Friday, June 04, 2010

The death of God

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Thus Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Gay Science. The whole passage is very powerful and well worth reading. There are a whole load of things I'd like to say about this. I'd like to draw attention to the fact that Nietzsche, unlike many of the contemporary atheists I come across, understands just what the death of God entails, in terms of the loss of all values. I'd like to explore the history of the death of God as a concept, and ask some questions about whether Nietzsche is the inevitable result of trends in western philosophy and theology. I'd love to explore the extent to which the madman represents Nietzsche himself in this parable.

But for this post, I want to settle on one thing: the death of God is an event. It is a happening.

It seems to me that Nietzsche is not so much an atheist as a deicide. I don't mean that Nietzsche believed in an existent, metaphysical entity called God, an entity which humanity has now killed. I don't think he had much interest in metaphysical entities of any sort. But the vivid imagery of the death - indeed, the murder - of God is not the language of the man who has just realised that there never was any sort of deity after all and therefore we can all enjoy our lives. Something has changed. There used to be God - this earth used to be chained to its sun, there used to be warmth and light, there used to be meaning. Now it has all gone. And we have done it. What is left is the nihilism from which Nietzsche hopes to provide some escape (but only for some?) through his philosophy.

Now consider this stanza from a hymn of Faber's:
O come and mourn with me a while,
and tarry here the cross beside.
O come together, let us mourn,
Jesus our Lord is crucified.

The subject is, of course, the death - of God? I think we could be so bold as to say so. Because in Christianity, also, the death of God is an event, a happening.

There is debate about whether we can really speak in this way - is not the death of Christ really the death of his human nature, and not at all the death of God? I think there is good reason to reject this approach, although I recognise it has been the majority position in the church. Perhaps I'll write something about this at some point.

I suppose the main difference between Nietzsche and Faber is the little phrase "a while" in the hymn. For Nietzsche's madman, God is dead and remains dead; for Faber, there is just a little while to mourn the death of God. How is that?

For Nietzsche, the death of God is an event in human history, for which human beings must take responsibility, the aftermath of which it is up to human beings to sort out. For the Christian, the death of God is an event in divine history, for which God takes responsibility (though indeed, it is true that we have done it), the aftermath of which God has sorted out by raising Christ from the dead. The madman is driven frantic by the responsibility. We have killed God; now what must we do? Must we not become gods ourselves to be worthy of the deed? The Christian agrees: we have killed God. We will mourn for a while. But ultimately we know that God himself has taken responsibility for our - murder? deicide? - and has completely undone what we have tried to do.

O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried,
and victory remains with love
for thou, our Lord, art crucified.


  1. Agreed...but we would want to say that what died is not some (teleological, ontotheological) abstraction, but the (historical, human) incarnation, right? The event Nietzsche has in view here is the death of God in 18th-19th century philosophy - what I'd call God the cosmic legitimator of teleology...whose decomposition leaves us with existentialism - what I might call the cosmic legitimation of the status quo. Hence why Nietzsche calls himself the "first scientist", the first not to seek for 'ought' outside 'is' (as I see it, Nietzsche doesn't call for the removal of all values, but the revaluation of all values).

    So this is a prophetic poem, the frantic fool speaking to "the marketplace", with Kant as much as "the english" (ie utilitarian) philosophy in mind. (Both are unavoidably teleological - hence why "the enlightenment project had to fail"[MacIntyre]).

    I'll repeat here the question I've been mulling over for a while, but really don't have an answer to:
    What is the difference between Nietzsche's critiques of Kant/Aristotle and Luther's critiques of reason/Aristotle?
    or similarly, What is the difference between Nietzsche's dead God and Barth's No-God?

    I wrote on Ressentiment & Resurrection recently - would appreciate your thoughts/reflections...but my own tendency would be to see Nietzsche as a theologian of original sin - so what I find fascinating is how far Nietzsche can be appropriated - but while it's become quite vogue to be totally against Aristotle, I doubt we should embrace Nietzsche by reaction, or should we?? I'd want to paraphrase Josh Harris - perhaps Aristotle's not the problem; sin is?

  2. Chris, have you read much Hegel? I've been mulling over Hegel's position on the death of God. He seems to think (and it is always only 'seems' with Hegel, since most of the time I have no idea what he's going on about) that God is dead because Kant has turned God into an abstraction, and therefore a nothing. He proposes his own dialectic as a means of bringing God back inside the system, as Geist... If Nietzsche is building on this, I think he is on to something important (in that Hegel's attempt fails).

    I do think the Incarnation, and behind that the doctrine of the Trinity, is the answer to Nietzsche, because it allows us to answer the questions - how could God die? (he became one of us) - how could God take responsibility for his own death? (because God is Trinity). But I am also aware that I'm pushing the bounds of Chalcedon here (although only in ways that Luther and Barth have done before me, so I consider myself in good company).

