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If someone were to ask: “How do things stand with the ‘God Question?’” many of us would be inclined to respond spontaneously: “Is there such a question?”

“Certainly not!” maintain the thoroughgoing rationalists and scientists, who claim that the concept of God cannot be presented in any way as an understandable, noncontradictory intellectual construction. Before we ask the “Question,” we are told, we have to know what the question is about. Therefore, we must have at our disposal a clear conception of God before formulations such as “God exists” or “God does not exist” or “Does God exist?” can be taken up as objects of reflection. This, however, is impossible. Every abstract formulation of God is either contradictory or unintelligible as a matter of principle, because it can in no way be brought into contact with empirical reality. Because of this, the “Question” is empty.

But neither does the “God Question” exist for any believer—if there are such people—whose inherited belief remains rock-solid and unshakable. They know without a doubt that they live in a world directed by God. And for those chosen souls who have shared in the blessing of mystical experience, perhaps the word “faith” is inappropriate. For faith is only active when a shadowy distance arouses the potential for uncertainty between the perceiver and the perceived. In mystical experience, all distance is removed. These people, naturally, do not pose themselves any “God Question.”

Even for convinced atheists—if there are such people—there cannot be any “God Question.” They know, without any doubt, that science has conclusively driven God out of the world, and that the image of God is an expression either of the leftovers of old superstitions and ignorance, or of a psychological defense mechanism, or of social conflicts.

The world in which we live, however, is not a world of people who are fixed in satisfied and contented lives of belief or unbelief. It is much more an era of refugees and exiles, the “eternal Jew” searching for a lost—spiritual or physical—homeland. In this nomadic life nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed, nothing is finally set in stone, nothing—apart from wandering—is unquestionably given.

A God who once confirmed the well-established order of values, social relations, rules of thought, and the physical cosmos and who was meant to be the dome over this order is no longer there because the order itself is no longer visible. So long as people could trust the durability of this order, the godless also had their place in it (I only have the Christian-European civilization in view). Whether they counted as mistaken, as crazy, or as messengers from hell, their place within the recognized world order was accounted for. Whether they were also persecuted, punished, or sentenced to death, they were in a sense fortunate, because not only was their cause secure, it was also spiritually worry-free.

But along with the self-confidence of belief, the self-confidence of unbelief has also been broken. In contrast to the cozy world of old, protected by the well-intentioned, friendly Nature of the atheistic Enlightenment, the godless world of today is perceived as an afflicted, eternal chaos. It is robbed of all meaning, all direction, all road signs, and all structure. Thus spoke Zarathustra. For over a hundred years, since Nietzsche announced the death of God, one has rarely seen cheerful atheists. A world in which a person is left to his own powers, in which he has declared himself a free lawgiver for any order of good and evil, in which he—freed from the condition of a slave of God—had hoped to recapture his lost worth, this world has transformed itself into a place of endless worry. The absence of God became the ever more open wound of the European spirit, even as it slipped off into oblivion, brought on by an artificial anesthetic. Let us simply compare the godless world of Diderot, Helvétius, and Feuerbach with that of Kafka, Camus, and Sartre. The collapse of Christianity that was so joyfully awaited by the Enlightenment took place almost simultaneously with the collapse of the Enlightenment itself. The new, shining order of anthropocentrism that was built up in place of the fallen God never came. What happened? Why was the fate of atheism in such a strange way tied to that of Christianity, so that the two enemies accompanied one another in their misfortune and in their insecurity?

The history of Christianity certainly left us with great testimonials of spiritual restlessness from different periods: in the writings of the young Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. But restlessness as the quality of the spirit par excellence, its quidditas (“this-ness”), is a sign of our time and our culture, which lives and goes forward in a creative “swing” and that we all experience as a sickening—even if we cannot agree on a diagnosis. Is the place abandoned by God the source of this sickness? Was Kierkegaard right when he said that all despair about earthly things is actually—and without us necessarily being aware of this—despair about the Eternal? We cannot, naturally, prove this; we can only suspect it.

