that turned out to be extremely effective in obtaining knowledge about the world. If it turned out to be impossible for Aquinas during the medieval period (when Aristotle was rediscovered) to close the gap that appeared between nature and grace, what were the god-provers of the postmodern period going to do now that the scientific method of Bacon, through Newton, Darwin, and Einstein had led to a clarity in explaining the world that left any divine revelation that had until then appeared in the dust. It is sort of the wrong moment to enter the world stage with a deductive argument for the existence of god.

Which god is being proven, anyway? Don’t we first need a definition of the word god and isn’t such a definition impossible given the ontological emptiness of the word god as currently understood and given the notion that the term god implies something that is beyond human comprehension? Even if people could agree on such a definition isn’t such a definition subjected to human imagination that provides the boundaries of the concept god such that only a human god is produced? Isn’t every proven god really an idol? Isn’t the proof itself the clearest proof that god is always only a construction and that this god’s existence is precisely the question that remains?

Smokescreen

I slowly came to realize how nonsensical it is to prove god. Slowly, because I once was such a god-prover myself who sincerely looked for the relevance of god and faith in his society and who believed that he could achieve such relevance with deductive arguments. On the contrary, so I realized, proofs for god contribute to god’s irrelevance. This happens in four different ways:

(a) The first way has been mentioned above; you can only prove what you can think or imagine and that product of human imagination is always less than god (regardless of what god is or means).

(b) We are dealing here with a complex form of circular reasoning. The intended output of the argument (god) is at the same time the input for the arguments that should lead to the outcome. The arguments need to adapt to the proposed thesis “god.” the shape of the argument is given by the imagined thing that one attempts to prove. I’m afraid that so much more can be “proven” this way than is possible in reality.

(c) If god needs to be proven, then the question still remains whether god is worth the proving. After all, we are all busy living life and playing society and everything is just going swell (apart a few world-threatening problems). Why don’t we postpone the evidence? What if, god forbid, the arguments would actually stick! I prefer my ignorance; yes, I choose my ignorance and postpone the existence of god. What I mean is this: if god for god’s omnipotence, holiness, glory, omnipresence, etc. is dependent on my becoming convinced of god’s existence then we are talking about a fake god. After all, only a god from whose attention I can’t escape and who I am not able to place outside of my field of vision is god. Now, we do in fact have such a god, namely, the economic system of neoliberalism. But the biblical god has really become dependent on my attention and is therefore not a real god. My faith has become the condition for god’s existence and with that, god has been deprived of every right to exist.

(d) The fourth way deals with how the proof for god’s existence is basically a smokescreen. In the past, the gospel of Christ has been the subject of great distortion. It is not too hard to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law and the Jewish Tenach (think of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount and the innovative ideas of the apostle Paul). Yet, the horizontal orientation in Jesus’ teachings that deals with justice on earth was changed all too soon into a vertical orientation in which all that matters is how quickly souls can slip into heaven. There was a deeply felt urge to develop an orientation toward what is above and away from this wretched world. Understandable, esp. in the medieval period. The verticalization has persisted over time and can be found today, for instance, in the faith community that I originate from, evangelical Christianity.

Perhaps it goes too far to say that this verticalization has specifically been designed to help us close our eyes for the horizontal orientation of the gospel. After all, history is complex enough and it is hard to trace why certain developments took place. Yet it remains a fact that precisely the evangelical movement that has such a big mouth about Jesus has remarkably little to say about justice. In the USA this is a particularly big problem when you take the white privilege of the largely suburban evangelicals into account but even here in Western Europe something weird is going on. The problem persists across the board and is not only to be found among evangelicals. True, conservatives will typically emphasize the reconciliation with God (the vertical) and the hereafter. In churches that are more liberal, we note less of a vertical emphasis and hear more talk of solidarity, justice, and everything related to the here and the now. But is that a sufficient characterization? I think not.

 

New Possibilities

No, because the theology of both types of churches functions as a smokescreen. Conservatives are antithetical with regard to society and try to honor and serve god either by avoidance of the world (e.g. the Anabaptist option) or a conservative political strategy (e.g. Moral Majority). Liberals for their part are trying very hard to integrate into society in order to become part of the bourgeoisie that shrinks away from the idea of even throwing a stone through a window. The first group is against the status quo and tries to make a god relevant who precisely on account of the conservative political strategies will never ever acquire any meaning for society, while the liberal anthropocized god from the outset can never do more than reproduce itself as a decent citizen who commutes to work at 8 am, nicely does the laundry at night and tends his vegetable garden in the weekend. Both approaches are directed to relieve believers of their responsibility to truly live in the world and affect change.

I therefore think–and that is what this essay is all about–that the irrelevance of god resulting from both secularization and the theological accommodation to it by both conservatives and liberals offers us new opportunities to rethink the teachings of Christ. Proofs of God will never result in a re-Christianization of our culture (the Christian religion has failed too deeply and caused too much damage). God too does not benefit from these proofs in any tangible way. We have come to the realization that the existence of god has become irrelevant just as the word god is irrelevant. There is nothing we can do about this, In fact, we, Christians, have caused it.

Only when we have the courage to fully embrace this reality can our imagination be reignited which is necessary because without imagination that reaches beyond the boundaries of our own humanity there is only stagnation, stratification, and stifling air. Such imagination, however, requires us to repent! We need to repent from the god-constructs we have fabricated with the aim of not having to think about what we can mean for the kingdom of god in this world. We need to turn away from the comfortable irrelevance of god by throwing this god out. The Christian faith is not about whether god exists but whether Christ takes shape in our lives. And in relation to this Christ, we need to ask the question of how we, as justified in Christ, may bring forth justice in this world.

