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HISTORY of Christian Theology

Friedrich Nietzsche

Is God Dead?

In 1882, the philosopher Friedrick Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead,” and with his death our world is cut loose from its moorings to drift aimlessly through space without direction or meaning.
with the death of God, nihilism was born

The ordered cosmos is no more. He later wrote: “Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of the universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.” Thus, with the death of God, nihilism was born, the belief that life is meaningless and all values are baseless.

cathedralYet, humans continue to seek God and meaning in their lives. Philosophers and social scientists continue to be surprised by the resilience of the innate human trait of faith that refuses to die with God. Certainly, there has been great upheaval in the religious landscape since Nietzsche: churches in Europe have largely become museums, affiliation with established religions in America has dropped significantly, and millennials are renouncing organized religion in wholesale; yet, as secularism grows more people search for the spiritual enlightenment, meaning in life and divine influence that has been lost. Millennials are embracing causes as fast as they abandon religion. The fastest growing religious group in America is individuals who identify themselves as being spiritual but not religious. Even the religious zeal that many atheist’s demonstrate for causes, such as climate change, evidence the reality that human beings need a sense of purpose in their life. The human quest for meaning is as much alive today as it has ever been, yet many persons do not know where to find the spiritual connection they seek. It is hard to kill something that has always been part of the human experience.

“God is dead, and we have killed him, you and I!”

Nietzsche understood the depth of our innate need for meaning. He referred to this basic human characteristic as the “Will.” He penned a metaphor of a madman running through the streets looking for God until the madman became irate at the amused bystanders, threw down his lantern and cried out, “God is dead, and we have killed him, you and I!” But the madman quickly observed, “I have come too soon,” as the populace had not yet realized that God did not exist. According to Nietzsche, we, the educated citizens of the world, have destroyed the viability of the concept of God, yet we refuse to accept that reality, but once we do, we, like the madman, will desperately seek to find the lost purpose and direction for our lives. He further declared that even the skeptics pay homage to the shadows of God from the past that are cast on the walls of our cave where human society exists. But, has God really died? Is that shadow only a figment of our imagination, a nightmare from our past, or is there actually meaning in life? Can we replace God with something else to provide purpose for your life? Or, like Nietzsche, will we all eventually go insane.

Greco-Roman Telos

Nietzsche was not the first person to recognize that humans have an innate need for a purpose in life. The Greco-Roman world referred to this concept with the word telos. This is a Greek word meaning the “end,” and includes such things as a goal, fulfillment, completion or final perfection. Today we use a derivative of it in words like telephone and television as the completion of a communication over a long distance. The idea of telos comes from the ancient philosophical view that everything acts in accordance with its ultimate purpose or goal that is inherent in its nature. Human beings’ ultimate goal is happiness and our actions are oriented towards achieving that objective. That begs the questions: What is happiness and how do we achieve it? These issues were a major area of debate among the populace in general in addition to the philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world.

Some Romans subscribed to hedonism, a belief that what makes one feel good is what life is all about. But, even then, these hedonists were moderated by a sense of virtue reflected in their culture at large. They understood that momentary pleasure does not typically lead to the greater joy associated with achieving true success or fulfillment in life. The Greek word eudaimonia, which they used in this discussion regarding ultimate happiness, refers more to true fulfillment than to pleasure. The Greeks and Romans believed that one realized ultimate joy from living an honorable life. Honor and shame were great motivators in the Greco-Roman world.

The philosophy that had the greatest impact on the moral compass and attitudes of the Roman world, and which Christians were most attracted to, was Stoicism. Stoics stressed wisdom as the path to ultimate human fulfillment. They believed that our rational minds were what distinguished us from animals and our fulfillment came from living a rational life based on wisdom and virtue.

They believed that our rational minds were what distinguished us from animals and our fulfillment came from living a rational life based on wisdom and virtue.

Stoics eschewed passions because intense feelings usually eclipsed reason. Emotions move us–as the word implies–and often carry us down paths we later regret. This is the genesis of the concept of an impassionate Christian God. The stoics, and Romans in general, stressed virtues related to building character traits like courage, honesty and justice.

