When god gets in the way of God

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Abigail March 11, 2013

    Interesting! So, is his comment “God is dead” meant to be pure irony, a self-refuting statement? Like one of those optical illusions, like the Blivet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blivet)– an impossibility, a paradox? If so, there’s really nothing to do with it other than laugh and marvel at Nietzsche’s wit. (By the way, how did he manage to get so many consonants into his name?)
    If that’s what he meant by the phrase, then, it seems to me, asking us why we insist on keeping God alive is like asking us to elaborate on why the chicken crossed the road…

    As far as the second question, that requires the assumption that any of us could agree that there’s something that big-G “God” wanted to do or be, which little-g “god” was getting in the way of. I have my opinions, but they won’t stand up to objective scrutiny. I would LIKE “God” to be a force promoting love and harmony among people. So from my perspective, when people get into religious wars trying to uphold their theologies, they are letting their objectification of god get in the way of (my understanding of/desire for) “God.” But my own desire of what “God” should be is also a projection… so it’s quickly breaking down into a nonsensical question, because we can’t prove any of the premises.

    • Chuck March 11, 2013

      I love your mind.

      • Abigail March 12, 2013

        Ha ha… Thanks. Erm… all glory to god! 😉

  2. Chuck March 11, 2013

    In what ways do we insist on keeping God alive when that God is actually dead?

    By capitalizing the invented term as if it has some proper standing. That, and biblical inerrancy.

    In what ways have you seen the objectification of god get in the way of God?

    By assuming there is a distinction between small g – god and capital G – God. That, and biblical inerrancy.

    • Paul March 13, 2013

      Definitely with you on the biblical innerancy part, not to mention Nicea, the reproduction of archetypal themes in mythology, ect…

      Supposing for a moment that the assumed distinction between small g-god and capital G-God is a useful device to help demythologize religious propositions and set up a dialectic through which an otherwise static faith becomes dynamic and evolving. In a word, I’m wondering about the functionality that destinction serves for people in the dark night of the soul and on the way toward a new worldview. I know it’s been essential for me at times. If believing in God is a process, I suppose apostasy would be too…in fits and starts.

      Let’s say that dialectic process leads to an affirmation of mystery. In an earlier post, you suggested that often times, mystery is a synonym for ignorance or intellectual laziness (a new God of the gaps), with which I agree. However, I would want to leave room for mystery at the center of the village (Bonhoeffer) and within the strongest places of our modern age (science), not so much to equivocate, but to remind us that we don’t know, what we don’t know, what we don’t know and that any epistemology lacking that knowledge will produce more of what we know, of what we know, of what we know…all the while claiming to be, all that is, which risks becoming a hall of mirrors. In this sense, mystery is no longer something pushed into the outermost edges of our scientific understanding, it is the deep interiority within our material world and the accompanying feelings of gratitude for being.

      Perhaps, you can take the boy out of religion, but you can’t take the religious/spiritual sentiment out of the boy!

      • Abigail March 13, 2013

        Paul, I like your thoughts very much. What do you think about this: As I read about your sense of “affirming mystery,” it sounds to me like it could be very closely related to, or perhaps almost equal to, humility? Understanding the limits of our understanding, accepting that we are not omniscient, and it’s a huge complex universe out there we’ll probably never be able to wrap our minds around, though it’s fun to try. (That kind of hearkens back to mythology, doesn’t it, the idea of hubris?)

  3. Will March 11, 2013

    We, as a collective, seek to hold onto the old God and old mind (the idol of perfection) rather than embracing the new life that lies before us, the reality. The comfort of the familiar sometimes hinders our ability to let go and move ahead in our lives. To live life.
    Or is it that we hold onto the impossible even though we recognize the facts?

    The objectification gets in the way when people take the God ideal above all else, rather than doing the godly thing and doing God’s work among their fellow human beings. The idol is more important than the actual work that is asked of people.

