The Forsaken Jesus and the Black Sun of Atheism

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The Black Sun

In an essay he wrote entitled: Atheism and Monotheism Jean-Luc Nancy used the metaphor of the “black sun” to describe atheism. He writes: “The day will perhaps come, and perhaps it is not even so far away, when we shall characterize all contemporary thinking as a slow and heavy gravitational movement around the black sun of atheism.”[1] Nancy is writing in the context of the Western experience of nihilism best expressed in Nietzsche’s “God is dead”. If in the West humanism was the project par excellence of the Enlightenment, Nancy has bad news: “It so happens that today the so-called civilization of humanism is bankrupt or in its death throes, as we are wont to say, the second term being the more preferable, no doubt.”[2] Nancy affirms that the core of humanism is atheism. He writes, “Humanism was atheism. It was its truth, its breath, its expression, and its function . . . It turned the essence of god into the essence of man . . .”[3]

One of the essential characteristics of Nancy as a writer is that he is speaking from within the Western experience of nihilism. He is an atheist, and he is fully aware of thinking from within his own atheism. His struggle therefore is to find an opening from within. Like it or not, we are children of Nietzsche and this is our starting point. The West cannot escape the consequences of having, in Nietzsche’s terms “murdered God.” Modernity played the game of the child who enjoys the thrill of seeing how far he can distance himself from his father and still be able to come back to him; only to find that he has taken a step too far and he is lost in the woods. The game is over and night is fast approaching. It’s at this point that Nancy’s stature as an authentic seeker of a way out emerges. For, he is willing to consider any available means, even if that means engaging with religion, and in particular with Christianity.

And like Voegelin, he recognizes that the struggle must be undertaken within the limits of reality. He rejects the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, just as he rejects the “salvation” pedalled by religious fundamentalists. Nancy’s fear is that if we don’t find an “opening”, the destruction we have witnessed in the last century will pale in comparison to what’s in store for us. He points out that: “Conditions are in place for a delirium that would propagate itself in proportion to the wasteland of sense and truth that we have created or allowed to grow.”  He further warns us: “. . . what up to now the Enlightenment could not enlighten, what it was unable to illumine in itself, is waiting to go up in flames in a messianic, mystical, prophetic, divinatory, and vaticinatory mode …whose incendiary effects may well prove more impressive than those of fascist, revolutionary, surrealist, avant-gardist, or mystical exaltations of all types.” [4]

The paradoxical question that Nancy asks himself is this: as an atheist, how can I escape from atheism? Is there anything within atheism that contains the seeds of its own reversal? He says, “Atheism is nihilism, and if nihilism indicates at the same time that it is through nihilism, on the basis of it, and almost as if in nihilism, that any question of “getting out” (if this term is appropriate) can arise, then it has nevertheless not surpassed up to now its own pointing towards something else, except to the point towards a repetition of its own nihil”.[5] In other words, nihilism has not been an anti-dote to nihilism. On the contrary, wherever it has been tried, “it has given us nothing less than exterminating horror, in so many forms – combined with humanistic impotence, it too in so many forms”.[6] Nancy considers the possibility that it may be the case that man needs to be more than man, with a reference to Pascal’s “man infinitely passes man”. But what could that mean, he asks?: “Surpassing? Overcoming? Exceeding? Transporting? Transfiguring? Divinizing? Naturalizing? Technicizing? Exposing to the abyss? Annihilating? And still further, Dehumanizing? Inhumanizing? Overhumanizing?”[7] Over the past two centuries we have tried all of this and we have been left “exhausted, nauseated”.[8]

An essential part of Nancy’s method of seeking is the act of deconstruction. He sees deconstruction as the last act of the modern tradition. It is the fruit of nihilism while being at the same time perhaps the only way out of nihilism. Concretely, he writes: “To deconstruct means to take apart, to disassemble, to loosen the assembled structure in order to give some play to the possibility from which it emerged but which, qua assembled structure, it hides”.[9] And its origins lie within Christianity. He affirms, “Deconstruction belongs to a tradition, to our modern tradition, and I am entirely ready to admit that the operation of deconstruction is part of the tradition just as legitimately as the rest; consequently, it is itself shot through with Christianity.”[10]

