What Do We Read and Write Now that God Is Dead, Again?
Will we, can we, take our spiritual writing more seriously because of the lessons of recent events?
I was recently reading a well-known spiritual writer’s latest book that I had bought several months before and just couldn't get to it. I could see it there day after day on the bookshelf next to the fireplace in my living room. But for some reason, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to begin reading it. The last book I read by this author was a joy, one of those books that helps you start your day off right, a book that you look forward to reading a little bit each day.
This new book, however, was different. Even though I saw some good stuff, the writing felt off, a little predictable. Even though the theological topic was a good one, one we need to be thinking about in more honest and sinuous ways, over several sittings the writing seemed almost superfluous. The tone and the style of argumentation came across as curmudgeonly, simplistic, almost guru-like, and lacked a seriousness with everything that is going on in our world today.
Then it happened again with another book, a spiritual self-help-ish book about trying to find balance in our lives. The book just seemed self-absorbed.
Come to think of it, I’ve not been doing much spiritual reading lately, at least not of the kind I had been doing.
Then it hit me how so much has changed in recent months, if not years. We find ourselves in the midst of a generation defining pandemic, with so much economic calamity and most of all, unmourned loss and grief, the worse kind. We’ve seen more clearly than ever an ongoing racism, no question emboldened by one of the most jarring and opportunistic politicians we’ve ever experienced in our media saturated lives. We lived through an election season where this same politician encouraged a great political lie about national election results, which saw one of its logical ends in an historic, violent siege on our nation’s Capitol building. Even now, while a gaining vaccinated population offers a sign of hope, we’ve just witnessed a horrific act of violence on Asian women apparently involved in the sex trade, and at the hands of a young man who was a Southern Baptist church rat.
Considering all this and more, how do we think about our lives going forward?
The phrase “God Is Dead” is attributed to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor who became perhaps the world's most adroit and persnickety atheist. Generally, the late nineteenth century Nietzsche worked to acknowledge the march of the Enlightenment and science for how they redefined our worldview in such a way that we no longer needed a major deity to explain all of life’s experience. Later, theologians in the 1960s made “God Is Dead” popular again when they seriously responded to existentialism and our aloneness from God, particularly in light of the horrors of the Holocaust and mechanistic warfare in the early to mid-twentieth century.
As someone who works in publishing, I find myself asking: In light of the world we live in now, how do we read and write about our spirituality? How do we now do it?
I can’t help but think that all the rules have changed. Could it be we’ve only had more and more assaults on our concepts of God and personal growth, so much so that some of these concepts now seem trite and self-absorbed, resulting in the death of those concepts?
On one hand, I’m strangely grateful that we can now see how so much of our spirituality is perhaps superficial, overly spiritual, and sometimes outright exploitative. Perhaps we’ll work harder to write more honestly. On the other hand, however, I worry that once the shock of the time we’ve been living in subsides, which just like every other shocking phase in history subsides, we will just go back to more of the same shallow, repetitive ideas about God and ourselves. Behaviorally speaking, the human race has changed only so much since we evolved into the bodies and brains we have today.
Will we, can we, take our spiritual writing more seriously because of these recent lessons?
We’ve certainly seen a wonderful trend in books that work to expose the serious fault lines of American Christianity, books I’ve written about here, and you can also find in this New Republic article by Audrey Clare Farley here. Interestingly, a lot of those books anticipated in general ways the possible outcomes we’ve been seeing in our society today. Much as they’re clearly filling a void for our how we understand our world, most of these books are historical and social analysis. I wonder instead what the next trend will be for personal, spiritual and theological analysis. More books on the individual journey of leaving authoritarian religion, perhaps especially for the marginalized? More books on the ways of authentic living? More books on how our religious traditions encourage us to engage in the here and now, and not the hereafter?
I now believe there’s a reason I couldn’t get to that author’s book for several months. Things have indeed dramatically changed. Maybe even that author has changed since the book was written. I’m now going to be on the look out for writers creating content for the time we live in right now, and who will heed its lessons. I hope you will, too.