  4. Nick March 11, 2013

    I think the tension between the “we” and the “that” in the first question deserves exploration.

    Claiming that “we” keep god alive would seem to imply a uniform god, one whose myth and existence is perpetuated by the collaborative worship/idolatry of humanity (christians, cultists, deists, muslims, etc.). Of course, this isn’t the case, for within every division of belief (and amidst the schisms of each subdivision) there are more and more gods being debated, disputed, created, and idolized every moment. Therefore, for each individual there must be a “that God”, the one which fills our unique “god-shaped hole”. In creating “that God”, each person may indeed achieve some imaginary amalgam of perfection worth upholding, worshiping even. But the moment we step away from our personalized idols and attempt to share “that God”, our god, with anyone, we are confronted by the stark differences between our carefully crafted god and theirs (even when we call them the same thing). By creating a specific “that God”, we have eliminated the ability of god to be universal, immanent, encompassing, “omni-relevant”; we have overwritten gods ability to be “The God” and we are left with an idol (our manufactured god). We have killed god. The very act which made god so lifelike, perfect, and specific to us has been the process by which we overrode any hint of deity found in whatever original encounter inspired us to pursue the god-idea in the first place. Whatever lucid moment triggered an attempt to escape from or redirect ourselves towards a higher power has backfired, and we are returned to our starting point with nothing to show but a plaster relief of divinity cast from the emptiness of our hearts.

    • Abigail March 12, 2013

      Well said!
      One thing to point out here is that this happens to people who actually DO exist, too. You here on this forum experience and understand me in a certain way; my best friend experiences and understands me in a different way; my children, completely different. Subjectivity is impossible to escape. The main difference, though, is that generally we can form a consensus via the 5 senses. I have dirty-blonde hair and green eyes; everyone but a blind person could agree on that.

      The problem is that we are like the infamous blind men with the elephant. Each of us perceives reality in a different way, and it becomes difficult to transmit our understanding and experiences to someone else. It’s as if we are lacking a sense that we feel we ought to have.

      Hope that made sense… (ha! Pun not intended!) It’s hard to explain my thoughts.

  5. Angelo March 12, 2013

    Maybe I’m not authorized to use the Atheism for Lent‘s inventor,
    but here’s anyway a good insight that might stimulate us in the discussion.

    I think Nietzsche would agree – with so much exceptions, given that his writings are not so very clear –
    that every god must die when he gets in the way of sacred and of affirmation of life –
    even if we may not agree on the meaning of life.

    Now to the questions:
    1) I think, and maybe is too simple, superstition is one of the way (noteworthy, Nietzsche hoped for the ‘resurrection’ of Dionysus).

    2) Every instance of the absolute – ex. crusades, Nazism, Fascism, (would not cite Communism, ’cause it affirms no god) and so on.

    • Abigail March 13, 2013

      Thanks for that link. It was a good article.

    • Paul March 13, 2013

      Yes, thank you Angelo. I enjoy Tillich’s ideas.

  6. Paul March 12, 2013

    I’m not sure I insist on keeping God alive or not, but experientially, I am incapable of freeing myself from the quest for meaning, from those ultimate concerns that concern me ultimately. So phenomenologically, I am hopelessly bound to God (I like the word sacred better here though because it gets at something experiential, rather than objectively true from a subjective perspective), but theologically, I am categorically incapable of believing in some omnipotent, omniscient, deity, that loves me. Anna Rizzuto (The Birth of the Living God) would say my primary attachments must have interrupted or compromised by ability to trust there could be a loving heart at the center of reality. Maybe?

    Does this get in the way…sure, all the time…particularly when the quest for meaning (even if through nihilism) takes me away from living in the needs of the day with those I love and attending to what I can do.

