The Death of God and the Rebirth of God

Ilia DelioOn June 12, 1946, Teilhard jotted down a short sentence in a diary that read:  “The death of God (Nietzsche) and the rebirth of God (Omega).”  Ursula King writes:  “He had just returned to Paris after a long stay in China and was impacted by the prevalence of existentialist thought in a postwar milieu.  The struggle for life was surrounded by anxiety and despair.  Modernity had collapsed and there seem to be no way out of the mess humans had made.   He sensed a certain pessimism that bordered a growing sense of atheism.  Teilhard asked if the real problem is a sense of unsatisfied theism, a shrinking of God into nice, neat formulas but a God who no longer ‘nourishes in us the interest to go on living to and live on a higher plane?’”[1]  The growth of science and technology has outstripped our spiritual growth and the human person has been reduced to a point of data, erased as a subject of infinite proportions.  Teilhard thought that the God of the Gospel had to be transformed into the God of Evolution, if it was to remain significant to today’s world.  “The human world of today,” he wrote, “has not grown cold but it is ardently searching for a God proportionate to the new dimensions of a universe whose appearance has completely revolutionized the scope of our faculty of worship.”[2] The two terms, “the death of God” and “the rebirth of God,” were meant to underscore several ideas:

1) religion is too individualistic and needs to be reframed within the scope of the cosmos, that is, religion is a cosmic phenomenon not an individual one

2) Christianity has become irrelevant, with its emphasis on transcendence and other-worldliness (although Pope Francis is changing this trajectory)

3) the rebirth of God requires a rebirth of religion on the whole, in which all religions have a role in the future of humankind

4) the new physics invites a new emphasis on the birth of God in matter

Teilhard’s ideas were consonant with those of David Bohm, Carl Jung and other mystics. Science and the rise of psychology in the twentieth century has (inadvertently) given birth to a new understanding of God and we are just beginning to see what the new God might look like.

In his book, The Death of the Mythic God, Jim Marion described levels of religious consciousness that reflect human experience and development.   From archaic to mythic, rational and unitive consciousness, the human person has the capacity to grow into the wholeness of life.  The mythic level is the level of concrete-operational thinking and typifies the level of adolescent consciousness (ages 7 – 14).  In Marion’s view, the monotheistic religions have become stuck in mythic consciousness, that is, church doctrine and practice have developed in such a way that the levels of rational and unitive consciousness (which marks the scientific age and postmodernity) have been ignored.

At the cultural level, monotheistic mythic consciousness was a great step forward from the world of tribes because people did not need to meet the materialistic requirement of blood kinship to be a member, as in previous centuries. In theory, monotheism was universal because anyone could belong, provided they converted and accepted as literal and God-ordained the myths, authority figures [uniformly patriarchal] and rules and roles of the religion.  God was imagined as a male “sky God,” all-powerful, all-knowing and unchanging, even though these attributes contradict the biblical God of personal relationship, emotion and deep compassion. Although monotheism has been taught as universal in theory, it was not (and never has been) universal in practice, Marion states. The monotheistic God is ethnocentric, not universal, for the simple reason that the emerging concrete, operational mind [mythic consciousness] is not capable of abstract universal thinking.  The only way Christianity and Islam could become universal, given the constraints, would be to convert the rest of the world, which both have attempted and failed to do.[3]

Marion laments the fact that, in Christianity, the mythic conception of God has almost completely colored our understanding of Jesus and his teachings.  Jesus has been primarily understood not as a human being who realized his own divinity but as a god or divine being who was sent down from the sky.   God then died on the cross to appease his Father, the  “sky God,” for the sins of humanity, supposedly incurred by the first humans Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Christian adult who is stuck in mythic consciousness will see the followers of other religions (or ‘isms’ such as racism, genderism, feminism) as “evil” and probably headed for hell.  It is perfectly all right for the mythic believer to try to commandeer the police powers of the state or to impose one’s belief system on others.  It is for the others’ own good that they submit to the “truth,” as the mythic believer assumes the truth to be.[4]  Marion notes that for millions of people, however, the mythic sky God is now dead.  Evolution has destroyed belief in Eden, the Garden of Paradise, in which the human was supposedly created. Astronomy has destroyed belief in a physical heaven, located above the vault of the stars, to which resurrected bodies will someday go, and to which Jesus bodily ascended.[5]  While some may mourn the death of the mythic God, we are invited to discover anew the great mystery of God.

