Terry Eagleton's book, Culture and the Death of God runs parallel to the parts of Taylor's book that trace out the West's march toward secularism and the possibility for atheistic humanism. Eagleton's book, however, starts at the Enlightenment and focuses more on the history of ideas than in changes to the social imaginary. It's a dynamic process, of course, Ideas change because the imaginary does, and the imaginary changes in response to new ideas. What's possible to think is limited by the imaginary, but the imaginary is in continuous development as material conditions change the world and our thinking about the world changes in response.
So, for instance, it was not possible to think of Nature as a machine while the social imaginary was still dominated by Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas about formal and final causality. As soon as Aristotle and Plato are thrown out, efficient causality and instrumental reason become the only legitimate ways to think about the natural world, and our imagination of the cosmos changes from something humans thought of before as organic and alive with spirit to something that is disenchanted and mechanical. And the legitimacy of this mechanistic imaginary is reinforced by the material and technological advances that follow. The price we pay, however, is with the atrophying of the soul and the hypertrophying of meaninglessness that comes with what Taylor calls the 'buffered self'. This is the kind of human native to modernity who feels cut off from the social and natural worlds around him rather than feeling deeply embedded within them. Meaning comes with connection--or to use the Christian word, 'communion'.
In Part 4 of my reading of Taylor's A Secular Age, I trace the process by which the personal God of Christian revelation becomes depersonalized, first by the way the radical Reformers stress God's remote transcendence, greatness, and inscrutability. This is a God before whom we humans skulk as depraved and inconsequential sinners all deserving of eternal damnation. This is a God, who because of his inscrutable mercy, nevertheless sees fit to predestine a few for salvation and most for the damnation we all deserve except for that selective application of his mercy.
This is a God who more closely resembles the judgmental, juridical, jealous God in parts of the Old Testament than the God who is revealed in the Gospels. After the vicious religious wars of the late 16th and early 17th century, there were good reasons for decent people to think that they needed some relief from the God in whose name everyone, Protestant and Catholic alike, were so willing to slaughter one another. So in some quarters of Latin Christendom, this deeply unattractive and un-Christian God starts to morph into the impersonal God of the Deists, a god who created the universe but who does not intervene in human affairs.
The Enlightenment rationalists' god created a world that was benevolent in its design, but after he got things running, he left the scene. There was in it no need to be saved, and so no need of a savior or of revelation or grace or much of traditional Christianity at all. Everything that was worth knowing was knowable by reason. It was enough that humans have the wit to discern in the world's design God's benevolent intentions that humans should thrive. The human project was no longer to cravenly worship a despotic God but to assert a new sense of human dignity and autonomy. The task now was for humans to use their God-given intelligence, i.e., instrumental reason, to discern the engineering logic of the cosmos so as to exploit it for human benefit. The Lisbon earthquake in 1755 was a shock to the idea of a benevolently designed cosmos, because it was an anomaly inexplicable within its framework. A hundred years later, the educated classes have become Darwinians: the universe is no longer run by a benevolent logic, but by one that in addition to being impersonal, is random and cruel.
And so if God didn't create a benevolent universe after all, but rather a cruel one where bad things happen to good people, who needs him? Humans can get along very nicely without him, and the possibility for an atheistic humanism emerges, one that wants to retain much of the Christian morality, but without its ontological grounding. The problems of theodicy that come with the traditional idea of God were too big in their minds to overcome. Best just to ditch any idea of God at all.
An 'exclusive' humanism develops that seeks to retain what the best in the religious traditions affirms: justice, goodness, truth, magnanimity, etc. These are purely human possibilities without any need of transcendent grounding. The atheist can assert in all sincerity that he strives to be a moral person, and can believe that he is morally superior to believers precisely because he does what's right for its own sake, not because he fears punishment or because it's a downpayment on one of the bigger mansions in the kingdom to come. And this idea that human decency and moral behavior are possible without any reference to God has since become a commonplace in secular societies. Well, less so in America, but certainly a commonplace among its cosmopolitan, university-educated class.
Eagleton's book traces this process to what he describes as an 'authentic atheism', which really isn't accomplished until the anti-humanist post-Nietzscheans of the last forty years or so. Eagleton shows that it's not so easy to kill God, that even Nietzsche didn't quite do it; we must keep finding substitutes for him. If for the Enlightenment rationalist the substitution was the Deist clockmaker God, for the German idealists it was the Absolute, and for the Romantics it was the creative Self and the elan inherent in Nature. For the Victorians like Matthew Arnold it was 'culture', the kind of thing that morphed later into the ethical culture movement. It seeks to preserve what's best in human ethical aspiration and creative achievement without all the metaphysical folderol. Then Nietzsche comes along and says, I don't think so. Either there's a God or there isn't, and if there isn't, then you're ridiculous if you constrain yourself by traditional moral codes. You need to free yourself from all that b.s. Here's Eagleton on this:
Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested. You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand. The death of God, he argues in The Joyful Wisdom, is the most momentous event of human history, yet men and women are behaving as though it were no more than a minor readjustment. The time has come, then, to renounce the consoling fantasy that you can do away with God without also putting paid to Man. As Gilles Deleuze comments in Difference and Repetition, "God is retained so long as the Self is preserved." In Nietzsche’s eyes, all such essences involve some hint of celestial design or metaphysical substratum. Unless these, too, are rooted out, men and women will continue to languish in the shadow of the Almighty.