    • Abigail March 12, 2013

      An incredibly vulnerable reply. Thanks for sharing.
      I, too, think it’s impossible to escape the mind’s tendency to create or seek meaning from our experiences. I’m an existentialist on that point, I guess. I think meaning-making is a vital function of our brain.
      I don’t understand why, though, you need to equate the term “God” or “sacred” with “meaning.” Could you elaborate on that, please?
      Myself, I try to be aware of when I’m creating my own meaning from circumstances, as mechanisms to help me cope, move on, and do better, with the understanding that the meanings I’ve created may very well prove to be false or partially false down the road. Anything that imposes itself into my life that can’t be explained, I try to be in the habit of simply putting into the realm of “I don’t know. I can’t make an accurate meaning out of this.” This because I think it is dangerous to go too far in our meaning-making. That’s how superstitions start, I think.
      The church I used to attend had a series of intense week-long workshops, wherein people would examine profound psychological issues, such as the ability to give and receive love, relate with the world in a healthy way, etc. Through watching videos on various topics, then pairing up with personal counselors, and lots of prayer, people were able to work through issues that held them back in their lives… addictions, traumas, phobias, or any basic patterns of living that were not productive.
      As I think about it now, I can see the psychological device used. All this was done by referencing an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God. Basically the idea was, “If the creator of the entire universe loves you, who are you not to love yourself?” Aligning the participants’ personal self-beliefs with an external authority’s belief gave them the tool to navigate through what can be difficult transformation. The results were, often, impressive. It makes me wonder … could that be done without referencing God? You’d have to have the right kind of audience. And it reminds me, as a music teacher, of the value of solfege in teaching music. As much as I wish students could just look at the notes and play/sing them the way I can, most of them can’t. They need that external system of naming notes to help them place the pitches. It’s not an exact analogy, but that’s where my mind jumped to. Basically, I think a lot of people are helped via devices like this.

      • Paul March 12, 2013

        Not sure about the link between “meaning-making” and God? I’ll have to think on that.

        Couldn’t categorizing something as “I can’t make an accurate meaning out of this” in itself, be a way of making meaning, coping, or moving on? Although, I resonate a lot with the idea of ineffable experiences…the ones that call us into question and re-arrange, invite accommodation, of our schemata.

        I share your wondering about the question, “could that (transformation) be done without referencing God”. I think maybe it can, although I’m partial to believing spirituality would still play a role. Why, because spirituality is part of my experiential world, for better or worse.

        Are you familiar with the empirical research on entheogens, such as mushrooms, and their ability to facilitate “spiritual experiences” wherein people confront their death (we are beings-toward-death in so far as our “impermanence becomes the very fragrance of our days”) and emerge with a sense of deep Oneness with all sentient beings. Provocative stuff, although I don’t the church is going to begin handing on mushrooms anytime soon!

        I wonder if those “psychological devices” used in spiritual transformation could possibly point to the impossible possibility of some autonomous ontological reality on the other side of my subjective way of apprehending the world. As a scientist-practitioner, I try to respect the benefits and limits of empirical research, which means to remain keenly aware that it is one tradition, with its own rules, logic, practices, stories, and devices for apprehending the world. I don’t ascribe to the “subtraction theory of modernity”, which presupposes that enlightenment thinking is necessarily superior to premodern ways of apprehending the world.

        • Abigail March 13, 2013

          Ha ha, yes, I didn’t think about that, but the act of saying “I can’t make meaning out of this” is, itself, a form of meaning-making. Very good!

          I do think that personal transformation can happen without referencing God, but only in people who are open to that mindset. It happens all the time in secular psychology, as well as some more “alternative practices,” such as accupuncture, hypnosis, things like that. In fact, it was becoming aware of such transformational experiences in other people, who had had “miracles,” or personal breakthroughs *without being Christians* (something my circle always told me was impossible–only God can do these things, and only to people who believe in Jesus) that added a major crack in my wall, so to speak, about the supposed necessity or value of being a Christian. (That’s a tangent that would be fun to explore, but … it would bring us way off-topic!)

