Saturday, 7 April 2012

On the Death of God

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or, as when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between
[East Coker]

On Holy Saturday, God lies dead in the tomb. Exposed and weak, he had cried out on the cross with a cry of abandonment, maybe even despair. With most of his friends having forsaken him, he gave up his spirit. 

Yes, it is true, in John's Gospel he more soberly states, "it is finished".But what is finished is the humiliation of God and therefore the transformation of the very idea of God. The curtain has been rent in two. In a sense, God has profaned Himself, because He is pushed outside the centrality which we  claim for him and is identified with the peripheral. All can be included in Jesus because Jesus does not stand as king at the centre, on the Throne in the Hall, but wades through the spiralled throngs of hierarchy until he  stands at the outermost edge where he is made a thing despised, rejected and stricken. This is the scandal that other Abrahamic traditions have never understood, unable as they are to see the divinity in the symmetry between the God above our heads in unimaginable glory and the God crushed under the Roman boot; the God of the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah on the moving chariot-throne, radiating a holiness that forces even the Seraphim to close their eyes, and the God whose bloodied and observable countenance forces the women to close their eyes in grief. The exalted and the despised are, together, one God. The centre is equivocated with the edge.  Those who can not see the beauty in this, or are not even moved by the faintest stir of curiosity, are lacking in a creative appreciation of thought. 

In considering this symmetry, the  highest point of heaven is drawn into one single shape with the lowest point of Hades, and precisely from the equivocation of these two is the outpouring of Spirit, if I understand this correctly. The old image of the Holy Mass comes to mind. The Father-king  holding the outstretched arms of the Crucified dead son beneath him; the small Dove hovering over this scene as a kind of perplexing extra-- far more obscure as signifier. 

Jesus, a historical man, in secular time is killed by the powers of the saeculum. And this event within the saeculum is lifted up like the serpent in the desert, raised above as the  "time of origins"- yet now founded within profane time itself rather than its cause. 

This gives Christianity its dynamism and, for me, its irrestible appeal. 


In the course of readings that I've been pursuing lately, much is being made or has been made of the death of God. And I have to admit that these theories interest me and have some clout. 

A number of weeks ago, wandering the streets of Toronto late at night, there was a middle aged, very obese man in a motor wheel chair crossing the street. From his voice, he was a bit of a flaming queen. He ran into someone with his wheel chair, and said, "Oh, sorry honey, God bless you", then quickly added with shrill laughter "What am I saying, there's no God!" [hand flick]. (Think in the vein of Roger the alien from American Dad.)

I can't tell you how disturbing this moment was for me. I was raised to look at handicapped people through the lens of the "preferential option". God's love was always more intense for the disadvantaged. Naturally, one thinks of the disadvantaged as the most in need of the feeling of God's love (though people like Jean Vanier have well testified that they are so often our teachers). So to have someone not privileged, someone not evidently well off or on the top of the social ladder proclaim God's death with such coldness felt incredibly dark.  But it continues to spur my thinking. 

As perhaps some of you know, I've come to the conviction that belief is shared, that it, along with the holy, is a category of social experience. Not simply the doubting of the neighbour, but his refusal to inhabit the world in which doubt and faith interact, is a disbelieving presence that neuters the power of my own prayer [as per the opening of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia] . We will either condemn him with rage in order to re-animate our prayer, or separate ourselves from him (which perhaps amounts to the same thing). But both of these options seem untenable today. 

As I see it, Christianity in the West is at a cross roads that is unlike any previous stage of its history. Yes, the Christian Church was at one time a sect in a pagan world. It is quickly on its way to becoming sectarian once more. But the conditions for belief are not at all the same. Whereas the early Christians could appeal to the Greek cosmos and the imagination of the Roman world, Christians today are often dealing with a different imaginary in a society of very different political and social relationships. Belief is, in many cases, impossible in the sense of how it came naturally to our ancestors, or even my grandparents and parents. In my opinion, it is quite often feigned or, at least, consistently haunted by a dissonance generated  by daily participation in a dis-embeded, uprooted and disenchanted world. There is really no hope for Christianity in the West unless it is willing to look at the conditions of belief itself, which I believe will inevitably turn us toward the dynamics of the community and our experience of "the other" within it. As scary as this may be, life for the community is the basic command of the Christian religion. Mandatum novum do vobis…

All of this is illustrated best in behaviours associated with the concept of the holy. As I know it, the holy is never more real than when I experience it in the throng of a crowd. Walking solemnly towards the altar of sacrifice, with the looming Cross laid out for veneration and Allegri's "Miserere Mei" - this is the summation image of everything ever entrusted to me from birth as holy- I am filled with something that is beyond words, because I am participating in something that is beyond time and beyond fragile individualities.  But how much the more when, upon returning to the pew, I can see the hundreds of people walking in their own silence, in the middle of their own prayer, with some of their own faces streaked with tears. Without them, without the crowd, the Catholic holy becomes its own desperate parody. This is why I do believe the pressing onwards to "full inward participation", in both the liberal and conservative sense, is ultimately destructive to traditional Catholicism because it is, in effect, a dis-embedding force. The usages of religion have proved to a great many that the Church and formal religion are not necessary to accomplish the goals they lay out. That is to say, the well ordered life. The irrelevance of religion to many today is actually a sign of its own success, internalized to the point of disappearance.  The Right argues less and less for the existence of God directly, and more and more for Him on the basis of the supposed necessity of the idea for the sake of the well-ordered society. But this just proves what has happened by the very terms of the debate, and constitutes a dare to the secular world to prove that we can have morality, beauty and meaning without religion. 

