Dancing Around The Bomb: On Wolfgang Giegerich's "The Nuclear Bomb and the Fate of God"

In this essay, Dolores Brien reflects on Wolfgang Giegerich's original, unsettling, and provocative exploration of the psychological implications of the nuclear bomb.

Dancing Around the Bomb: On Wolfgang Giegerich’s “The Nuclear Bomb and the Fate of God: On the First Nuclear Fission”

by Dolores Brien

In the late eighties, Jungian analyst Wolfgang Giegerich published four articles in English on the psychological implications of the nuclear bomb. As far as I know, he is the only Jungian thinker who has devoted such intensive thought to a phenomenon which has haunted our collective psyches since the first bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Today, whether for defense or preemptive attack, for prestige or recognition—or more likely, for all these reasons—not only nations throughout the world but stateless insurgent movements are intent on possessing their own nuclear weapons. Wolfgang Giegerich’s thought on the meaning of nuclear power gives us a point of view which is original, unsettling and provocative, as we have come to expect from him. And this is exactly what we need: to think about the bomb not looking for some kind of palliative which will calm our fears, but to find a way of understanding its meaning that goes deeper—and is therefore more real — than simply the politics of the bomb or the apocalyptic prophecies of doom it has spawned. What follows is an attempt to understand and reflect on Giegerich’s first article on the subject: “The Nuclear Bomb and the Fate of God: On the First Nuclear Fission,” published in Spring in 1985. [A copy of this article can be found at http://www.mindfully.org/Nucs/Bomb-Fate-God1988.htm]

Giegerich’s standpoint

In order to disclose the real significance of the nuclear bomb, Giegerich advises, it won’t help to think of it as a political problem nor, because it stirs up fears of human survival, will it do to see it as a personal, psychological problem. The only way to grasp what is at stake is to think about the bomb from the widest possible horizon, “as being interwoven with and deeply rooted in the history and reality of our Western world at large.” But even this is not enough. Although the nuclear bomb is the product of our own technology, so enormous and terrible is its power it has broken through boundaries of the human and entered the realm of Being and of the Gods. “Only on this plane,” says Giegerich, “can we hope to do some justice to its dreadfulness.”

Giegerich’s own standpoint, he tells us, is that of a psychologist and a phenomenologist, which, as he has said elsewhere, means he has a “commitment to the phenomena in their eachness themselves,” [that is, a commitment to things as they appear to us or are experienced by us]. It is a method of thought which attempts to go “to the depth, to the very soul of things,” to get into things, as it were, so that they reveal themselves. In speaking therefore of God and the Gods, or in saying that the bomb “extends far beyond the merely human into . . . the dimension of Being and of the Gods,” he is not talking metaphysics, theology or religion as theory or objects of belief. Rather he is dealing with the God images themselves “as they actually occur,” because in these God images the psychological history of humankind is made visible to us. The “fate of God” as this relates to the nuclear bomb Giegerich considers to have been decided long ago, as far back as the event of the Golden Calf in the Old Testament.

In his interpretation of the Biblical story of the Golden Calf, Giegerich makes clear he is not reading it as a subject of biblical textual criticism. The story he is concerned with is the one we learned as children, the story as it was passed down from generation to generation. It is this story, unaffected by scholarly study and analysis, which still resonates in the Western psyche.

“The poetic basis of (Giegerich’s) mind”

Giegerich states explicitly that he is not to be taken literally, when he says, for example, “the Nuclear Bomb is God.” His injunction, however, comes at the very end of the article, which may be too late for some readers. In this regard, James Hillman’s notion of “the poetic basis of mind” is illuminating. I suggest that in thinking about the nuclear bomb, Giegerich does so from that “poetic basis of mind.” He is engaging in what Hillman calls “imaginal psychology.” Imaginal, of course, does not mean “imaginary,” the not real or the illusionary. Rather it is a recognition of the imagination as having a cognitive as well as symbolic function. It is an authentic way of knowing. According to Hillman, the imaginal approach takes us into the very soul of the event, which is what Giegerich seeks to do.

