To ask whether God is necessary is a very common question. I know that I began my previous post by saying the same thing but today I would like to revisit this question with a different perspective in mind. When speaking about who God is I believe that it is problematic to assume that God is a necessary being since the necessary God will always be confined by human reason. Hence I critiqued this theological understanding and said that it is idolatrous and dangerous, the latter since the common image of God ultimately will be that of the ones in power.
To move this discussion forward I would like to use a famous quote that Sartre assigned to Dostojevskij, namely that ‘if there is no God then everything is permitted’. It is a seemingly reasonable statement since if human morality is all we have then moral values cannot be conceived as anything but subjective human opinions and the result is a world of moral relativism. Several apologists find this to be an extremely sexy argument for the existence of God since they believe that objective moral values necessarily exist. Clearly they have not paid much attention to Nietzsche. However, as Lacan critically retorted, ‘if there is a God, then everything is permitted’. Lacan thus seems to share my concern about the necessary God since his critique was directed against them who use God to justify their own immoral and oppressive actions. Such thinking is predominantly shaped by what is referred to as historical millenarianism but it is present also in other theological misreadings of the biblical texts.
Should we then conclude that everything is permitted? To give a response to this question I would like for us to turn towards the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote in the posthumously published book Ethik that
The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. But if one does so notwithstanding, that can only mean that Christian ethics claims to discuss the origin of the whole problem of ethics, and thus professes to be a critique of all ethics simply as ethics. [Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Touchstone Edition, 1995, p. 21.]
Bonhoeffer’s rather bold response to Dostojevskij and Lacan is that they have both misunderstood what ethics is all about, or to put it in other words, that they are asking the wrong question. It is a critique against their ethics as ethics. Bonhoeffer’s claim is that man at his origin only knew one thing, namely God, and that the ethical division between good and evil is a clear indication that human beings no longer knows their origin. In knowing God, he says, mankind knew all things in God and God in all things, but this knowledge was lost. Hence the knowledge of good and evil reveals that we experience life apart from God, outside God. This means, Bonhoeffer writes, that
[Man] knows only himself and no longer knows God at all; for he can know God only if he knows only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil. But man cannot be rid of his origin. Instead of knowing himself in the origin of God, he must now know himself as an origin [and] he therefore conceives himself to be the origin of good and evil. [Ibid., p. 22]
I believe that this turn away from God can be seen throughout history but never has it been more clearly articulated than in the individualistic anthropocentrism of the modern era, which echoed the ancient philosopher Protagoras’ famous saying that ‘man is the measure of all things’. By this critique of modernity I do not mean to say that we should ignore it all together, that would be to totally miss the mark. Rather I believe that we need to re-imagine modernity, and subsequently post-modernity, in light of a narrative hermeneutical reading of the biblical scriptures. In regards to ethics this ultimately means that we look to Christ, who is the cornerstone of the house of God and a representation for what it means to be truly human.
From Bonhoeffer’s point of view, true humanity is to know only God; to know all things in God and God in all things. This perspective is present throughout the biblical scriptures but it reaches a new dimension in the figure of Christ, ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’ [Phil 2.6-7]. By forsaking heaven, Christ emptied himself for the sake of the world, but although he was born in human likeness he did not renounce to know all things in God and God in all things. Thus his life, death and resurrection unveils what it means to live a truly human life.
Is everything permitted? Yes, but this conclusion demands that we have considered the question from within the inner life of the body of Christ. Hence I am not saying that Christian ethics is nihilistic, rather my claim is that if we know all things in God and God in all things, then we desire nothing else than to follow Christ. That is not to say that ethical reflection is not necessary but it is no longer a choice between good and evil, rather we ask what it means to ‘let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus’ [Phil 2.5].