This suspicion not only haunts the world of the intellectual, the philosopher, and the poet, but also that of the European spirit in its customary daily life. Restlessness torments and lays waste to the active poles of religious culture—Christianity and godlessness; it can also be seen in the widespread indifference that appears today as the main form of spiritual life. Even within apparent apathy, the disturbing void cannot be completely disguised. Behind all our successes and experiences lurks the apocalyptic warning: “You maintain: I am rich and well and lack nothing. But you do not know that, all the while, you are wretched and pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

It is often said that secularization arises from, on the one hand, the progress of science, whose role has so powerfully grown in every area of our lives and in which God no longer has a place; and on the other hand, from the inability of Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, to overcome the great social problems that have followed from industrialization. On this view, Christianity has proven itself numb to new social conflicts and needs because its eyes are incessantly directed only toward heaven and toward God. Having been forgotten, earthly things must take care of themselves.

Neither part of this popular opinion appears credible to me. Concerning the first, it is certainly true that God is not an empirical hypothesis that allows itself to be scientifically tested or presented, or ever will be so presented. The insufficiency of our knowledge in this regard is inescapable. There is no logically accessible passage from empirical knowledge, however far it might be extended, to infinity, not to mention to an intentionally active, personally conceived Providence. Ever since the seventeenth century, when scientific research separated itself from theology and religious worship and codified its procedural rules, its support and its foundational methods have been completely indifferent to the “God Question.” The point of this codification was to make scientific results into tools of prediction, and through this to place natural phenomena under human control.

That God could be driven from the world through such means is not at all credible, unless one confuses science with scientific rationalism. The latter—that is, the rule according to which the value of knowledge is determined by the unmistaken application of scientific rules—is an arbitrary epistemological doctrine devised by philosophers who intended to undermine religious belief. Scientism is neither a logical consequence of science, nor—one may plausibly maintain—its social consequence. Even if they have developed parallel to one another, this was not because science causally begat scientism. Of course their connection was not accidental. Scientific rationalism is grounded on normative principles and expresses a specific hierarchy of values. God is excluded from the scientific conception of the world because it excludes everything that does not allow itself to be used in the human drive for lordship over nature.

In fact, both Christian theology and its popular construction were not innocent in the confusion between rational knowledge and faith, in that they are the ones who tried to convince people that one could discover God’s justice in the world empirically and could magically harness Him in our strivings and passions. This fundamentally anti-Christian point of view is precisely what one must call superstition. The superstition consists in conceiving of God as a machine that—thanks to the application of the correct technique—will produce the desired effects, as if, for example, prayer were a technical operation that, if it were carefully enough carried out, would bring us perfectly predicted results.

To the extent that Christian teaching furthered such superstitious attitudes it contributed fatefully to its own demise. This also applies to theology that claims to practice “scientific theology.” When belief vies with science for the use of the same criteria, it is damned to become a pseudo-science whose efforts are always frustrated and whose claims will be disproved at every step. The more that the confusion of belief with profane knowledge spread, the more people—especially cultured people—felt compelled to leave belief to the mercy of superstition. The Christian worldview is and remains a clear-sighted vision of human fate. “Scientific theology,” by contrast, is a superstition.

In this sense, one may maintain that scientific rationalism had a healing effect on culture, in that it contributed to the cleansing of superstition from Christianity and gave it back a better self-understanding of its calling. Atheism and scientism strengthen one another; that goes without saying. But, once again, neither of the two counts as a true product of science. The origin of both can be much better sought in cultural facts, in our inclination to scorn everything that appears useless to our libidinous quest for lordship and our urge to possess. The present crisis of trust in science and technology in the face of its dangerous results may weaken the ideologies of scientific rationalism. The crisis itself, however, has nothing to do with the validity or lack of validity of the norms of scientific knowledge.

