August 30, 2011

Confessing our Deicide

These past couple of days I've enjoyed a visit from my sister. It was very good to see her and catch up. We spent yesterday morning at the Museum of Fine Arts. Because of my general Philistinism, I had not been there before despite having lived in Boston for a total of six years.

It's a lovely place, and we saw many interesting things. I have to say, though, that the visit troubled me a little. Journeying through the history of European art, it became clear to me that God, or at least a certain explicit way of expressing divine things, goes away. At the beginning one sees so many beautiful depictions of the Lord and the saints. Over the course of time, the dominance of the mysteries of revelation and the saints evaporates.

It brought Nietzsche to mind:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who 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? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann)

I don't want to beat any culture war drum and bewail that our civilization went wrong by doing away with God. It may be true but that's a judgement that certain cautions with me prevent me from making. But I will say two things about what seems to follow. First, our civilization, as I think Nietzsche warns, has not understood the implications of having killed God. And now, as 'God' becomes a concept without any intelligible content at all for whole sections of society--sometimes even for religious people, though many times it's not their fault--we don't even know why it becomes impossible to make value judgments or avoid slipping into the relativism in which there is only the rule of power.

Second, and this is the thing that's really been on my mind, I wonder if we who are believers have really done any better with taking the death of God seriously. Have we found ways to preach and catechize that both confess and confront that all of us who are heirs to western civilization are implicated in deicide? God is dead. And remains Dead. And we have killed him. Does our religion admit this? Or worse, does it just live in denial in such a way that we become functional agnostics or even atheists?

To be fair to the Church, I think that Gaudium et spes, for example, was something like an attempt at answer to this sort of question. But the more I read it, the more I become convinced that it was the Church's shot at embracing the humanistic optimism that western civilization tried to substitute for God, and that just as the rest of the world was giving up on it after witnessing its rotten fruits during the bloody twentieth century.

For us who have killed God and put him out of the human civilization he himself created, I'm wondering if something more radical is called for. But I admit I'm not sure what it is.

Update: I'm not sure what it is primarily because the execution of the God who failed to live up to our best religious expectations is at the heart of Christianity, and I haven't put this truth together with the historical data yet.


Lee Gilbert said...

"At the beginning one sees so many beautiful depictions of the Lord and the saints. Over the course of time, the dominance of the mysteries of revelation and the saints evaporates."

Maybe this indicates the way to revivify God, by restoring his image, that of his mother and the saints to the ecclesiastical square first of all. We definitely need more art, and more beautiful art within our churches. Many are so plain and make no appeal to the imagination at all. Stepping into a church should be like stepping into Heaven on earth, where God is very much alive.

Just in the past few days it has dawned on me that to pray as I should, I need more of the Middle Ages in my life. My imagination needs to be carried up to Heaven in order for my prayers to reach there as well. It has occurred to me that maybe listening to the Salve Regina on youtube would help-there are many beautiful renditions.

My wife and I try to say the Rosary in the evening, but to tell the truth it has become very prosaic- same old same old. Dead, and with it God. Whether this is from the Missle Ages or not, experimenting with the Dominican rosary has really helped. Reading a passage from the Glories of Mary by St. Alphonsus Ligouri really helps, though I am sure it would make make the "higher critics" gag. You can't read hear St. Bernard (or the other authors Saint Alphonsus quotes) speak of Our Lady and pray to her without renewed affection, without a revivified heart in which she also comes alive-and God with her.

It would probably help to light a votive candle before an image or a statue of Our Lady before we close the Rosary with the Salve Regina. Not the "living flame of love," but surely a reminder.

The Word became flesh. If we use our senses, perhaps we will see Him living again.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of a scolding I recently received from my mother who reminded me that she grew up reading the lives of the saints rather than the Disney fairy fantasies my seven year old daughter is enamored with. She is convinced that fairies are as real as Santa Claus.

Perhaps what a secular society needs is a theme park dedicated to teaching gospel truths. Imagine an exhibit of Moses walking through a wall of water, or of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

I certainly don't mean to make light of gospel truths, but in this hedonistic media-craved society, perhaps the only way to rediscover God is traveling the paths of the lost sheep and then guiding them back home.

greg said...

No answers to be delivered with certainty and hubris. BUT I have come to certain tentative conclusions I express in my latest blog post.

In the post I try to better explain in a short passage what Taming is about. It is built on the hypothesis that we may have to do the work one by one, two by two, with direct engagement.

Anonymous said...

While your observation comparing past to present might be true for Boston Museum of Fine Arts, it would be an error to make that assumption about all modern art. While Boston's MFA has a large collection of early European paintings, its collection of "modern art" revolved much around 19 th century Impressionists. Impressionists concerns are more to do with light than subject (Monet haystacks). Their style also was to paint en plein air; their subject was before them as they painted. That is quite a contrast from earlier European painters who constructed their paintings around a theme,and produced paintings in a studio. Alternate examples of "modern art" observation are Picasso's dove of peace(the holy spirit?) or Paul Gauguin's the yellow Christ. Henri Matisse's chapelle du rosaire de vence would be another(architectural&decorative). The museum pieces use older mediums, like painting. Would Mel Gibsons The Nativity Story be a better comparison against those european masters? Cecil B. DeMille? George Burn's Oh God? Evan Almighty? They are the same themes as the old masters, yet in a new medium.
Nietzsche I don't understand