The Death of the Mythic God: The Rise of the Evolutionary Spirituality
The question of the death of God has been with us for at least the past 120 years. In 1882, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote about a fictional character, a madman, who runs into a marketplace shouting, "God is dead." Nietzsche has the madman later that same day enter various churches where, in each, he chants a requiem for God. When asked what he is doing, the madman answers, "What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?" Even though Nietzsche, then probably Europe's most brilliant and renowned philosopher, was careful to place these words in the mouth of a fictional madman, this passage caused a furor, one that has not subsided to this day. Nietzsche had struck a nerve.
In the second edition of the same book, in 1887, Nietzsche explained that by "God is dead" his fictional character meant that "belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable." And indeed this was true, not only for Nietzsche, but also for an increasing number of European (and some American) scientifically minded intellectuals as the nineteenth century drew to a close.
Disillusionment with the Christian God had been growing since Galileo (1564-1642). Using the telescope that Hans Lippershey (1570-1619) had invented, Galileo confirmed the theory of the Polish priest Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Prior to Galileo, Christians had believed the cosmology set forth in the Bible (and assumed by the Christian Creed), namely, that the sun and planets moved around the Earth, that the stars were "fixed" in a heavenly vault or ceiling, that heaven was on the other side of the vault, and that hell, the underworld, was under the (flat) Earth. Science appeared to support this cosmology: The most authoritative astronomer until Galileo, the ancient Egyptian Claudius Ptolemy (85-165), had devised a cosmology that was centered on the Earth.
Most Christians also believed that God lived in heaven with his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ; that this Son had "come down" from heaven to Earth by being born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit; that Jesus had later returned to heaven in his resurrected, i.e., resuscitated, body; and that Jesus would someday return bodily from heaven, riding on the clouds. Galileo and his successors? more accurate description of the physical universe destroyed the cosmology underlying these doctrinal formulations of belief.
Three centuries before Galileo, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas had stated that because truth is one, there could be no contradiction between the truths of faith and the truths of reason. But Galileo's discovery seemed to the churchmen of his time to threaten that unity. Rather than reexamine their dogmas and their interpretations of scripture, however, the response of the Church was to force Galileo to retract his views and to place him under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the Jesuit Cardinal who prosecuted Galileo, declaimed, "To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin."
It was only in 1992 that the Church, through Pope John Paul II, like Copernicus a Polish priest and a graduate of the University of Krakow, admitted that the Church had been wrong in forbidding Galileo to teach Copernican cosmology. (The Church lifted the ban on the teaching of Copernican cosmology in 1820.)
Although it is the Catholic Church that has taken the heat over the years for condemning Galileo, it was actually the Protestant reformers with their literal interpretation of scripture who first condemned the sun-centered theory. Before Copernicus's book was even published, Martin Luther condemned him as an "upstart astrologer" who dared to contradict scripture. John Calvin asked, "Who will dare to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon thought Copernicus's ideas a heresy that needed to be suppressed. These condemnations were issued many years before the Catholic Church moved against Galileo. One of the reasons it finally did move against him was so as not to be criticized by the reformers for laxness in safeguarding the scriptures. The Galileo controversy began a long-standing battle between the Church and science, which in many respects is still under way. For example, in 1973 the psychiatric profession, after almost a century of study and the treatment of tens of thousands of patients by thousands of psychiatrists, officially declared that from a scientific and medical point of view homosexuality is not a mental disorder but a normal variant of human sexuality. Most of the Christian Church, including the Vatican, still insists otherwise, based on a dubious understanding of three or four isolated passages of scripture.
After Galileo, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and countless other scientists discovered more of the physical, chemical, and biological laws and processes that govern the universe. These discoveries gave "God" less and less to do. It got so that the Deists (who counted among their number several of the Founding Fathers of the United States), although they believed there was a God, thought that God, having once created the universe and its laws, was thereafter a sort of absentee landlord who no longer intervened on Earth or anywhere else in the physical universe. It was only one further step to dispense with God altogether.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) showed that even the economy operated according to laws that could be discovered and applied. Marx, a brilliant philosopher and economist, was also an atheist who wrote that "religion was the opiate of the people" because, as traditionally taught, religion focused people on the next world, not on changing the economic injustice and oppressions of this world. Marx and Friedrich Engels, in 1848, wrote the Communist Manifesto, the principles of a new materialistic Communist party that would seek to disestablish unbridled capitalist economic injustice through political action.
In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) startled everyone by providing evidence that animal species, including presumably humans, evolved on Earth over countless eons by a process of natural selection. Darwin's discovery rocked the Christian world and was strongly opposed by such as Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), the Church of England's bishop of Oxford. Up until then most Christians, who took Genesis literally, had believed in a God who, after creating the universe and all the animals in six calendar days, had with his own hands made Adam, the first man, out of mud, and then made Eve, the first woman, out of a rib taken from Adam's side. This God, who was a separate being (a male separate being), had actually walked about in the Garden of Eden and spoken with Adam and Eve after he had breathed life into them. But after 1859, if evolution were accepted as true, the Garden of Eden story had to be seen as myth, not history.
The theological implications of evolution were staggering. No historical Garden of Eden meant that Adam and Eve did not fall from Paradise. Rather, the theory of evolution soon asserted, humans had ascended from the first one-celled animals by way of multicelled animals, fish, amphibians, mammals, and primates. If there was no historical fall, no "original sin," then there was no need for a redemption from a fall that didn't happen, and no need for the Ptolemaic God in the sky to send his son to Earth to redeem us by being crucified.
There was also, then, no transmission of the "original sin" of Adam and Eve to all their human descendants (by way of the injection of the male seed during the sexual intercourse that resulted in conception, according to Saint Augustine's bizarrely materialistic theory). For a great many educated Christians, Darwin's discovery, coupled with that of Copernicus, made God, as Nietzsche's madman said, "become unbelievable."
Science, however, was not the only force undermining Christianity and its God. Christians were often their own worst enemies. Two years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, civil war broke out in the United States over the issue of slavery, the single most important moral issue of the nineteenth century. Although many Christians were active in the abolitionist movement, large segments of the American Protestant Church--southern Presbyterians as well as southern Baptists and Methodists--had broken away from their denominations rather than oppose slavery.
Generally, these southern Christians cited the Bible as justification for slavery. They saw Africans as descendents of Ham, whose son Canaan was cursed into slavery by Noah (Gen. 9:25). Thundered Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, "The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined." Under this scriptural interpretation, God had ordained slavery and it was not for man to abolish that institution.
Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, argued, "[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God and is sanctioned in the Bible in both Testaments from Genesis to Revelations." As for Catholics, not a single American bishop formally condemned slavery during the Civil War, and the bishop of Natchitoches, Louisiana, actually published a pastoral letter in support of slavery, using the same reference to the biblical Canaan.
Southern Christians actually had a point. Nowhere in the Bible is slavery condemned by God. Instead, the God of the Bible accepts slavery as moral and normal. In Leviticus 25:44, God authorizes the Jews to make slaves of the heathen tribes around them. In Proverbs 29:19, God recommends that slaves be physically punished rather than merely reprimanded. In Exodus 21:20, God does prescribe punishment for killing a slave, ?but if the slave survives for a day or two, he [the master] shall not be punished: for the slave is his property. In Exodus 21:7-10, God authorizes Jewish men to sell their daughters into slavery. Deuteronomy 20:13-14 instructs the Jews that, after God has delivered an enemy town to them, they are to kill all the men and make slaves of the women and children. ...
Back to The Death of the Mythic God