Death of God Part I


Faust once said, “In the beginning was the deed”

Freud’s Totem and Taboo is a fascinating synthesis of religion, anthropology, and psychoanalysis. Although, many now discredit the work historically and anthropologically the myth offers us a helpful understanding of Christianity. One of his basic insights is that taboos only arise to restrict desires. For instance, our society need not have a prohibition against punching one’s self in the face. Generally, this isn’t a desire many people possess. However, Freud theorizes that the universality of the prohibition of incest must suggest a fundamental desire to violate the law. Let’s turn to his last essay in Totem and Taboo where he discusses the relationship between the Oedipal complex, the origin of totemism, and the primal horde. Darwin thought of the primal horde as a group of primitive humans who were organized in a hierarchically structured society where the authoritarian Father kept all of the women exclusively to himself. Freud speculated that the sons were banished from the clan and went off to plan their revenge. As they conspired outside of the tribe they decided to return and seek vengeance upon their greedy father. Upon their arrival, they murdered their father and enjoyed a cannibalistic feast. However, this action (somewhat akin to Girard’s discussion of the ambivalence that arises in murderers of the scapegoat) led the sons to experience a profound amount of ambivalence towards their father. On the one hand, they resented him for depriving them of access to women. On the other hand, given his strength and power they revered him. This confusion led to their enacting of a law that prohibited incest within the clan. This would serve to prevent the deed from ever being repeated. Freud believed this explains the origin of totemism. The totem animal occupies a similar place to the primal Father within the clan. This animal possesses a quasi-mystical effect upon the tribe and it is superstitiously feared for its power over things like war, natural disasters, and climate. Also, there is strict protection of totem animal so as to prevent any harm. In cases where it was necessary to kill the totem animal, mourning was observed over its death. This explains why the holiday over the totem animal’s death was marked by ambivalence. It murder was both committed by the tribe and mourned by the tribe. Freud recognized the obvious parallel between the totem animal and the primal Father. He believed the totem animal was symbolic for the displaced Father that had previously terrorized the clan. This helps explain the Oedipal complex with regard to the totem animal (i.e. the symbolic Father). Because of the prohibition against incest, now everyone is forced to marry outside the totem. So, the dead Father functions to prevent the son from sexual relations with their mother. Also, after the Father is dead he gains even more power by being internalized by the sons as the name-of-the-Father in Lacan’s terms, or the superego.

What does this outlandish myth have to do with religion, much less with atonement and Christianity? In Freud’s own words, “In the Christian myth man’s original sin is undoubtedly an offense against God the Father, and if Christ redeems mankind from the weight of original sin by sacrificing his own life, he forces us to conclude that the original sin was murder…In the same deed which offers the greatest expiation to the father, the son also attains the goal of his wishes against the father. He becomes a god himself beside or rather in place of his father. The religion of the son succeeds the religion of the father” (Totem and Taboo, p 132). The Eucharist is then a repetition of the death of the son whereby the believers partake in communion to achieve equal standing with the son and share in succeeding the father.

So, in Freud’s opinion, the substitutionary interpretation of Jesus’ death is tied to the myth of the primal horde, which is replicated in the Eucharistic feast. What I find especially interesting is the proximity Freud’s myth shares with Nietzsche’s murder of God in the Gay Science. Although, many discuss the passage of the madman as being focused on the death of God, it is better expressed by the townspeople’s responsibility and guilt they must bear for the slaying of God. Another consequence is Freud’s recognition that Christianity (perhaps unconsciously) embraces of the death of God. The religion of the Son has succeeded the religion of the Father. Here, I must return to Jesus’ cry of dereliction in Mark, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Is this not the epitome of Christianity’s eclipse of God the Father? The Eucharist allows us to share in fellowship the flesh of the Son while totally negating the presence of the Father. God was dead at the cross insofar as his presence was only experienced as absence by Jesus. The Eucharistic feast invites us to take part in the new covenant where the dead Father no longer exists. In Zizek’s words atheism is truly defined by, “There is no big Other” (Monstrosity of Christ, p 297). Here we can see where Christianity and atheism appear almost indistinguishable.

I’ll leave you with Chesterton’s prophetic words:

“When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (Orthodoxy, p 257)

Next post: Nietzsche and the murder of God


3 Responses to “Death of God Part I”

  1. Wesley Says:

    Maybe I don’t have a real firm grasp on psychoanalysis, or maybe I’m misunderstanding Freud’s rhetoric; the language of the Son eclipsing the Father is troublesome to me. Can one part of the trinity (itself one) eclipse another part? Does Freud’s view of the event on the cross conflict with a Trinitarian view of the event?

    Is the substitutionary view of atonement, as Freud aligns with the primal horde myth, necessary to use the language of ‘death of God?’ Or is it merely convenient because it focuses so much on the brutality/suffering of (God in) Jesus on the cross? For example, does the Christus Victor view allow for a death of God theology?

    [Sorry for all these questions]

    Maybe, by appealing to a death of God theology, you’re showing the ‘better side’ of substitutionary atonement? But I’m still wary of this death of God theology because what happens after the resurrection? What does death of God theology say to the theology of the resurrection? Where is atonement if God is dead?

    I’ll be looking forward to part II.

  2. jbsrh18 Says:

    Ok, yes I mean the death of God theologians tends to have a dialectical, historical view of the Trinity but not an immanent view. That is although they tend to argue that God is understood in a three-fold dialectical process, these different mainfestatoins aren’t eternal. I’ll return to this in more detail later. But, overall they aren’t Trinitarian. No, Freud does not give an real credence to the Trinity. He thinks that Christianity is a religion of the Son, which no longer has any need for God the Father because it has already killed him. You should read more on Moses and Monotheism.

    I think more that the death of God is convenient when looking ah the primal horde myth, which would necessarily be a substitutionary view Yes, I agree one cannot use the death of God when it’s related to Christus victory, but that’s because that understanding is so much more thoroughly Trinitarian, which is one of its strength.

    Honestly, if you want to be an orthodox Christian who affirms the resurrection, the Trinity, and other creedal beliefs then the death of God theology will not be a viable option. I mostly want to bring into conversation their ideas to offer some though provoking ideas. Atonement in death of God theology is God’s self-annihilation, but I’ll return to that in my post after Nietzsche. Don’t read me as necessarily endorsing all of these ideas, but one thing Christianity can and must affirm is that, “There is no big Other”. To which all Christians must rejoice!

  3. Wesley Says:

    Of course, I’m not seeing these as blanket endorsements by you. I, like you, welcome the bringing in of different theological talking points. I’m just probing the thoughts you’re bringing to the table. 🙂

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