Nihilism and American Religion

For many many months my living room has been so cluttered with books as to be truly offensive even to myself, so yesterday I discovered a decent and inexpensive bookcase, bought it and quickly filled it full of books. Peace! And an unexpected one at that. Now could anything comparable occur to my writing? For my mind is cluttered with more writing projects than I can count, and I continually move between them writing here there and everywhere, certainly no real order is thereby realized, and now I can’t think of my writing without thinking of deep disorder. One such project that has been suggested to me is a genealogy of nihilism.

As a good Nietzschean ‘genealogy’ is a fundamental word and category for me, but I have seldom openly employed it and I can believe that the time is at hand for that. Nietzsche himself devoted a great deal of attention to the genealogy of nihilism, but for the most part this occurs in his notebooks, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to bring this genealogy into a coherent whole. One matter is clear, however, and that is that for Nietzsche it is the Biblical God who is the primal source of nihilism, and this is just why the death of this God is the origin of the most ultimate liberation and joy. Now I sense that a good move could be made at this point by centering upon the American God, a God already envisioned by Blake as Satan, and conceived by Hegel as the “Bad Infinite” or the purely abstract God. This is the God who is not realized until the historical realization of the death of God, which both Blake and Hegel could know as occurring in the French Revolution, and a revolution itself only made possible by the American Revolution. Blake’s America is not only his first prophetic poem, it is also the first imaginative enactment of the death of God, and we would not be irresponsible in looking upon this short epic as the inaugural unveiling of a uniquely American destiny. Now if this is a genuinely nihilistic destiny, as perhaps not openly unveiled until our own time, then a quest for the genealogy of nihilism would simultaneously be a quest for the genealogy of America, or of a deeper and darker America.

Commonly our understanding of nihilism is an abstract one lacking all real concretion, although this does occur when a Nietzsche or a Dostoyevsky is called upon–then nihilism can be very concrete indeed, and not only concrete but overwhelming. But perhaps this is all the more true in our great American poets. Here American poetry could be genuinely unique, just as it is seemingly unique in the paucity or fragmentariness of its evocations of God, for it is in our greatest poetry that God is most absent or most paradoxical. So, too, our greatest poetry is our most nihilistic poetry. Even when this is in a minimal form, as in Dickinson, it nonetheless has a genuinely nihilistic effect; in its maximal form, as in Wallace Stevens’ greatest poems, it can be understood as being nihilism incarnate.

If we are to speak of an American God, and a uniquely American God, this cannot be done apart from speaking of a uniquely American religion, a religion alien to American studies, and alien if only because it is so little understood. Yes, we associate it with the first separation of church and state, but we ignore the context of that separation, failing to recognize that this occurs with the very advent of a truly secular society and world, so that American religion is truly unique in being the first religion to realize itself in a fully secular world. Of course this, secularity had long been damned by Christian spokesmen, some of whom were capable of identifying secularism and nihilism—and indeed the most secular Western thinkers were the most irreligious or atheistic thinkers. In realizing itself in a truly secular world, American religion underwent an ultimate risk, which many theologians like Jonathan Edwards recognized. Yet there is also real power in this unique realization of religion, as manifest in the strength of American religion today, as opposed to the weakness of its European counterparts. Now it is true that fundamentalism is far more powerful in America than elsewhere, just as it is true that conservative or reactionary politics and a deeply conservative religion cohere in America as they do not elsewhere, but these very conditions are inseparable from their truly secular ground, for such fundamentalism is new historically, only coming into existence with the advent of a fully secular world.

The fundamentalist God is an alien God as earlier manifestations of God are not. The very literalism with which this God is apprehended is inseparable from an assault upon all higher culture. But that very assault is a decisive sign of an overwhelmingly secular world, and a secular world apart from which no such fundamentalism would be possible. Once genuinely liberal expressions of Christianity were powerful in America. Now that power has withered away. And just as a conservative Christianity is far more powerful in America than it has been since the Puritan era, both American churches and American theologies are now and for the first time exercising deeply sectarian roles. Now virtually all religion is a truly sectarian religion, and this is new historically, and one posing a new crisis for religion. While this crisis can be known as a consequence of the historical realization of the death of God, this is a far more universal religious crisis than previous ones, with no expression of religion whatsoever unaffected by it. A revealing characteristic of our intellectual worlds today is the absence of all language about God, or all open language about God; this, too, is truly new historically, and it clearly demonstrates how expressions of religion today can only be sectarian expressions.

