Divinization and the "Death" of "God"

By Jared Schumacher

The final keynote of the recent Theosis Conference held at KULeuven was delivered by two of the United Kingdom’s leading theological voices: George Pattison, Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.  In a certain sense, the two lectures were powerful compliments to each other, as each expressed the past and future relevance of ‘divinization’ in Christian thought.  While Williams focused more on the systematic and biblical aspects of the concept and how to renew it for application today (namely as an alternative way of affirming human personhood distinct from that of modernity’s overfixation on autonomy), Pattison manfully employed his efforts along a different, more historical-hermeneutical, track: attempting to understand our post-modern, post-secular context as one in which traditional Christian concepts, like incarnation and divinization, have undergone a radical – though recognizable – permutation and secular appropriation.  In this sense, Pattison delivered a petit-récit of the intellectual history of modernity as told through the myth of ‘man-God’. I would like to summarize briefly his conception and indicate what I take to be its import for theology done in a postmodern context. 

Genealogy of the ‘Myth’: Deicide as Secular Divinization

Pattison’s geneology of the myth of the man-God began in German idealism (and more broadly modern humanism), was inflected through Romanticism in the leading intellectual and literary figures of 19th century, and culminated in transhumanism at the end of the 20th and dawn of the 21st centuries.  It started with Kant and included “Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel, and Hegel and further radicalized in the Left Hegelians and post-Hegelians Strauss, Feuerbach, Stirner, Marx, and Engels….”, leading ultimately to Nietzsche, whose vision of the “death of God”  was its absolutization.  Despite the varying inflections, the central logic shared by this diverse array of thinkers is this: humankind must overcome itself to reach its final conclusion, and it can only do so by becoming God. This is the resolution of ‘history,’ the fulfilment of human desire.  The ‘man-God’ is thus the embedded teleology of the thinkers and prophecizers of modern history, and man-Godhood becomes the secular eschatological vision towards which the critical consciousness of modernity is compelled.  In this sense, ‘the man-God’ functions as a profane divinization, an inverted atonement in which, rather than God becoming man to save Man, Man becomes god – by killing the transcendent “god” – to save himself. 

Pattison labored to show that, despite a consistent thread of denial and rejection of the existence of God in the orthodox theological sense, whether in favor of no ‘god’ at all or a retro-pagan pantheism, this ideology nevertheless is driven by a kind of theo-logic, even if a heterodox one.  It has, as it were, aspects of truth, something profoundly true which even “orthodox” theology, sometimes wallowing in scholastic formulae, can forget: that man is destined to become something more than human; he is called to divine self-transcendence.  In the orthodox theological tradition, this was definitively formulated in Athanasius’ famous bon mot: “God became man that man might become God.”  And so while the man-God is a self-conscious denial of the Christian God, it nevertheless is an offshoot of the Christian theological tree. In a quote which gets to the heart of the matter, Pattison avers

...it might plausibly be argued that the ideology of the Man-God set in motion by Idealism offered a rapidly secularizing society a means of carrying forward impulses from the theological tradition that had themselves been covered over, distorted or, quite simply, abandoned in the course of theological history. In a theological culture shaped by Reformation debates about justification and an emphatic doctrine of original sin, subsequently ‘liberalized’ by a massive refocusing on rational morality, the rise of Man-Godhood might be read, generously, as intimating a theological need for a larger vision of redemption.

Relevance #1: Hermeneutic of Charity and Suspicion

This “generous” reading or “hermeneutic of charity” was the central theological imperative of the lecture.  Pattison is keenly aware that there is a temptation to summarily dismiss the “death of God” theologies inspired by the man-God ideologies on account of their overt hostitility to the very subject of theology (God himself). He hopes to remind more traditional theologians that if the truth claims of Christianity cannot themselves be killed by any man, then even heterodox philosophy and theology can be engaged in productive ways. In the idiom of the Second Vatican Council, we might say that even the "death of God" can be read, in light of the Gospel, as a sign of the times.  In essence, Pattison sees man-Godhood as a deformed, but nevertheless sincere, hope for a better future, a sign of at least the need for human redemption, even if a confused one.  And while it would be dangerous to adopt a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of charity without balancing it with an equal hermeneutic of suspicion (which Pattison, in his lecture, clearly advocates in the voices of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky),  he is right to insist that Christianity calls for a hermeneutic of charity, even when it confronts an ideology whose only good news is the “death” of “God”.   

Relevance #2:  preparatio evangelii post evangelium

Pattison called his lecture an exercise in preparatio evangelii post evangelium, and rightly so, because if Pattison is correct, then not only is the myth of the man-God a substructure at the core of modern thought, but modernity itself should be seen as having an embedded anthropo-theology. By this I mean a post-evangel programmatic account of ultimate human fulfillment that gives human society a meaning and purpose once belief in a transcendent God has been rendered culturally implausible.  And insofar as this account takes the functional place of the older theological ordering of society (i.e. by establishing and coordinating a system of social meanings, a hierarchy of values, to human life and conduct), it adopts the forms and manners of theology not merely accidentally (because these are the cultural signs available to it) but also necessarily (because what it communicates is in part theologically true).  God has willed that man should become God.  Even when man stops believing in God, his unbelief is not strong enough to overcome his vocation to self-overcoming.  And even when this self-overcoming becomes thoroughly immanentized – or in classical language, becomes diabolical – at no point is the living God’s grace completely without resources for redemption. Or as Pattison puts the matter, there will always be apologetic “points of contact” between Christian truth and even the all-too-human conception of being human.   For Christians remember the death of God as but one moment in the Everlasting Life of Jesus Christ.