Tuesday, 4 May 2010

God Is an Atheist

I found this very interesting proposition in Zizek's The Puppet and the Dwarf when I read it last year. I think its fascinating and nicely shows that one can philosophise on theology and religion without accepting their premises. That is, take them in in their own field. Well, here we go...

Christ, in many Christian belief systems, is God. According to both Matthew and Mark his last words on the cross were: 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). The question is this: If Christ is God, why is he questioning his own methods and motives? Surely to question God's methods and motives is to question His omnipotence and benevolence because you are doubting whether He is sound in His actions, 'perhaps He (I) made a mistake, Surely He (I) didn't intend to let me die in this manner; He has abandoned me...' If we accept that God is an omnigod then he cannot make mistakes, to question him is to question whether he is an omnigod and if God must be an omnigod then He cannot exist at all (given that He makes mistakes). He who questions the methods and motives of an omnigod must, disbelieve that the omnigod exists at all, and for certain Christians he can only be an omnigod.

Now if God is infinite then what happens in a split second in God's mind is eternal. What is true of God in this minute is true of Him forever; if God changes then He was not perfect before, perfection needs no change. Therefore in this brief moment, the last of Christ on Earth, God was an atheist, and must therefore be an atheist forever.

There is, as always, a response to this. We could say that in becoming man God lost all his power and knowledge of events to come and the workings of the universe. Christ is not akin to his own methods and motives and is questioning the Him that Knows. Yet Christ, according to the Gospels, is well aware that he must die and indeed why he must die. Who knows... perhaps, experiencing as much pain as his flesh and blood incarnation could take, he, as a finite man, a flawed man, he forgot his own omnipotence and benevolence... perhaps he forgot that he was God...

I've tried to keep this brief and in doing so may have lost the force of Zizek's point. It has also been a while since I read the book and I'm unsure what Zizek's ultimate point was. I think it was that God longs to be human; that in being finite, emotional and flawed he becomes whole. Or perhaps it was about the paradox of the situation; Zizek's ubiquitous: 'I know the truth but...'
Anyway, if you get the chance give it a read. It's great


  1. Another example of why philosophers should stick to philosophy. Theology is a graveyard for a philosopher in many ways....

    Zizek just gets this wrong - or is that he just aint that serious?

    On my understanding, in theological terms, Christ is both true man and true God. Therefore to say that he is God is a bit misleading.

    Hence 'the cry of dereliction' - the exclamation that you are referring to - poses no problem for the theologian. As this is Christ's humanity speaking, not his divinity.

    Neil Turnbull

  2. exactly... i referred to this point in the final paragraph, that is,god's kenomatic descent into finite manhood. i don't think zizek was being serious, at least he wasn't trying to undermine christianity or scripture at all. like i say, i think he was talking about the paradox involved in god's kenomos; that he is only whole when he lessens himself into manhood.
    whilst i don't think it is a serious point i do think it holds water. tho' not necessarily against most doctrines. for example, in catholicism there is a rather complex understanding of gods ability to be both divine and at the same time human; or even those that say he became god when he ascended. there are those, however, that claim christ simply is god, with no attempt at an explanation of the conflict of divinity and humanity.
    if we accept that he was both at the same time, does that not raise the question of when he was one and not the other. if, throughout his time on earth he was man entirely then where did his powers come from? if he was divine then why was he not at his death? I suppose it is just one of those things where you have to say, if you are a christian: 'i know it sounds paradoxical and is against my reason but i believe.'

  3. wow, from IR to Christology in a week..

    What a blog this is!

    IR is a quagmire, but Christology is will blow your mind.....

    Should philosophers blow their minds?



  4. haha...
    is that not the point of philosophy?
    or is the point to clean up the mess after our minds have been blown by nature and art?

  5. It is interesting that in the later, and most theologically sophisticated and edited of the authorised NT Gospels, John, Jesus is portrayed in a passive light at the end, accepting that it his destiny to die, uttering the words "it is accomplished!" (well, in my version of the NT anyway!)He then "bows his head and gives up his spirit". This is much more akin to the theological image of a man who is simultaneously son of God, and God. John's conception is in sharp contrast to the fully fallible man who is also God, which is how the others represent him.
    I agree with Fred (or is that Zizek?) that there is a conundrum here in the sense that trying to understand how a man who is also God can be fully a man, suffer, and cry out in pain when he is fulfilling the destiny that has been allotted to him by his "father" (so he has no free will but has to die) presents us ordinary mortals with rather a riddle.
    I guess a person with religious convictions would say: how can we expect to understand the ways of God? And I guess that is how we are supposed to be reconciled to the seemingly irreconciliable fact of man who is also God (Christ)

  6. More theology! I guess what you are asking is whether a philosopher can make sense of the incarnation!

    Again,there are really important pitfalls for the Philosopher here. It is not that Christ is both the son of God and God as you suggest - it is that God is a trinity and the son is one aspect of that trinity...

    In theology the son is thus eternal - and didn't appear with Christ at all. God has always been a trinity. It is an easy mistake to make to read the bible as a historical document, but theologians typically warn us away from this...



