This essay was inspired by an article by Gabriel
Vahanian entitled : "The Future of Christianity in a Post-Christian
Era", in: Towards a New ChriStianity: Readings in the Death of God
Theology. Ed JJ Altizer. 1967.
The date of publication of the above article indicates a time of much
ferment in Christian theology that began when theologians of the 20C took
the antitheologians of the 19C seriously. The decline of faith in God was
predicted by Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly in his short piece
"The Madman" which appeared in "The Gay Sciences".
This piece became a kind of banner for those of us who were disillusioned
with the church as we found it because it promised to break down the
cultural ossification of the church and reveal a hidden iconoclastic
The God whose death we celebrated was the God of the institutional
church that had sold out its heritage firstly to the body/soul dualism of
neo-Platonism, then to the political structures of the Holy Roman Empire
as well as to the supernaturalism that infects all religious movements.
Finally, the church sold out to religiosity and in our time to the
individualism of spirituality. In the process it lost the radical
materialism of the traditions of Israel that told us that we were dust and
to dust we must return and it lost the critique of religion that was the
basis of the proclamation of the prophets and the life of Jesus.
Christianity was made into a commodity dispensed by a church that was
obsessed with its own survival.
The death of God movement promised a smashing of the idols that kept
congregations cosy in the promise that their belief would allow them to
cheat death and insulated them from what the rest of Western society had
discovered: there was no one out there who cared about us. We suffered and
died and there was no one to hear our cries but those who suffered and
died next to us. We proclaimed the general, supernatural, common God of
our wishful thinking and projection to be dead and we celebrated the God
who was revealed in the life of Christ and especially in his scandalous
death. We believed in the crucified God, who was a scandal to all
The old debates about whether God existed or not and that between
science and religion were founded on the idea of God as supernatural
agent. The reason that these debates never reached satisfactory conclusion
was that the existence of such an agent and whether he could interact with
the material universe could never be settled. However, when it was
accepted that the God that we see in the face of Christ and in the events
of his life and death had nothing to do with the supernatural, but had to
do with an historical event captured in the cultural/literary, then the
debates evaporated. Such a tradition in theology therefore takes no
interest in, for example, God and big bang cosmology. The ontological
basis of Christianity may not be found in natural science, it is properly
based in an historical event, that of the history of Israel and of Jesus
Christ. This was an exciting time in theology because it seemed that many
of the ghosts of the church had been exorcised and many of the idols that
stood as caricatures of Christian faith were broken.
Why did this new theology not kindle in the church? My experience of
two major denominations and countless members of the public washed up in a
large teaching hospital leads me to think that the theological revolution
of the 20C never happened. The answer to why this is the case is obviously
complex, it is sociological, ecclesiastical, and psychological (as my
articles on evolutionary psychology seek to show).
Let us take only one tack. During the first few hundred years of the
Christian tradition the non Jewish world was ready for Christianity. The
theism of the Greeks and the Romans was a tottering and transparent
edifice and Greek philosophy, in all its complexity and depth, was
existentially obtuse. This is why Christianity swept with such rapidity
into the culture of the West. Vahanian says that the movement of
Christianity into the pre-Christian era was much easier than its move into
the post-Christian era. A resurgence in the post-Christian era is more
difficult because the culture has been inoculated against Christianity by
its false representation during the past 2000 years. Add to this the
immanentism of tailor-made spirituality and liberalism that brooks no
argument in religious matters and we have a culture in which it is
impossible to become Christian. And so the church is in retreat. The
gospel of freedom is obscured by the caricatures trotted out by the
unchurched who believe with their lips but not with their hearts and by
institutions that are running scared that even that which they have will
be taken away from them.
To be more specific. If the rapid rise of Christianity in the West was
helped by a theological vacuum, what are the forces impeding and impelling
a resurgence in the post Christian era? I have already indicated that one
of the major obstacles is the self-invalidation of Christianity. This
occurs in the ecclesiastical structures that continue to celebrate a God
who is dead to us and rightly so. In other words, the church itself is
subject to idolatry and this is recognised by the cultured despisers.
But there are secular idolatries that have arisen as a result of the
decline of the church. At their centre lies the fear that we are not
getting what we deserve. This feeling is exacerbated by the spectacle of
the lives of the rich and famous that are constantly held before our eyes.
These people are obviously getting what they deserve despite their history
of drug taking and suicide and serial marriage. Consumerism, underpinned
by technology, promises transcendence, intoxication and ecstasy, that is,
all of the temptations of religion, has become seductive idolatry. We are
bombarded by messages that tell us how incomplete our lives are.
The main-line churches, particularly Liberal Protestantism, have
abandoned iconoclasm for pastoral preaching, tinkering with psychology and
an ungrounded reassurance of the love of God. Luther’s realisation that
the things of the world are not evil in themselves but it is the heart
that is the factory of idols is rarely heard from the pulpit. What
preacher would dare to attack the conspicuous consumption displayed by the
rich? They do not dare because they know that adherence to the church is
fragile to say the least. We may say that in the pre-Christian era the
world was ready for Christianity. Our present concern is to wonder when
the post-Christian world will be ready and when the church will have the
courage to proclaim that salvation comes only from the living God who
destroys all the idols.
It is not that Christianity has not been tried. We may also say that
Communism has not been tried and continue to look for the pure form. In
retrospect we can now see how the latter was misfitted to the human
reality and would never have raised us up. Christian faith is the faith
that Christ will raise us up, not after death but in this life and world.
It is faith that we will be transformed into a new creation. The judgment
about whether Christianity has been tried or not does not yield to an easy
yes or no.
The "no" case is supported by the present failure that has
resulted from the distortion of the tradition. Scratch the surface of the
majority of church goers and you will find thinly disguised (even overt)
Gnosticism and the god of Unitarianism. These are hardly Christian
conceptions. The reason that the churches are in decline is that these
conceptions are culturally forfeit.