Should it really be taken as tangential that here, today, we can not really parade the Blessed Sacrament through the street? Or a statue of Mary? Or, that when such things are done and we can see crowds busily moving like a fish feeding frenzy- just to get a piece of contact with God-  these crowds are generally not white Westerners? (And if they are, they are young (gay?) men with half-a foot in seminary?). Doesn't this tell us that "the holy", as Catholics have traditionally experienced it, is completely tied to the operation of a logic found within the community life, and so does not live and work independently from it? 

Though I believe He is still heard in the corners, there is a great silence of God in these times. This is expressed in the utter incomprehension of the majority of members of my generation to see the relevance of the concept of God for their lives. On the other hand, I am convinced reactionary fundamentalisms aimed at recovering the old world of belief only deepens this incomprehension. 

If it appears God has left us, if it appears God has broken with us, I think it must be because we have broken our communion with one another in some sense. Perhaps this is the darker side of the gains of political life in the last centuries. 

Each like a sheep has gone astray
Each has gone his own way...

Yet we know that the world is groaning to be repaired, and so the work of religion can not be over, if the purpose of religion is indeed to hold us together, lifting us into what is beyond our own selves, and not just an individual path for a life lived rightly. 

God is in the tomb. He is dead, but death can not keep him. He will rise, transfigured, changed. Isn't faith following this path, even if we don't know in advance what his rising will be like? 

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or, as when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between

1 comment:

  1. Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes,
    dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat,
    empfinde ich als belastende Lüge
    und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt,
    sobald er mißachtet wird;
    das Verdikt "Antisemitismus" ist geläufig.

    Günter Grass, “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What must be said”), Süddeutsche Zeitung, 4.4.2012.

    “This general silence on the facts, before which my own silence has bowed, seems to me a troubling, enforced lie, leading to a likely punishment the moment it's broken: the verdict 'Anti-semitism' falls easily.”
    (trans. Breon Mitchell for The Guardian)

    Grass's Spy Wednesday poem has excited a firestorm of controversy both in Israel and Germany. His poem, which essays the possibility of nuclear war between Iran and Israel, places the moral burden on Israel should it decide to preemptively attack Iran. Also, Grass criticizes Germany for providing nuclear submarines to the Israeli defense forces. However, the greatest controversy rests with Grass's equivocation of Israel's defense policy with the Holocaust, as if the Israeli attack on Iran would be an act of murder equivalent to the German act of Jewish murder in the Holocaust.

    Indeed, as many have argued, Grass, who served in the Waffen SS as a teen, does not possess the moral credibility to critique Israeli foreign and military policy. I would say that an accusation of anti-Semitism against Grass is justified simply because he denies the Jewish state the right to protect itself. Would Grass criticize any other country in similar existential circumstances? If he would not, then he is not criticizing a country's policies but also condemning a people for defending their right to exist.

    “Had they deceived us or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit? The serenity only a deliberate hebritude, the wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets useless in the darkness into which they peered or from which they turned their eyes.”

    T.S. Eliot, East Coker 2.25-39

    I am convinced that Eliot's use of “hebritude”, despite its crude nature and inherent violence, reflects the subconscious violence each Christian carries before the Presanctified Liturgy. Eliot's elders peer into the darkness which Christians lump together as the Johannine οἱ ἰουδαῖοι [“the Jews”], the loss of the covenant through accused deicide. The Christian blanket accusation of the οἱ ἰουδαῖοι as the children of a cancelled covenant not only falsely dissuades Christians from the cutting introspection that awaits anyone who dwells on Christ's infinity and our profound tendency to sin and wound the flesh of Christ, but also drags us even deeper into the mortal deceit which is notion of the sufficiency of human flesh.

    Why, then, should I dwell on Grass's anti-Semitism in Bright Week? Indeed, the first Jewish ghetto in Poland was established in the town from where my surname originated. As Jan T. Gross notes in his book Neighbors, often Poles massacred Jews even before the arrival of the Germans. It is humbling and harrowing both to know that one's hereditary past is steeped within the most raw evils. And yet, are not we all so marked? This is Triduum: a sober reflection on evil and our inability to resist evil, either in commission or omission. The resurrection of Easter is the victory over human evil. Yet for these Three Days, we must walk the darkness both in self-examination and the resolve to combat evil wherever it is found.

    (other) Jordan