Of the various artificial respirators on which God has been kept alive, one of the most effective is morality. “It does not follow, Feuerbach anxiously insists," that goodness, justice and wisdom are chimaeras because the existence of God is a chimaera.” Perhaps not; but in Nietzsche’s view it does not follow either that we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality, for example, must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in a chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience or obligation in the first place. (156-57)
And so for Nietzsche, if you are going to take the death of God seriously, you must understand that it
must herald the death of man, in the sense of the craven, guilt-ridden, dependent creature who bears that name at present. What will replace him is the Overman. Yet in his sovereignty over Nature and lordly self-dependence, the Overman has more than a smack of divinity about him, which means, ironically that God is not dead after all. What will replace him continues to be an image of him. (159)
And so Nietzsche insofar as he substitutes the uebermensch/Overman for him, isn't quite able to kill God either, and the irony doesn't end there--
That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine, a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware. The Incarnation is the place where both God and Man undergo a kind of kenosis or self-humbling, symbolized by the self-dispossession of Christ. Only through this tragic self–emptying can a new humanity hope to emerge. In its solidarity with the outcast and afflicted, the crucifixion is a critique of all hubristic humanism. The death of God is the life of the iconoclast Jesus who shatters the idolatrous view of Yahweh as irascible despot and shows him up instead as vulnerable flesh and blood.
So much for Nietzsche's uprooting all the deepest theological roots. if you're going to claim to be an authentic, god-is-dead atheist, you have to take it even further than Nietzsche did, which is what the postmodern thinkers do. As Deleuze quoted above suggests, If you are going to kill God, you must kill the human Self:
If Romanticism seeks to replace God with the fathomless, infinite, all-powerful subject, as Carl Schmitt argues in his Political Romanticism, postmodernism, in Perry Anderson’s words, represents a “subjectivism without a subject.” If God is dead, then Man himself, who once dreamed of filling his shoes is also near his term. There is not much left to disappear. (192)
The postmodern subject, like the Ubermensch, is clay in its own hands, able to change shape at its own behest; but by the same token it lacks the indomitable will with which Nietzsche’s post-human animal bends reality to his demands.
Since Man is no longer to be seen primarily as agent or creator, he is no longer in danger of being mistaken for the Supreme Being. He has finally attained maturity, but only at the cost of relinquishing his identity. He is not to be seen as self-determining, which is what freedom means for the likes of Kant and Hegel. The self is no longer coherent enough to be so. This is certainly one way in which postmodernism is post-theological, since it is God above all who is One, and who is the ground of his own being. It follows that if you want to be shot of him, you need to refashion the concept of subjectivity itself, which is just what postmodernism seeks to do. (189-90)
The only way to kill God for good is to kill the idea of humanity. So be careful what you wish for. Is this post-modern anti-humanism something that is anything more than a thought experiment taken on by bored intellectuals who want to take the death of God idea to its logical conclusion? If you take the death of God to its necessary conclusion, then you see the kind of fatuous human being that you are left with--Nietzsche called him the Last Man. Eagleton goes on to say that the anti-human project of the postmodern thinkers is easier to accomplish --
...if the capitalist system happens to be in transit from the subject as producer to the subject as consumer. Consumers are passive, diffuse, provisional subjects, which is not quite how the Almighty is traditionally portrayed. As long as men and women are seen as producers, labourers, manufacturers or self-fashioners, God can never quite expire. Behind every act of production lurks an image of creation, and one act of production in particular—art—rivals that of the Almighty himself. Not even he, however, can survive the advent of Man the Eternal Consumer. (189-90)
Who would be insane enough to wish for a humanity fitting this description if there was another plausible option?
This alternative within the current social imaginary is not easy for many to grasp yet, but it is profound in its implications, and it brings into focus the very difficult to understand, because so profound, implications of the events from Good Friday through Easter. If, as Christians and Jews have claimed for thousands of years, humans are created in the image and likeness of God, then what we know about being human is commensurate with what we know about God, and Christians claim to know something about God because of the way he revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
Our knowledge of God is, therefore, commensurate with our ability to know ourselves, and vice versa. Feuerbach had it half right. He thought that God was a projection of characteristics that belonged to man, and that we attribute to God what humans need to claim for themselves, i.e., that human beings, contra Calvin's view of man as depraved and powerless, need to embrace God's attributes as their own if they are to come into their own.
But it does not follow that God is therefore merely a projected chimera. For if God is a chimera, so then are humans, or at least our current understanding of what it means to be human, including the mainstream understanding of atheistic humanists, is chimerical. For Christians the reverse is true. God projects himself into us, and insofar as we work with that, we become more deeply human. This is the meaning of the Incarnation: it was the definitive projection of God into the human being. This is admittedly a heavy lift for most moderns to accept.
