A Few weeks ago I was introduced to a fascinating documentary, directed by and starring Vikram Gandhi, entitled Kumaré. Adopting the persona Sri Kumaré (and appropriately thick accent), Gandhi modeled himself upon the plethora of Yogis he had discovered while filming a documentary of their lives, philosophies, and followers. Simply, Gandhi was convinced that there was something artificial to these Gurus, something that could be imitated to the same success by himself, with no formal training. Gandhi hoped that, by attaining a small group of loyal followers, leading them through a set of contrived practices, chants, and meditations, and finally revealing himself as a “false prophet,” he could reveal that the truth that they were seeking wasn’t to be found in any Guru or Yogi, but rather, that this truth was, in some sense, within themselves. [Read more]
Setting aside the (perhaps questionable) individualistic bent of the documentary, I was struck by the beauty of the film, the authenticity of the relationships, and the depth of the spirituality among Kumaré’s followers and Kumaré himself. I also could not help but wonder if there was not a more profound and unexplored theological depth underlying the film in general, but perhaps more specifically, the climactic “unveiling” scene (where Kumaré reveals himself as an American from Brooklyn, rather than an Eastern Guru). I wonder if this unveiling scene might perhaps offer a glimpse into the theological fecundity of Death of God theology.
In the early 1960’s, a theological movement, Death of God theology, emerged on the american scene with unprecedented speed and vigor, only to fall out of academic favor with nearly the same speed; “falling” so far that Adam Kotsko describes Thomas Altizer, one of the prime catalysts of this movement, as “the third rail of academic theology.” This movement, drawing upon the insights of Christian Mysticism, the dialectic of Hegel, and the atheism of Nietzsche, sought to articulate a theology built upon the primary intuition that “God is Dead.” While the precise understanding of what is meant by this “death of God” has been heavily debated–ranging from the metaphorical, through the performative, all the way to a quite literal understanding (of which Altizer appears to be a case)–there remains a consistent sense among Death of God theologians that, to a great extent, we are “on our own.” We can no longer rely upon a theological Big Other to guide our actions, declare right from wrong, and provide the Archimedean point of theological and philosophical reasoning.
Is it possible that the experience of the Death of God, the death of the Big Other, is precisely what Gandhi sought to offer his students at the momentous unveiling of his “true identity” at the conclusion of Kumaré?
For Gandhi, the essence of his teaching, both as Kumaré and at a meta-level through the unveiling, was “asking questions, breaking down icons and idols, and destroying the illusions our society is built on,” and presenting these deconstructive gestures as “highly ‘spiritual’ acts.” This reorientation of deconstruction as a spiritual act, perhaps even as the spiritual act par excellence, is precisely the motivation that underlies the reemergence of Radical (Death of God) theology in contemporary discourse. Caputo, Rollins, Zizek, Marion–these thinkers of the death of God, of the God who is not, who is “beyond being,” are not seeking to end religion, spirituality, or theology, but on the contrary, to revitalize it. Like Gandhi, they desire to break down the “idols” of thought. It is not coincidental that Marion’s God Without Being opens with a sustained treatment of the phenomenology of the idol. Anyone who wishes to follow the movement of the death of God, must first walk the path the includes a decisively critical/deconstructive gesture. The radical theologian, or any religious person who wishes to follow this path, must face the authentic trauma of the death of the idol, whether this idol be a clear conception of the “greatest possible being,” the moral big Other who guides moral reasoning, or the unveiling of the spiritual Guru as a mere brooklynite.
Of course, such a path has its risks. As Kumaré illustrates, anytime that one challenges these idols, idols that may be fundamentally orienting in ones life, there is a chance that this trauma will be unbearable. There are those who simply refused to speak to Gandhi after the unveiling, who stormed out of the room and never returned his calls. But there were also those who understood, who felt the freedom of his message, who recognized that there was no other way that his teachings could have concluded. And this is the risk of the the Death of God–it can be freeing, opening, empowering, and it can be devastating and destructive. This freedom, as Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra so beautifully illustrates, can inspire terror as easily as dancing. When one gazes into the abyss of the Death of God, or the Death of Kumaré, one does not know what one will find.