    I'm going to write something in the next day or so on sacrificing God, which is another image Nietzsche uses and one which I think can helpfully be brought to bear on Luther and Barth - in brief, we sacrifice the no-god, the god of reason, over and over again in order to have the true God...

    BTW, it sounds to me like most of your knowledge of Barth is very early Barth. His later theology pursues much less of a via negativa/dialectical form, with the emphasis being on Christ as the event of revelation which bursts through all our thought about God...

  3. I don't think he had much interest in metaphysical entities of any sort.

    Eternal Recurrence?

  4. Eternal recurrence is not a metaphysical entity, though, is it? As I understand it (and I could well be wrong) eternal recurrence is the human being postulating his/her own being again and again - sort of the internalisation of teleology? Prepared to be corrected on that though...

  5. I love Nietzsche for this - that he's so clear, clearly anti-Christ rather than muffling on about some vague deity, projection of the imagination.

    But your questions of "whether Nietzsche is the inevitable result of trends in western philosophy and theology": surely it's the other way round, that all philosophy since Nietzsche has been in his wake (both senses)? He was, as he liked to think, in some sense a prophet: not declaring truth from outside, but declaring what others wouldn't acknowledge on the outside. What he saw was on the inside, has continued to work itself out since. Only the current atheist self-appointed spokesmen don't have the philosophical clarity to see what they're implying. Nietzsche recognised society was dancing to a certain tune, and banged the drum for the beat; these guys are trying to write the score and deny there's a rhythm.

    [Complete aside: I've only just noticed was a cool word rhythm is - strictly, 6 consonants in a row. Suitable for Nietzsche :)]

  6. Yes, Nietzsche is nothing if not consistent in his anti-theism, which is to his credit in the bourgeois 'christian' culture in which he grew up...

    I do think N is more of a result of trends in the western tradition, though. Hegel had already pronounced the death of God, or at least the feeling that God was dead, on the basis that Kant and others like him had turned God into a nothing - keeping an empty concept for certain philosophical/ethical purposes, but killing 'God'. N follows that up and sees the implications clearly. But I'm not sure he has been that successful a prophet - don't our modern atheists seem very much like those disbelievers who stand around mocking the madman? Have we learnt from Nietzsche at all?

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  8. Hey Dan
    worth saying Barth & Hegel are probably the most intimidating reads for me; giants. so...hats off to you.

    - on Barth: yep, only read beginning of Commentary on Romans (and many commentaries thereon). I've picked up God in the Here & Now which I may get into over the summer. Is there such a thing as an easy entry? (If not, why not?).

    - on Hegel: first crossed paths with Hegel in reading Marx (Critique of Hegel's Philospohy of Right, then read bits from Phil. of Right & Lectures in Hist. of Phil. (mainly on the State/Sittlichkeit) at Bristol. Found Charles Taylor's Hegel v helpful, although didn't know CT was Christian at the time - maybe that's why I found him so reflections are I was essentially modern while studying philosophy. But that's not all bad.

    So as a fool rushing in once said, I think I have a vague grasp on Hegel, but I didn't know he wrote in terms of the death of God. My take is he falsely opts between locking God outside history and locking God into history; in the end, I think these are equivalent positions. God is seen only as creator, a kind of heavenly legitimator of all that is ("well he made it this way...") - a line taken in particular to legitimate history and duty. I think this is the characteristically modern turn, which denies God's freedom to judge. Of course this is unattainable, and what happens is something else becomes the arbiter, so:
    - judgment collapses into history and
    - metaphysics collapses into physics, as Nietzsche saw (ps you're right on eternal recurrance - Brian Leiter is helpful here)

    My critique is that God seen only as creator of history, not judge who can stand against history, still less redeemer who can redeem history - is an idol. And the gospel announces our Creator stepping into history to break the terror of babel and judge history. If that sounds a bit like what you say Barth is into, then whaddya know, perhaps we're not so far off after all?!

  9. God Here and Now is a good way in to Barth, I think. He is not generally as impenetrable or as weird (for want of a better word) as he is in Romans - I find the Dogmatics quite a pleasant read most of the time. He does write in a way that tends to frustrate people who just want to get to the point - theologia viatorum means that the way is the point, and therefore some things take longer to say than we might like...

    You are right, as far as I can tell, in your interpretation of Hegel. He talks, in fact, not so much about the death of God as about the feeling of the death of God - he thinks this is provoked by Kant. But of course his answer is to make God totally immanent, and therefore essentially just as much of a nothing as Kant's absent God...

  10. for what its worth, noticed this, and thought I'd pass it on. blummin good blog this
    Per Crucem ad Lucem: thinking more (Hegel) and thinking differently (Barth)

  11. Hey, that is a good blog... Thanks Chris!