From the Editor: Beyond All Naming

By Ray Waddle

         Joyful is the dark,
         holy, hidden God,
rolling cloud of night beyond all naming:
         Majesty in darkness,
         Energy of love,
Word-in-Flesh, the mystery proclaiming …

                                    Hymn-poet Brian Wren[1]

Scholars of theology are not exceedingly famous for marketing their ideas in sensational ways. A wild exception was the “Death of God” theology of the mid-1960s. These theologians were a small eclectic group, too fragmented to constitute an institutional bloc anywhere, but they shared a conviction that traditional religious faith had lost its vital connection to modern life, and they thought organized religion should drastically change, or be jettisoned altogether. In the West, millions were quietly sliding away from belief and worship attendance. Arguably the old language didn’t make sense anymore. The very air seemed to be thinning of religious authority. It was time, they asserted, for Christian faith to center itself in the gritty disenchanted world of asphalt and atom bombs, where humanity was now “coming of age” without the comforts of transcendence, miracles, or metaphysics.

As a churchgoing kid, I remember that Time cover—“Is God Dead?”—how nonsensical it sounded. And alarming too.

Other academic theologians dismissed the DOG tribunes as apocalyptic, slipshod, gnostic, and publicity-mad. The famous Easter 1966 Time magazine cover story about the trend—“Is God Dead?”—didn’t help their reputation in the guild. To their credit, though, these factionalists were trying to come to terms with the experience of unrestrained, secular modernity. The sudden and protracted downturn in churchgoing after 1965 looked like a sign. Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s wartime death-cell prison prophecy of a future “religionless Christianity” was nigh. The DOG coterie, short-lived as a media phenom, endeavored nevertheless to look for the transference of God’s spirit into the contemporary profane.

Postreligious Truth?

As a churchgoing kid, not even 10 years old, I remember that Time cover, how nonsensical it sounded. And alarming too. Yet with each passing decade, as institutional faith continued a statistical erosion, the DOG critique was never quite put to rest. I had my own impression of what was shifting in the late 20th century: white worship attendance patterns after World War II had aligned with a period of historic prosperity, social stability, suburban quietude, American dominance, and continued racial segregation. By the mid-60s, when segregation was under attack and the Vietnam war was unraveling, a lot of people couldn’t separate a defense of those things from the core of religious tradition. If old-guard power and racial hierarchy collapsed, maybe the old faith was vulnerable too, or becoming unrecognizable. Behind the complaint that churches were getting too “political” was a secret dismay that church was no longer in seamless agreement with a freeze-dried postwar status quo. Today we are witnessing the death of that god, that idol.

A descendant branch of theologians, echoing a Death of God spirit, argues that real Christianity can liberate life from all idols, all cozying up to power, all ideologies: the DNA of Christian teaching mandates that we see the face of Jesus in everyone, welcome the world’s pluralism, speak for the victims of all oppressions, support democratic freedoms, and reject the old laborious conflicts between faith and science, between sacred and secular. No more ontological truths and absolutisms to fight over in a postreligious culture—instead, a pragmatic focus on love of neighbor and good works.

“This new, weak way of thought not only opens up alternative directions, it also recovers tradition: the relationship between the believer and God is not conceived as power-laden but as a gentler relationship, in which God hands over all his power to man,” writes philosopher Santiago Zabala in his introduction to The Future of Religion (2005).[2]

Indifference to the “End of Metaphysics”

This vision, across the decades and centuries, never gains momentum for long. One reason is it doesn’t lend itself to institutional structure. A theology merrily announcing the end of metaphysics looks too anarchic, or too utopian, to transmit its message in consistent, stabilizing ways across generations. Perhaps that’s a conundrum that Christianity itself has faced from the beginning—the tension between needfully cautious institutional policies and the undomesticated freedom of the Holy Spirit. 

More than that, it seems to me that people aren’t particularly keen to accept or even notice the deconstruction of metaphysics or the evaporation of truth, even in our much-lamented “post-truth” era. The strangeness of the human condition itself has a knack for turning everybody into philosophers, seekers of truth, and metaphysicians. Regardless of belief, everyone is enlisted in the enterprise of making sense of our circumstance. Hungarian writer László F. Földényi gives two reasons for that: We experience the unrepeatability of each moment, which leads to wonder about a greater coherence than any of our constructs of society, history, or politics can hope to provide. Also, we live in the fracture of animated existence between birth and death, between non-existence and what comes after. Journeying this fissure makes for an unavoidable homesickness, an overpowering desire to understand mortality, overcome it, redeem it, accept it as a gift. The triumphs of Enlightenment reason aren’t enough to comprehend either the darkness or the mystery.[3]

Splendor and Resistance

There’s a grandeur to this inscrutable condition and struggle. Churches exist to address it. Human restlessness, creativity, and renewal make their own epic response—including resistance to the revved-up technologies and bullying inequalities that insult human dignity.

Beholding the Holy Spirit, Brian Wren has written:

Great soaring Spirit,
         sweeping in uncharted flight
beyond the bounds of time and space—
        God’s breath of love,
you fill the outflung galaxies
and move thru earth’s long centuries
with aching, mending, dancing grace …[4]

Reading that, I give no thought to some death of God or the death of anything. I get instead a glimpse of life abundant—past, present, future—made possible by a paradoxical combo: the repository of religious tradition, the power of language to activate heart and mind, and the unpredictable winds of the living God.

Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections and the author of “This Grand Errand”: A Bicentennial History of Yale Divinity School (YDS, 2022).

[1] From the hymn “Joyful Is the Dark,” by Brian Wren, Bring Many Names (Hope Publishing Co., 1989).

[2] Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion, edited by Santiago Zabala (Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 3.

[3] László F. Földényi, Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears (Yale University Press and the Margellos World Republic of Letters, 2020), pp. x-xiii.

[4] From the hymn “Great Soaring Spirit,” by Brian Wren, Bring Many Names.