God is Dead and What a Relief

We have reached a peculiar moment in this country in which a form of conservative evangelicalism is proving empty personally and nationally. The strange convergence of evangelical subculture with a crude political populism disdaining kissing prior to marriage on one hand but allowing for “pussy grabbing” porn star sex on the other, may be proving unsustainable. The thin film of the evangelical bubble, of Jesus camp, witnessing to strangers, and rescuing souls from hell, constitutes a universe which seemingly depends upon the hard-shell counter orbit of building the wall, imprisoning children at the border, and relentless capitalistic greed. Is it the notion of two kingdoms, one in which the obscenest cruelties are required while the other is all heavenly bliss, or is it that the character of this God who requires infinite torturous punishment of the many is falling into question? The misogynistic cruelties, the inherent racism and classism of the megachurch (attempting to grow by being attractive and entertaining), the manipulations of the super-preachers in gaining more members and more money (and, frequently, more sex), the hothouse of anti-intellectualism and a ghetto of disengagement, may in fact align with racist, populous politics. At the same time, the latter may be the blaring sign of the emptiness of the former. Being a part of this particular in-group requires a disproportionate out-group, a narrow engagement with reality, and the tendency to reduce every person to a potential customer for Jesus, and to become an exalted Tupperware salesperson. Max Weber’s secularization hypothesis, that secular values are creating a break with the once absolute authority of the church, would clearly seem to be at work. Whatever the cause, the bubble of evangelical belief is bursting for many. For the generation of Joshua Harris and now for Joshua Harris himself, who literally wrote the book on purity culture, this sort of God and faith are proving implausible.

Ultimately, I think it is the psychological burden of belief in this God, which is so punishing and constrictive that it may not be enough to “be saved,” elect, chosen, special, in his sight. The fact that one has built his life, constituted his reason for being, or more intimately – constituted his very subjectivity in the reality of this God, means that being liberated from his clutches is not reducible to any of the above – though each may be a contributing factor.  

Harris seems to have kissed both his God and his wife goodbye simultaneously, indicating this is not merely a crisis in his belief in transcendence. Marriage is the prototypical religious and social obligation (the foundation of the family and of society) but normally one would think it is the prototypical love relationship. Clearly the two stand in opposition for Harris, who acknowledges, fear was a primary impetus in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. His evangelical upbringing caused him to pass on fear and suspicion of the opposite sex (of God?).[1] This is the natural outworking of a belief where the one stands opposed to the other – social obligation against love – society against the intimate self – the intimate kernel of self against the imposition of God. The mistake would be to imagine that this self exists apart from this imposition.

It is precisely the move to divest oneself of God or law and to experience true (transgressive) love which Paul deploys in Romans 7. In the case of the woman whose husband is alive but who has fallen in love with another man (Rom. 7:1-4), she experiences God or the law (the same thing) as that which opposes her love.  In fact, her love, her identity or self, is synonymous with the force of opposition. Paul will describe this self, constituted in an oppressive self-punishment, as one given over to the law. The God perceived as synonymous with this law is not God at all but a self-imposed law and by extension a God, as in Feuerbach’s and Freud’s explanation, which is a self-projection or a God conceived through the lens of sin.

 A self and God constituted in opposition depends upon a double logic of exception – the God prohibits the things he does (violence, genocide, continual anger, the demand for human sacrifice) and the ego or “love” is a symptom of the prohibition (God and ego stand in the same relation to law). Paul’s discovery of the law and his discovery of the “I” are simultaneous with his having broken the law – all of which accounts for his skewed Pharisaical notion of God (prior to his conversion). This means the prohibition only has its force in the exception or in standing outside of it.  Or conversely, the exception can be seen as creating the rule. As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself.  The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it (and this fits Paul’s description of the sinful orientation to the law).

The point is that this sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment in which the obstacle (God or law) constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband as representative of God or the law, is a necessary part of identity, as he is the obstacle that makes relationship with some “other” an imagined possibility. In this construct which Paul calls sin, sin is the resistant core (love, ego, “I”) on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which God or the law is experienced as a foreign crushing power. It is precisely this God and this law from which Christ delivers (“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4)).

