Short of the Mark
The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization
By Michael Harrington
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Review Author: Arthur F. McGovern
“God, one of the most important political figures in Western history, is dying.” Thus speaks Michael Harrington, echoing Nietzsche’s judgment a century before. Like Nietzsche, Harrington is an atheist. But like him also, he worries about the consequences of God’s anticipated death. The Judeo-Christian God once served to legitimize (and occasionally challenge) the social order. Religious values laid a foundation for all other values. God was a guarantor of personal and even national identity. As God slowly dies, Harrington argues, society suffers from a crisis of legitimacy. The Protestant ethic has given way to hedonism; moral values are relativized; we are losing all sense of duty, and substituting sex and drugs for more noble aspirations.
With his thesis dramatically stated at the outset, Harrington goes back three centuries in history to chronicle the slow, but inevitable, “death of God.” He begins with the Enlightenment when philosophers attempted to replace religion with “Reason.” They were effective in undermining religion, but failed to provide a workable substitute, and the void they created has continued on into contemporary culture.
Thinkers who wanted to preserve religion often did the most to undo its influence (a thesis Harrington uses throughout the book). The great scientists (e.g., Galileo, Kepler, Newton) whose theories challenged traditional world views, were themselves religious men. Immanuel Kant wanted to protect faith, but by criticizing proofs for the existence of God, he cut away the ontological foundation of faith.
Hegel, says Harrington, spent his life seeking ways to cope with the death of God. Yet he, too, by elevating philosophy over religion, contributed to the death of God. His emphasis on the state as an embodiment of reason, while not intended as a deification of the political, nevertheless made the state a replacement for God.
Marx welcomed the death of God because he was convinced that communism would provide the bond of social harmony and individual liberty needed as a substitute for religion. But Marxism-Leninism, Harrington recognizes, failed to provide the truly human society in which God’s disappearance would not be missed. Lenin and subsequent communist leaders resorted to the enforcement of atheism as a state religion. Communism has failed and religion is dying; a slack, hedonistic capitalism has become the only heir to God in Western society.
Nietzsche was harshly critical of Christian morality, but he took religion quite seriously. He was appalled by the death of God and saw capitalism, nationalism, and militarism as destructive forces which would attempt to fill the void. But Nietzsche offered no social alternative and ended in cultural despair. Capitalism, Harrington continues, first expressed itself in religious terms, in a Calvinistic asceticism which viewed productive work as a call to give glory to God. But capitalists soon lost sight of the “glory of God” and only the “means” remained. The economy itself became the regulator of social order, as religion lost its force as an organizing principle.
“God’s Christian Burial,” says Harrington, has often been the work of Christian philosophers and theologians. Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard undermined the objective truth of Christianity and made faith a question of feelings and attitudes. Karl Barth created a theology for “a God who is no longer there” by making God “wholly other” and by making faith a “leap into the void.” Bultmann, Tillich, and others reduced religious doctrines to human terms which earlier Christians would have considered blasphemous.
Turning finally to contemporary American Christianity, Harrington challenges studies that purport to prove that religious beliefs are still pervasive and strong in the United States. In a concluding chapter, Harrington then reaffirms his thesis: God is dying, a death which fundamentalist reactionaries cannot reverse. But we need the transcendental values religion can no longer provide. So Harrington calls for atheistic humanists and Christians to end their conflict and join in working for new social values: participatory democracy, community, social incentives, and a sense of global identity.
How should one assess Harrington’s latest work? As a work of intellectual history, it is an insightful, clearly written, and truly erudite book. Its tone — remarkable for a fallen-away Roman Catholic — is respectful. One might complain that it is a “selective” intellectual history. We are given, for example, only Kant’s critiques of the proofs for God’s existence and not his arguments from practical reason for the moral necessity of belief in God. But this problem is not fundamental.
Far more problematic is Harrington’s central thesis: that God is dying. The problem lies with the ambiguity of this expression. In his concluding chapter Harrington states that God no longer serves as the “social cement” that holds society together. But this is hardly a novel insight, as Harrington’s own historical account makes clear, and seems an insufficient ground for writing a new book.
But Harrington seems to be saying more: that religion no longer provides any significant social-motivating force for Christians and Jews who still constitute the majority in Western society, or at least in the U.S. Yet in only one final chapter does Harrington attempt to show any “new” evidence for the death of God, and the evidence is less than convincing. He hardly proves that “God is dying.” Decline in church attendance among Roman Catholics may show that the questioning of Church authority (over birth control and other issues) has taken its toll, but it has not significantly changed belief in God. Wholly absent from Harrington’s treatment, moreover, is any discussion of the resurgence of a politically oriented Christianity in Latin America or of the growth of Christianity in Africa.
I suspect, finally, that this latest book will have little political impact. I say this reluctantly because I share Harrington’s social values. The small percentage of atheist humanists in the U.S., united to what Harrington views as the declining ranks of socially concerned Christians, does not quite constitute a powerful coalition.
In short, as a work of intellectual history, Harrington’s book is fascinating and informative. As a convincing argument for his major thesis and concluding position, it falls quite short of its mark.
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