The Death, and Birth, of God (or, Religion in a Post-Truth World)

Second Sunday of Advent*
Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

 

I don’t know about you, but no matter how hard I try — and believe me, I have tried — I still cannot not think about the contours of the world — and the country — in which we now live. Last week I tried to give a sermon in which I didn’t explicitly “go there,” so to speak, as a kind of reprieve for so many of us drowning in the post-election malaise, as we find ourselves inhabitants of what is now described as – according to the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year – a “post-truth” kind of world, a kind of world in which just a few days ago a CNN commentator acknowledged that, unfortunately, there’s no longer any “such thing…as facts,” and in turn we see that whatever is politically expedient gives way not to the higher virtues of collective human rights, responsibility, decency and dignity, but rather to our lowest base instincts of fear, manipulation, deceit and duplicity.

We once lived in a world in which people would say that you’re entitled to your own opinions, just not to your own facts. But now we seem to live in a world where one’s opinions constitute one’s facts, with no tolerance for age-old methods of rational inquiry or judicious discernment, particularly if it flies in the face of one’s pre-conceived ideologies (this is what led the comedian Stephen Colbert to coin his own word of the year several years ago: truthiness, meaning something is true because it feels like it should be true).

To be sure, we all have ways of viewing the world and developing our respective ideologies and perspectives, but nowadays it seems that any time a person encounters information that runs counter to what one already thinks, it is quickly denounced as untrustworthy or intentionally biased, and is then dismissed with a celebratory flair, often with a dose of hubris that would make even the devil blush. While a good bit of epistemological humility is always good thing, there’s a real difference between honest interpretive differences and sheer B.S. (science, for instance, isn’t just subject to the whims of whatever some dude on Facebook happens to think that day).

We now live in a country (maybe we always have) in which political opportunism (in contrast to political virtue) has led the most dominant group of Christians (not necessarily the majority of Christians but the most dominant group of Christians, a lot of times white Christians) to abandon virtues consistent with the Bible’s fruits of the spirit (described in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control), in favor of virtues that are really not all that virtuous, unless you consider the love of power, money, and sex virtuous — going so far as to turn a blind eye to actions and statements that would’ve gotten any teacher, principal or pastor fired, so long as they weren’t seeking the highest office in the land.

Perhaps the greatest irony of ironies in the post-election fallout is that it is now the far right, which includes the Religious Right — the self-pronounced bona fide, born again believers — who for years and years railed against the cultural “relativism” of the so-called left, with its supposed moral depravity and its apparent lack of belief in all truth, objectivity and absolutes — indeed, its lack of belief in God — it is now many of these very same figures from the far right who are telling us there are no longer such things as objectivity and facts and absolutes.

 
Here you might want to stop me and ask how we could do away with such things? I mean, who are we to just casually do away with truth, objectivity and absolutes? Who are we to establish a post-truth world? In the words of the poet, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” And how would this affect us? “[Doesn’t this make us feel like we are plunging], continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? . . . Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?”

These lines, of course, come from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable about the Madman who announced the death of God – which in turn made Nietzsche both infamous and ubiquitous, for generations to come. After he acknowledged the death of objectivity and facts and absolutes in his own nineteenth-century “post-truth” context – which sounds an awful lot like ours — he goes on to ask, in poetic fashion, “How [do] we comfort ourselves, [if we’re] the murderers of all murderers? . . . [W]ho will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

People assume Nietzsche was simply announcing his atheism in a provocative and attention-seeking way (it’s where his famous “God is dead” line comes from). But scholars tell us he was up to much more. Contrary to a lot of conventional assumptions, Nietzsche wasn’t just making some sort of argument for atheism. Instead, he was providing a warning of the risks involved when all claims to truth, to absolutes, to God, go by the wayside, in the post-truth kind of world he inhabited. For Nietzsche, this is nothing less than a traumatic experience. It’s like he’s asking, “You want society to be structured without truth? Without facts? Without absolutes? Without moral and ethical imperatives? This is what you want? Just know that I’m a seer here, and trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart — one doesn’t dance on the grave of God without acknowledging the dire consequences involved.”

