Nietzsche & Theology

Nietzsche & Theology

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philologist, philosopher, cultural critic, poet and composer. He wrote several critical texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science. Nietzsche’s writing is full of wonderful metaphors and haunting poetry that I find erotic and apocalyptic. Of all who are labeled in the Continental Philosophy camp, Nietzsche is my favorite to read. This is not to say he is an easy read, because he’s not. In all I’ve read of Nietzsche nothing can really be thought through in one go around. This is the wonder of his writing, each time you pick up ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ for example, you will leave with new ideas. It’s truly wonderful.

A few weeks ago I posted on Patheos to briefly discuss Slavoj Zizek and what he brings to theological discussions. I wanted to continue this line of thought with another atheist who has greatly influenced my theological/Christian journey. Nietzsche is for me, the grandfather of the death of God theology. It was in his book ‘The Gay Science’ where he proclaims:

“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 sea? 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 again at 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,” e 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 themselves!” 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?’”

It’s easy to fall into a trap here and miss what Nietzsche is saying. This is not a joyous proclamation at all, however it may have joyous consequences for humanity. Nietzsche is taking an atheistic stance here, but to minimize this proclamation to a mere Dawkins—esque stance is to miss the metaphors littered in this paragraph. For me, Nietzsche is showing how the big Other by which we organize our desires does not exist. That is, our identity collapses when we come to realize the non-existence of a big Other. We are shown how God is not simply the guarantor of the truth, but of our very Being or existence.

In a Nietzchean sense the death of God signifies a world that has lost its way. For Nietzsche, “God” is a generic term for any transcendental term that fixes meaning and identity. God does not simply refer to the God of religion, but rather anything on the order of wholeness, totality and so on. In my reading of Nietzsche, I have come away with the idea that the death of God signifies the end of the primacy of the One in whatever form it might take. To death of God is to declare that the One is only a product, a result, a term-become rather than a foundation. As such, metaphysics in the wake of God is a metaphysics that seeks to think difference first and to see identity as a result or product. So we must become vigilant in tracking down and eradicating all remainders of theology within such a thought.

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2 comments
  1. Do you agree that he’s saying to the people that they’re herd animals who is held back by their soberness and their old belief systems? I think that it’s important to note how the madman isn’t speaking to the Christians, he’s speaking to people in the market place who is mocking his ‘search’ for God. These are the people, in Nietzsche’s view, that prevents, or at least delays, the arrival of the übermench, because they refuse the Dionysian, drunken spirit to rupture the understanding of the world that was handed down to them by previous generations. Consider The Gay Science, book 2, aphorism 57:

    ‘To the Realists. Ye sober beings, who feel yourselves armed against passion and fantasy, and would gladly make a pride and an ornament out of your emptiness, ye call yourselves realists, and give to understand that the world is actually constituted as it appears to you; before you alone reality stands unveiled, and ye yourselves would perhaps be the best part of it, oh, ye dear images of Sais! But are not ye also in your unveiled condition still extremely passionate and dusky beings compared with the fish, and still all too like an enamoured artist? 5 and what is “reality” to an enamoured artist! Ye still carry about with you the valuations of things which had their origin in the passions and infatuations of earlier centuries! There is still a secret and ineffaceable drunkenness embodied in your sobriety! Your love of “reality,” for example oh, that is an old, primitive “love”! In every feeling, in every sense-impression, there is a portion of this old love: and similarly also some kind of fantasy, prejudice, irrationality, ignorance, fear, and whatever else has become mingled and woven into it. There is that mountain! There is that cloud! What is “real” in them? Remove the phantasm and the whole human element therefrom, ye sober ones! Yes, if ye could do that! If ye could forget your origin, your past, your preparatory schooling, your whole history as man and beast! There is no “reality” for us nor for you either, ye sober ones, we are far from being so alien to one another as ye suppose; and perhaps our good-will to get beyond drunkenness is just as respectable as your belief that ye are altogether incapable of drunkenness.’

    Nietzsche is obviously inspired by the Greeks but I claim that this is an insight very much present in the Biblical, prophetic tradition as well. Anyway, I wrote a post a few days ago that was inspired by some of these thoughts, you can find it here: http://freestylechristianity.com/2013/09/29/god-rid-me-of-god/

    • Michael Schertz said:

      I agree with everything you said here. You have a great grasp of Nietzsche in this context. I thought about getting into übermensch, Zarathustra etc. but tried not to get bogged down. I’m posting these as introductions for those who might be unfamiliar. I will take a look at your post tonight! Thanks for reading

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