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Document Details :
Title: 'Only God Can Judge Me'
Subtitle: The Secularization of the Last Judgement
Author(s): DE WIT, Theo W.A.
Volume: 72 Issue: 1 Date: 2011
The Last Judgement, heaven, hell, purgatory, the wrathful God: today, these notions seem to belong to a remote past we have - thank goodness! - left behind. The more remarkable is that, today, prisoners sometimes refer to the representation of God as Judge, as in the proposition ‘Only God can judge me’ you can find as graffito on a cell wall, or tattooed on the body of an inmate. Is this statement born from defiance of the constitutional state, from fundamentalism, or from the fiction of an all-forgiving God? Nowadays, we, modern democrats, have a suspicion towards criminals and fanatics who seem to think that they can get away with an Only God can judge me.
Much more common today is the reversal: not a judging God but people assuming judgement over God and over those who persist in referring to God. But the tradition of the ‘theodicee’ shows that this reversed movement of man judging God is not in the least a gesture limited to those outside the (monotheistic) religions. In a theodicee, man summons God to appear in front of an imaginary tribunal, only for God to be defended and subsequently acquitted. As Odo Marquard argues, the modern problem of the theodicee – bringing into question God’s justice – in the end favoured atheism. Human autonomy which exonerates God by eliminating him, would imply something like an ‘atheism ad maiorem Dei gloriam’.
But when humankind becomes responsible for the creation of its own history, God can no longer be summoned to any tribunal. Now only man can be summoned, and more particularly: humans which may be held accountable for the (continued) persistence of evil, responsible for our enduring discontent, obstacles of human progress or annoying remnants of the past. Here we find the beginning of the secularization of the Last Judgement.
As Peter Sloterdijk argues, the vindictive God who judges and punishes at the end on times is succeeded by revolutionary groups from the nineteenth century onwards. These not only transform feelings of humiliated anger and powerlessness into those of pride and hope, but also into an effective force of revenge. In short, the theological constellation of rage and eternity has been succeeded by a political-psychological constellation of rage and history.
Our representative democracy can be seen as an answer to the dangerous modern tendency to ‘tribunalising’ (Marquard), because conditions of division and conflict are regarded as normal and lasting, and not as Fremdkörper or indicative of pathology. The Last Judgement becomes indefinitely suspended.
However, a certain kind of ‘populism’ holds that unity and homogeneity can very well be made visible and audible’; and nowadays this seems to be accompanied by the longing to give evil, thus a form of negative transcendence, a face and parade it in front of the tribunal of the people. For prisoners, this is bad news. Against its background, the Only God can judge me may yet well up from a different source than that which I had suggested at the beginning of my argument.