In this context, Giegerich’s interpretation of the story of the Golden Calf is an imaginative, poetic one, conveying meanings that arise from a much deeper level than even the most learned biblical exegesis can provide. Taking further Hillman’s notion of “the poetic basis of mind”, Giegerich writes of “the imaginal quality of Being.” Following Jung’s “image is psyche,” he also postulates Being as having “both image and soul quality”: “God-and-bull (world) were what they were only by virtue of their imaginal nature.” I presume he is equating Being with psyche as do Jung and Hillman. “In the beginning is the image;” wrote Hillman, “first imagination then perception; first fantasy then reality . . . . Man is primarily an imagemaker and our psychic substance consists of images; our being is imaginal being, an existence in imagination” [emphasis added] (J. Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York, Harper & Row, 1975) p. xi).

Giegerich tells us, “I would like to read the story of the Golden Calf as the psychologically real image which was implanted, like a seed, into the receptive psyche of the peoples of the beginning Christian West and, after a period of incubation lasting for several centuries—usually called the ‘Middle Ages’—started to sprout until it finally bore mature fruit in our century.” He will thus “listen to it as part of that ‘myth’ in which we live.” As Giegerich interprets the story of the Golden Calf, therefore,  he is attempting to do what only the poetic is capable of doing, that is, disclosing the concealed meaning of an event which cannot be seen in any other, more analytical or empirical way.

The story of the Golden Calf

Moses was with Yahweh on the mountain top for forty days and forty nights. Meanwhile, not knowing what had became of Moses, the people went to Aaron asking him “to make us a god to go at our head.” Aaron then gathered all the gold from among them and from it made a statue of a calf. When Moses finally came down from the mountain, bearing the two tablets of the commandments, he is enraged to see the people dancing before the calf. In his fury he smashes the tablets, seizes the golden calf and destroys it. He then challenges the people: “Who is on the Lord’s side let him come to me.” Those who did not are slaughtered that day, some three thousand. With this action, Giegerich claims, there occurred “a fateful event in the history of God himself . . . God separates himself from an aspect of himself. God’s nature splits.” God “pushes off, as it were, from the bull, from his animal base, and takes off for the highest heights.” Moses’ sword not only slays the three thousand who chose not to come to the Lord, but it severs God from the shape of the bull from which his divinity had until then manifested itself.

The destruction of the Golden Calf is a tale of how God became a solely invisible God. Instead of being an immanent power in the world, as he had been, God now becomes a supernatural and transcendent God, external to earthly reality. By this same act, all other Gods became false Gods, or mere idols. As pure and absolute spirit, God eventually becomes “an idealized idea,” no longer known through his earthly reality but only through revelation, by what is said about him by others. But a revelation requires faith that what has been revealed is true. Prior to this severing, there was no need of faith. You didn’t need to believe in the old God or the Gods, because you actually experienced them and their workings. Writing about a related essay by Giegerich, Roberts Avens comments that in the world of myth the question of God’s existence could not possibly arise:

For example, one cannot say that Zeus existed or that he didn’t exist. One lived daily in the light of Helios, one felt its radiance in one’s body. Similarly,we do not ask: are there dogs? Is there wind? is there  life on earth? . . . .The Gods of myth were natural, self-evident Gods so that it was impossible to believe in them or to doubt their existence. (Roberts Avens, “Reflections on Wolfgang Giegerich’s ‘The Burial of the Soul in Technological Civilization’” Sulfur 20, Fall 1987,  34-54, p.38.)