To say, then, that Christianity has suffered such great losses because it is not “scientific” enough appears to me to be astonishingly naive. One must assert the opposite: whenever Christianity wants to shore up its “scientific” value it can only lead to a powerless pseudo-knowledge, and it was precisely such claims that produced the unproductive conflicts with science. It was precisely Christianity’s fear of defining itself in clear opposition to rationalism that led not only to the erosion of faith but also to the fruitless attempts to attack science. Because even the idea of a contradiction between science and faith was predicated on a concept of faith as a kind of profane knowledge.

The same is true about the second reproach, in which Christianity, because it is only concerned with spiritual values, has neglected concern for the earthly community and has neither sought nor found answers to the horrible social problems of modernity. With this it has damned itself to ruin. But isn’t it more accurate to affirm the opposite view? The error of the Church exists much more in the fact that it tied its moral claim unambiguously to a specific social doctrine, since in doing so it exposed itself to the reproach that it melded its eternal values with contemporary social forms—that is, the holy with the profane.

There were, I believe, well-founded elements in the attacks that the socialists of the nineteenth century directed against the church hierarchy. The stance of the Church in the face of social change and the fate of the poor and abused was worthy of criticism. We err, however, when we say that the Church thought only about another world, or that it should have concentrated more on temporal life and suffering. On the contrary, it is more truthful to say that the Church was too much a prisoner of existing social structures, and often gave the impression that these structures were definitively based upon unchangeable Christian values.

Christianity is continuously threatened by the same temptation, but coming in two opposing variations. It doesn’t involve forgetting the earth, but rather forgetting the unavoidably relative value of earthly affairs. Both variations further godlessness, in that they appear to fudge the boundary between the holy and the profane—or even to eliminate it. But there is nothing profane—no social or intellectual end—that Christianity would be better prepared than temporal powers to defend. However much Christianity may wish to engage the things of temporal politics and social conflicts, it nevertheless must perceive all temporal goods as relative. Yet neither can the Church be entirely apolitical, since it is, after all, an organ of culture. It must therefore remain vigilant about refusing to identify itself with any existing political organization or movement.

The old ties between the Church and temporal social orders were just as dangerous for the cause of Christianity as the new attempts to connect the Christian idea with the political ideologies of revolutionary messianism. Neither of these tendencies fulfills the hope of a renewal in the vitality of the Christian message. In both we sense the temptation to subordinate this message to temporal ends—that is, to the temptation to transform God into a tool, a potential object of human manipulation. The (weakened but not yet dead) theocratic tendency—the disastrous, unsuccessful hope that humanity could be led to redemption through coercion—and the apparently opposing effort to subordinate Christian values to this or that revolutionary ideology run together in their fundamental point of view. Both transform God into an instrument of ends that, whether justified or not, may never be considered final from a Christian perspective. Each of them runs the risk of converting the Christian community into a political party. Therefore both represent an inner corrosion of Christianity. It has always been the case that the greatest threat comes from the enemies within the walls.

Described so generally, the situation does not appear new. The entire history of Christian teaching can be considered an unending struggle over the boundary line between the sacred and the profane. The strongest spiritual revolutions that appear as interruptions in this history were usually attempts to stop the process of profanization, to give Christianity back its original calling, and to work against its domination by temporal interests. Such upheavals were never without a price and never completely successful. The danger could never finally be set aside because it lies in the nature of Christianity itself, in the eternal tension between its temporal and its sacral self-interpretation. The Church is and must remain both a repository of Godly grace and at the same time an organism existing in this world, culturally determined, historically modified, and acting with temporal means.

We have the Gospels to bear witness to solidarity with the poor, with the oppressed, with the unfortunate, and with the defenseless—we do not have a Gospel to announce the promise of an earth without evil, without suffering, and without conflicts. We have Gospels to damn those who, in their comfort and their glory, remain deaf to the suffering and the hunger of the disinherited—we have no Gospel to preach social equality or inequality, or to prescribe a recipe for a complete social system through which all human drives and desires are fulfilled and all frustrations are set aside. We have Gospels to denounce tyrants and persecutors—we have no Gospel with which to make a pact with one form of tyranny against another in the name of chiliastic dreams. A Christianity in which it is quietly accepted that God stands ready to serve us, to protect any kind of cause, doctrine, ideology, or political party, is disguised godlessness.

