Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Death and Rebirth of God: Thoughts on a Great Historical Coincidence

by Michael Grosso:
1882 was the year that Friedrich Nietzsche announced that God was dead and added that “we” had killed him.  At Cambridge in England during the same year, Frederic Myers with several colleagues officially launched a new scientific discipline called psychical research.  If ever there was a “meaningful” historical coincidence,  this one qualifies.

It is about the most important crisis in the history of Western consciousness.  A key item of the Western worldview was the belief in God, but now we have the son of a Protestant minister announcing the death of God.  Modern astronomy and evolutionary biology reduce the Biblical God-story to fiction.  But the same year a  discipline took shape in England that attempted to use scientific method to investigate the nature of  the human soul—or, as we might say today, the nature and scope of human consciousness.

In Nietzsche’s pronouncement, it is “we” who have killed God.  What does that mean? Anyone acquainted with history knows.  The men who created modern science, new physics, astronomy, geology, Darwin’s idea of natural selection—it all contradicts the creationist picture of the world as portrayed in the Bible. The more we learned about the natural world, the more in effect we “killed” the mainline, Bible-based conception of a personal God.

This worldview crash was bound to destabilize the collective psyche, disrupting the traditional archetypes, prompting revolutions on all fronts of culture and society. For if there is no God, then all things are possible, as Dostoyevsky said. For Nietzsche, the death of God meant the birth of the Ubermensch—the Overman (but let’s not forget Wonder Woman).  In fact, a number of German thinkers were good at this kind of God-killing.  The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach “killed” God the way the Tibetan Buddhists do, by recognizing the gods as our psychic projections. Marx “killed God” by exposing the political and economic underpinnings of religion.

And yet, all this seems to suggest that God may not be dead after all, especially since Nietzsche and Feuerbach were both ready to hail the godlike potential of humanity.  So what we call God may not be dead but driven into humanity’s psychic underground.

For sure,  this “God” lurking in the black hole of the psyche does break out from time to time, and in all sorts of ways—too often  twisted and nightmarishly malign, it must be said.   

Myers, describes in A Fragment, his biography (assembled by his wife, Eveleen), how he fell into a metaphysical funk once he realized that his biblical faith had been damaged beyond repair.  Myers picked himself up and, with Henry Sidgwick, a famously scrupulous moral philosopher, resolved to use science to investigate the outer limits of the human personality.  Can we identify a transcendent factor at work in human experience? This was the question. Does an angel of the impossible haunt the corridors of nature?  If so, it may be possible to explore the question of immortality, or at least of survival and continuity. So in 1882 they founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

The aim of this Society was not to attempt to salvage belief in the old catechism God, so to speak.  Rather, it was to investigate experiences that might imply the survival of consciousness after death.  The English Society gave birth to French, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, and American (think William James) societies and independent researchers.  The idea gained traction that the same scientific attitude that began by destroying pre-scientific mythologies could be used to create new science-based mythologies of transcendence. 

The ongoing evolution of science is still in a very early part of its possible future.  The strange thing is that quantum physics has led to a crisis in our concept of reality, a crisis in which physical reality seems to vanish into a quantum cloud of uncertainty, which, to be restored to reality, depends on our mental activity.  

The psychical researches that began in 1882 are still afoot, and the overall knowledge of phenomena related to postmortem consciousness is impressive.  No doubt something is going on with all those near-death experiences, ghostly apparitions, mediumistic performances, out-of-body trips, lucid dreams, crisis visions, and mystical transports. 

So, saved and revised by science, the part about souls, consciousness and after death—but what about the reported mortal blow to the God question? Modern science destroys the creation story, but was also the spur to explore the undiscovered country of the human mind.  What has emerged is a picture of human mental life that is vast, multilayered, and infinitely complex.  

The enormous expansion of the concept of mind—Larry Dossey spoke of  nonlocal mind and consciousness—helps us imagine more clearly how the belief in gods and goddesses, demons and daimons, jinns and angels, and the like, might have come about.  All this remains a task for the parapsychology of religion.

The expansion includes the idea of one great mind; of Myers’ and James’s “subliminal” or “hidden” self, respectively.  This expanded concept of mind helps us understand the Upanishads and many of the world’s great mystical traditions from a fresh, empirically grounded perspective.

In other words, the notion of “God” may be thought of as originating in some  transcendent experience.  It is part of human capacity to have such experiences.  Only later do they sometimes crystallize into mythical personalities and then through time and politics harden into rigid dogmas, around which exclusive  identities are formed.

1882 is the year of a coincidence that marks a turning-point in the history of consciousness: the critical point where Western beliefs about meaning, spirituality, and transcendence enter a crisis of near-death.  It has set into motion a transformation still in progress, a story whose ending remains unresolved and undecided.


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Anonymous said...

I agree with the first comment. Im believing that we should back our intuition and the unseen. Reflect on our dreams and coincidences-approach life playfully. And hopefully a universal consciousness will help heal the negativities that exist in humanity.Magically evolve into a pure essence.

Unknown said...

Natural selection, the Big Bang, God as projections from our own psyche, the economic underpinnings of religion, each destabilized Biblical myths. In times of destabilization humans look outward toward the mystical. As the old idea of God was dying, a new curiosity developed--the potential "super powers" of the human mind.

Cultural coincidences provide objective evidence for the occurrence and usefulness of coincidences and encourage us to seek explanations. Statistics is not enough. What forces made for this exquisite timing?

Well written, thought provoking and timely, Professor Grosso!

Michael Grosso said...

Thanks for your comment, Dr. Beitman,and I'd like to recommend your book to readers, Connecting With Coincidence, which explores a whole range of topics about which meaningful coincidences cluster such as love, money, death, etc. Your book is an original study of how coincidences seem to be the secret language in which the universe often seems to be revealing its secrets to us.

Rip Parker said...

The comment "God is dead" certainly captured the attention of the listeners, but it would have been much more accurately stated as "Man's primitive concept of God", arising through our attempted literal reading of poetic, metaphorical scriptures, is dead", and a new vision of God founded on reason and enlightened experience must be found. It is now being found, and the appearance of God will continue to grow more consistent with the truths found in science, as both spirituality and science, in the quest for Truth, find themselves approaching singularity.

Michael Grosso said...

Excellent comment, Rip Parker, and I agree. I think in fact we may be evolving toward, as you write,"a new vision of God founded on reason and enlightened experience". As I said, psychical research is one of the key elements involved in this possible evolution.

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