With the story of the Golden Calf, according to Giegerich, idolatry is “invented.” Here biblical scholarship is useful, informing us that the calf was in fact a representation of a young bull which was a symbol of divinity in the ancient East. The bull was not an image of Yahweh, but regarded as “a footstool for the invisible deity.” Moreover, among the Israelites, from ancient times, God was described as having a ‘bull-nature.’ The people were not worshipping the Golden Calf for itself, but were worshipping the Deity shining forth from it. The bull they celebrated, therefore, could not be considered to be an idol. It was an image and nothing else (after all, it had been made from their own jewelry), through which God himself radiated. By degrading sensate phenomena through which the divine had up till then been revealed, such images now became idols or “false Gods,” antithetical to the one, true God. For Giegerich this amounts to “an assault on the imaginal quality of reality as such.” In destroying the Golden Calf, “Moses reduces the reality of God to ‘mere matter,’ dust instead of divine image.” Earth, deprived of its imaginal feature, becomes Godless, no longer able to “shine forth” the divine, while God becomes “worldless”. Sensuous reality and God’s ascent to pure spirit become “mutual reflections of each other.”

Giegerich takes no note that Moses’ wrath was aroused because the worship of the golden calf represented a rebellion of some Israelites against the Ark of the Covenant which Yahweh intended as the site of his presence among his people. Nor does he refer to other questions or issues evoked by this traumatic event in the history of the Jewish people. Approaching the story “poetically,” he renders it as a metaphor for the most critical turning point in the history of religion, the triumph of monotheism over animistic polytheism. It is that with which he is here concerned, that and its permanent— and perhaps fatal — consequences. Whatever else has been and might still be said about the story of the Golden Calf, Giegerich’s narrative aims to see through, to penetrate the event to a deeper level of meaning than can be extracted from either biblical scholarship or from devotional interpretations of the story. What is revealed is a meaning— a reality which lives still within us and in our culture as a whole, a reality in which we still live.

The triumph of monotheism and the nuclear bomb.

So far we have a story which seems to be far removed from the present reality of the nuclear bomb. What has the triumph of monotheism to do with it? Giegerich makes the link with an astounding poetical leap.

With the destruction of the Golden Calf and God’s command to worship none other but himself as the only one true God, he himself becomes a wholly spiritual God. Earthly reality is therefore stripped of its “imaginal shine,” through which the divine had formerly been recognized and worshipped. The “pulverizing” of the divine image, however, took centuries to be fully accomplished, some two thousand years in fact, for it is only in our own time, says Giegerich, that this act has been fulfilled “and all of reality dismantled into the ‘dust’ of molecules, atoms, and subatomic, elementary particles to which, as to the ultimate and actual reality, all things having a visible shape can be, nay, must be reduced.” Understand, he says further, that this destruction of the imaginal quality of earth must not be taken literally. It isn’t that the things themselves were destroyed, but rather
the imaginal nature of their shape, their divine radiance, their golden shine, their numinous brilliance: the moving power of the image. The imaginal nature of real things once had is now reduced to the mere form of matter.
God’s becoming transcendent as “imageless spirit” and the corresponding reality of the earth degraded into mere matter results in a third consequence, “an ontological explosion upsetting the foundations of existence, of Being as such”, which Giegerich calls “the First Nuclear Fission.”

How did this first nuclear fission occur? Giegerich describes the process as analogous to a physical nuclear explosion. There were three aspects to it. First, the purely spiritual God raises himself to the highest heavens, generating an immense energy comparable to the “star” of nuclear explosions. Second, the “earthly-sensuous” now becomes “mere nature,” no longer sharing in divinity but reduced to “nuclear ash” —and it has been nuclear ash for some two thousand years. (Had it not been denied its divinity, Giegerich speculates, it would not have been possible to exploit it for scientific and technological ends.) Third, as the original unity between the divine and nature (the imaginal quality or mode of Being) split apart, it resulted, as it were, in the origin of the Will. “The age-old story of the Golden Calf is thus, in the context of the history of our Christian West [Giegerich’s emphasis], also the myth of the birth of the modern ego, whose innermost essence is the will” [emphasis added]. With this split in the imaginal mode or quality of being, the modern ego is released into existence.

Before the destruction of the Golden Calf, Being was “immersed”, says Giegerich, in the imaginal realm of the anima, of soul. The Gods appeared to humankind from within things. Their numinosity was such that they demanded from man particular ways of behaving towards them, in other words, rituals. But once God and the Gods split off from this realm, the claims the Gods had made upon man lost their efficacy. Something new came forward “in the shape of absolute ethical norms” (e.g. the Ten Commandments Moses brought down from the mountain), which depended entirely on the will of man to comply with and enforce.

