“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Nietzsche’s penetrating, illuminating and haunting words have lingered in my soul ever since I first heard them uttered by Ravi Zacharias a few years ago. The product of an ambiguous, intelligent and creative man whose prose, style and ideas are able to evoke great praise and almost violent disapproval simultaneously. I must admit I have been struggling to unpack why Nietzsche thought that the death of God would lead to a society “perpetually falling” and “straying through an infinite nothing”. It is an incredibly rich and complex idea and getting to the crux of the matter has not been an easy task for me. And so what follows is a work in progress; a tentative sketch of what I think Nietzsche was getting at.
The trope of “God is dead” was not intended by Nietzsche of course to mean that God literally has died. The death of God, particularly the Christian God, meant in some sense that God had ceased to become the organising principle of western culture. It was a philosophical and sociological phenomena that Nietzsche was getting at – the Christian worldview had become the foundation upon which western culture had erected itself and what Nietzsche was witnessing was the discarding of that foundation. He welcomed the discarding of the Christian worldview, blaming it for what he considered the slave morality of egalitarian ideals which made everyone equal and had somehow managed to replace the master morality of the strong, creative, autonomous and noble man. In one of his books he says,
“What is it we combat in Christianity? That it wants to break the strong, that it wants to discourage their courage, exploit their bad hours and their occasional weariness, convert their proud assurance into unease and distress of conscience, that it knows how to poison and sicken the noble instincts until their strength, their will to power turns backward, against itself-until the strong perish through orgies of self-contempt and self-abuse”
According to Nietzsche then, Christianity embodied the antithesis of a full, passionate and vigorous life; it was life-denying with its slave morality which was born out of resentment. However, as much a Nietzsche despised the Christian worldview he was not naive enough to think the death of God and the usurping of the Christian paradigm would occur without radical implications for Western Europe. Nietzsche as a philosopher and sociologist of sorts, foresaw that the death of God would be the most radical and foundational change yet. The reason being that as soon as you do away with God, the metaphysical presuppositions that came with God such as absolute values, truth, cosmic purpose and human nature and dignity – would soon also come to be questioned and buried alongside God. Western Europe did not realize how much of its identity was wrapped up in Christianity and how the loss of that would lead to chaos and nihilism, at least in the initial stages. Before the arrival of a “higher history” Nietzsche thought there would first be catastrophic birth pains.
The existence of God in the Christian sense, meant of course that the bedrock of reality, the thing that all other things derive their being from, the ultimate building block of reality; the thing that you cannot get any more fundamental than was a good and rational being. The implications for this idea is the following. We are not aliens in this world; at the centre of reality is God – a personal and rational being- whom, in some mysterious but essential and real way, we are analogous to. The Bible goes onto further cement this idea by claiming that we as humans are made in the image of God. There is something fundamental about ourselves that mirrors God in an essential and true way. By knowing ourselves; our deep desires and longings we can somehow know that these are true of God in some mysterious yet rational way. Contrast this worldview with what atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel sketches out in his essay, The Freeman’s worship:
“…man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms…”
In Russel’s world human beings are aliens. We find ourselves with deep desires and longings that are completely inexplicable and ultimately explainable, unintelligible because they are the product of causes that did not aim for us to have those features in the first place. By sheer accident we somehow managed to rise above our creator; an unconscious, non-rational, impersonal and amoral creator completely indifferent to our existence; to become conscious creatures able to judge, know and value ourselves and that which created us. The death of God plunges us into a world where we are surrounded by “the breath of empty space”. A world that is at its core essentially devoid of all those things that we as humans value; a world that is indifferent to our deep suffering, our pursuit of happiness, purpose and our moral beliefs. We have by chance become creatures that transcend our creator and therefore what we ultimately desire transcends the natural and material world – and yet if all there is, is material, despair follows. It is hard to not think of such a condition as absurd.
In another sense, the death of God is inextricably linked to the death of humanity. Without God, there can be no human nature. To have a nature; is to be a substance with intrinsic capacities, abilities and potentialities ordered towards particular ends and purposes. When thinkers such as Aristotle speak of the essence of human beings; they are referring to the unique capacities and potentialities possessed by human beings that are ordered and directed towards certain goods and ends.
The problem the death of God brings is that it becomes inexplicable how we can still meaningfully speak of essences, natures and even species in general if things are the product of accidental causes. An accidental cause is something that brings about another event without actually intending or aiming for that event to occur. If our existence is accidental then we cannot coherently and meaningfully speak of possessing essences ordered towards particular ends and goods. We cannot say that humans are intrinsically social animals ordered and created for social cooperation At best we can pretend and talk as if we are – but when pushed to its logical limit we must conclude that they are projections we impose on the world. The terms intrinsic, ordered and created are inextricably linked to intention and purpose. Jean Paul Sartre once wrote, “For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature”. Only with a rational cause like God can essence precede existence, because the essence of a thing will exist as an idea first in the mind before God creates it.
