Christianity and Nietzsche

The man who declared “God is Dead” may or may not be the most misunderstood philosopher, but he is almost certainly the most misquoted. The actual context of the phrase “God is Dead,” at least from where it is most commonly drawn, is a short parable from Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science that tells of a madman confronting market-goers with their act of deicide:

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 sepulchers of God?”

There is nothing triumphal or victorious in the declaration. On the contrary, it reads with a tone that is accusatory, sad, fearful, and possibly even desperate. Nietzsche knows the value of myth, and believed that Christianity’s worship of truth has tragically undermined the myths and parables that provided its foundation. Nothing was worse to Nietzsche than nihilism, and nihilism–the void–stared at him beyond God’s decaying corpse.

But Gods don’t die the way that people die; especially not Gods renowned for returning from the dead. I don’t mean this in a flippant, literal sense, as Nietzsche did not either. The presumption of God’s existence as described literally in the texts would preclude his death being possible anyhow. A God is an object of worship (derived from “worth-ship;” the quality of having worth). When Wim Hof says “to me, god is cold,” he is more accurately describing the nature of what a god is than any other modern person, especially in light of how Hof lives his life. So what is meant by “God” when Christians speak of him?

Christians who are theologically informed do not believe in a God who is a being in the world. According to Bishop Robert Barron, “God is not a good thing among many, God is Goodness itself; God is not one just state of affairs, God is Justice itself.” Plato’s forms might come to mind, and the worship–or contemplative attention–paid to these forms is the value that elevates them to the status of Godship.

The Christian God is difficult to pin down precisely. As Aquinas said, the nature of God cannot be known to man, only what he is not. But we can understand by association what sorts of things he cares about. Unlike the Greek and Norse gods, he is not a God of X; he is not the god of war, or of music, or of justice, or of the sacred river, etc. He is none of these, and yet all of these… in a matter of speaking. For my own understanding, I view the Christian God as an anthropomorphic model of the entirety of human-kind, extending infinitely forward and backward in both directions, and its relationship to the universe around it. When we speak of “God’s justice,” we speak of something that is related to the judicial systems of the societies that comprise mankind, and yet something that is also related to that force that punishes societies with poverty and suffering whose judicial systems do not act upon the “higher law” that Antigone once spoke of.

What is that higher law, exactly? I take it to be something like the terms of the relationship between the individual and the world, including other people.

Given the way that Jesus spoke in parables, and that virtually every other great moral teacher and spiritual master also spoke in terms of stories in order to convey a deeper truth, I see no reason to believe the stories that compose the Christian mythology–and I say “mythology” as a term of veneration and elevation, not degradation–were ever meant literally, as people take them now. That interpretational tendency came much later, and it is this tendency to view stories and statements at face value–as true or false, factually–rather than as something that accurately or inaccurately characterizes the relationships between types of objects in the world–that impedes us from seeing the truth (if it is there) within Christianity, or within any other mythological system, and living with the benefits of this wisdom.

But if Nietzsche viewed religion, and Christianity specifically, as I have described here, why did he believe the Christian God–the resurrecting God–was dead? I think it is because he viewed the transformation of human thinking on existence to be a permanent one, in the way that we tend to believe that transformations in technology are permanent. The way that most people in the Western (read: “Christian”) world tend to think in this literal, more or less scientific perspective may be taken as evidence that Nietzsche was right in the way that Christianity–which put greater emphasis on truth than any other religion, excepting possibly Buddhism–undermines itself. But it is not evidence that this transition is permanent. Evolution of the human animal takes more time than a few hundred years.

I think there are two distinct ways to leverage truth against this myth-eroding nihilism that has come from a worship of science and a valuation of facts over meaning, and thereby revivify Christianity:

1.) Awareness of the truth that scientism is not a path of life.

The spark of curiosity that first began leading me away from atheism and back towards religiosity generally was the moment when Dr. Robert Sapolsky argued that the single easiest thing you could do to improve your health over the long run was to become religious. I don’t mean to imply Dr. Sapolsky is religious, as he most certainly is not. But if “truth” makes us less healthy, then it ought to call into question the pragmatic value of pursuing “truth” for its own sake. Even if we continue to hold “truth” as the highest value, the awareness of the detrimental effects of the pursuit of truth always taken over other possible values is itself a higher kind of truth. This understanding can lead us away, not from truth, but from the obsession with truth that eviscerates values by Hume’s guillotine.

2.) Awareness of our own epistemological limitations as individuals.

Christopher Hitchens was once asked if he had ever faced a question during a debate that he didn’t have a response to. Replying, he said that if you’re doing your job as a learning person, you should be running into that problem more and more as you get older, as you become more aware of your own deficiencies in knowledge and understanding. While it may be difficult to extend this to other individuals, especially those claiming certainty in their own understanding of the world, it should be easier to say to yourself “maybe there’s something about this very old and very resilient structure of belief that has value that I’m just not seeing.” It doesn’t make old ideas impervious to criticism, but it does mean that if you think the criticism of an old and time-tested idea is obvious, the odds are higher that you are the one missing something, be that the framework by which you should interpret a mythological system, or some other background, context, or information for an argument which, to you, appears to have some obvious flaw.

If you are a Christian, and the notion of the need to revivify God seems somehow blasphemous, allow me a few final points to defend my position.

Jesus said,

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
–Matthew 18:20

Now, if you would like to interpret this literally, you would be forced to infer that God is very probably not with you if you are alone. However, if you read this in the language that Jesus spoke–that is, in stories and parables; myth and metaphor to convey deeper meanings that are difficult or impossible to convey more explicitly–then something like a definition of the nature of God emerges: the connection and relationships between individuals and the world, especially with other people. This interpretation would also explain why Christians are advised to live in the world, despite not being of it.

For further evidence, consider the stories of the last supper (Matthew, Mark, Luke), in which Jesus tells his followers to take and eat of the bread, which is his own body. Such a symbolic act would be a simulacrum of cannibalism by a literal interpretation of the text. But understanding Jesus’ symbolic meaning in offering his body as food, the ritual takes on a very different meaning. They are taking in, assimilating, and becoming, the body of God on Earth. They, together, are Jesus, insomuch as they act in accordance to God’s will and by inspiration of the holy spirit. If Jesus knew that he was about to die, but that his spirit would rise again through the teachings of his disciples, then he has achieved immortality just as Hitchens of Shakespeare’s immortality.

To borrow from yet another non-Christian pagan, Christians should seek to re-start the world, and not resign themselves to whatever fate God dooms them to, as if, like Islam the essence of Christianity was “submission.” Christianity, by contrast, is about transformation through love and repentance. Consider, as a final analogy, how the Greek elements of Tragedy included hamartia–a fatal flaw leading to downfall; peripeteia–a reversal of fortune; and anagnorisis–the moment of recognition. In Christianity, hamartia literally is sin: both meaning “to miss the mark.” Peripeteia is God’s justice, or the justice of the laws of nature, physical and human. Anagnorisis is the recognition of the flaw that led to the reversal. In this way, “we are all sinners” is a more powerful and specific way of saying “no one is perfect,” with the understanding that no one can know which mistakes may be catastrophic, and which will be missed or forgotten. But by recognition, repentence, we can get back on the path of righteous living, which is the path of life.

The sin of the west has been putting truth in itself over life, and over the God of life, human-kind, and the connections between humans across time. As the cycle of tragic learning tells us, this moment of recognition is not the heralding of the death of God, but the exact opposite: the call to step forward and bring God back to life by collectively manifesting his body through our own spiritual life.

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