Having paraphrased Giegerich’s thought so far, let me summarize it as I understand it, beginning with the section in which he makes the connection between the story of the Golden Calf and the nuclear bomb. The story describes the destruction of the Golden Calf, the command to follow Yahweh as the only true God and the order to murder of all those who refuse. Reading it as a metaphor, Giegerich recognizes in this story a psychological event which occurred early in human history and which is only now being fully realized in our own time. The story is a symbolic representation of the evolution of Western consciousness and the consequences of that evolution. For our ancestors God was not distinct from the reality of nature (“sensate reality”). Human reality itself consisted in what has been (now arguably) called a state of “participation mystique” or “original participation” [Owen Barfield]. Since there was no absolute separation among these three—God, nature and human beings—reality in all its manifestations could be said to possess “soul.” Through things of this earth—a mountain, the ocean, the firmament, or images made by man himself— God revealed himself. He “shone through” earthly reality. Humankind did not worship the mountain, the ocean or the firmament or man-made images, but rather, the God whose power emanated from them. God’s revelation was “imaginal,” that is, shaped in the form of an image, but it was not the image itself.

Having violently split himself off from nature, God is now recognized as its creator and supreme ruler. He is to be worshipped as the One God, absolute and pure spirit. No other Gods may be worshipped; nature itself has been stripped of its power to let the divine “shine forth.” Henceforth forbidden to seek God in nature, humankind undergoes a radical change in consciousness. If God is split off from nature, so too is humankind. At the same time, in that momentous event, Being itself was ruptured, releasing a psychic energy that increased in intensity and power over time. This energy accounts for the dynamism unique to Western civilization— most evident in its science and technology. The creation and detonation of the nuclear bomb is the most devastating result so far.

Giegerich is making a direct linkage between the Judeo-Christian religion and the bomb. The bomb is the consequence of a radical disruption in the religious bond that had determined the relationship between God, nature and the human. It is not the product merely of our technology, but the consequence of the splitting off of the divine from nature, or as he frequently puts it, from “earthly reality.” We know from Genesis that man had already been given control over nature by God. Now with God having entirely removed himself from nature, man’s domination over it becomes unbounded, no longer confined by nature’s role in manifesting the divine. Earthly reality, having lost its power of “shining forth” the divine, becomes subject to man’s will.

Once God removes himself from nature and becomes absolute spirit, according to Giegerich, he is the loser. Over time he becomes less and less of an actor in history. By the time of the Enlightenment he has been relegated to a master mechanic, keeping the world going but not otherwise involved in its affairs. “Secularism” would not have been possible had God remained a force within earthly reality. The story of the Golden Calf is about the world become “secular”, that is, stripped of the immanence of the divine and, as Giegerich elaborates, subject to the “modern ego” or will.

The destruction of the Golden Calf and the (Western) myth of the birth of the ego

Now to continue with Giegerich’s claim that the story of the Golden Calf is the myth of the birth of the modern ego, “whose innermost essence is the will.” We commonly think of the ego as a constitutive element of the human personality, but its meaning goes far beyond the merely personal. According to Giegerich it is

the modern mode of being of everything that is, the mode of being of God, the world, and man. It is not we who have an ego; the ego or the will has us and our world. Just as the nuclear explosions of physics are triggered by the bombardment of uranium with electrons, so the blow of the sword [separating divine from earthly reality, God from the bull ] sets the ontological nuclear fission in motion. The blow of the sword, however, is the way in which the Will comes into being.

It is not that Moses, in his zeal, performed an act of the will in destroying the Golden Calf. Rather, it was the act of destruction itself by which the Ego/Will came into existence as the “modern mode of being,” replacing “an imaginal, undivided” primary Being as the “supreme ontological principle.” In his essay “The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead,” Heidegger comments regarding Nietzsche’s will to power, that the will is not desiring or striving after something but a “commanding”: what “the will wills it has already... Its will is what it has willed.” Compare this to Giegerich’s notion that the “will is born out of itself, out of the ‘sudden’ exercise of willing. It is its own origin.”

