God after the Death of God

by Richard L. Rubenstein (November 2014)

In place of a biblical image of a transcendent creator God, an understanding of God which gives priority to the indwelling immanence of the Divine may be more credible in our era. Where God is thought of as predominantly immanent in the cosmos, the cosmos in all of its temporal and spatial multiplicity will be understood as the manifestation of the single unified and unifying, self-unfolding, self-realizing Divine Source, Ground, Spirit or Absolute. The names proliferate because we are attempting to speak of that which cannot be spoken of or even named, as mystics in every age have understood. Moreover, the cosmos itself will be understood to be capable of vitality, feeling, thought and reflection, at least in its human manifestation. As the Ground of Being and of all beings, Divinity can be understood as the ground of feeling, thought and reflection. Human thought and feeling are thus expressions of divine thought and feeling, albeit in a dialectical form.

In the West emphasis on Divine immanence has been expressed in mysticism and nature paganism. If one finds the transcendent God of covenant and election lacking in credibility, some form of mysticism can become a meaningful religious path. Another alternative would be some form of Buddhist enlightenment. The Buddhist view reminds us that religion and theism are not necessarily identical.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55: 8, 9)

In philosophy and philosophical theology, choice of a system of continuity reflects a preference for Hegel over Kant, Kierkegaard and Barth, who stressed the infinite qualitative difference between God and man. Among the systems of continuity we find mystical and pantheistic traditions that affirm the ultimate, though not necessarily the immediate, unity of God, man, and the cosmos.


Perhaps the best available metaphor for the conception of God as the Holy Nothingness is that God is the ocean and we the waves. Each wave has its moment when it is identifiable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean which is its substantial ground. Furthermore, because the waves are surface manifestations of the ocean, our knowledge of the ocean is largely dependent upon the way it manifests itself in the waves.

The waves are caught in contradictory tendencies. They are the resultants of forces which allow them their moment of identifiable existence. At the same time, they are wholly within the grasp of greater tendencies which merge them into the oceanic ground from which they have been momentarily distinguished without ever really having separated from it. Similarly, all living beings seek to maintain their individual identities, yet there is absolutely nothing in them which does not derive from their originating ground. This is especially evident in the most intimate of all human activities, sexual love. Nothing could be more private or personally involving. Nevertheless, at no time is the individual more in the grip of universal forces than in the act of love. Only to the extent that the individual is capable of letting these overwhelming forces flow through him or her of their own accord will the act of love be complete and fulfilling. Only he or she who has the capacity to lose himself totally in love can achieve this fulfillment.

Questions about the relation between discrete phenomena and universals are not new. In the Middle Ages there was an important controversy in the field of logic and metaphysics concerning the nature of universals. One group of thinkers, the nominalists, regarded the universal as the name given to a class of objects which resembled each other. Another, the realists, argued that the universal has an extra-mental reality of its own which is exemplified in each of its particulars. We call their system realism. The controversy has been one of the most abiding and complicated in the history of philosophy.7 Since the time of Luther, there has been a tendency, especially in countries strongly influenced by Protestantism, to regard individuals as real and universals as merely names, although Hegel obviously regarded the Absolute, the Universal par excellence, as the one and only true reality. The social and cultural expression of the triumph of nominalism is reflected in the growth of individualism and the stress on private rather than corporate experience. In the political order nominalism was paralleled by the rise of the middle class and its preference for free, unregulated competition and commerce.

Although we can press the metaphor of the ocean and the waves too far, it is very useful and very old. The Summerians saw all things, even the gods, arising out of the divine oceanic substratum of existence which they called Nammu. Nammu was the archaic sea-goddess in Summerian mythology.8 She was not the goddess of the sea, but the goddess who is the sea. Hegel used a similar metaphor at the conclusion of the Phenomenology when, after describing the full scope of human activity and passion in the course of history, he concluded that all of the apparent diversity of both natural existence and the drama of history was the self-positing expression of one, underlying, ever-changing and yet ever-constant divine Spirit or Geist. He adapted a line from the poet Schiller to summarize this paradox of divine unity and diversity:

aus dem Kelche dieses Geisterreiche
schäumt ihm seine Unendlichkeit.


The chalice of this realm of spirits
Foams forth to God his own Infinitude.9

Hegel used a very complicated philosophical language to express the idea of the fundamental identity of God as unchanging unity and of the world as the divine means of expressing itself in diversity. I prefer the more graphic metaphor of the ocean and waves, but the fundamental conception underlying both images is much the same.

This conception of God also implies a judgment on the overly-individualistic conception of the self which has predominated in the western world.

According to Hegel, had Spirit not gone through the infinite pain of the negative, of human history, its self-knowledge and its very nature would have been empty, a void. In order to be God, Spirit had to suffer the tortuous path we call history. Without it, God would not have had a self, so to speak, to know. The image here is not unlike human self-knowledge. The new-born infant has no possibility of self-recognition or self-knowledge. Such insight is only possible when the self has a memory of events, conflicts, victories and defeats. True self-knowledge involves recognition and acceptance of the fact that the unique path taken by the individual was indispensable to the formation of the person he or she has become. For Hegel the goal of history will be attained when God recognizes that all the diversity of existence is but his own unique life-history.14 The one true Substance would then become the one true Subject.


The world of the death of the transcendent God of covenant and election need not be a place of gloom or despair. One need not live forever for life to be worth living. Creation, however impermanent, is full of promise. Those who affirm the inseparability of the creative and the destructive in the divine activity thereby affirm their understanding of the necessity to pay in full measure with their own return to the Holy Nothingness for the gift of life.      


1. Sabbatianism  was an heretical, anti-nomian, Messianic Jewish movement..  See Gershom Scholem, Jewish Major Trends in Mysticism, 2nd  ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), pp. 287-324.

2. Scholem, op. cit., p. 21.

4. G. W. F. Hegel, Begriff der Religion (Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1928), p. 148.

6. On the En-Sof, see Scholem, op. cit., pp. 11 ff.

8. See Samuel Noah Kramer, ed., Mythologies of the Ancient World (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961), pp. 103-04.

10. This translation is from G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1931), p. 81.

11.  Hegel, op. cit, p. 86.

12.  J. N. Findlay, Hegel: A Reexamination (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958), pp. 48 ff.

13.  Findlay, op. cit., pp. 48-9.

14.  Findlay, op. cit., pp. 34-47.

16. See Scholem, op. cit., pp. 244-86.

17. Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 107.

18. Scholem, op. cit. , p. 14.

20. See Richard L. Rubenstein, My Brother Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 170.

21. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1950).

22. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, 2nd ed. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1985) pp. 133-34.



Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus of the University of Bridgeport. His latest book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield: 2011).

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