          I wonder how much of this has to do with “spiritual” involvement, and how much of it is power of the placebo–we need to externalize our own power to heal onto something/someone else. Sugar pill, hypnotist, energy lines, or God’s unfailing love–are they all placebos?

          By the way, how do we even define “spiritual”? Is that another term like “God,” that is so hopelessly subjective that we can’t talk about the thing itself, only our perception of the thing?

          I’ve heard about mushroom trips, and the brain chemicals they release that can simulate religious experiences, near-death experiences, things like that. I’m not intimately knowledgeable about them, though. But I do know that not everyone has good trips, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that everyone leaves an Ayahuasca ceremony feeling more at-one with all beings!

          • Abigail March 13, 2013

            (Jesus is claimed to have said “Your faith has healed you” quite a bit. Did he understand placebo? Why didn’t he say “God healed you”?)

          • Paul March 13, 2013

            That’s a great point…”Your faith has healed you”. Although, a dangerous idea too given that so many people, for whatever reason (bio-psycho-social-spiritual), are shamed into believing their “lack” of faith is the reason why some affliction, tragedy, circumstance was not healed. For example, what if your tradition requrires you to “tarry for the spirit”, which according to the tradition, is evidenced by glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and this person simple is not constitutionally able to engage in that sort of experience. Consequently, the individual may be denied “salvation”.

            “Your faith has healed you” makes me think of placebo, but also self-fulfilling prophecy. By this line of reasoning, the mere act of reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus garment (a supposedly healing phenomenon) seems like it might represent some sort of shift in one’s basic orientation to reality; is the world a place worth “reaching out” and risking trust/pain for fuller life or not? This is certaintly different than a passive “faith” or “spirituality” that defers all freedom and responsibility to a god that gets in the way of participating in one’s own life.

            GIven the above, what if the spiritual always already includes the placebo effect, a modern phrase for an age old phenomenon? I’d be curious to study if persons more prone to the placebo effect are positively correlated with spirituality/religiousness.

            As you say, openness seems key, which is a dimension of personality according to the NEO-PR. Without being overly deterministic or reductionistic, what happens for those particulary “low” on this facet of personality? Of course, personality is a construct embedded in context.

          • Abigail March 17, 2013

            “I’d be curious to study if persons more prone to the placebo effect are positively correlated with spirituality/religiousness.”
            Oh man, I’d be really curious to see studies on that too!

      • Paul March 12, 2013

        Thanks for the question on equating the sacred with meaning. Let me see if I can articulate something intelligible. As a side note, I prefer the word sacred because it seems more flexible, or at least, less burdened than “God”, although I’m sure it is prone to overuse, abuse, and idolatry as well. Words are little “guest houses of meaning”, right, we fill them up with our projections, until new meanings move in as a result of more life experience, ad infinitum. Compared to the word “God”, I think the word “sacred” allows for a non-theistic or even panentheistic orientation, which fit with my biases better, at least for now.

        The quest for meaning and the sacred are related, but distinct, in that meaningful activities are sacred-making. For example, I went backpacking in the mountains over the weekend. I consider this an “extra-ecclesial” or spiritual (non-theistic) practice because wilderness arouses both a gratitude for beauty and an imagination for things beyond, whatever that means. It’s kind of like the Buddhist saying, “the finger pointing at the moon” in that meaning is the finger pointing at the sacred. Meaning has a way of sanctifying or sacralizing my way of being in the world, wherein I feel more alive, available, integrated…all words easily associated with some other word, like sacred, I use to describe experiential encounters beyond my ability to articulate. I may have just talked myself in a circle. Anyway, appreciate the clarifying questions.

        For what it’s worth, I like Otto’s conception of the sacred as the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, that terrifying and awesome mystery we experience when confronted with the infinitude of the cosmos and the contingency of our existence. Note the trend of appealing to increasingly obscure references to explain already arcane concepts.

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