And again, “my hypothesis is that the gesture of deconstruction … is only possible within Christianity . . .”[11] Nancy admits that it might appear “provocative” for an “atheist” to set about deconstructing Christianity. For the pious believer it may seem that, following on the likes of Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, he wants to be the one who puts the final nail in the coffin of Christianity. Whereas, the secular rationalist who adheres to the narrative that at best Christianity is childish nonsense (and somewhat closer to its worst, a bigoted and dangerous creed), would perhaps find it perplexing that any self-respecting, reason-loving philosopher would even bother to take Christianity with any degree of seriousness. Regarding the former, he assures us that it is certainly not his intention to bury Christianity. In fact, and this is a sort of rebuttal to the latter, he affirms that, “the only thing that can be actual is an atheism that contemplates the reality of its Christian origins”.[12]

When Nancy turns to Christianity he is trying to find there a type of nihilism that is at the same time an escape from nihilism. We can take as an example his attempt to deconstruct the biblical notion of “creation”. He begins by noting that between a premise and its consequences there is identity and necessity. For Nancy, “identity” and “necessity” signify closure, the end of the road, the orbit from which one cannot escape. However, he writes, “By contrast, creation entails a relation of alterity and contingence (if ‘God’ then there is no reason why he creates).”[13] The fact that the creator-created relationship involves “alterity” and “no reason” is enough to attract the attention of Nancy, always on the lookout for anything that can get us out of being trapped by the logic of the factory which produces, fabricates, but never comes up with anything new. He latches on to the traditional notion of creatio ex nihilo and immediately makes the connection with nihilism. He comments that, “Perhaps this is the only way seriously to get out of nihilism. ‘Nihilism’  [his italics] means in effect: making a premise of nothing. But ex nihilo means: undoing any premise, including that of nothing. That means to empty nothing of any quality as principle. That is creation.”[14]

“Faith” is another category that Nancy engages with in his quest for an exit from the situation in which we find ourselves. Here’s what he has to say: “Faith is not weak, hypothetical, or subjective knowledge. It is neither unverifiable nor received through submission, nor even through reason. It is not a belief in the ordinary sense of the term. On the contrary, it is the act of the reason that relates, itself, to that which, in it, passes it infinitely: faith stands precisely at the point of an altogether consequent atheism”. [1]  Once again, we note in Nancy this surprise of the end-point becoming the starting-point. Atheism which is the end of the road for modernity opens up into faith. But not necessarily. We can all too easily remain within the nihilism that reason builds for itself when it refuses to admit that it is not sufficient unto itself. In a Kantian sense, a reason that is not ready to put itself aside to make room for faith.

In an essay characteristic of his method, Nancy undertakes a reading of the Letter of St. James and finds there material which illuminates some of the characteristics of faith. Thus, faith exists only in the act of faith. It is essentially different from belief in some religious dogma, which for Nancy is a retreat into closure from the openness of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the life blood of faith. It is the act by which one jumps into the unknown. And yet it is not irrational. It is simply beyond reason. The faith of Abraham consists in the act of offering up Isaac. Nancy seems to speak to the Christian who hasn’t understood Christianity when he says: “It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a ‘belief’, for example, in the belief in redemption by the Christ, that which characterizes the Christian; only Christian practice is Christian, a life like that lived by him who died on the cross – a declaration that we could read in Nietzsche.”[15]

Again, in his quest for “dis-enclosure”, Nancy turns to another religious category, that of prayer. However, true to his method, he wants to strip prayer of everything that characterizes it in a conventional sense as prayer; in other words the idea of a powerful being whom we supplicate to come to our aid; or in his own words, “the mythical and imaginary content of religion”.[16] What is left? Is anything left? In terms of pure language, prayer is a “saying” and not a “said”. When something is “said” it is over and done with, the last word has been spoken. Instead, prayer is the “saying” which has not come to a conclusion. It is perpetual saying. If the saying becomes a said it means that the praying has stopped. Because it is a saying it also an address, not to an idol but a “letting be” of the real.

