The Death of God, Sixties Style

"The Vicar announced that they had the great good fortune to have in their midst the well-known--indeed, he dared to say, famous Canon Adelbert Holly, one of the most lively and up-to-date of our new dispensation of theologians.  [In the story, it is Christmas Eve, 1968.  The congregation is gathered in St. Cuthbert's Church, Blesford, Yorkshire.]  Canon Holly had agreed to say a few words to mark this joyous occasion.  He would speak on the meaning of the Incarnation in a time of doubt and trouble.  He would speak of things that changed, in order to remain steadfast, and not to fail.

"Canon Holly creaked past Daniel's pew end, to take the pulpit.  Daniel smelled his smell, years, months, weeks, days and hours of stale smoke and exhaled tobacco.  Canon Holly, like Daniel, and also like Gideon, had put on his dog-collar.  His white hair was very long, hippy and patriarchal, even angelic.  He began, rather importantly, by saying that he knew he was famous for his elucidation of, indeed his enthusiastic embrace of, the new Death of God theology.  The term was a paradox, but then theology, words about God, a theory, a discourse, a human logos about God, was in itself a paradox.

"He leaned over the edge of the pulpit, white head between black hunched shoulders, and said amiably

"'I can see you all thinking, the old chap's going to drone on for hours and we shall never get to our mince-pies.  Well, I'm not.  But I do prefer to say something real, rather than a few nice platitudes, telling you to be good, turn round like stray sheep, pat you on the head and so on.  This is God's house, it was built for God, to hold Faith and Hope, yes and Love inside its walls, to shelter their growth and aspiration.

"'But where is God?  Where do we meet Him, in daily life, at prayer, in the horrors of recent unredeemed history, where is He to be found?

"'Theologians have marked a steady distancing of God from the earth.  As the excellent lady read out to you, God once spoke directly to men, to Abraham and Moses, and later for a time His Voice spoke like a trumpet of flame.  But of late He has gone away.  He is not present.  When Nietzsche declared that He had died, he described a state of affairs people recognised, which was why people were so disturbed by Nietzsche.'

"He smiled blithely upon them, the radiance of his good will mitigated by his stained teeth and his fluttering jowl, his very apparent mortality.  He said that at the moment of the Incarnation the Eternal Unchanging God had emptied himself out--the word was Kenosis--had shrunk his infinity, which was timeless, and poured it into finite flesh.  When God became Man, said Adelbert Holly, the timeless entered history.  The infinite became finite.  The circular became a linear arrow.  That which had no beginning and no end became a begun infant, with its umbilical cord full of blood and its blind mouth full of milk, and the blood and the milk were doomed in due course to find the end of everyman, sooner or later, to suffer and to die.  Some believed that the message of Death of God theology was that it was incumbent upon all mortals to live in this world, with no sense of heaven, and no fear of Hell, beyond hell on earth, of which we know something, each in our degree.  But I say to you, said Canon Holly, that when God died as God and became Man, He entered History, and the joy of the mystery of His Birth is repeated daily in historical time, as is, of course, the sorrow of the mystery of His death, which has become infinitely finite.

"He smile beatifically.  Frederica felt irritated.  The remarks were almost meaningful, but not quite, they were in the end a game with language.  But then, the Canon thought they meant something.  What?  She frowned."

--A.S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), pp. 247-49.

Frederica--like Byatt herself, professedly anti-Christian--may have felt irritated, but Canon Holly had clearly been reading his Augustine.


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