Luther

In order to clarify this, I will make use of the cross theology of Luther. I am not a Lutheran myself but I have discovered that in the Lutheran tradition very fruitful ideas have sprung forth that have often led to renewal for church and society. I think for instance of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, etc. In the first place, however, I find myself returning again and again to Luther himself who singlehandedly caused the disruption and subversion of the medieval scholastic ordering of God, world, and church.

One of the concepts that Luther coined was that of the hidden god (the deus absconditus). For Luther, Christ was the self-revelation of god. One of the consequences of this concept was that speculations about the ineffability, nature, and “operation” of god–for instance the question about divine election–were rather useless, if not dangerous. Behind the cross stands the realm of the hidden god. That god is not to be talked about apart from his appearance in Christ. That god cannot be integrated into a human system of thought (which is precisely what was wrong with medieval scholastic theology, according to Luther). The hidden god should not be speculated about.

Just leave that god be, Luther basically argued. Focus on what god has given of godself: Christ. Only look at Christ; that is all the god you will ever be able to get hold of. And indeed, that mangled flogged body of the crucified Christ was for Luther the essence of god’s presence in the world. God is different from us–completely different–or else god would not end up on a cross. Jesus ended his life there and since Jesus was claimed to be the divine self-revelation, it is better to stick with Jesus and not think too much about god in god’s “godness.” Of course, the entire Protestant movement after Luther did not like this one bit and they scrambled to fill endless volumes with their systematic theology. We gotta have a system!

Kenotic Ontology

But what if we were to radicalize this idea of the hidden god, the deus absconditus? What if we were to say that it is not only prudent to not think about how god is different from us but simply to remain silent about god? In the name of Christ! God is hidden and as soon as the term is revealed in human words it starts to live a life of its own. All kinds of weird things start to happen that lead to oppression, exploitation, power games, and abuse.

With that, it is not said that god is not real in some way. We leave that question for what it is. We simply don’t touch the subject. We simply place Christ in the center. He is the embodiment of something that is completely different from us; he does something that has not been witnessed before: true love for the neighbor, the giving away of the self as a gift without asking anything in return. As such Christ is the end of god; end in the sense that Christ is the end of the metaphysical god who looks down from on high and governs the world; but also end of god in the sense that in Christ god has given godself away, that god has reached the ultimate goal of self-giving and that no further talk of god is needed.

Christ is then the embodiment of the kenotic principle, i.e. the self-emptying of one’s own life on behalf of the other. Christ is also the new ontology, i.e. the new form of existence of which we did not know that it existed or even could exist. In short (and in theological parlance, Christ is the kenotic ontology. In normal English, Christ is that form of existence that gives itself away–which is quite abnormal because it doesn’t normally appear on the horizon of human existence. The new form of Christocentric thinking I propose embraces this ontology while dispensing with the use of the word god. In the embodying of this ontology, the living out of this kind of living, we find the essence of divinity played out on the stage of human existence. It is all the god we’re ever going to get.

Perhaps there was use (or will once be use again) for the word god in another age or culture; but not this one. (I do admit to some ambiguity here as I believe this to be the case in Europe while not totally convinced with regard to the USA although for other reasons it would be wise to dispense with that word in North America as well.) The word god tends to distract us from who god has become for the world in Christ. Every word about god is too much and turns whatever god is into something else than that miracle of love we encounter on the cross. Given where we are in our times, the word god is no longer essential to describe this love, to experience it and to live it out. Believing in god cannot be a condition for understanding what Christ is all about and what it means to follow him.

The Conversion

I cannot stress this enough: the conversion to Christ is a turning away from–repentance of–god. All our god-constructions always only serve to relieve us from the responsibility to live out in the world the reality of Christ’s self-giving life. With Christ, there no longer is a god in heaven but a god who in and through Christ always points the way to the world and proceeds into the world. To quote the Authorized Version for once: “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Please note, the conversion and repentance I talk about are not toward the secularism of our age in order to become conformed to the “likeness” of this world in which we live. The irony is precisely in this: the more we continue the use of the word god, whether we do so antithetically (like conservatives) or in bourgeoisie-like fashion (like liberals), the more we play into the hands of the secular age by obediently taking our place in its system. We continue a friendly tournament in which the existence of the Christian god is at stake. And as long as we continue the friendly tournament the real god of this age–namely the god of the neoliberal capitalist system who never ceases to suppress the poor outside of our field of vision and aims at the ecological destruction of our planet–can continue his rampage without any inhibition.

By repenting from god and the use of the word god, we may once again be able to open our eyes for the truth of Jesus’ life that invests itself on behalf of the world. We may then finally come to see how the word god is nothing more than a grand attempt to remain blind to the needs of the neighbor. Our god is in league with the god of neoliberalism; the latter is the former’s feudal lord. They pretend to be fighting each other in order to keep us busy, in order to help us not to take responsibility.

So, no, I do not advocate a conversion toward a godless society but a principled stand against all gods in favor of what Christ taught. And if you ask Christ: are you god? you get vague and elusive answers. This is because following Christ is not about whether you believe that god exists or not. As James, the brother of Jesus writes in his epistle, the devil too believes in god’s existence. Following Christ entails that you repent of your use of god, or as it is phrased in the Bible, that you refrain from using the Name of Lord in vain. I take the next step: every use of that name is an abuse, a curse, self-delusional idolatry that provides us the illusion that we are defending god while in reality, we are only busy fleeing the claim of Christ upon our lives.

Enough questions remain. I cannot address all of them in this short article. But the godlessness of our time offers Christians the opportunity to meet this godlessness with a godlessness of our own. The challenge is before us to rediscover, embody, and live out Christ and his manner of living. Perhaps here we have the contours of a new Christianity: Christianity 2.0. A godless Christianity that requires us to repent from god.

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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