Nancy goes as far as affirming that, “it adores this letting be.”[17] Once again as an “atheist” he gives us a remarkable insight into the essence of prayer: “This is why adoration, prayer in its essence, is not primarily a request made in order to receive a response, retribution, or reparation. Prayer is not primordially involved in the religious trafficking in lies about the real (about life/death, the world/nothingness, earth/heaven etc.), nor in the related one of indulgences capitalized in the form of salvation credits. Prayer is primarily adoration: address, homage, recognition of the fact that it’s saying is deleted in going toward what it says (will never say). Homage, veneration, that is, simply the movement of transcendence . . .  constitutes the task of saying.”[18]

Prayer is a “lifting up” but the one who prays must avoid the temptation of attempting to be lifted up along with the praying, to be “hoisted up above his or her condition” in some form of rapturous communion with the object of adoration. This type of worship is easily co-opted by Fascism in all its forms, religious, military or political, with the body of worshippers being transported, carried away into some glorious future where they escape from reality by merging with whatever transcendent reality they are “adoring”. Nancy points out that, “Fanaticism is nothing but the abolition of the intractable distance of the real, and consequently also the extinction of prayer, of all speech, in favor of effusive outpourings, eructation, and vociferation”.[19]

The Forsaken Jesus

The second part of this essay begins with a question: Could it be that the nihilism which is an escape from nihilism, the nihilism that is ex nihilo, that Nancy is searching for, is to be found in the forsaken Jesus? I will not try to give a definitive answer, not even a comprehensive answer to this question in the course of this essay. I will, however, try to place before our eyes some “clues” that seem to point in this direction. Let’s begin with a comment that Camus makes in The Rebel:

“The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadow, the divinity abandoned its traditional privileges and drank to the last drop, despair included, the agony of death. This is the explanation of the lama sabachtani and the heartrending doubt of Christ in agony. The agony would have been mild if it had been alleviated by hopes of eternity. For God to be a man, he must despair.”[20]

Several points can be noted in what Camus is saying. The first point is that Camus, like Nancy, is speaking from within the Western experience of nihilism. For him “despair” is not a concept to be analysed by instrumental reason; it is the cry of someone lost in the night that is nihilism. Camus is an existential philosopher in the true sense of the term. All the old certainties of true and false, of right and wrong have sunk below the horizon, leaving the world desolate of sense and purpose. It’s from within this participatory experience of absurdity and hopelessness that he sees in the forsaken Jesus a God who comes down from on high to drink to the last drop the cup of despair, including the agony of death. If someone like Camus with his degree of authenticity suggests that in the figure of the forsaken Jesus, God also despaired, as if for God too the world seemed desolate of sense and purpose, then we have reason enough to suspect that the forsaken Jesus has a particular relevance for the Western experience of nihilism.

Coming from another place, from another experience, we have G.K. Chesterton who makes this comment in his book, Orthodoxy:

“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 and god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing 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 (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), 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 himself for an instant to be an atheist.”[21]

Chesterton was not an atheist. He had no direct experience from within of the night of nihilism which descended on the West during his lifetime (even though he didn’t absent himself from it). But he is enough of a Christian to be almost shocked at the fact that in the forsaken Jesus, God felt forsaken by God, to the point where for an instant God seems to be an atheist. As he says, “the matter grows too difficult for human speech”. The important point is that Chesterton doesn’t make a dogmatic statement that it is impossible for God to be forsaken by God. With his innate sense of Scripture as an existential drama, Chesterton gives full value and weight to the fact that Jesus is actually crying out to the Father, asking why he has forsaken him. Chesterton’s reaction to the cry of Jesus also shows us his particular genius for relating the events of the Gospel to the cultural milieu of his day. Nowhere is this more evident that his identifying the forsaken Jesus as the “god” of atheists.

