Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God

The God of the philosophers (the unmoved mover), the God of German idealism (who is becoming), and the God constituted as part of the psyche (the source of the previous two) is, I would claim, a singular entity which Christ defeated and rendered unnecessary in his death and resurrection. In each instance, God is the end term of a logical and psychological necessity in which the posited structure requires God. The philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological world constituted (I was going to say “glued together” but this is a world continually coming unglued) in conjunction with this God precedes, rather than proceeds from, his existence. It is not only a particular logic and mode of argumentation at work but this logic, in producing or arriving at God, absolutizes itself or the self’s capacity for the divine.  This way of putting it may miss the fact that this is an absolute immediately at hand, which argument does not so much render necessary as it renames. Underlying the absolute conclusion (God), the necessity of the argument (an irresistible logic, often equated with the divine), is a more immediate constraint – human finitude and mortality.  The trick of turning death into an ontological and epistemological resource equated with God is, precisely, the necessity Christ overcame.

Under necessary and irresistible logic God is equated with a particular mode of thought which unfolds or emerges or is continually emerging within the self. The characteristics of this thought determine the characteristics of the God or Gods it produces: God is the unattainable and inaccessible unmoved mover (Aristotle’s God) or Paul’s law reified and/or deified.  Everything about human thought emanates (think here of Aristotle’s concentric rings of existence) from its center but the center (the law itself in its essence) as unattainable determines the continual becoming of thought. Three characteristic forms of this thought, Anselm’s greatest and necessary thought, Descartes cogito – “I think therefore I am, and Hegel’s dialectic, each converge on a binary, something/nothing, thought/being, and life/death respectively, which serve to illustrate how death and nothing constitute this necessity.

Anselm’s greatest thought, “Something than which nothing greater can be thought,” is not only a necessary thought but is also his name for God. It is the absolute and final thought which must be thought and which delivers an ontological realization (thus it is the “ontological argument”) through a mode of knowing. It is a name for God as God is supposedly known or somehow encountered in this formula. However, the content of this name or thought must be extracted from the “something” which has it meaning only as the opposite of “nothing.” The specifics of this “something” are nearly completely absent, except that this something is not nothing. In the absence of “nothing” the “something” is without reference.

It is similar to the term “this,” which was one of my son’s first words. “This,” posed as a question would require infinite repetition as everything is potentially a “this” if it is not posed against a “not this.” We feared the boy would be forever stuck searching for the meaning of “This?”. Where “this” can be pointed to though, Anselm’s “something” has no accompanying gesture or reference beyond the “nothing” off which it plays reflexively in Anselm’s formula. As Gregory Schufreider has described it:

This thought makes it impossible to think of its object as not existing because the thought eliminates everything other than itself. The criteria for thinking this thought is one of not thinking of what can ordinarily be thought (ordinary existence) and it focuses its vision on what cannot be seen so that its object (God) cannot be thought not to exist for the same reason he cannot be thought. The thought eliminates the categories and means of determining God’s existence or non-existence on any positive ground, so that this name for God, in posing his existence as one that cannot be thought not to be and which cannot be thought, leaves only this name itself for thought.

Anselm is a monk, after-all, and it did not concern him that his formula conveys no information and in fact works to empty the mind. It is the “breath” of the singular word giving rise to a multiplicity of words – a primal encounter which he seeks. The details of how Anselm proves the necessity of his argument are not presently important, but it should be noted that he is working out this same necessity in his doctrine of the atonement.  Divine satisfaction incorporates this same necessary “nothing” in a reversal of the New Testament meaning of the Cross.  For Anselm death and nothingness or the law of sin and death are not overcome in Christ but constitute the economy of necessity which grounds his thought.

It is no accident that René Descartes bypassed Thomas Aquinas (and the very different economy of analogy) in his preference for Anselm’s mode of argumentation.  Though Descartes does not incorporate nothingness and death directly into his cogito, his fear of death was the driving force behind both his meditations and his science.  He presumed that science would soon defeat death and he sets out a means of overcoming death in his formula.  This is the insight of the “Cartesian” joke: “Descartes goes into a pub and the barkeep asks, ‘Would you have a beer.’ Descartes answers, ‘I think not,’ and immediately he disappears.” The underside of the cogito, “I think, therefore I am,” is “I think not, therefore I am not.”  The “I” must be ever thinking its way toward being lest it fall into nonbeing.  The abyss from which thought would deliver is nothingness itself. But the underside of thought, that from which it arises and over against which it establishes a tenuous being, is nothingness and death.

In Hegel’s depiction, death or negativity is the “principle of motion” or the negative “moving principle” (Phenomenology, 21). It is not that this negation lies outside of the self, as in the form of the lord in the master/slave dialectic. Hegel says, “The negative is the self” (Phenomenology, 21). Thought arises ex nihilo from out of nothing but its substance inheres in the product.  Life and death are not irreconcilable opposites but are two sides – the necessary two sides – in the dialectic of human consciousness and divine synthesis. This may all seem very abstract and heady but it is precisely as an abstraction (a necessary thought) transcending concrete reality and history that death is transformed into life.

Death, if that is what we want to call this nonactuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. . . . Spirit is this power . . . looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called the Subject. (Phenomenology, 18-19)

Death, through philosophical dialectic and in Christ, “is transfigured from its immediate meaning, viz. the non-being of this particular individual, into the universality of the Spirit who dwells in His community, dies in it every day, and is daily resurrected. (Phenomenology, 475). The movement of history in Hegel (which is at the same time, in both Hegel and Schelling, a deep psychology) has simply posited the final synthesis or the necessity constraining all things (the unmoved mover arriving at himself) at the end of history.

In the spirit of Anselm, Hegel concludes that the Cross is the point at which God takes death up into himself through the death of Christ. Death is a necessity even for God, and as with the human instrument, the Spirit achieves its absoluteness through this necessity.  Luther’s formula, “God died on the cross,” is deployed by Hegel to mean death was a necessary step toward the unfolding of the divine in history giving us the Spirit. Friedrich Nietzsche will simply pronounce the death of God as the end result of this philosophical and psychological necessity.

The movement of idealism can be characterized as egoic and the God of the philosophers can be characterized as super-egoic and the necessity prevailing within and between the two is death. God’s presence (continually posited and illusive) is conjured up, not as a positive historical appearing, but through deploying the absolute – the necessity – immediately at hand in the human psyche.  This God is simply the projection of man deified.

While God is the first order necessity, he is not a being whose necessity is derivable from contingent beings (Anselm’s project in the Monologion). The height of thought, the necessary thought, cannot produce God from out of or within one’s mind. God is not the end point of a chain of being or thinking.  The drive behind this psychological necessity and the substance of the philosophical argument presumes that Christ is simply a parallel to other means and approaches to God.  As Leslie Newbigin has described it, ontotheology presumes to say to God and his Son, “Thank you but we have our own means of access to your presence.”  The God reduced to a philosophical necessity is, in Karl Barth’s estimate, an idol. He says, “We make of the eternal and ultimate a presupposition of the Creator a “thing in itself” above and in the midst of other things, of that which is living and abstracted from all concreteness a concrete thing – no doubt the highest – in the midst of other things.”  The substance of this sort of psychological and philosophical necessity, far from aiding or supplementing Christ, subverts the message of Easter. We are no longer subject to the necessity of death as Christ is risen and this posits a new mode of conceiving God.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.