Our fourth week of Atheism For Lent focuses on Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically one of his best known remarks: God is dead. This phrase is often turned against him, stating that Nietzsche is dead and God is not. This turn, however, is a misunderstanding of the phrase. For if God exists, you cannot kill him. And if God does not exist, there is nothing to kill.
Nietzsche most famously uses this phrase in his parable of the Madman (which we will explore tomorrow) but its first appearance is cited earlier in the same book under the heading, “New Struggles.”
After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, – an immense frightful shadow. God is dead; but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. – And we – we have still to overcome his shadow!
(Nietzsche, Gay Science, 81)
The “new struggle” is to see the cave for what it is and call the shadow out as an ideological construct. For it is this, our ideological construct that we declare to be God, which has died. This is the God of our creation, perpetuation, and subjugation. This God is dead but we insist on keeping him alive.
Nietzsche’s atheism was not a denial of God, however, but a methodological tool he used to free himself from the guilt caused by the Christian interpretation of God. He did not mean so much that God was dead, but that we are alive and on our own as human beings.
For this is Nietzsche’s work in a nutshell: the retrieval of humanity and of one’s personal divinity by denying categories like the “sacred,” the “supernatural,” and even the “natural,” at times, until finally he had to remove God to get at divinity. Because sometime god gets in the way of God.
Two stories, the first from Friedrich Nietzsche, the second from Robert Pullman:
The Parable of the Madman
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours,
ran to the market place, and cried incessantly:
“I seek God! I seek God!”
As many of those who did not believe in God
were standing around just then,
he provoked much laughter.
Has he got lost? asked one.
Did he lose his way like a child? asked another.
Or is he hiding?
Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?
Thus they yelled and laughed.
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.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?
What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled
to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?
What water is there for us to clean ourselves?
What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?
Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?
Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us –
For the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners;
and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment.
At last he threw his lantern on the ground,
and it broke into pieces and went out.
“I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet.
This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering;
it has not yet reached the ears of men.
Lightning and thunder require time;
the light of the stars requires time;
deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.
This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars –
and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day
the madman forced his way into several churches
and there struck up his Requiem aeternam deo.
Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but:
“What after all are these churches now
if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?”
Excerpts from The Amber Spyglass
“Well, where is God,” said Mrs Coulter, “if he’s alive? And why doesn’t he speak any more? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and Moses only heard his voice. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged — he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?” (328)
Mrs Coulter was close enough to see the being in the litter: an angel, she thought, and indescribably aged. He wasn’t easy to see, because the litter was enclosed all round with crystal that glittered and threw back the enveloping light of the mountain, but she had the impression of terrifying decrepitude, of a face sunken in wrinkles, of trembling hands and a mumbling mouth and rheumy eyes. (396)
“Oh, Will, he’s still alive! But — the poor thing…”
Will saw her hands pressing against the crystal, trying to reach to the angel and comfort him; because he was so old, and he was terrified, crying like a baby and cowering away into the lowest corner.
“He must be so old — I’ve never seen anyone suffering like that — oh, Will, can’t we let him out?”
Will cut through the crystal in one movement and reached in to help the angel out. Demented and powerless, the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery, and he shrank away from what seemed like yet another threat.
“It’s all right,” Will said, “we can help you hide, at least. Come on, we won’t hurt you.”
The shaking hand seized his and feebly held on. The old one was uttering a wordless groaning whimper that went on and on, and grinding his teeth, and compulsively plucking at himself with his free hand; but as Lyra reached in too to help him out, he tried to smile, and to bow, and his ancient eyes deep in their wrinkles blinked at her with innocent wonder.
Between them they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn’t hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. Only a few moments later he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.
Then he was gone: a mystery dissolving in mystery. (408)
In the second story we encounter a literal death, the ancient deity finally released to die. And while this “death of God” must be metaphorical enacted (or else we simply perpetuate the unconsciousness of God rather than living in the wake of God’s death), Nietszche is not proclaiming the same kind of literal death. For in his parable the madman proclaims not the death of a literal deity, but the fear that the decline of religion, the rise of atheism, and the absence of a higher moral authority would plunge the world into chaos. Thus, the “death of God” is not so much an event that happened as it is a reality that we live with and in. We live in the midst of “tombs and monuments of God,” speaking of a time that once was but no longer is. And as such it is the theist who is the madman, the one proclaiming the new age, the world to come that already is.
The god-product must be put to death in its idolatrous form. And as such the radical community must enact the death of the god-product in the very heart of their gatherings. Here the role of the church is to enact of the death of this god so that we might confront the reality of the human condition. Not so that we will be crushed by it but so that we might be able to rob it of its sting.
For God is dead and we must kill him.
Wilson from ahouseonfire.tumblr.com writes:
Let’s say if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and that for all intensive purposes, God is actually dead. However, the way in which the resurrection that is championed throughout all of church history is enacted through us.
“God” stirs within the actions humans commit, when these actions are akin to the nature of God revealed in Jesus.
What if the resurrection was up to us? How differently and passionately would we live if it was upon our shoulders to bring a resurrected Jesus to the lost, and without us, God was dead.
Because I would argue without a church willing to live as though this is true, we’ll continue to live in a world that views God as nothing more than an antique.
If God is dead, we must be the Resurrection.
In their review of The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski, Pitchfork.com writes the following:
During the summer of 2001 William Basinski set about transferring a series of 20-year-old tape loops he’d had in storage to a digital file format, and was startled when this act of preservation began to devour the tapes he was saving. As they played, flakes of the magnetic material were scraped away by the reader head, wiping out portions of the music and changing the character and sound off the loops as they progressed, the recording process playing an inadvertent witness to the destruction of Basinski’s old music.
In essence, Basinksi is improvising using nothing so much as the passage of time as his instrument, and the result is…an encompassing soundworld as lulling as it is apocalyptic. A piece may begin bold, a striking, slow-motion slur of ecstatic drone, and in the first minute, you will notice no change. But as the tape winds on over the capstans, fragments are lost or dulled, and the music becomes a ghost of itself, tiny gasps of full-bodied chords groaning to life amid pits of near-silence. Some decay more quickly and violently than others, surviving barely 15 minutes before being subsumed by silence and warping, while the longest endures for well over an hour, fading into a far-off, barely perceptible glow.
There is another, eerier chapter to the story of the Disintegration Loops – that Basinski was listening to the playbacks of his transfers as the attacks of September 11th unfolded, and that they became a sort of soundtrack to the horror that he and his friends witnessed from his rooftop in New York that day, a poignant theme for the cataclysmic editing of one of the world’s most recognizable skylines. Removed from the context of that disaster and transposed into the mundane world we live everyday, The Disintegration Loops still wield an uncanny, affirming power. It’s the kind of music that makes you believe there is a Heaven, and that this is what it must sound like.
God is dead, we are in the midst of decomposition, and we live as the decay. The world is and will be forever changed. Our voices echo off the tombs and monuments of God, a voiceless void and eternal disintegration loop.
The question, however, is what will emerge in the wake of this death, decomposition, and decay.