In summary, the Greco-Roman world at the time of Christ believed that humans realized their telos, or ultimate fulfillment, by living a life of honor and wisdom through the exercise of their free will and rational minds. That is our true human nature, according to their beliefs. Pursuing wisdom and honor is a life well-worth living and brings the greatest happiness.

Christian Perspective

Christianity was born into this Greco-Roman world that was held together by the concept of paideia, which refers to the Greek culture based on education and patronage. Within a few short decades Christianity had more gentile followers than Jewish believers. These gentile converts infused Christianity with their Greco-Roman culture, and this influence has shaped Christianity and the Western world to this day. A key component of this influence was the concept of telos. It is also the root word for theology, which shows how closely this concept is tied with Christian doctrine.

The concept of telos was intertwined with another Greek word, kosmos, or cosmos in English. It meant both the “world” and “order.” It reflected the idea that everything existed as part of a well-organized system where all of the component parts acted in accordance with its particular role or telos. This idea of an orderly universe echoed Christian beliefs in a God who not only created the heavens and the earth but also sustains its existence on a continual daily basis. Early Christians believed that everything was infused with his creative grace and power. This creative grace does not compete with the natural world but completes or perfects it.
This intimate involvement let to the concept of providence–that God has a hand in everything that happens–which was a major part of the medieval worldview. The scientific revolution challenged this perspective of the sovereignty of one omnipotent God and offered an alternative view that the universe was self-contained and operated independent of God according to set eternal physical laws. This is the basis for Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead and that we intelligent beings have killed him, even if we do not yet realize it, and once we do, we will lose all sense of purpose.

What did early Christians view as their purpose–telos–in the cosmos–the orderly system created and sustained by God? They saw their ultimate end in God. They believed that humans can only realize true fulfillment and completion through unity with their creator. This view is encapsulated in the following two scriptures. Matthew 5:48 records Jesus’s instruction in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father who is in heaven is perfect.” The Greek word that is translated into English as “perfect” is teleios, which actually means compete, finished or fully developed. John 17:22-23, 26 records Jesus’s intercessory prayer where he pled with God, his Father: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us… that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one… that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Emphasis added).

“that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one”

Charity, the pure love of Christ, is the unifying power of God that lifts us up to become perfected in Him. The word “holy” is derived from the old English word hal and the old German word helig which mean whole and complete, or healthy because one is complete. Divine love is expressed perfectly through the life and atonement of Jesus and is felt through the Holy Spirit. That is the power which converts through the ages have testified has changed their life, indeed, their very nature, allowing them to participate in the divine nature.1 This participation in the divine nature empowered the early Christian martyrs to serenely endure excruciating torture and death. These early Christians expressed this unity with the divine with the word “recapitulation” which refers to that which was lost through the fall of Adam was regained–recapitulated–through Christ, and that in the hereafter we will fully participate in this divine nature to become complete in Christ. They referred to this unification process with the Divine as theosis meaning human “deification.” This idea is concisely expressed in the couplet, “God became man, so that men may become gods.” This saying comes from the writings of the early Church Father, Irenaeus, and is often quoted by Eastern Orthodox followers to this day.

“God became man, so that men may become gods.”

Early Christians also drew connections between their Old Testament scriptures and their Greco-Roman heritage which taught that human telos is achieved by living a life of wisdom. Proverbs chapter eight personifies wisdom crying out to humanity to heed her voice and live. Early Christian writers universally identified this personification of wisdom with Christ. To know Christ was to know wisdom. The Apostle John quoted Jesus saying, “This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ who thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)

“This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ who thou hast sent.”

The Christian’s goal was to share in the life of God which they referred to as “everlasting life” and “eternal life.” In the Greco-Roman world, gods are immortal, so a god’s life was an eternal life. Accordingly, the life eternal that John referred to meant much more than simply living forever (immortality). It meant sharing in all of the aspects of divine existence as mentioned above in our discussion of human deification. They believed that when Christ returns and gathers all things unto himself (recapitulation) we shall become like him. John wrote in his First Epistle: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2, emphasis added). Becoming like God was the early Christians’ ultimate destiny.

we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him

transfiguration

This concept of seeing God as he is, grew to play an important role in Christian theology.