Many know this condition as one making possible, and for the first time making possible, the genuine freedom of religion, one free of all secular constraints, and thus free to be wholly and only itself. Thereby this could only be a culturally neutral religion, or one free of all higher culture, or all culture that is not essentially and only religious. Hence it is simply unimaginable as an actual expression of religion, just as its God would be both unimaginable and inconceivable. Even as many neo-orthodoxies have sought just such a condition, they thereby make manifest a truly inhuman quest, or even a nihilistic quest. Would it be unrealistic to look upon neo-orthodox theologies in our world as expressions of nihilism? Do they not entail, and necessarily entail, an ultimate and absolute No-saying to all expressions of culture, inevitably knowing culture itself as an expression of idolatry? Do not Pascal, Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky come very close to this? And if these are the very thinkers who most purely understand nihilism, is such understanding possible apart from a deep openness to or immersion in nihilism? Is a genuine quest for religion possible in our world that could be free of all pathologies, and does this distinguish our world from every previous historical world? Or is depth itself necessarily pathological in our world, a world in which surface and only surface is all in all, thereby for the first time realizing all depth as being pathological? Perhaps these questions are inseparable from our contemporary condition, but they make manifest that our condition is a religious condition, or is finally one, and hence a condition that is inseparable from fundamental religious or theological questioning.

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16 Responses to “Nihilism and American Religion”

  1. BT Says:

    …Now I sense that a good move could be made at this point by centering upon the American God…

    A simple question (I think): Why choose to conceptualize the “American God” in terms of the “death of” God, instead of, say, in terms of Babylon? Would you acknowledge that the “American God” might be addressed quite “biblically” (albeit via a minoritarian reading, nowadays), without recourse to “death” tropes? In other words, what’s wrong with “No-saying” culture, admonishing idolatry, etc., if it can be done apart from *both* literalist fundamentalism and (divine) nihilism? Or is that simply not a possibility, to your mind?

  2. Brad Says:

    FYI … Tom will likely not be commenting. Nothing personal, nor is this borne from snobbishness. It’s just that he’s nearing his eightieth decade and isn’t particularly comfortable with the blogging medium. He may very well monitor the conversation, but I’m doubtful that he’ll be interested in participating directly. He might surprise me, though.

    Please don’t allow this to shut down conversation, though. Questions like BT’s should simply be considered discussion topics for all. Esp. welcome are those with insight into Altizer’s thinking.

    My own response to BT is that Tom regards the death tropes as fully biblical. Explicitly biblical, even, in his perspective. He has even said repeatedly that he considers himself one of the most biblical theologians around. Much to the horror of other theologians, admittedly, but it’s where he’s coming from.

    It’s significant, I think, to consider Tom’s perspective of history and apocalypticism — inasmuch as the latter, heralded by the death of God on the Cross, as collapsing what would normally be considered a temporal delay between the biblical writings & the unfolding of modernity (and, thus, the birth of America).

  3. Dominic Says:

    he’s nearing his eightieth decade

    That’s pretty Biblical longevity…

  4. Tom Altizer Says:

    Here, I employed No-Saying in a Nietzschean contex one most deeply embodied in the uniquely Christian God, a God reborn in the American God, but this occurs only after the historical realization of the death of God, so that the American God by necessity is the dead body of God or what Blake envisioned as Satan. I urge you to employ Blake to encounter our depths today and more specifically the Norton critical edition of Blake’s poetry and designs. And if I am the only Blakean theologian what a damning judgment upon contemporary theology!

  5. BT Says:

    I like Blake fine, but I guess my comment was really just begging for an admission that one could view the “American God” as demonic/satanic without needing Nietzsche (or Hegel or…) as authorities, yet also without succumbing to fundamentalism. But if you’re committed to the “historical realization of the death of God” as an actual event (as something above & beyond a cultural diagnostic), then obviously you’re committed to the “death of God,” and I suppose I shouldn’t expect you to revive God (or on a blog, no less).

    I could ask, then, though: what is the point of doing theology so firmly wedded to that starting presupposition? Just to achieve an aesthetic appreciation of decay?

  6. Brad Says:

    BT, your question made me think of the following passage from Altizer’s memoir. In short, I think for Altizer the “death of God” is itself the thinking & knowledge of God — a thinking that goes beyond an “aesthetic appreciation,” if that you mean that of an distant observer (marveling at decayed ruins, say, in a museum). For him, thinking the death of God is the most quintessential theological reflection, the one Christian thought has gone out of its way to avoid; and for that, also the most pathological. He writes:

    “But is it possible to know an ultimate and final darkness without knowing God, and is the very knowledge of this darkness a genuine knowledge of God? Here, we can see why even modern Thomists such as Karl Rahner can finally affirm the absolute unknowability of God, for the God who we can actually know is too terrible to contemplate, so that in this perspective, there is no more dangerous or more pathological vocation than theology, a discipline that truly is a sickness unto death. Why then choose theology? Why accept such a loathsome and pathological calling? Can one here be at most simply a scapegoat? Would it not be far wiser simply to end such a calling?

