The Night God and Humanity Died

by Fred Laceda

by Elie Wiesel (from a book cover)

The emergence of modernity is the beginning of the end for an old world. The passing of the pre-modern world is hailed particularly by the Enlightenment as humanity’s way to maturity. The religious hegemony was shattered, leaving in its wake the church on a house arrest. Nietzsche declared God is dead. The new secular consensus has shown God the door, exiled to the private longings of the faithful. The optimistic air breathed by 19th century peeps was literally replaced by the acid gas of the early part of the next century. After two centuries, the twentieth seems to be the limit-test of the modern adventure. Fissures, caesurae, crisis, and the collapse of old certainties are reality check to the utopia by modern, enlightened humanity. What seems to be a promising future for collective humanity is turning like a bad dream; a nightmare that up to now haunts the modern period.

The twentieth century witness two world wars, mass murders, and totalitarian regimes. But these atrocities, contrary to common opinion, are not a residue of our pre-modern barbaric and irrational self. Amidst the light casts upon by Reason there seems to be still some dark alleys in the house called enlightened humanity. Lurking behind is something nefarious: an unspeakable evil in a supposedly rational and civilized society. Michel Foucault is right when he says that reason is indispensable yet at the same time he warns us of its “intrinsic danger.” Irrationality he says is a form of rationality albeit a distorted one. Even Arendt whose controversial thesis of the banality and thoughtlessness of evil did not anticipate the rational turn of ‘evil’.
Within this shifting landscape, religion has been push to the margins of (initially western) society. Atheism, in turn, become a viable and to some a logical option. According to Paul Ricouer, Freud and Nietzsche provide the most gripping critique of religion—their criticism is not based on the usual denial for the proof of God’s existence or the contours of the meaning of God as a concept. Rather, in different ways, they criticize religion as nothing but an illusion. What Ricouer calls as “a critique of cultural representations considered as disguised symptoms of desire and fear.” A large segment of western society would be reared by this kind of suspicion. Thus, in the 1960s a movement called the Death of God it seemed was the final nail in God’s coffin. And in the ensuing decades Continental Philosophers would dissect the corpse of this dead God. But who is this God that died anyway? In their post-mortem diagnosis, the carcass of this God would reveal a God of power, of metaphysics, a God detach from anyone or anything outside of himself.
Yet, another critique—this one from within religion—would disrupt the inner coherence of monotheism. These are Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The difference of the tone and tenor of their question is not from a lack of belief like the atheists, but from a deep commitment and belief on their God. The Jews has this history of asking God in times of crisis, a tradition of lament that goes back to the early history of their people. One of these survivors is Elie Wiesel, and his recollection of his journey through the death camps in his book Night. Wiesel was just fifteen when their life in a small town of Signet was disrupted by SS officers. And in one unfortunate night: his mother and little sister were burned alive through the fiery furnace—a giant crematoria. Wiesel writes, “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.” Moreover, in another instance, when a boy was hanging in a tree Wiesel would declare that God is there in that tree hanging.
The Holocaust for some is not just an indictment of God, but also of humanity. The Holocaust remains a black eye in the face of enlightened humanity. For the likes of Wiesel God and humanity died in the Holocaust. A double kill. It’s also an indictment to modernity and the Enlightenment, sa Henry Feingold neatly summarizes: “instead of enhancing life which was the original hope of the Enlightenment, it began to consume itself.”
We go back to the question of faith—is faith possible if we account these horrors of history? Can crisis turn to catharsis? Our answer is yes…but. The death of a certain God leaves room for the biblical God to take its rightful place. The God that died turns out to be a phantasm, a veneer, in other words, an idol. There’s a trajectory of thought that recounts western history from the point of view of the unholy alliance between the church and the Roman Empire as the culprit in the enshrining of the idol-god and its use of pomp and power. Whereas the path carved by Jesus is love for the other; his use of power is different. His way of being powerful is through suffering as Terence Fretheim would say. The content of this ‘postreligious’ faith includes the primordial call of our responsibility to the other. By this we are also signaling the birth of a new humanity.
However, there are also hindrances for this kind of faith to flourish. Zygmunt Bauman diagnosed a sickness of humanity—seen particularly in the Holocaust. His term for this is adiaphorization—or indifference. The offloading of our responsibility to the suffering of the other is an intimation of a global phenomenon. Our society suffers from moral blindness and paralysis sedated by a potent moral neutralizer. The witnesses of the Holocaust would retort that they did not do something because of the fear for their own lives; which to some are understandable. Yet, after the Nazi’s were long gone, our indifference for the other continues. Thus, in our liquid-modern world our indifference is deregulated while our responsibility is privatized.
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