So far I have brought in Nancy, Camus, and Chesterton as worthy participants in a conversation about the forsaken Jesus. Samuel Beckett can also be called upon. Firstly, because, like Nancy, the symbols he articulates are a fruit of his participation from within the Western crisis of sense and purpose. Secondly, because his symbolism seems to express a cry, a question, a void, a silence, a hopeless hope. Here is the ending of The Unnameable:

You must go on, that’s all I know.

They’re going to stop, I know that well:  I can feel it.  They’re going to abandon me. It will be the silence, for a moment (a good few moments). Or it will be mine? The lasting one, that didn’t last, that still lasts?  It will be I?

You must go on.

I can’t go on

You must go on.

I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any – until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it’s done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know.

You must go on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.[22]

If with a stretch of the imagination we place these words on the lips of the forsaken Christ we may be surprised at how well they seem to express the experience of one who is lost, confused, inarticulate, condemned, silent; brought to the “threshold”, and yet with the possibility that the “door” may “open”. Could the open door be a way out of nihilism? Could the “I’ll go on” be the heroic gesture of the forsaken Jesus who doesn’t use his divine power to come down from the cross?

What we need to keep in mind is that we are searching for symbols which articulate a possible escape from the dark cave of nihilism. We are being selective in our search because we are only willing to listen to those who have accepted to embrace the reality that we find ourselves in, those who are struggling with the emptiness, the absurdity, the crisis of sense that surrounds us. Let’s listen to St Therese of Lisieux as she struggled with her own dark night of atheism.

[God] allowed my soul to be overwhelmed with darkness, and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a subject of conflict and torture. This trial did not last merely for days or weeks; I have been suffering for months, and I still await deliverance. I wish I could express what I feel, but it is beyond me. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to understand its blackness.

*  *  *

When my heart, weary of the surrounding darkness, tries to find some rest in the thought of a life to come, my anguish increases. It seems to me that out of the darkness I hear the mocking voice of the unbeliever:

“You dream of a land of light and fragrance, you dream that the Creator of these wonders will be yours for ever, you think one day to escape from these mists where you now languish. Nay, rejoice in death, which will give you, not what you hope for, but a night darker still, the night of utter nothingness!”

“When I sing of the happiness of Heaven and the eternal possession of God, I do not feel any joy therein, for I sing only of what I wish to believe. Sometimes, I confess, a little ray of sunshine illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but later, the remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness thicker still.”[23]

When we deal with the writings of those who are generally accepted to be “mystics” we have to take seriously that they are articulating an experience of participating in the divine reality, which for St Therese in a particular way meant a participation in the passion and death of Jesus on the cross. Could it be that her sense of “anguish” of “blackness” stems from her participation in the cry of the forsaken Jesus? We can note the coincidence that Therese lived and died during the same period that Nietzsche was articulating his philosophy of nihilism.

In this brief review of individuals who articulate in their writings something of the drama, the struggle the pain of existence which in one way or another seems to mirror the cry of the forsaken Jesus, we can also mention the English poet, William Cowper who lived his own dark night. As a young boy he was grief-stricken by the death of his mother. During his lifetime he experienced bouts of insanity, which included three attempts at suicide. He was gently led back to sanity by the exquisite love and care of a widow, Mary Unwin. When Mary died in 1796, four years before Cowper’s death, he was plunged into gloom again, from which he never fully recovered. In was during this time that he composed The Castaway, one of his most famous poems. It’s inspired by the event of a sailor who was swept off his ship during a violent storm. The other sailors were able to see him but could do nothing to save him as he sank beneath the waves. Cowper sees in this incident something of his own situation, one who has been abandoned and sees no other fate that that of being engulfed by the depths. In the last verse of the poem he writes:

