Joe Cannon: Perception of the Almighty has changed over the centuries

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 2:47 p.m. MDT

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"God is back." This happy news comes to us from John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist, and will come as a great surprise to those who think God is dead or that he left never to return. For the vast majority of the people, however, it's only mildly amusing since we never thought he left.

The supposed comings and goings of God, however, have been of great interest to the scholarly crowd and various mavens of popular culture. Indeed, the idea of God's death and his return has a very long history. Famously, in 1966, Time magazine featured a cover with the stark question "Is God dead?" Time noted that "even within Christianity ... a small band of radical theologians has seriously argued that the churches must accept the fact of God's death, and get along without him." These theologians, Time notes, "in attempting to work out a new doctrine of God admit that they are uncertain as to the impact of their ultimate findings on other Christian truths; but they agree that such God-related issues as personal salvation in the afterlife and immortality will need considerable restudy."

Just a year before the Time article, Harvey Cox, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, wrote "The Secular City." In the book, Cox suggests "that instead of bemoaning the waning of ecclesial power or the disappearance of the sacral, Christians should concentrate instead on the positive role they could play in the modern secular world." Nearly 20 years later, anticipating Micklethwait and Wooldridge's new discovery, Cox himself discovered that God might be back. In his 1984 book, "Religion in the Secular City, Toward a Postmodern Theology," Cox tells us that "this is a book about the unexpected return of religion as a potent social force in a world many thought was leaving it behind. The problem is that the world of declining religion to which my earlier book was addressed has begun to change in ways that few people anticipated. No one talks much today about the long night of religion or the zero level of its influence on politics."

In the late 19th century, we find the famous Friedrich Nietzsche quote, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. What was holiest and mightiest of all the world has yet owned, has bled to death under our knives. What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become Gods simply to appear worthy of it?"

According to James E. Faulconer, Richard L. Evans professor of religious understanding at Brigham Young University, Nietzsche was only noting that the concept of God had no meaning or use in his supposedly Christian society. The concept of God lost its force because the people had abandoned it. According to Faulconer, Nietzsche, an atheist, believed the Christian concept of God had been an indispensable element in the development of Western civilization but that civilization had moved beyond that belief.

Matthew Arnold, 19th century poet and cultural critic, poignantly echoes Nietzsche's observation. In his poem, "Dover Beach," Arnold writes of "The Sea of Faith" which once surrounded the earth, "But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind." Thus, we are left "on a darkling plain" with "neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."

Whatever one's view of God, it is clear that how He is perceived and the role we mortals allow for him has changed enormously over the centuries. We live today in a secular age, an Age of Modernity, sometimes called the Age of Relativism. There was a time, probably ending in the early 19th century, when everyone at all levels of society and of culture did believe in God. How that changed and when the change began will be the subject of future columns.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail him at cannon@desnews.com

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