Birth of a New God

If revelation has taken on new meaning in our own time, it is because modern science has changed everything we know about ourselves and our world.  The two fundamental changes in our understanding of nature that significantly differ from the past are evolution and quantum physics. Evolution has pushed the static God off the heavenly throne, and quantum physics has entangled mind with matter. They constitute what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” in our understanding of nature and are sufficiently radical to enact fundamental changes in theological doctrine. The need to update doctrine accordingly, however, has been met with resistance, if not outright rejection.  Physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler said it best:  “Whereas many philosophers and theologians appear to possess an emotional attachment to their theories and ideas which requires them to believe them, most scientists tend to regard their ideas differently,” usually with less drama and emotion and open to positive criticism.

One of the major insights of the twentieth century is that nature works holistically. David Bohm explained wholeness as a function of consciousness.  He interpreted the nonlocal effects of quantum physics as pointing to something new in reality, a hidden wholeness that perdures throughout evolution and guides nature toward greater wholeness. All reality is in holomovement or implicate order, he said.[6]  Reality is not merely in terms of external interactions between things, but in terms of the internal (enfolded) relationships among things.  Bohm spoke of an integral reality in which matter and mind are two aspects of the same reality or entangled.  Mind and matter are not separate substances; they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement. Both observer and observed are merging and interpenetrating aspects of one whole reality which is indivisible and unanalyzable. Wholeness is the seamless interaction of mind and matter; mind is the basis of matter, and matter reflects the mind. That which one observes is part of her/him, united in the act of observation.  The real is the whole; everything else is an illusion. Fragmentation is the reaction of the whole to human actions formed by illusory perceptions.  Max Planck spoke of consciousness as fundamental to matter, as he wrote:  “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.[7] Everything seems to begin with consciousness which itself is immaterial.[8] Physicist Erwin Schrödinger, too, thought that consciousness is absolutely fundamental to matter. Everything begins with consciousness which itself is immaterial.[9]  The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.”[10]  These insights have led to “the hard problem of matter,” namely, we cannot talk about matter apart from consciousness.[11] Philosopher Gaylen Strawsen describes this as the “hard problem of matter.”  “Consciousness is not the fundamental mystery,” he states, “matter is.”[12]  Matter is not what you think it is, or rather, matter is exactly what you think it is—and nothing other.

Consciousness and Religion

Religion depends on consciousness. One can trace the evolution of religion from preaxial or tribal consciousness, to axial or personal  consciousness, and second axial or ecological consciousness, in which we find ourselves today.  Since consciousness is a fundamental aspect of matter, and belongs to the cosmic level of life, religion begins on the cosmic level as well.  Teilhard de Chardin grasped this insight and spoke of religion as necessary for the earth’s future.  He wrote:   “Religion, born of the earth’s need for the disclosing of a god is related and coextensive with not the individual man but the whole of humankind.[13] The relationship between cosmos and religion is so fundamental to the earth that in 1916 he wrote:  “Religion and evolution should neither be confused nor divorced.  They are destined to form one single continuous organism, in which their respective lives prolong, are dependent on, and complete one another, without being identified or lost.”[14]

            If religion is a function of cosmic consciousness, then revelation or the disclosure of God is entwined with consciousness as well. In fact, monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) emerged in the axial period, as the evolved human person appeared with a more complexified brain.  The personal and intimate exchange between Moses and God, who spoke through the burning bush (Exodus 3:14 ), showed a new awareness of God’s intimate and personal presence, different from the old tribal warrior gods. God revealed God’s name as “I Am” or  “I Am there as I will be there,” indicating that God is life itself and the future fullness of life. Language, symbolism and personal relationship all play a role in the axial revelation of God.