The blow of Moses’ sword which struck apart the imaginal mode of Being was the same act which released the Will into existence. By this act, God, nature and mankind were driven out of the imaginal and became subject to the Will. Up till then Gods, things, and events had addressed themselves to humankind from within earthly reality or so humankind experienced it, and in so doing, imposed certain conditions, certain “treatments,” e.g. rituals, which were morally binding on man. But with the departure by God from the world into transcendence and the consequent degrading of earthly reality, the force which had bound them together now takes another shape, that of ethical norms, which have, however, no power of their own but depend on man’s own act of will to define and enforce them. Previously, phenomena were themselves ethically binding. Following the rupture, however, humankind alone carries the burden of moral responsibility not only for itself, but for phenomena as well, which have become “ethically neutral.”

Before this split, truth and reality were “the same, even though not alike”. They were not metaphysical constructs, but were manifest in ritual and myth. Giegerich cites the famous encounter between Jung and the Pueblo Indian chief who declared: “The sun is God, Everyone can see that.” “This is the Father; there is no Father behind it.” In other words, there is no “God” operating behind the phenomenon itself. Whatever had this numinous effect simply was God. But once God transcended earthly reality, we have a God who no longer may appear as he really is, but whose conduct is now determined by dogma. In a word, this God becomes “an ego-ideal.”

The story of the Golden Calf, as Giegerich tells it, is the distillation of a long, complex evolution during which the sacred and nature became separated from each other and subject to human will. Now, much of this had been said by others. Morris Berman wrote: “The history of the West according to both the sociologist Max Weber and the poet Schiller is the progressive removal of mind, or spirit, from phenomenal appearances.” The world in effect, as Weber described it, has been “disenchanted.” In an influential essay,“ The Opposition of the Individual and the Collective”, published some eight years after “The Nuclear Bomb and the Fate of God”, Giegerich once again —not imagistically but straightforwardly—writes of the “revolution” which occurred as the actual severing of the sacred from the natural world. In another much discussed essay, “The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man,” he puts it differently, but the message is the same. He writes, for instance, of man’s having escaped the “containment of nature” and of the Gods having become little else than “memories.” Even where it is not specifically stated, this insight informs much if not all of Giegerich’s thought, forming a bedrock in which much of his subsequent thinking is anchored.

A secular world, stripped of the divine and now dominated by human will, is the outcome. One of the devastating consequences of this revolution is the nuclear bomb. The religion of the West is not just implicated, but is the source from which this “modern mode of Being” originated. Giegerich’s imaginative reach linking the fate of God with the nuclear bomb exposes the desperate situation we humans now find ourselves in, with no God or Gods to save us but only our Ego/Will to determine our fate.

With the New Testament, according to Giegerich, God as pure spirit reached his ultimate, absolute form. He had nowhere to go from there. Such was not the case, however, for earth split off from the Godhead. Its energy was now released and magnified to a limitless degree. “Natural reality has intensified into technological reality.” The animal shape of God represented in the Golden Calf has been superseded by the “machine shape of God.” As such it is also demonized, but it has to be recognized as “an undeniable truth” — as fearsome and “depraved” as it may be.

It must also be recognized that it was God who thrust the real away from himself and ordered it to be reduced to mere dust. Giegerich in effect accuses God of being in a state of denial about having rejected his own reality. And his faithful have only conspired to honor that denial by accepting God’s word for it. But Giegerich asks, “Does not similarly God’s reality in the shape of the bomb insist on recognition without reserve—even against his conscious self-revelation as pure love and creative truth? Does not God too want to be seen in his reality?” For Giegerich, we cannot ignore the phenomenological reality of the bomb. “Higher truth is no longer literally above the world, but it is the depth and essence of the real world itself. “

Giegerich concludes that we need not go beyond phenomena, beyond the images, beyond the “appearances” to find God, but rather that we need to go into them. The truth is that being finite we cannot have an absolute knowledge of God, without transcending God or being superior to him. All that we can possibly know has its only source in phenomena itself. “We must understand that we are irrevocably encompassed by our phenomenal world.” With the nuclear bomb, God “has come back to earth”.

