Disregard or despair?

In typical fashion, Nietzsche unleashed the hammer of his polemic on the stand-in figure of George Eliot: in getting rid of God Eliot had nonetheless clung to Christian morality. Nothing could have disgusted Nietzsche more, and he fulminated against all she stood for, however unfairly, in righteous indignation. His sharp criticism, delivered in Twilight of the Idols (1888), consisted of the claim that you could not get rid of the Christian God and yet retain Christian morality. To fail to see that they were necessarily interconnected was a failure to discover the sickness from which Europe was suffering. For Nietzsche it was quite clearly all or nothing, even if we might wonder today about whether or not he successfully shed his religious skin as fully as he hoped. Nevertheless, the “revaluation of all values,” the project to which Nietzsche returned again and again in his mature work, was precisely the attempt to do what he accused so many of his contemporaries of failing to do. It is why Nietzsche eventually turned on both Schopenhauer and Wagner. In order to breathe the aristocratic mountain air of healthy overmen he insisted that one has to leave “flatland.” The Dionysian doctor offers Zarathustra as the philosophical pharmakon.

Nietzsche has had many important and sometimes influential adherents. These have run the gamut. There are those, such as Nietzsche’s sister, who tried to put him in the service of Nazism; in the postwar world Walter Kaufman tried to recuperate Nietzsche from Nazism, presenting him as something of a liberal existentialist; while Jacques Derrida sourced in Nietzsche an anticipation of radical deconstruction. In the course of the twentieth century all three “masters of suspicion”Marx, Nietzsche, Freudhave been subject to continual revision and reformulation. Changing circumstances and challenging critiques have frequently required their expositors and adherents to reformulate and represent their views.

One such moment of revision was the 1960s. In 1965 Time magazine printed an article which explored the recent trend of doing theology without God. In 1966 it followed this subject up, capturing the sentiment with its famous cover image and its obvious reference to Nietzsche: is God dead? From this same general milieu emerged works such as Honest to God, published in 1963, written by an Anglican Bishop called J. A. T. Robinson. Honest to God was an attempted synthesis of the giants of modern German Protestant theology, which included Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich. Two of the central contentions of Robinson’s book are the rejection of the notion of God “out there,” as a being over and above the world which he rules, and the claim that theological vocabulary needs to be translated into the secular ideology of contemporary humanism. These two claims can be heard in different forms even today. Can we learn anything from this?

As you might expect, Robinson’s book, like the “death of God” theology, generated public controversy at the time. Many responses were written, both in the popular press and by academics. I’m interested in two Christian responses. C. S. Lewis, in his comments for the Observer (“Must our image of God go?”), is brief, conciliatory, and ultimately disappointing. For Lewis does not really see what all the fuss is about. He thinks some of what Robinson complains about is reflective of actual Christian belief, so that Robinson’s criticism of God “out there” is merely a criticism of anthropomorphism, a view long condemned by orthodoxy. While he is not shocked by Robinson, Lewis nonetheless finds him muddled in his thinking. Honest to God is saying something rather simple, fairly uncontroversial, and even rather uninteresting. As Lewis pictures it, Robinson’s proposal boils down to a plea for a renewed focus on forgotten characteristics of God’s being that should be recalled and reincorporated. Lewis is bemused rather than concerned.

In his review for Encounter in 1963, “God and the theologians,” a young and rather brash Alasdair MacIntyre is much more attentive, and much more critical of Robinson. MacIntyre reads Honest to God as a symptom of the confusion brought on by industrialization and secularization in the modern world. To MacIntyre, Robinson is basically an atheist, both in the sense that he rejects the God “out there,” in a manner similar to David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and in the sense that religious truth is at base humanist truth, an atheism similar to that initially put forward by Ludwig Feuerbach and the young Karl Marx. How, then, does Robinson end up in this unenviable position?

MacIntyre traces the problem back to the theologians mentioned earlier, summarizing their views in swift succession and in his characteristic fashion. Bultmann demythologizes the prescientific world of the New Testament and isolates what he takes to be its existential truth, which is a summons to an ultimate decision. But, MacIntyre argues, such a view is in no way dependent on Christianity and is therefore effectively atheist. Tillich’s definition of God as the object of our “ultimate concern” means, according to MacIntyre, that God is evacuated of all traditional content, reducing religious belief to what is in effect an atheist form of moral seriousness. Bonhoeffer describes the distinctiveness of Christianity as that in which a Christian “acknowledges his powerless in his concern for others” which, MacIntyre insists, ultimately issues in a form of atheism that dresses modern liberalism in vaguely religious garb. Intentionally or not, Robinson is thus endorsing atheism and liberalism in theological disguise.