No voice divine the storm allay’d,

No light propitious shone;

When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,

We perish’d, each alone:

But I beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

There is no divine intervention, no light, as both the sailor and Cowper perish “each alone”. But Cowper’s sea is “rougher”, the gulfs are “deeper”. The sailor’s death is physical. Cowper seems to be experiencing some form of spiritual drowning. It would take another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning to catch the spiritual depths of Cowper’s grief, perhaps because she too knew not a little suffering in her life, both physical and spiritual. She is clear in her perception of the poet’s calling to articulate the passion of the cross: “We want the sense of the saturation of Christ’s blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation.”[24]

In the following lines she articulates the luminosity of experiencing that suffering is love:

I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,

The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,

Those of my own life, who by turns had flung

A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware,

So weeping, how a mystic Shapt, did move

Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove : —

“Guess now who holds thee?” “Death,” I said. But there,

The silver answer rang, “Not Death, but Love!”[25]

What appeared to be the shadow of death turned out to be “Not Death, but Love”. One of her most well-know poems was written while contemplating the grave of William Cowper whom she greatly admired. When considering the redemptive grace at work in Cowper’s life, she reflects on how the forsaken Jesus cried out in his abandonment so as to take away the desolation of all the world:

Deserted! Who hath dreamt that when the cross in darkness rested,

Upon the Victim’s hidden face no love was manifested?

What frantic hands outstretched have e’er the atoning drops averted?

What tears have washed them from the soul, that one should be deserted?

Deserted! God could separate from His own essence rather;

And Adam’s sins have swept between the righteous Son and Father:

Yea, once, Immanuel’s orphaned cry His universe hath shaken—

It went up single, echoless, “My God, I am forsaken!”

It went up from the Holy’s lips amid His lost creation,

That, of the lost, no son should use those words of desolation!

That earth’s worst phrenzies, marring hope, should mar not hope’s fruition,

And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see his rapture in a vision.[26]

Both Cowper and Barrett Browning show us that we do well to search wide and large for individuals who are articulating the experience of being forsaken, whether or not they refer explicitly to the figure of the forsaken Jesus. In doing this we can also bring in the Italian author Chiara Lubich (1920-2008). In her case we see both a mystical participation in the experience of the forsaken Jesus as well as a philosophical and theological reflection on its significance. After an intense spiritual experience in 1949 she wrote:

I have only one spouse on earth: Jesus forsaken.

I have no other God but him.

In him there is the whole of paradise with the Trinity

And the whole of the earth with humanity.

Therefore what is his is mine and nothing else.

. . .

So it will be for the years I have left: athirst for suffering,

Anguish, despair, separation, exile, forsakenness, torment –

for all that is him,

and he is sin, hell.[27]

On another occasion she wrote:

“I wish to bear witness before the world that Jesus forsaken has filled every void, illuminated every darkness, accompanied every solitude, annulled every suffering, cancelled every sin.”[28]

When reflecting theologically on the forsaken Jesus, Lubich goes beneath the words of his cry and focuses on the “event” that is taking place. She places it alongside the other two great events in the Gospel: the incarnation and the resurrection. However, with these two events, while remaining unfathomable at the divine level, we can understand what’s going on by using simple concepts: Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit; Jesus rose from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. These simple concepts do not contradict what we can understand as a manifestation of the power of God.

But in what way does the forsaken Jesus manifest God? What sort of divine event is going on? Lubich suggests that if we couple it with the words reported in Luke’s gospel: “Into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23,46) we are witnessing the intra-Trinitarian relationship of absolute love between the Father and the Son, in the Holy Spirit, expressed visibly in the Person of the God-Man Jesus.” The Son becomes “nothing” in front of the Father – a nothingness of love. Thus the cry of the forsaken Jesus is a cry of infinite love in his divinity, but of infinite pain in his humanity.