    . . . How could one truly know an absolute No-saying without being deeply affected by it? There is no innocent knowledge here, nor any actual understanding of innocence itself, for here innocence can only be an innocence lost. And it is most lost by our very knowledge of God! If only here we can truly know God, and most know God in actually knowing the final loss of our innocence, as every theologian knows this is precisely the point at which apologetics is most powerful, for we cannot know the actual depths of either guilt or darkness without knowing God. Kafka is an overwhelming witness here, and I simply cannot imagine how it is possible to read Kafka and not to know God, and to hear the very voice of God in this writing, a writing embodying an absolute judgment, and therefore embodying the voice of God. If only in the depths of our guilt and darkness, God is very much alive today; no one knew this more deeply than Nietzsche, which is just why his proclamation of the death of God can only truly be heard with a Yes and Amen.” (105-06)

  7. Adam Says:

    Come to think of it, couldn’t Altizer say much the same thing starting from Hindu presuppositions? If so, why didn’t he? Is it just stubbornness?

  8. BT Says:

    Adam — I assume you’re being sarcastic, although one doesn’t need to subscribe to the “death of God” to address the “American God” in a similar vein. I know that’s hardly a grand thought, yet I never seem to get why the death-of-God is (or would be) any grander.

    Brad — thanks for the quote. I see the gesture being attempted, I’m just not convinced the “death of…” route is any more adequate than the most naive affirmation of God’s presence (someone handing out well-produced, sunny-scened Jehovah’s witness tracts on the street, for example) — that is, it’s just a negative example of the exact same sort of proclamation, and on some level (at least when it comes to how discourse functions) Altizer himself seems to be aware of this. The real mysteries (“God’s” relation to nothingness, etc.) go beyond either a positive or negative approach per se. In that specific sense, I don’t see a willingness to *continue* to *name* God *as* ‘God’ as automatically less apt or less insightful than insisting on God’s “death.” The “death” stance, in itself, is ultimately just as superficial a gesture as whatever a charismatic cable access preacher might have to say, IMO at least. (I also happen to disagree with the metaphysics used to valorize the “death” as a single event in time, but that’s a whole other can of worms…)

    I’ll stop ragging on TJJA now, though; I admit that it’s worse than pointless.

  9. Brad Says:

    The “death” stance, in itself, is ultimately just as superficial a gesture as whatever a charismatic cable access preacher might have to say, IMO at least.

    That hardly seems fair. But, whatever.

  10. Adam Says:

    Those charismatic cable access preachers with all their citations of Hegel, Nietzsche, Blake, etc….

  11. BT Says:

    Right, it’s the grandiosity of the proclamation that’s the parallel, not the content per se. IMO, the assumption that one automatically somehow more adequately addresses “God” simply through the supposed “death” (putting faith in a minus sign instead of a plus sign) — by way of Nietzsche or whomever — is, functionally speaking, in relation to the effects of discourse, actually not much different than the effect produced by a cable access show, at least to me. I’m not anti-intellectual, but God often seems to be. (Plus, even a Heidegger had to end up opining: “He who thinks greatly must err greatly,” etc.) To me, the assumption that God even cares about Hegel, Nietzsche, etc. is what’s grandiose. There may well be more truth in God’s bathroom graffiti about Nietzsche than many academics would like to acknowledge.

    Now, someone like Nancy is more interesting to me, if only because he tries to avoid the simple “death” themes (minus vs. plus, plus vs. minus), and at least *tries* to develop a different way out with the “absentheism” focus (even if ultimately just Heideggerian)…

  12. Adam Says:

    BT, You seem to have no actual idea what Altizer means by the death of God, despite being weirdly fixated on him.

  13. BT Says:

    I’ll leave it at that, then. I’m not being that articulate, but am talking about the overall effect of his discourse, as well as the content (which I happen to disagree with also, that’s all). You’re probably right about the “fixation,” though, in the sense of being dumbfounded as to how he can even been taken seriously on his own terms. (You seem to revert to assuming that one doesn’t know the sources being addressed, or hasn’t read x or y, etc. But as Brad said, whatever. If one’s starting from completely opposing starting presuppositions, then there’s just not much room for dialogue anyway.)

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “You’re probably right about the “fixation,” though, in the sense of being dumbfounded as to how he can even been taken seriously on his own terms.”

    You’ve totally shown why. Well played sir.

  15. Adam Says:

    I don’t revert to assuming you don’t know the sources — the reference to Hegel et al. was in the context of you comparing him to a cable access preacher. I do assume that you don’t know Altizer. The “simple” death theme? Really?

  16. Brad Says:

    BT … as a guest of this blog, you can just as easily be banned. We don’t care if you disagree, but do not cross the line of outright dismissal and disrespect for those who post. Comments like ““You’re probably right about the “fixation,” though, in the sense of being dumbfounded as to how he can even been taken seriously on his own terms” cross a definite line of decorum. I’m allowing it to stand only because Tom has a sense of humor about these things. I do not, though, and will ban you if you continue down that line.


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