I would go so far as to say that most who claim to be Christians don't understand or accept it. Most Christians see Christian belief as comprising mainly a morality code that is validated by its transcendent provenance. And surely there is a Christian morality and practice, but it is not an end in itself. It has validity only as a means to an end, and it has validity as long as it promotes rather than obstructs human movement toward that end. The telos of Christian morality is the agapic achievement of communion, and any kind of Christian behavior or belief that obstructs the movement toward greater levels of communion is illegitimate. Nothing, IMO, could be clearer from any clear-headed reading of the Gospels or Paul's epistles.
So why is communion so hard to achieve? Calvin had it partially right in that there is something deeply wrong about the human condition. But he his wrong that we are depraved. Rather we are broken, soul shattered, incapable of being what we long to be and were created to be. Genesis depicts Adam's sin as an act of disobedience. Ok, but I think of the Genesis story as very closely related to the story of Icarus's defying his father. He like Adam and Eve over-reached; they took on more than they could handle. They aspired to something that was worthy of their aspiration, but without the capacity to attain it, like swimming the English Channel without having trained for it. And the consequences that followed were not so much punishment as the result of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.
God's warning to Adam and Eve, like that of Daedelus to Icarus, was not the warning of a despot to follow arbitrarily imposed rules, but like that of parent talking to spirited teenager. He knows that certain actions are folly and lead to destruction, and he knows he's dealing with somebody who is impatient to realize his full potential but cannot do it in one giant leap. So despite all warnings he leaps, and then comes the all but fatal fall. The human condition, like Icarus's after his crash, was like Humpty Dumpty's. It is concussed, amnesiac, shattered and in need of being put together again, and all the king's horses and all the king's men can't do it. All attempts for humans unaided to assemble the scattered shards of the broken human soul create parodies of the human, from Sun Kings to tinpot dictators, to the more recent project to manufacture a new transhuman version of Frankenstein's monster. They are all cartoon humans compared to the humans we were created to become.
Only God could effect the reintegration of the shattered image, and he achieved that by taking the human soul into himself in his Incarnation, then allowing it to be shattered on the cross, and put back together again in the resurrection. The resurrection body of Christ is the proleptic image of the human being transformed into the fullness for which it was created, the fulfillment of the promise made by the serpent in the garden--to be like God. It is the restored image and likeness of God in the God/Man.
The process of restoration for the rest of us is what the early Greek fathers called thesois. This is an idea of the human that the radical Reformers of the 16th century gave up on. They were justifiably worried about the human tendency to hubris, but went too far in the other direction. For if we are to become human beings capable of deep communion with God, with one another, and with all of creation, that's possible only to the degree that we become transformed. We are transformed to the degree that the shards of our shattered souls are slowly reassembled so that they once again reflect in their fullness the image and likeness of the God that has projected himself into them.
So is God dead, or is it that we're looking for a God that is our projection of what we think a God should be rather than looking for the one who has projected himself into our brokenness? Eagleton puts it nicely--
The absence of God may be occluded by the fetish of Man, but the God who has been disposed of would seem little more than a fetish in the first place. As with William Blake’s Urizen or Nobodaddy, he was a convenient way of shielding humanity eager to be chastised from the intolerable truth that the God of Christianity is friend, lover and fellow accused, not judge, patriarch and superego. He is counsel for the defence, not for the prosecution. Moreover, his apparent absence is part of his meaning. The superstitious would see a sign, but the sign of the Father that counts is a crucified body. For Christian faith, the death of God is not a question of his disappearance. On the contrary it is one of the places where he is mostly fully present. Jesus is not Man standing in for God. He is a sign that God is incarnate in human frailty and futility. Only by living this reality to the full, experiencing one’s death to the very end, can there be a path beyond the tragic. It is not a claim that fits well with the Religion of Humanity. (159-60)
Christianity rightly understood is the Religion of Humanity. Wrongly understood it leads to mistakes that recapitulate the hubristic ur-mistake of Edenic over-reaching, of rushing in where angels fear to tread, of trying to take on something before we are ready. There is a faux-noble, naive idealism that motivates this kind of hubristic action. The French Revolution and its imitators are classic examples. But the opposite is also true, we cannot allow our fear of hubris to be an excuse for inaction.
Because we are not ready for some things now does not mean that we are unready to do what is there for us to do. That's the challenge--to know the difference between hubris and making excuses for complacency. That's what I struggle with, anyway. The challenge at some of the most critical turning points in our lives is to live in the tension between two impulses that pull us in opposite directions. Usually a third, deeper possibility emerges if we are vigiliant enough to discern it. The tension, for instance, between being the one without conviction and being the one driven by passionate intensity is resolved in the ability to have the capacity to discern the right thing to do, and then to do it with quiet resolve, like Tolkien's Ents.
Where is that quiet resolve found? In the part of us that has been restored by the events of the first Holy Week. Those parts are in us all, whether believer or unbeliever. Belief is only important if it leads to a greater openness to the emollient effects of grace on our too rigid and shattered hearts. Too many people who claim to be believers, like the Pharisees depicted in the Gospels, use their mineralized beliefs as a carapace that shuts out that healing balm. Better to be an egregious sinner with a heart of flesh, than a clean-living, moralistic prig with a heart entombed in stone.