But why should this cry of love cause so much pain in the humanity of Jesus? Here we can only assemble the elements involved. Jesus came down to earth to become one with sinful humanity and to re-unite us with the Father. However this had to be done in the form of an “event”, that is a once-off, visible action. It had to be clear so that the words could be said: “it is accomplished”. Mere physical death was not enough, it had to be an act of divine love. Within the Trinity there is perennial love between the three divine Persons. But in this one case Jesus had to love the Father with the same degree of divine love, while at the same time being one with sinful humanity. In logical terms it was impossible. But love made it possible. However, with a price: the price of experiencing separation from the Father.

For Lubich, the event of the forsaken Jesus is the supreme revelation of divine love on earth. She speaks of the forsaken Jesus as a kind of “window” or “pupil” in the eye through which God sees humanity and humanity sees God. She writes:

“Jesus is Jesus forsaken. Because Jesus is the Saviour, the Redeemer. And he redeems when he pours out the divine upon humanity through the wound of his forsakenness which is the pupil of God’s eye upon the world: an infinite void through which God looks at us: the window of God opened upon the world, and the window of humanity through which we see God.”[29]

In a more philosophical vein, she says: “Jesus forsaken thus enlightens being, revealing it as love. And with this he reveals to us that the Absolute Being is itself love.”

And she continues:

“In the light of the Trinity, being reveals itself, if we can say this, as guarding deep within itself the non-being that is gift of self: not the non-being that negates being, rather the non-being that reveals being as love: being that is the three divine Persons.”[30]

Conclusion

I started with a reflection on Nancy’s metaphor of the “black sun of atheism”, and of his desire to find an opening within nihilism. In this last part of the essay I have touched upon the writings of individuals who have articulated something of the pain, anguish, desolation that seems to find a voice in the forsaken Jesus. I would suggest that there is still an unknown depth of luminosity waiting to be discovered in the forsaken Jesus.

 

Notes

[1] Ibid. p. 25.

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure – The Deconstruction of Christianity, Fordham University Press, New York, 2008, p.18

[2] Ibid. p.2

[3] Ibid. p.19.

[4] Ibid. p. 4.

[5] Ibid. p. 18-19.

[6] Ibid. p. 19.

[7] Ibid. p. 19.

[8] Ibid. p. 19.

[9] Ibid.p. 148.

[10] Ibid.p. 148.

[11] Ibid.p. 148.

[12] Ibid., p. 140.

[13] Ibid. p. 24.

[14] Ibid. pp. 24-25.

[15] Ibid. p. 52.

[16] Ibid. p. 135.

[17] Ibid. p. 136.

[18] Ibid. p. 136.

[19] Ibid. p. 137. Here we can note a point of contact with Voegelin’s diagnosis of the various attempts within the Western experience to revolt against reality culminating in the fanaticism of the totalitarian ideologies.

[20] Thanks to Brendan Purcell for drawing my attention to this comment by Camus. See his, Where Is God In Suffering, Veritas Publications, Dublin, 2016, p. 121.

[21] Orthodoxy, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/orthodoxy.pdf, p.96

[22] http://www.samuel-beckett.net/unnamable.html.

[23] http://biblehub.com/library/martin/the_story_of_a_soul/chapter_ix_the_night_of.htm

[24] http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ebb/cornhill.html

[25] Ibid.

[26] http://www.bartleby.com/293/79.html

[27] Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings, New City Press, New York, 2007, p.95.

[28] Ibid. p. 97.

[29] Chiara Lubich, The Cry, New City Press, New York, 2001, p. 136.

[30] Essential Writings, p.212.

Robbie Young

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Robbie Young has his doctorate degree in education and is interested in philosophy, history, politics, and contemporary cultural issues. He studied under Brendan Purcell at the University of Dublin and is currently a cultural attaché in the Apostolic Nunciature in Pretoria, South Africa.