Is God dead?

The Madman.—Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: "I seek God! I seek God!"—As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?—the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. "Where is God gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him,—you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the 168sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?—for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife,—who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event,—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!"—Here the madman was silent and looked against his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. "I come too early," he then said, "I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling,—it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star,—and yet they have done it!"—It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: "What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?"—

—Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

This excerpt from Nietzsche’s The Joyful Wisdom threw a philosophical wrench in the works nearly 140 years ago. Nietzsche was basically making the argument that Christianity had made the Enlightenment possible, but then the Enlightenment obviated the need for the idea of God.

It is a compelling argument, based on numerous observations. The God defined in the Judeo-Christian accounts was part of a holistic, unified system of beliefs that explained who we are, where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. The Enlightenment offered a secularized cosmology and world view, where the universe was governed by physical laws and not divine providence, where governments were predicated consent of the governed rather than on divine right, and where comprehensive moral theories could exist without reference to God. In this view, the man-made scientific revolution had effectively eliminated or killed God.

It seems apparent that many people today are wrestling with this proposition. There are, of course, those who have remained faithful to the idea of God, but now more than perhaps ever before people are questioning what the world would be like without God. Their questioning may not be in the form of conscious thought, in fact it more likely comes dressed in post-modernist doubts about the existence of objective truth and the primacy of self-centered and self-active world views conditioned by personal truths (e.g. “your truth” and “my truth”) and feelings.

If the idea of God is dead, then so too is the system of Christian morality, purpose, and meaning which underpin Western society and culture. I’m not so sure that those who are rising with the postmodernist tide truly understand this fact. There are those who are objecting to this change vociferously and crudely, but most of their cries are too self-centered, narrow, and shallow to be taken seriously by anyone outside of their circles.

Nietzsche felt that the death of the idea of God would create a vacuum of sorts, one that would constrain to despair and nihilism if not effectively countered. Nietzsche offered two possible alternatives to the difficult task of handling God’s death: the rise of a new type of person he called Übermensch and the more likely bloom of those he called the “Last Man.”

Übermensch would create their own personal values and then thrive by living them out. The Übermensch would self-identify and would create meaning in their life by will alone. “The Last Man,” only the other hand, would be a “contemptible thing” who lived a life of quiet comfort, with little regard for personal sovereignty or growth. How many fall Last Men we have today! How vain the wish for Übermensch!

To my mind, God is not dead. Yet, the Judeo-Christian ideas about God are obviously and inexorably losing favor in the imaginations of the hearts of men. That may not be a bad thing.

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