The question is if the evangelical religion reduplicates this sense of self and God constituted in exclusion, with its imputed or theoretical righteousness (a righteousness that is never achieved), of a mostly future salvation, of a continual sense that the self is pitted against the self? The God who demands infinite satisfaction, continual repentance, absolute purity, must be felt as an oppressive force. The punishing sense of guilt seems to constitute the dynamic of the religion and the sense that the law/God is in effect. Could it be that this law is no longer God’s law but the sinful means of gaining life, love, fulness, or divinity?

Christ, rightly understood, overcomes false notions of the infinite identified with God and the law.  The positing of this bad infinite (the lie of sin, the guilt of the law, the punishing superego) gives rise to a living death (women are fearful, my body is not me, love is transgressive).  The infinite in this sense is a negation of the finite and material, so to negate this negation is the first step in bringing a return of the world. Luther’s phrase that God died on the cross, passed through Hegel to Nietzsche to the effect that God is dead. The God of the philosophers, the God constituting modernity, the God of reason, the constrictive God of the law, is indeed undone by Christ on the cross. Nietzsche’s error was to presume that this God was the Father of Christ. The death of this God in atheism, whether in the religion of Marx or Hitler, makes it clear that atheism has not “rid us of his shadow.”

In this sense, forms of evangelicalism may only be a practical atheism in falling short of the tectonic shift in identity, in a renewed understanding of God and the universe, introduced by Christ. It is questionable whether a religion which reduces to political populism, self-realization, or to a punishing purity, should survive. One can only expect that the freedom and relief realized in the death of this God is an opening to the faith of the One who displaced him.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Hello Goodby,” Slate, Aug. 23, 2016 accessed at https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/08/i-kissed-dating-goodbye-author-is-maybe-kind-of-sorry.htm “What I was writing about was ‘Avoid this pain, avoid these mistakes, don’t do these things.’ Is that really how we grow as human beings?”

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.

6 thoughts on “God is Dead and What a Relief”

  1. So pleased to see you write this! I have known many (and can still locate a few) whose beliefs about the opposite gender, sexuality, and marriage are shaped by this sort of “fear.”

    1. Though of a different generation, I know this religion personally (I became a Christian in Texas afterall) but I experienced its most extreme form only after returning from 20 years in Japan. The scandal of anti-intellectualism, trivial cruelty, misogyny, experienced at a certain little Christian college was all new to me. One example, Faith was rated by a certain Dean as “inadequate” spiritually on an evaluation because of her taste for classical music and for not being subservient enough. I had not encountered this depth of sick religion previously but it must now constitute the evangelical majority.

      1. I think a particularly dangerous part of its insidiousness is the way it captures the imagination of its children. It leaves them completely unprepared for the reality of the world because it’s perceived all the wrong problems.

        I’ve found that purity culture’s emphasis is always on the most objectified view of sexuality. The problem of sex, in this view, isn’t that it objectifies and uses another, but that one hasn’t gotten a state license before participating in it.

        1. You capture it exactly. To quote me on the topic (probably something to be avoided): “This transaction works itself out in a distancing from the biological body, such that the body becomes a medium for the “soul” – the “true essence of the self.” One does not identify immediately with the physical body but it is a screen (as body modifiers portray it) or orthopedic for the soul. This gives rise to two bodies, as the biological dimension is refused and yet the symptoms of embodiment begin to speak and intrude, such that the soul cannot recognize itself” (this from another blog about Harris http://forgingploughshares.org/2018/12/13/i-kissed-dating-goodbye-as-i-am-no-longer-human-curing-this-sickness-unto-death/)

  2. The dichotomy of Luther’s two world’s smacks of Gnosticism. Rather we, as believers in Jesus, should own up to the fact that inhabit a messy world (partly because we are messy people) in need of His reconciliation. We are to incarnate in this messy world in order to be salt and light.