  7. Sure, theologians might warn us away from historical analysis for obvious reasons (historical analysis interferes with their attempts to present a homogenous set of ideas) but so what? We ought to be permitted to compare and contrast the Gospels to see what they have to say, theologically speaking. Since this differs between the Gospels, does this not therefore have some theological significance?
    Ok, I agree that we are straying onto theological territory here, but one can't always separate philosophy from other areas of intellectual inquiry, even if this were desirable, which for me it isn't. Since the original post concerned God, then I took this to be a theological (as well as a philosophical) issue...

  8. I don't think we are reading it as a historical document but discussing the text's content with its own criteria. If we are ever to know what God and/or christ is, whether he existed or not, then we can only do so from the bible. It is no where written that there is a trinity (the godhead), these things were decided upon primarily secular leaders and have never been accepted by everyone (unitarians, christdelphians etc) which is why we are not only able to speculate, but must.

    as a side point neil. you seem to be against philosophers engaging in philosophical debate; is theology not just a type of philosophy? or indeed is philosophy not just a type of theology? If not then what is the difference between the two, save that God is seen as the guarantor of existence, ethics, aesthetics, knowledge etc. but in philosophy another must be found. There is such a crossover between the subjects that often it is difficult to classify thinkers. Aristotle, Plato and Kierkegaard spring to mind. Is it really possible to limit philosophy so much?

  9. Ok - Ruth first. You can subject theology/religion to 'historical analysis' but the problem with this it that then religion simply disappears. Christ simply becomes another Jewish peasant revolutionary etc etc. Even modern philosophy is dismissed as a bourgeois irrelevance (see post above). So there is simply nothing left to discuss...

    Zizek's point is exactly the opposite. For him, Christinaity is a universal and timeless idea; and in order to become a true revolutionary we must first encounter this idea and let it transform our personal and political sensibilities.

    Thus Zizek is a weird heretical Christian in many ways!

    Fred's point - we are talking about 'intelligent Christianity' here are we not? Sure there are many Protestant sects that believe many different things, but we can't really include such marginal things in out discussion. It would make it entirely beside the point.

    Is Philosophy a form of theology? No. Absolutely not. Theology is about the nature and possibility of our relation to the divine. Philosophy is about a number of discrete problems and questions; many of which have nothing at all to do with theology (at least as we traditionally define it).

    There is of course philosophy of religion - so let's stick to this. The key problem here is the ontological status of 'God' etc and the kind of metaphysics required to support existence of God and belief in him.

    Now we are doing philosophy...


  10. true, but many philosophers ultimately deal with God even if the themes are seemingly irrelevant. Descartes epistemology centres around whether, if there is a god, he would allow us to be fooled... descartes stops short of theology but in order to sustain his thought we must attempt to ground it in finding god. I do not see such a difference between theology and philosophy. both try to discover truth, or refute it and both, ultimately require faith somewhere along the line if that truth is to stand up to scrutiny

  11. Always depends on whose theology though doesn't it. If your adopting a trinitrian position, sure, God can be here there and everywhere. The power of Christianity I think rests on that message that God became human and suffered what we suffered in order to save us; hence the importance of the Ascension where Christ could reassert his divinity. The interesting thing that struck me about Zizek's analysis is the adoption of kenosis. If God is to become human, then God has to fully empty itself of its divinity in order to fully participate in human suffering, walk in human shoes etc, God is one of us etc. In this way Zizek can Christianize philosophy by suggesting that God has become fully human and is hence a matter of philosophical reflection. However, if God is now human then we ain't doing theology anymore we're doing philosophy.

  12. ah Fred...and so...at last...the Radical Orthodoxy card is played...

    I was expecting this, I guess this was the real point of this post all along...

    I guess I must feel suitably humbled - being a man of somewhat poor diction, knowing little of Peterhouse and being remiss in not knowing all the words to God Save the Queen...

    But here we are again back to theology - theology as the 'queen of the sciences', everything being theological and so on etc. Even philosophy is a religious position in the end in this scheme. There is some mileage to this point of view and it does have its critical uses, but it is too totalising overall...

    At worst, it is Augustinian neo-Platonism served up with lots Red Tory tea and scones by Chesterton's little platoons of volunteers (yes, Cameron, ideologically, is in many ways an RO disciple).

    But I have to sign off now, as I have a number of writing deadlines to meet over the summer (apart from a couple of meetings I am going on retreat)....

    Hopefully Ruth, Patrick, yourself, Rob and others can keep the blog going over the summer. It would be nice to keep the blog alive. It requires a good deal of vigilance and commitment, but philosophy needs something like this...

    I will leave you with a few lines from Billy Bragg (can a folk singer be a philosopher?) - that seem to me rather pertinent in relation to the above comments and what might happen in the coming months..

    'This government had an idea
    And parliament made it law
    It seems like it's illegal
    The fight for the union any more
    So which side are you on boy?
    Which side are you on?
    Which side are you are boy?
    Which side are you on?'

    Neil Turnbull

  13. Im on the side that's marching on the Tuileries!

    thanks neil, I hope we can meet up some time before the end of term and have a face to face discussion. Blogging is convenient but there's nothing like the face of the other to inspire you.

  14. Yes, have a productive summer, Neil, and thanks for making the blog so, how shall we say, alive! We will keep things going this end. Despite accusations of liberalism, I am wearing red today--but have little hope that it won't be Cameron's face grinning at me over my weetabix tomorrow!
    Oh well, perhaps conservatism will only last for four years and then we will be able to build a stronger opposition to it...