Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God

I've decided to get back into reading about religious studies and theology.  It's not that I ever stopped doing that, per se, but I've been reading materials for my dissertation.  I'd like to expand my knowledge about religious studies and theology because I may sometime be teaching them some day.  Plus, as I travel through the religious studies blogosphere, I realize that there are so many books that I have not read.

I was in a library recently, looking for books to check out.  I came across a book published in 1961, Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era.  The book looked interesting to me for a variety of reasons.  First, it was about how many in that time were considering Christianity to be inadequate, and that is a topic of interest to me: the search for an adequate belief system.  Moreover, Vahanian, rather than completely discarding the Bible, seemed to make use of its categories to describe people's predicament.  Second, the book got into the thoughts of various theologians, and I figured that I could beef up my knowledge on that.

The book ended up being way over my head, to tell you the truth.  It's not that Vahanian used difficult words that I had to look up in the dictionary.  Rather, he was putting together fairly simple words into sentences that I did not understand, and I had a hard time following his train of thought.  I can easily find myself despairing as a result of this, telling myself that I'm just not smart or sophisticated enough for academia!  But I try to resist those kinds of thoughts.  Ayn Rand said that even those who are simple can practice reasoning, on some level, and so I will attempt to learn and to read.  We all have to start somewhere.  We were all at one time in a position where we did not know something and had to learn it----we're all still in that position, for that matter, for none of us knows everything.  And there are plenty of good books that I can read that are easier for me to understand.

I felt as if I was reading a book in a different language and had to draw from here and there to understand what Vahanian was saying.  Vahanian's main point seems to be that many in his time deemed the Christian God to be irrelevant to their situation.  Vahanian says that one problem is that the Christian God is too transcendent, when many are focused on the here and now; for some reason, however, Vahanian does not seem to be particularly keen on going to the opposite extreme and saying that God is very imminent.  Vahanian says on page 231 that "The dilemma of radical immanentism is that it offers no resolution to man's predicament because, although it attempts to define man in terms of his relatedness to others, it can only project man as a god or a wolf to his fellow man."  Huh?  You can hopefully see what I mean when I say that I understand the words that Vahanian uses, but not the sentence or the thought that Vahanian is trying to convey.

In critiquing the social Gospel, Vahanian appears to be arguing that people wonder what role Christianity will play, when all the social problems are solved.  I can't envision all of humanity's problems being solved, to be honest, and I seriously doubt that Vahanian himself envisions that.  But even if people have arrived at a level of comfort and do not feel that they need God to be fulfilled, they may still have spiritual needs.  The thing is, Vahanian appears to acknowledge that people have spiritual needs.  He just doesn't believe that Christianity is adequately meeting them, for some reason. 

In reading about why people become atheists, I come across a variety of reasons: encountering historical-criticism of the Bible shakes people's faith in biblical inerrancy; science continues to shrink what is seen as God's role in the cosmos; people throughout the world have different religions and cultures, making one wonder what makes one religion correct; the problem of evil and suffering calling into question the existence of a just and loving God.  Vahanian gets into some of these issues----these topics that influence some to question that theism is factually accurate.  But these issues do not loom as large in Vahanian's book as one might expect.  Rather, Vahanian's point seems to be that Christianity (or theism) is not resonating with people.
One can legitimately ask: Does this matter?  Just because a belief-system does not resonate with people, does that mean it's not true?  A fundamentalist could say that God still judges sinners, even if people don't believe in God, or even if the truth that they are sinners does not resonate with them.

The thing is, God is also love, and many might think that a loving God would try to meet people where they are.  Within the Bible, arguably, God is reaching out to people within their own cultures, using categories that they understand.  In light of this, would God respond to people's failure to see the relevance of theism with, "Well, who cares?  It's the truth anyway, regardless of what you might think?"

I'll be moving on to an easier book: Scientists Confront Creationism.  If you're interested, here is the wikipedia article about Vahanian, and here is the wikipedia article on the death of God, which discusses Vahanian's contribution to the discussion.

2 comments:

  1. A Christian law school friend of mine says that he sticks to charismamag articles as his source of knowledge about religion as he finds patheos articles too intellectual for him. But he is certainly an ace when it comes to law school studies.

    If it is any comfort, I do find some of the things you write here on your blog a little over my head, especially those on eschatology. So I have the impression that you are a pretty smart guy!

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  2. "If it is any comfort, I do find some of the things you write here on your blog a little over my head, especially those on eschatology."

    That could be because of the peculiar religious groups I was in. Many people probably don't know these groups' ideas about eschatology, and so what I write about those ideas may be over many people's head----largely due to lack of familiarity.

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