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God is dead (and we killed Him)

I discovered Nietzsche tonight on the bus ride.

That's not quite fair, actually. Of course I knew who Nietzsche was; I'm a philosophy grad student, after all. But most of my early exposure to him was in the form of self-assured undergrads who had gotten a hold of the Aphorisms and thought they could now prove why we (a) didn't need to study philosophers, and (b) didn't need to deal with morality. But that experience had basically "taught" me that what I needed to know about Nietzsche was that I didn't need to know Nietzsche. I'm not that interested in German philosophy past Kant anyway, and while I really respect the work some of my friends and colleagues at Fordham do with Nietzsche, I never felt much of an inclination to really delve into that corner of philosophy. I have my hands fool with other parts of the sandbox, thankyouverymuch.

My friend Dan Fincke has been working on me in this regard, though. I'm not even sure he realizes it. While his blog posts don't often read like lectures on Nietzsche lectures, it's obvious that his work on Nietzsche is at play in the background. He's quoted Nietzsche a few times and referred to him more often, at his blog and over at Facebook. So on the bus today I read the selections included in Hackett's God anthology, which I'm using with my freshmen next term. I'm actually considering teaching the selection, and while I haven't made up my mind yet whether I should use the selection, it seemed like a good chance to actually read Nietzsche.

(For anyone interested: the selections are from: On the Genealogy of Morals 7, 10 and 11 [slave morality]; Beyond Good and Evil 46, 55, and 56 [the "God on the cross" metaphor]; and The Gay Science 125 and 343 [the Madman parable].)

First things first: I am a complete newbie at Nietzsche. I quite literally have spent a half-hour reading him on a crowded bus, and so I feel a bit like the "student" of my guy Anselm who has only read the ontological argument and probably understood it badly. But what I read left me with the definite yearning to read more of him. I saw a good bit of my own experience in Nietzsche's description of the world now that "the belief in the Christian God has become untenable":

In fact, at the news that "the old God is dead," we philosophers and "free spirits" feel illuminated by a new dawn, and our hearts flow over with gratitude, wonder, premonition, and anticipation - at last our horizon seems free again, even if it is not bright; at last our ships can put out again, put out despite every risk; every venture of the knower is once again permitted, the sea, our sea, once again lies open, perhaps there never was such an "open sea."


Reading that, I was reminded of how I felt after someone very close to me, a friend about my age, died several years back. I felt set apart not only from the people around me (who usually had "only" seen a grandparent die in old age, if they'd known death at all) but also from the God of my childhood. I never really believed in the God of the prosperity gospel, who rewarded the faithful and punished the infidels. I had read Job. And perhaps more importantly, I had eyes for history and politics, and I couldn't help notice that good people suffered. (I remember being outraged in middle school when I learned Hitler had died instead of being captured; and then outraged again at my thought that prison or even death could provide any kind of "justice" after the Holocaust.) Still, having the injustice of theodicy brought home made it very difficult to believe in a loving God. It still is, many days, and the way I view God is very different than what I felt like before. I always thought Elie Wiesel put this phenomena remarkably well:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.


I see a similar dynamic at work at Nietzsche here, only there is an added tragedy involved, for (per Nietzsche) we are not only the executioner but also the Sonderkommando. I actually forgot to breathe for a second when I read the Madman's line: "We have killed [God] - you and I both." This is the passage that gave us the famous "God is dead" phrase, but it's really a mourning call, for the Madman (really more of a Sage; Nietzsche has him say that he's "come before my time") speaks at great length of how this theocide is a crime darker than all the other things humanity has done.

Nietzsche seems to go further than Wiesel in two important respects, though. First, he takes us through the murky twilight into what comes after, when all the old cobwebs are cleared away and we are free to explore this new reality. I felt that way not too long ago, when I seriously considered the question of whether I might be becoming an agnostic rather than a theist. Dan blogs on the freethought blog, and while I think my faith is part of what lets me be the best Marta I can be, there was a lot in the freethought label I found attractive as well.

So I wanted to consider whether I could fully wear it, and even whether it was possible to be a theistic freethinker. I've not quite come to any conclusions on that last point. As for agnosticism, I've more or less decided that faith is simply too interwoven with how I view the world for me to ever be comfortable denying it. But there was a moment where the thrill of a fresh start and a new map full of blank spaces around the edge seemed exhilarating. When I read this Nietzsche, that is the hope that struck me: of a world I could still play a part in making, and so make it into mine. I can certainly see the attraction, and I think in a way I still live with that hope and excitement.

Which brings me to the other point. Nietzsche doesn't say that the God is dead; rather it is a God: "at the news that the old God is dead," we philosophers and "free spirits feel illuminated by a new dawn." In a way, each generation (each individual) must kill God so we can find Him for ourselves. Of course, the "Him" isn't the same person, in much the same way that the sister I knew when we were both young is different from the sister I know in adulthood. The great journey, as I see it, is to find whether there is still intellectual space for God, and to see whether God really exists there. What little I know about Nietzsche suggests he won't be taking the project in that way (I've been told that a good part of Nietzsche is about making sense of atheism's full consequences). I'm merely trying to show how what Nietzsche is describing resonates with my own experience, though in a very different way.

In the end, "God is dead" doesn't strike me a triumphal battle-cry, even in Nietzsche. He seems to recognize it as something worth regretting. I wouldn't mind reading some more one of these days, to see exactly where he takes it from here because there seems to be a jump between "the old God I knew is now dead to me" and "God is dead." (The former allows for the possibility there's some other way of understanding God.) I suspect that looking into that question would take more work than I can afford just now! But I'm definitely more amenable to poking a round a little in Nietzsche-land, when I am able.

I may try to write up something more on the will to power and slave-morality tomorrow. Not sure I understand it half as well as I do this "God is dead" stuff (and even here, I may be massacring it horribly!), but that too was really very thought-provoking.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/27029.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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