The Bible refers to humans as being made in the “image of God” to capture this unique essence intrinsic to humans; the ancient Greeks referred to reason as the defining feature of humans. The ability to know our own nature and essence, to gaze upon it and reflect. It is possessing an essence, a nature, the image of God that provides the grounds of our knowledge and moral capacity. We have an essence ordered towards certain ends, goals and goods and our reason is there to help discover what those are and for us to then act in obtaining them. Therefore the loss of a human essence leads philosophically and in principle to the loss of intrinsic human ends and goals that we should value intrinsically. In other words it leads to nihilism where there is “no up or down left” as Nietzsche put it. There are no goods and ends that in principle human nature is created for attaining.
The death of God also leads to nihilism in practice and sociologically.
Moral knowledge, as the philosopher Charles Taylor put it in his book, Sources of the Self, broadly involves:
“…discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards by which they can be judged”
Moral knowledge although attainable in principle because of our essence in practice is not easily obtained, neither is it often obvious and completely transparent to us. Moral knowledge has been a painstakingly difficult process and continues to be so – a fact that points towards the limitations of our reason. A fact that Christianity acknowledged by insisting that a divine revelation was necessary for us humans to come to a fuller understanding of reality and ourselves. The Bible beautifully handles the tension that human reason brings. It recognises its uniqueness and powers elevating it to something analogous to God himself; however it also insists that by itself human reason is limited and requires God to speak.
We can see this principle at play analogously when it comes to tacit knowledge. Articulated and abstracted knowledge, which is what human reason excels in, is one kind of knowledge that we possess and need. We also have tacit knowledge; a kind of concrete knowledge that cannot be articulated but is embedded and embodied in our social institutions and practices and learnt by engaging in those traditions. Think of how we know how to abide by the rules and grammar of our languages even though most of us who are not linguists, cannot articulate precisely what those rules are. As Michael Polanyi a philosopher who wrote insight-fully on tacit knowledge once said, “we know more than we can tell”. Think of our occupations, the theoretical knowledge to be a doctor is insufficient for being a doctor – one must practice and gain knowledge embedded in the art of practice. We call this knowledge “experience” because it is gained precisely through experiencing it concretely and participating in it. What this idea also implies is that our social institutions and accumulated traditions at any given time possess more information than what we can articulate and what reason can grasp. Our actions at an individual and social level are not obvious and transparent to us – we cannot articulate exhaustively why we do the things we do. Otherwise we would not need anthropology, sociology, psychology and religion to interpret and articulate our actions. Religious institutions such as the Bible; being the oldest form of articulated knowledge combined with religious practices convey within them the accumulated and most successful knowledge to handle life in general.
Therefore the death of God, and discarding the Christian worldview, was based on the presupposition that reason alone was sufficient for knowledge. The Enlightenment and the age of reason took as a basic presupposition that only abstract, theoretical and empirical knowledge is important. Therefore tacit knowledge, knowledge from authorities in the form of social institutions and divine revelation were discarded as sources of knowledge. The accumulated knowledge embedded in religious practices and institutions which had been discovered to be essential in providing a suitable structure for humans to flourish would be demoted. The Christian worldview with its practices and institutions contained the accumulated wisdom of how to deal with life at a practical level. That loss, Nietzsche thought would lead to despair and nihilism; a loss of the sense that there are things that have value absolutely.
We see then that Nietzsche’s dramatic prophecy about the ramifications of the death of God can be approached in a number of different ways. In a metaphysical sense the death of God leaves human beings as aliens and strangers in a world essentially devoid of all those threads that hold and make human life rich. Our deep hopes, longings and values transcend the material and natural world. Without a transcendent world inhabited by God there is no hope of their satisfaction and fulfillment. In another philosophical sense; the death of God leaves humanity without an essence, without a human nature, we are no longer made in the image of God. “Existence precedes essence” as Jean Paul Sartre put it, if God is dead. Essences are intrinsically teleological and must ultimately be caused by teleological and intentional forces such as God. Without an essence; there are no goods that we should intrinsically value because our very nature would not be ordered and directed towards attaining those things. All goods become instrumental; we can no longer thoughtfully discuss what human flourishing essentially and objectively requires. Lastly in a sociological sense the death of God would disrupt the wisdom of generations and traditions that Christian practices had accumulated to help provide a robust and anti-fragile life able to handle the vicissitudes of life. This knowledge was tacit; meaning it was concrete knowledge deeply embedded in our social practices, institutions and traditions which is transmitted through participation in those practices. The death of God meant a turning away from that form of knowledge and going as far as no longer classifying it as true knowledge. Only what reason could grasp and abstract was considered knowledge. Scientific, theoretical and empirical knowledge would be the New Testament upon which man’s salvation would be built.
Taken together all these different perspectives on the death of God converge onto the same theme – a deep loss of what it means to be human. It is no wonder then that Nietzsche thought confusion and a loss of direction would soon follow in the aftermath of God’s absence. Our destiny as human beings is ultimately transcendent and the loss of that transcendent home leaves us “straying through and infinite nothing”.