Jesus of Nazareth enacted a deep awareness of a Godly-human life; he was a relational person and genuinely human. Beatrice Bruteau describes Jesus as one who showed a “neofeminine” consciousness, a consciousness of connectivity, mercy, passion and freedom.  This new consciousness evoked a genuine revolution, a “whole new way of seeing our relations to one another,” changing our behavior patterns from the inside out.  Jesus offered a new vision, “a consciousness of the whole where each person is valued equally.”  He constantly challenged others to “see,” to awaken to the presence of God and to be part of an undivided whole, the “kin-dom of God.”  He lived from his deep oneness in God by going “all over Galilee, teaching in synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing people from every kind of disease and sickness” (Matt 4:23).

The radicality of Jesus’ unitive consciousness is not to be underestimated. He internalized the Torah and challenged those who were addicted to power, those who were blind to the needs of others, leading them to “bind up heavy loads and put them on the shoulders of men and women.” (Matt 23:4)  He chastised those who substituted legalism for charity or looked down on others, or separated themselves from others, as if being superior (cf. Lk 18:9-11) or of greater authority.  Instead, he ate with outcasts and sinners (Mk 2:15) and accepted those who were declared untouchable as friends, revealing God’s merciful love.  Jesus saw there was no separation between himself and any other person.”  Jesus’ integral consciousness of wholeness evoked a genuine revolution in cosmic and social relations, a new creativity, a new structure of existence based on community and shared values.   He saw all human beings (and indeed the whole creation) as part of himself and called his disciples to a new future, to create a transformed earth, where all could live together in justice, mercy and peace.  How did we shift from the physical, earthy consciousness of Jesus to the abstract, constrained formula of Chalcedon, which states that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, without change, confusion, division or separation?    Very simply, we eliminated the mind from Christian doctrine by adopting Greek philosophical ideas on matter, body and soul.

Theology and Psychology: Friends or Foes?

In the Western world, the relationship between psychology and theology has historically been characterized by a certain degree of antagonism. For the most part, theologians have been suspicious that psychologists harbour an unacknowledged antipathy toward religion. As early as 1891. Pere Maisonneuve, of the Catholic Scientific Congress in Paris, declared that “psychology is an enemy of Christian philosophy.'”  The tendency toward suspicion of psychology and its methods was strengthened with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s works on religion. After all, Freud claimed that religion was no more than a defense against the superior force of nature and a meagre consolation for the shortcomings of civilization.’ As such, he felt it was “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.”‘ Freud’s analysis of religion helped to usher in a long period of virtual silence between psychology and theology.  Even in the late 1970’s the relationship between these disciplines was cautious and tentative.

            Although the Church (and all monotheistic faiths in general) ignored the role of the mind in theology, twentieth century scholars realized the mind is key to understanding our relationship with God and the role of religion in cosmic life.   Paul Tillich, for example, was influenced by the work of Carl Jung and developed his notion of God as ground and symbol, based on Jung’s notion of the collective unconsciousness.   Teilhard de Chardin was apparently influenced by Jung’s ideas as well.  It is said that Jung was reading Teilhard’s Human Phenomenon shortly before he died; a copy was found on his night table.  Jung, Tillich and Teilhard, among others, attempted to incorporate both psychological and theological insights into their work, thereby challenging the formerly rigid boundaries separating the two areas of thought.  Jung in particular was critical of religion and what he saw as its destructive potential. He attacked certain Christian doctrines, for example, the origin of evil as the privation of the good, as psychologically inadequate and even proposed the restructuring of Christianity. He went so far as to describe Jesus as an incomplete symbol of wholeness, incapable of expressing the fullness of the human self.  Although Jung’s psychology is not exclusively positive in its evaluation of religion (and Christianity in particular), he attempted to articulate a theology which would be more open to religious phenomena and their doctrinal expression. From Jung’s own perspective, his criticisms made possible a deeper appreciation of Christian symbols and doctrines by revealing their source in the depths of the psyche.