By the sixth century, two of the most influential Christian theologians, Psedo-Dionysius in the East and Augustine in the West, picked up on this idea and taught that true happiness and the ultimate goal of human existence was to see God. This became known as the “beatific vision.” This was also referred to as the “Light of Tabor” in the East, signifying the glorified Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, which according to tradition was Mount Tabor in northern Israel. This concept that the goal of human existence is to see God, coupled with Augustine’s doctrines regarding original sin and grace, shifted the Western Christian worldview from becoming like Christ to simply going to heaven. Sanctification remains important, but its superior position has been supplanted by the need to be saved and go to heaven.

Emotional Black Holes

In his book, Emotional Black Holes, Grant Hallstrom (the author of this essay) introduced an explanation of the interplay between the human quest for fulfillment, sin and Christ’s atonement. He asserts that because we are all Children of God created in his image, and because the essence of God is love, we all have an innate need to love and to be loved. But we are born into an imperfect world where we have all been disappointed by those we look to for love. This lack of love creates a void in our being that sucks us down to become self-absorbed. Our life revolves around this emotional black hole in the center of our personal universe. So, the quest for fulfillment begins.

Without realizing why, we all go through life driven by this need to fill the emptiness inside us. Some of us try to fill this emotional void with destructive things like drugs and alcohol. Many of us try to fill it with good and even necessary things like food. Others become trapped in dysfunctional relationships in a desperate search for love. But nothing fills the hole created by a lack of love. Indeed, most of the world’s dysfunctional behavior (sin) is simply a byproduct of lost souls thrashing about in search of something to fill this void in their life.

The only thing great enough to fill the emotional black hole that consumes everything else in our lives, is God. God, who is love, is the only thing capable of filling this vacuum created by a lack of love. Once we feel God’s love, we become free to realize our true potential. We are no longer held captive by the gravity of our emotional black hole that makes us selfish, prideful and depressed beings. We are liberated to love others more deeply and on a much broader scale. We become more kind, less envious, less prideful, less selfish and not easily provoked. (See 1 Cor 13:4-5) God’s love heals our soul. We become whole (healthy and complete) in Christ. As John wrote in his first epistle, “We love God because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

This vacuum and our divine spark, a light of Christ, is the genesis of the universal human quest for meaning.

Not only do humans realize their divine potential, their telos, through Christ’s love, as expressed through his atonement and extended to us through his grace, but God also becomes fulfilled, or glorified, through this process. Because the essence and glory of God is love, his fulfillment and glory come from creating more love. God granted humans free will so that we can love. The only way that love can exist is through free will. Consequently, he created this imperfect world where humans exercise free will for good and evil, which creates emotional black holes inside each of us, some larger than others, depending on our life experiences. Yet, because we were created in the image of God, we all have a spark of his divinity inside us, calling us home. This vacuum and our divine spark, a light of Christ, is the genesis of the universal human quest for meaning. This existence provides us with the opportunity to exercise our agency and make choices, to choose good or evil, to love or hate. As we choose love, God is able to heal our soul and lift us up to experience an increased amount of love, joy and peace. We are able to participate in God’s life. Consequently, the same thing that pulls us down is what inspires us to reach up to God.

the same thing that pulls us down is what inspires us to reach up to God.

Through this process we develop a loving relationship with God, which is God’s goal for us and how he is glorified.

This “imperfect world,” that instills a quest in humans to find love and fulfillment, perfectly serves God’s purposes to elevate his children to become like him in love. We glorify God as we allow him to glorify us through his infinite love. Our emotional black holes married with our creative spark of divinity is the genesis of our quest for meaning. Its fulfillment is found in God through love.

go to previous:

Introduction

go to next:

The Origin of Religion

1 2 Peter 1:14

IMAGES:

Friedrick Nietzsche, 1872, Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, Photograph by Friedrich Hartmann [PD]

Interior of Basilica Sainte Marie Madeleine, Vezelay, France.

An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, c. 1745–1750, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan. [PD]

The Universe – Atlas Clelestis (1660), British Library [CC0].

Universium, Flammarion Woodcut, Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (Paris, 1888) [CC BY-SA 2.5].

Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, oil on copper, 1877, The museum of National History, Dansk: Bedestolen [PD].

Transfiguration of Jesus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, [PD].

Christus Consolator, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, [PD].

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