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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
The Death of God. An Investigation into the History of the Western Concept of God.
London-New York: T & T Clark International 2008. XI, 207 S. gr.8°. Geb. £ 65,00. ISBN 978-0-567-03272-0.
Frederiek Depoortere is known for his books on theology and postmodern philosophy: Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Slavoj Zizek and Badiou and Theology. This particular volume, his first in English, actually provides the grounds for his later post-structuralist work. It explains, in a word, how it could happen that God died sometime during the history of Western thought. One might then view D.’s later publications as the guidebooks that tell readers how they might think and act now that God has died.
One does not need to agree with the book’s thesis – as, for example, the present author does not – in order to respect the book’s scholarship. The criticisms that scholars will publish will come at the level of interpretation, of constructive (or deconstructive) philosophy and theology, and not at the level of historical errors.
D. is clear on the problem he wishes to address: »I wanted to investigate the origins of the problem of transcendence in order to understand how this problem came into being and whether there are alternatives to the dilemma of empty transcendence or no transcendence at all« (VIII). It is Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God that sets the stage for the entire discussion from the first chapter onwards. D. allows Henry Allison’s words to close and summarize the chapter: »We could say that God simply died of atrophy, that there was no longer felt to be need for the old God. His function as creator, confessor, balm, judge, and accountant was replaced by another agency, namely, by science, and by another faith – the faith and belief in an omnipotent technology« (23).
Thus one is not surprised to find that the book’s crucial final chapter treats Nietzsche’s »God is dead!« (Fröhliche Wissenschaft, par. 125) as the telos of book. It is from this standpoint that the motifs of the death of God in Lutheran theology and in Hegel are interpreted. Put differently, the book makes most sense when it is read backwards from the crucial section (section 3) in the final chapter: »The Death of God: From Luther to Nietzsche via Hegel«. For example, the unbroken line that D. draws through these three thinkers in turn influences the account of the history of Western thought, from the Greeks through the 14th century, which he offers in chapter 2. The take-home message of that 40-page historical survey is that the history of Western thought culminated for a time in the grand theology of the »medieval synthesis«. When that synthesis failed, the long, gradual descent toward Nietzsche’s death of God began; the outcome was, one assumes, more or less inevitable.
The remainder of the book traces two additional factors which, D. believes, hastened the gradual demise of God: the doctrine of omnipotence (chapter 3) and the rise of modern science (chapter 4). Here, as elsewhere, D.’s dispassionate description of historical facts and developments is interspersed with comments about how increasingly useless and implausible the idea of God became, as though the connections should be obvious to all readers. For example, D. gives the last word on the history of science and religion to Amos Funkenstein: »[Such a God,] given physical features and functions, eventually became all the easier to discard. As a scientific hypothesis, he was later shown to be superfluous; as a being, he was shown to be a merely hypostatization of rational, social, or psychological ideals and images …« (152).
Every project begins with its own assumptions. In this case the presupposition is the narrative of the death of God. At times D. seems also to presuppose the virtual inevitability of this outcome, so that nothing in the history of Western thought, none of its complex twists and turns, seems to unsettle him or even draw his closer attention. The prose radiates with a certainty both about the result and about the steps that led to that result. From the advent of science it was »almost unavoidable« that »one day a totally naturalistic explanation of the world would banish God from the world« (180). Those who agree with D. will presumably find their intuitions strengthened by his historical narrative. I am less sure, however, that those who see a greater complexity and open-endedness in the history of modern thought will find the case quite so compelling.
A slight ray of hope for theists appears on the book’s final page: perhaps we can reconstruct »the sacramental-participative world view« that theologians (both classical theists and panentheists) have been exploring in such detail in recent decades. (D. offers no examples, but one might think of Arthur Peacocke’s All That Is or the present author’s Adventures in the Spirit.) Or perhaps we might »rediscover the God who came before Western theism«. In the end, however, D. rejects both possibilities as implausible. The book closes with the ominous words, words that echo the assumption that had been silently presupposed since the opening page: »Maybe ... the living God of religion, the Living One who is proclaimed by the Bible, is lost, never to be found again« (181).