Jung’s psychology was a sustained effort to re-connect the individual and through the individual, society with the depths of their own souls and the fuller life such reconnection offered.

A master at putting complex epistemology into succinct psychological terms, Jung wrote:  ‘It is therefore psychologically quite unthinkable for God to be “wholly other,” for a “wholly other” could never be one of the soul’s deepest and closest intimacies, which is precisely what God is” (Jung 1944).  He lamented the ecclesial suppression of pantheism, as did Teilhard de Chardin.  In Jung’s estimate, the dissociation of body and spirit remains problematic, for the contemporary spirit is now reduced to intellectual and technological superficiality. His abiding sense of a radical immanence came to mean that divinity approaches consciousness from no other source than ‘one’s own inner being.’  In recovering a wider sense of the holy, humanity would also be birthing a new myth of the co-redemption of the divine and human in one single and historically prolonged process. This myth would redeem the divine as the expressive source of a much more inclusive totality, even as it redeemed humanity in a much more inclusive human sympathy extended to all that is.

            Jung’s ideas on religion are radical and yet wholly consonant with modern science and psychology.   What he did from the perspective of psychology, Teilhard de Chardin did from the perspective of biological evolution.   Both mystics realized the need for a renewed pantheism, a word that has been sacrilegious in most religious circles.   Yet, quantum physics invites a new understanding of “pan”-“theism,” the ubiquity and simultaneity, indeed, the entanglement, of God and matter.  A renewed pantheism, a Christian pantheism, as Teilhard described, could renew the infinite mystery of the human person and the capacity for divine inclusion in the wholeness of life.

Theology has ignored psychology for too long and we can no longer afford to do so.  The human mind has become desperate for wholeness and meaning in the 21st century which, in my view, undergirds the rapid rise of computer technology and artificial intelligence.  It is time to accept the death of the old mythic God and to welcome the birth of the new God.   What if we were to suspend all that we have learned about God and allow psychology and modern science to provide new insights on revelation? Or are the stories told century after century so indelibly inscribed that to suspend them would be anathema?  The extent to which we can answer these questions is a measure of our faith, for God is mystery, and mystery can never be reduced to a single explanation or doctrine.  We must make every effort to move beyond the old mythic God and open up to the entanglement of divinity and cosmic life in evolution, for we are not simply related to God, as Abraham Heschel realized, we are part of God’s own life.

Notes: 

[1]  Ursula King, “The Death of God and the Rebirth of God,” The Modern Churchman 18 (1974): 18-30; Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy,  239.

[2]  Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy,  281.

[3]  Jim Marion,  The Death of the Mythic God (Charlottesville, VA:  Hampton Roads Publ., 2004), 9.

[4]  Marion, Death of the Mythic God, p. 8

[5]  Marion, Death of the Mythic God, 28-9.

[6]  Kevin J. Sharpe, “Relating the Physics and Metaphysics of David Bohm,”

[7] Susan Borowski, “Quantum Mechanics and the Consciousness Connection,” AAAS (July 16, 2010)

[8]   Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? Trans. Verena Schrödinger (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012, reprint edition), 93- 5.

[9]   Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life? Trans. Verena Schrodinger (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012, reprint edition), 93- 5.

[10]   Bertrand Russell, “Mind and Matter,” 1950

[11]  Gaylen Strawson,  “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery.  Its Matter,” New York Times (May 16, 2016)

[12] Strawson, “Consciousness Isn’t A Mystery.”

[13] Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, 119.

[14] In Ursula King, Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions: Spirituality and Mysticism in an Evolutionary World (Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 2011), 179 – 80.

 

25 Total Articles

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