If “The Nuclear Bomb and the Fate of the Gods” had been delivered as a poem, it would be utterly persuasive, reaching as only poetry can into very essence of things, trumping logic, rationality, history. As written, however, imaginative leaps sometime collapse under the weight of assertions which seem to come out of nowhere but Giegerich’s fertile mind and imagination. Some have the ring of truth about them, but not all. In the section “The change in the nature of the image,” for example, Giegerich claims that after the split the imaginal quality of the divine was not destroyed, but changed, becoming an image without content. Extrapolating from that, Giegerich tells us that God can be manifested in any image, in advertisements, for instance. What is projected by the advertising image doesn’t matter, because it is only “all for show.” All images in advertising are only a modern form of image worship, the only way to worship the image of God and should, therefore, be appreciated for that reason. This “imageless image” becomes a public relations vehicle to promote the prestige of God. Giegerich goes still further: to finally triumph over the Gods, Christianity had, of necessity, to be indifferent to the content of images, indeed, even to having a content at all, not even the traditional Christian content of doctrines, iconography and “mythical substance”. Any theological content of Christianity as it is still taught today is just “a primitive leftover.” There may be a truth here, but these are claims which need a greater clarity than Giegerich provides.

There is also a glaring omission: any mention of the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, in whom God becomes man. If God, having severed the bonds with all earthly reality, has become absolute, pure Spirit, how then is Christ accounted for? Giegerich takes up the Incarnation in another seminal paper he was apparently working on at more or less at the same time —”The Burial of the Soul in Technological Civilization,” first given as an Eranos lecture in 1983 and now available for the first time in English in Spring 75 “Psyche and Nature, Part 1 of 2,” 2006. Here is an indication of the direction of his thought:
Only through the Incarnation does God really cease being a mythic image and turns into a completely extramundane, absolute God, i.e. a God detached from nature [p. 219].


The Nuclear Bomb and the Fate of the Gods is a densely argued work of imaginal psychology. If it sometimes exasperates, it also stirs the mind and soul with that deep excitement which comes when long held ideas or assumptions are seen from an entirely new angle of vision. Conventional thinking about the course of Western civilization is turned upside down. The secularization of the West had its origins in and evolved from Judeo-Christianity itself and not, as we have believed, the other way around. It is no use for Christianity to denounce secularism, for secularism was intrinsic to its evolution. The repercussions of this epic event were first experienced in the Western, Judeo-Christian world, but having caused the splitting of Being itself, it became universal in its consequences, to which in our own era the nuclear bomb bears indisputable witness. The nuclear bomb is now globally sought after as the sine qua non of prestige and power—a demonstration in the extreme of the Ego/Will as the “modern mode of being.”

But Giegerich imagines an alternative. With the nuclear bomb, God “has come back to earth”. Nature and spirit are no longer opposites, but are “returned to psyche” which “surrounds us on all sides and has nothing outside of itself.” In this metaphorical sense the nuclear bomb is God, for in the bomb, “our Golden Calf,” the divine is shining forth in all its terrible numinosity. Giegerich asks us to entertain this possibility, that we dance around our Golden Calf.    

Can we imagine this? A mankind that dances around the bomb? And a bomb that would not have to be used any more, because it would be the center authorizing the dance? A bomb, which as that center would bind man and by binding us would also be itself bound? A mankind whose hardening and contentiousness, whose power competition and protesting would be softened in the dance, a mankind that would swing into the ‘atomic’ music of Being? And a bomb that would not have to be used any more, because it would be the center authorizing the dance? A bomb, which as that center would bind man and by binding us would also be itself bound?

Can we imagine it?

copyright 2007 Dolores Brien. All rights reserved.