The Blog of Jack Holloway

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What the Death of God Means for God's Future

Art by Samantha Muljat of Blood Bank Design
I've been learning a lot about Hegel--not as much as a philosophy student does, mind you, but enough to be intellectually stimulated. Every week it seems something about Hegel resonates with me and stirs my philosophical creativity. This week, it was his idea of the Geist, or the Spirit, or the mind (whichever you like), as well as the Neo-Hegelian modern philosophy of the death of God.

The Geist is constantly becoming, moving toward an end, an end which it will arrive at by any means possible. Hegel's Geist is similar to the open theist theology of the Holy Spirit. Open theists state that God does not possess unlimited power, because his effective power is limited by the free wills of other beings. Thus, the work of the Holy Spirit, God's effective presence in the material world, is to seek by whatever means possible the accomplishment of the will of God. The world is constantly in the process of becoming the kingdom of God through the work of the Spirit.

Furthermore, open theists claim that through our decisions we can give the Spirit more avenues for accomplishing the will of God. I may be wrong--and it is a real possibility--but this is the impression I get of Hegel's philosophy of Geist. Assuming the similarity is valid, I can move on to my next point.

In Hegel's philosophy, how the Geist or Spirit will move in the future cannot be determined. All that we can do is observe the past and analyse what the Spirit was doing there. We can't know what the end goal, the Absolute, looks like, we can only see the means the Spirit used in the past to progress toward it, as well as try to ready ourselves for the work of the Spirit, so that we may assist in the development toward the Absolute.

All of this is quite similar to Pannenberg's theology of the kingdom of God. He said God does not yet exist because his existence is tied to his reign, which will not be realized until the end of the present age.
(Forgive my use of the male pronoun for God. I don't think God is male, but I do think it sounds funny when people constantly say 'God' instead of using a pronoun. Here's to hoping we come up with a normative gender-neutral pronoun.)
What we are left with in Pannenberg's thought are the penetrations of the kingdom of God into the present age. Or, to put it in [what is hopefully] a Hegelian perspective, we are left with the outbursts of the Absolute in the current state of our development. The kingdom of God can penetrate the present age through our actions. As the liberal maxim goes, "God has no hands but our hands." Caputo's way of saying this is that we give God existence through actions. We can occasion the birth of God in the world through how we respond to life's events.

This theology is made possible because of death of God theology, specifically with the Neo-Hegelian death of God theology that took Hegel's idea of Geist and turned it into an atheist materialism. In this theology, the death of Jesus, the God-man, signifies the death of God, and the subsequent giving of the Spirit signifies materialism. It is not that God actually died, or that the Spirit was actually given to us, but that the death of God is a stage in Hegel's development of ideas. The idea, or Vorstellung, of God had to die so that we could realize that we have the power, we hold all the cards, and our battleground is here, the material world, and the material world alone.
I may not be making any sense, and I'm really sorry if that's the case, but let me get to the crux of this post, which is to share where I'm at intellectually.
In my last post, I said that I think the idea of the kingdom of God, by which I mean the ultimate goal toward which we are ever-laboring, is a very valuable thing. I struggle with it, though, for three reasons: 1) I don't think humans are capable of reaching it. As Rachel Menken says to Don Draper in Mad Men, "The Greeks had two meanings for [utopia]: eutopos, meaning the good place, and utopos meaning the place that cannot be." If we are the only hope of the future, I think the kingdom of God is the good place that cannot be.

2) While I don't find denial of the possibility of the kingdom of God compelling, as it seems to neuter hope and trivialize our present work toward progress, I can't come up with a compelling reason to claim in faith that the kingdom of God will indeed come about. This is especially the case because we haven't really made much progress in the thousands of years that humans have been around. We still have slaves. We still have poverty. We still have war. The list goes on. We've done a lot of great things, but we still haven't gotten closer to some of the most central goals of progress. This leads me to the other reason why the idea of the kingdom of God is troublesome for me.

3) I no longer see a reason to posit the existence of a metaphysical being who will unilaterally bring about the kingdom of God at some point. What would make this happen? Why would this God suddenly bring it about? Why hasn't he done it yet? If it's on us, this seems to be just as nihilistic as saying it won't happen; and if we say God has reasons for delaying that we don't have access to, we run into the problem of the alienated soul that I talked about in the last blog.

What I propose is an agnostic faith. We can claim that the Spirit is moving and working, and that we can observe the Spirit's work in the past; and we can believe that we are working toward the Absolute, the kingdom of God, the Spirit's end goal, and that we experience outbursts of the Absolute in our present age, and the the end toward which we are working is an end we will someday experience. We can do all that.

But, these claims should be tempered by agnosticism. We don't know that any of it is true. In fact, we don't really have any good reasons to say they are true. The leap of faith is a leap for a reason. But instead of saying something is true when we don't know if it is true or not (instead of taking a leap of faith), we should live as if it were true for the benefit of our engagement with the material world.

Do we know that our work toward progress is going to yield the Utopian end that we long for? No. But living as if it is will assist in our positive engagement with the material world (I talked about this in the last blog).

That being said, and I'm repeating yet another point I made in my last blog, we should not claim too much about the Spirit or the future. We do not know what the future holds. This is the other point at which I am still very much an open theist. The future does not yet exist, and we do not know how it will unfold, and so we should not make bold claims about what will happen in the future, even in faith.

Furthermore, we do not know what the Spirit is, if anything. Spirit, God, and kingdom of God are all Vorstellungen--ideas. Giving them solid names, backing them up with faith, and claiming them as revelatory of absolute truth is claiming too much, and claiming too much will limit our scope. Theology, philosophy, and religion should widen our scope and provide us with valuable tools for positively affecting the material world.

Herein lies the value of death of God theology. It is not that God literally died, but that in our reflecting on the Spirit's involvement in the past we see that the Spirit (give it whichever name you like it) was always involved with the world in this way. We only experienced it as a death because of our previous conception of God. The idea of an all-powerful God unilaterally working at his own ends is gone. In place of it, we have the theology of the Spirit in the material world. Caputo rightfully calls it "birth of God theology."

In this theology, God is all immanence. The world is panentheistic, with God limited to the material world and dependent upon us to give him birth, and so the kingdom of God is limited to our actualizations of it. But there is still hope for the future, that the future holds something grand, something that affirms our present work, something that will prove our efforts fruitful, and will not render our lives insignificant or our labors in vain. There is still hope for the coming kingdom of God.

So, this is a pragmatic theology of hope, one that stops short of claiming too much. It is pragmatic because I consider first and foremost what assists in our engagement with the material world, in our confrontation with our immediate experience of life. It is hopeful in that all of the theological claims (about Spirit, about God, about the kingdom of God, etc.) are recognized as Vorstellungen that are meant to be representative of the mysterious Absolute that I long for and hope for. They don't exist, because their existence is tied to their actualization in the material world, and that is something we can only hope for.

We may never have it. We may never have the actualization of the Absolute in the material world. But there's hope, and that hope assists in our seeking the betterment of the material world, and that's quite fine for me.
At least, these are thoughts I've been having. My goal is to share what I've been hashing out and to engage others, so please let me know what your thoughts are.

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