So in what way is Robinson’s book a symptom of the modern malaise? Readers familiar with MacIntyre might know what to expect next, for he begins to anticipate some of his later arguments, made much more famously and trenchantly in works such as After Virtue. Here his argument runs something like this: pre-industrial England was a place with a common frame of reference, a common sense of overall meaning, and a shared form of life. What industrialization wrought was a dissolution of that common frame. Much to its credit, Marxism attempted to provide the resources which could develop into a new common frame, through the reorganization of social relations. But, as we know full well in the centennial year of the Russian Revolution, that failed to happen over the long haul. Instead of one frame being replaced by another, Christianity by communism, confusion now reigns. The liberal order from Marx’s day to our own is agonistic. It is characterized by an institutionalization of rival moral views, the two dominant alternatives being utilitarianism and Kantianism (today we might add deconstruction). Thus MacIntyre reads Robinson’s book as a testament to the fact that postwar England remains an industrial society whose social order has institutionalized incoherent moral alternatives. There is no consensus or common frame, no shared sense of meaning, no collective form of life. The theological atheism of Robinson, MacIntyre concludes, is at once the symptom of disintegration and a desperate attempt to solve the problem, but one which cannot possibly succeed.

With Lewis and MacIntyre we have two responses to modern theologyand the modern world generally. Lewis does not really take modern theology very seriously and cannot be bothered to address it in the detailed required. Arguably, theologians such as Barth have become more important since Lewis wrote, not less. Lewis’ effective dismissal is unhelpful both in the sense that it does not engage an important strand of philosophical thinking which remains prominent even today, and because so many Christians, largely evangelical, look to Lewis as an authoritative intellectual guide. Lewis was and is someone to be considered for what he has to say and how he says it, certainly, but he has become a sort of standard bearer for a culture war he was not himself interested in fighting, and thus he is misunderstood by some of his more ardent contemporary adherents.

With MacIntyre the case is rather different. He takes Robinson seriously, engages a range of arguments on what he takes to be their intellectual merit, and situates them in a sort of moral history of decline. Later in his career, in an article appropriately entitled “Alasdair MacIntyre claims that new dark ages are impending,” he would describe this moral breakdown as akin to the collapse of the Roman empire at the hands of the barbarians. His work from the 1980s onward has made this case in a series of powerfully polemical essays and books, though the seeds of his argument are present in essays as far back as the 1959 (see the conclusion to “Hume on ‘is’ and ‘ought’”, for instance). MacIntyre is Catholic and has a following as devoted, if not as large, as Lewis.

The questions Robinson raises have not been answered in anything like a definitive way, and they remain questions of immediate relevance still. Nor have the answers offered by Lewis and MacIntyre achieved ascendancy (whatever their respective merit). It doesn’t make sense to assume, as Lewis seems to, that modern theology does not represent much of a challenge and therefore does not require substantive engagement. Nor, with MacIntyre, does it seem particularly helpful or adequate to characterize the trajectory of modern life as the descent from order into chaos. The situation has certainly become even more complex, if not confusing, since Robinson’s day. That said, I would hesitate to complain too loudly about that supposed confusion or associate it too readily with some kind of negative moral lesson. John Dunn basically says the same thing in his fairly positive review of After Virtue in the London Review of Books over thirty years ago.

Today it seems that we are more alert than ever to the injustice of and injustices to the many voices once passed over in silence (women, children, workers, colonized, others), even if, in the era of a Trump presidency, we are alert because some of us fear and resent that change in awareness. So, without losing sight of the distorting dynamic of economic and political power today, or misconstruing the posture of pluralist engagement as a shallow endorsement of relativism, I for one find the openness and availability of different modes of intellectual enquiry refreshing, along with the frequently constructive and encouraging intentions of scholars, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, who approach fundamental questions about God, goodness, truth, freedom, and justice, from a perspective other than my own.

Not infrequently I think of a rarely cited biblical aphorism in this regard. As innocent as doves, engage rival perspectives in constructive dialogue on their best terms and as if they have the best of intentions; but, as cunning as snakes, always be on the lookout for defects and distortions. If you do so, even if your conversations don’t end in resolution, you will have presented yourself and those whom you engage with an opportunity to learn.

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