Along the same lines, around the same time, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevksky was credited with the paraphrase, “If God is dead, then everything is permissible.” Which you can just as well translate as saying, “If there are no truths, no facts, no absolutes, then everything is permissible.” This is why, for both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, a “post-truth” kind of world is a traumatic reality, not a soothing one; it’s full of more death than life.**


And that is why I’m glad that Christmas is about the birth, and not the death, of God.

To be clear, I don’t mean that in the “gotcha” sense of “atheism = bad/belief = good” – not in the least! (those of you who’ve heard me preach over the years or have read my books know that’s not how I understand things) – but what I mean to say is that in the figure of Christ – “a vulnerable baby born to a poor teenage mother in a dirty animal stall,” as one pastor describes – in the figure of the Christ we find both an unconditional accountability and an infinite responsibility to the other – with the “other” being understood as other human beings as well as to the world itself. In the figure of the Christ, there is a very clear reference to what virtue looks like; what decency looks like; what ethics look like, and even in a post-truth kind of world what Christians would say truth looks like. 

For in the figure of the Christ, it’s precisely this unconditional accountability and infinite responsibility to the other that constitutes truth as truth. Here we see that truth is not some abstract idea “out there” to wrap our minds around but rather truth is found in the humanity of the other “right here,” which is inextricably wedded to our response to the other — to other human beings and to the world itself.

So in many ways it becomes a question of where one places one’s faith, one’s trust: In the figure of all that is harbored in the life of Christ (which I might add includes an inclusive kind of love that can still be very much alive even if one has never heard of Christ, or even believes in Christ), or does one place faith, place trust, in the vapid and vacuous yet all too influential truthiness that threatens the very fabric of our society, not to mention common human decency?

And regardless of what right-wing Christians may or may not say, or what any Christians may or may not say, when our gaze turns only to ourselves, when there is no accountability or responsibility to the other, when truth becomes an idea “out there” we can never agree on as opposed to a person “right here” that should be the first of all of our concerns, we live as if God is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

After all, Christmas tells us one simple truth: If God is born into the world in Jesus, then God is born into the world in love. And love demands unconditional accountability and infinite responsibility to the other.
Which means that anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions that incite hate toward the other, whether in a so-called pre- or post-truth kind of world, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of greed that exploit the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of racism toward the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of sexism toward the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions that dehumanize the other – whether women, immigrants, Muslims, the poor, the disabled, or the LGBTQ — the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

If God is born into the world in Jesus, then God is born in love. And love comes with an unconditional accountability and an infinite responsibility to the other, otherwise it is not love.
This is at the heart of John the Baptist’s message, and it remains at the heart of the Christmas message today. If God is born into the world, God is born in love.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the heroic German theologian imprisoned and subsequently martyred by the Third Reich – once wrote:

“Who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, and all individualism beside the manger.”

Let us journey, together, to the manger.

To the glory of God, and for the sake of the other — other human beings, and the world itself. 

——–
*This is like the “B” side of my sermon from Sunday morning, in which I include a few more things that I didn’t have a chance to mention or get into given the allotted time and context.

 
**It’s not lost on me that postmodernism (for lack of a better term) resists absolute truth claims and practices a rigorous hermeneutic of suspicion precisely in order to reject oppressive metanarratives — and all the while Trump’s surrogates are rejecting absolute truth claims in order to maintain hegemonic white cis heterosexist conventions at work in Trump’s very own absolute truth claims, which runs counter to so much of the good that’s been harbored in the name of postmodernism. This is just another way I can’t get my mind around the Trump phenomenon, and why it’s giving me no rest.

 

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Death, and Birth, of God (or, Religion in a Post-Truth World)

  1. Thanks for posting this, Phil. I miss BCC.

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