In this sense one can say that both the inherited theocratic tendency and Christian “progressivism” have furthered dechristianization. What people seek in religion is—mirabile dictu—God, and not the justification of political values or “scientific” explanations of nature. Christianity that bows down before intellectual and political fashions in the search for momentary success participates in its own destruction. It can never match or surpass science in the application of scientific criteria to Christian teaching. It can never match or surpass the promise of earthly happiness offered by political ideologies, and when it tries to do so it unavoidably shows its powerlessness and irrelevance. Christianity sees human fate in light of the Gospels and the Book of Job—and not in the categories that theocratic, technocratic, or revolutionary utopias have formulated.

Perhaps—and this is of course only free speculation—dechristianization will in the long run prove itself favorable to the cause of Christianity. It should not be horrifying that a Christianity that was accustomed to being identified with power politics and diplomatic intrigue on the one hand, and with fanaticism and raw clericalism on the other, has come to an end. Out of the painful but cleansing purgatory of a ruthless, profane history, perhaps a Christianity will emerge that is truer to its own spirit. Perhaps.

It is rightly said that Christianity must alter the language of its teaching and conform itself to transformations within civilization. It has done so without enormous difficulties more than once. In this process of adaptation the danger always arises that in the search for new forms the content will be forgotten. It appears to be the case that the European of today is mostly deaf to the conventional language of theology. That Thomism was of immense importance in cultural history no one can doubt. But as a conceptual framework in which we are able to capture the cosmos today, it has reached its limits.

The problem is not—as one often hears—that the traditional teaching is “incomprehensible” for contemporary people. There is no ground for the opinion that we have suddenly become dumb, that something that was understandable for the people of the Middle Ages has become inaccessible for us. What matters most is simply the distance between the daily life of our experience and the inherited theological idiom. The search for meaning in the world must not only take into account the order or disorder of the surrounding civilization—all of its components included—as its point of departure, but it must also be conscious of what expressions the permanent presence of evil in human fate take in the specific disturbances, sufferings, and worries of that civilization.

We urgently prayed to God to leave the world. This He has done, at our request. A gaping hole remains. We constantly pray to this hole, without result. No one answers. We are angry or disappointed. Is this a proof of the nonexistence of God?

What is new in our experience? Evil? It was always with us and came from us. Is it really much greater than before? Occasionally we ask rhetorically: Where was God in Auschwitz, in Kolyma, with all the genocide, torture, war, and atrocity? Why did He remain idle? But that is a bad question. Apart from the fact that the monstrous horrors that humans have carried out against humans were not unknown in any period of history, that genocide, bloodbaths, and torture always occurred, that evil—the evil in us—never ceases to work, we smuggle into such a question the idea of a God whose incessant duty it is, through miracles, to protect humans against their own evil and to make them happy despite their self-inflicted wounds. But a God who acts as a magical power in the service of our prevailing needs was never actually the God of Christian faith or the God of any other great faith—however frequently such impressions appear in folk religions. Otherwise one should expect that the early Christian martyrs would have immediately lost their faith, since God offered them no miraculous help to free them from the hands of their executioners. Belief in miracles was naturally always there, but so was the warning that one can never rely upon miracle.

No, Auschwitz and Kolyma are not the cause of godlessness. Many people succumb to the temptation to consider that, because such monstrosities were the work of godless people, they should be used in the defense of the cause of God. But this temptation is dangerous because history contains too much cruelty at the hands of the pious.

