God is dead

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
history hitherto.”

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.

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  1. Mahq March 12, 2013

    It’s actually Philip Pullman, not Robert and thanks for spoiling ‘The Amber Spyglass’ for me.

  2. Mahq March 12, 2013

    A tough post…I will attempt to answer the questions in a later comment.

  3. Abigail March 13, 2013

    Breathtakingly beautiful excerpt from Nietzsche! I’m in awe. He was a poet as much as a philosopher! (I found the second excerpt a bit cheesy, but that’s neither here nor there…)

    I’ve been reading some articles on Nietzsche, and it seems that the general consensus of his “God is dead” idea is that he was prescient of the collapse of Christianity as a compelling force in Western European culture. It is mostly a done deed in Europe, from what I know, at the official level, though there are still the last gasps. The USA is a couple decades behind Europe, but it’s happening here too, though in different ways, of course. There are a lot of Christians who are trying to blame all kinds of bad societal stuff on the decline of religion in our culture, but I do not for one second believe it’s as simple as that.

    The 3rd question is interesting. “Enact the death of God?” Do you mean having a funeral for religion? I haven’t felt the desire to ceremonialize my emergence from the mindset I grew up in, personally, but maybe it would be a healthy step for me. Right now, I feel like I just want to forget the whole mess, and pretend I’ve always been above that. It’s embarrassing to admit what I used to believe and do. I do know that it is a huge part of me, and much of the things I value about myself were instilled by the good side of religion. It’s hard to tease apart the two sides to the story, though, which is why I usually just feel like I’d rather move on and ignore the whole issue. Maybe that’s not too healthy, now that I think about it… Maybe that’s why I was drawn to this website… (Ouch, this becomes uncomfortable now.)

    I don’t know how a community could “enact the death of God”–could you even get enough people to agree that they want to do that? Humans have a way of clinging to the past while still marching towards the inevitable, so that we often don’t realize we’ve done something until it’s done…

  4. Mahq March 13, 2013

    Well, Amber Spyglass has been available for thirteen years, so I guess I’ve had long enough to read it! I needn’t bother now, though.

    What do you typically think of when you hear the phrase “God is dead”?

    I’ve rarely heard it, generally but it makes me think of how it is paraphrased by Dawkins, Hitchens et al in their diatribes against religion.

    How have you seen the death of God, as portrayed in these two stories, made manifest in our world?

    I agree that it’s now those who believe God is alive and well that are seen as mad (or deluded) in some way but, to me, Nietzsche’s madman IS proclaiming the death of a literal deity, or maybe I’m just not reading between the lines well enough. The atheist proselytizers I mentioned in my first answer are among those who could be said to currently fill the ‘madman’ (read: sane man) role in the parable.

    With the Pullman extract, I’ve seen versions of a God-type figure die in other fiction with an atheist agenda, e.g. Russell T Davies’ ‘The Second Coming’ TV drama. How can a literal death of God occur in the real world? Perhaps when an exalted religious or cultural figure has died, e.g. a Roman Emperor (they were regarded as divine, of course) Kim Jong-Il – the deified North Korean ruler, or perhaps a beloved rock star like Elvis, whom people ‘worshipped’. That said, they were never seen as our creator and someone else will always replace leaders and rock stars, however deified they became. Who can replace God? If we extract God from everything, what takes his place? Us? We all die too, of course but no human can attain the same level of idolization (for want of a better word) as God, or the god-product.

    What would it look like for your community to enact the death of God?

    Most people in my Christian community think of God as a literal being but the idea of killing a ‘god-product’ of our own ideas and desires could work, although it would probably take a long time for people to recognise ‘the God behind the curtain’. I doubt any of them have even heard of Atheism For Lent! They would prefer to give up biscuits and chocolate, or not bother with Lent at all.

    It would be easier to kill other gods like the cult of celebrity, or capitalism (e.g. The Almighty Dollar!)

  5. Paul March 13, 2013

    I think of blowing off both the ceiling and floor of our world structure in such a way that both the cosmos of infinite space and the deep fathomless time of our primordial history open up into an infinite and “yawning” abyss. I think of loosing one’s tether and having to find a new means of orienting oneself and navigating life.

    Then, I think of new ageism, the “new metaphysicals, deep ecology, and the myriad ways that spirituality/religiousness are produced and reproduced in secular culture in such a way that the dichotomy of secular and profane become abstractions. This is the secularization thesis, right? The inward turn of modern culture galvanizes a more inwardly focused spirituality as well, “subjective well-being” culture. God has fallen by the wayside, but people, in my opinion still seem compelled to seek ways of touching the transcendent. I know I do. I guess I find myself leaning in the direction of Kant’s a priori categorical imperative; that there is an archetypal space in the human psyche for things “spiritual”. I guess I’m leaning towards some type of anthropological statement about those “universal” aspects of humanity or aesthetic forms that are inhabited by the varying content of a given sociocultural historical context.

    I have a good buddy from Northern Ireland that happens to be Jewish (he reports being harrassed as a boy by the question, “are you a catholic jew or a protestant jew”). Anyhow, he’s an atheist and given his experiences, religion is largely a bad word. However, his spiritual life (I’m taking liberties in applying the world spiritual here, but I’ve heard him use the word spiritual) revolves around Tchaikovsky symphonies, good food, and wine (a bit epicurean too I suppose) and those things that move the soul. My assumption here is that those things “spiritual” relate to Nietzsche’s desire to kill of an impotent and imprisoning God as well as Maslow’s ideas about actualization. I suppose, if anything, I’m becoming more clear about my biased, if not liberal way of applying the word “spiritual” even where that might offend the sensibility of the other person.

  6. Will March 13, 2013

    This piece from Nietzche gives me a different perspective on the philosopher. I really like the symbolism. Truthful and observant.

  7. Rudolph March 17, 2013

    Can a society hold it together while having to find new rythms and rituals to find a replacement for the source of comfort that covers their deepest yearning. Is that not how society destroys god and its own coherence.

  8. james April 14, 2013

    having been so called born again , I found after all the excitement, fervour , newness and all the trimmings
    that come to be alive!!! A deathly silence hung around me… The shock still hurts even today, did I sin the sin of death ? am I doomed to HELL ? Yet if the whole world stopped to listen … NOTHING WOULD BE HEARD !!! FOR THAT GREAT IS DEAD…You see , it is only in the words and not in reality , that truth is out of the darkness and is standing stark naked… OH NO!!! its true that there is no GOD… never was nor ever will be…Like it or not , that is a fact … Words only live as long as man can speak ! Death brings silence for the dead cant talk as does this so called LIVING GOD ??? What ? If he is alive he must be dumb or deaf , but really he never was alive … Yes , we killed god , yes we took his blood , that cries from those killed in the name of WAR !!! All hope of a god died when TRUTH came out of the box …GOD is only in words, SORRY , but that is it folks , words that are as useless as paper money…Take it from me , I have been there got all the T shirts seen and heard it all … DEATH is the only real player in the game … OH and I forgot this madness they call life… IF GOD was real this crazy thing called religion would be gone forever , oh well never mind on with delusion , it seems to keep many happy …

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