People of today who observe evil in their time are not moved by it to unbelief. The way in which they perceive evil is already determined by their unbelief, so that their perceptions of both evil and unbelief are reciprocally strengthened. The same holds for believers. They perceive evil in light of their faith, and so their faith will not in each moment be weakened, but rather affirmed. It is therefore not credible that evil in our time makes the presence of God doubtful. There is no compelling logical or psychological connection.

The same is also true for science. Even if Pascal discovered with horror the “eternal silence” of infinite Cartesian space, both silence and the language of God are indeed in the ear of the one who listens. His presence or absence is in belief or unbelief, and each of the two, once acquired, will necessarily be affirmed by all observations.

The meaning of the godless Enlightenment has still not been revealed, because the breakdown of old belief and of the Enlightenment—before our eyes and in our souls—is reflected simultaneously. Do we live in a “transition period”? To say this is almost tautological: there have never in history been anything other than transition periods. But where are we transiting to? That we cannot know. One can plausibly claim that the Enlightenment, together with its godlessness, was the condition of all the intellectual and technical achievements of modernity. And yet the “uneasiness with the Enlightenment” now becomes ever more tangible. Was Carl Gustav Jung right when he said that in mythological archetypes, God’s death always precedes His resurrection? Do we therefore live in the horrible time between Friday and Sunday, during which the Redeemer, already dead and not yet resurrected, visits hell? We also cannot know that. We are sure only of our own insecurity.

Finally, a point about coincidences. Consider the following historical counterfactuals:

  • In the year 490 B.C., the Persian army, as expected, annihilated the much weaker infantry of the Athenians at Marathon.

  • In the year 44 b.c. , the fifty-six-year-old Julius Caesar followed the advice of the seer Spurinna and did not go to the Senate.

  • In A.D. 33, to Pontius Pilate’s question of who should be released, the mob in Jerusalem cried: “Jesus!”.   

  • In the year 1836, the eighty-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died in Vienna.

  • On December 22, 1849, a young Russian named Fyodor Mikhail Dostoevsky was shot to death for his revolutionary acts in St. Petersburg.

  • On August 30, 1918, Fania Kalpen shot Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to death.

  • In August 1920, Marshal Pilsudski made a small mistake, resulting in the Red Army occupying first Warsaw, then Poland, then Germany.

  • In the year 1938, Adolph Hitler died of a heart attack.

  • In the year 1963, Joseph Stalin died.

What does all this have to do with God?

History is woven out of tiny coincidences. That means that if there is a plan and a reason in history, it can only be God’s plan and God’s reason. None of us knows what it might be. But we cannot hope to abandon the desire to know.

After we became aware of the emptiness of historical coincidences, they became our own, internal emptinesses. Is all this banal? Certainly. The cause of belief along with that of unbelief is banal, because it is ubiquitous.

For the unbeliever, concern about God is a disguised worry about the world. For the believer, concern for the world is a disguised concern about a God who is not known to the self. For both, however, the world is shot through with restlessness. It is a restlessness that, rightly interpreted, reveals that the victory of the godless and self-satisfied Enlightenment cannot ever be secure or complete. Its so-called victory is so consumed with ambiguity and contradiction, and its successes have brought so many new uncertainties, that our era can only rightly be described as apparently godless. Godlessness feverishly attempts to replace the lost God with something else. Enlightened humanism proposes a religion of humanity. Already Nietzsche saw through the vanity of such artificial replacements. The followers of Comte and Feuerbach in the twentieth century—such as Erich Fromm or Julian Huxley—sound the least convincing of all the godless.

God can of course be shoved aside as morally dangerous, denied as inaccessible to reason, damned as the enemy of humanity, and excommunicated as the source of enslavement. But if the Absolute were truly forgotten it would be unnecessary to replace it with some finite substitute. But, of course, the Absolute can never be forgotten. The unforgettableness of God makes Him present, even in rejection.

Leszek Kolakowski is Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and author of My Correct Views on Everything. This essay was translated from the German by Frederic Fransen.

Image by Google Cultural Institute licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.