Saturday, June 10, 2006

Nietzsche on "Christian Atheism"

This famous parable by atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) puts to lie to the notion that Christian ethics can be supported apart from the Christian God, as A. Fallaci maintains. I respect her courage and willingness to confront aggressive Islam, but I must reject her "Christian atheism" as oxymoronic and quixotic.

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 sepulchers of God?"

Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

8 comments:

Zarathustra said...

Ah, thank you for posting one of my favorite pieces of Nietsche prose! I was not familiar with Fallaci before your post, so I took a few minutes to read some of the links you provided. Like many today, she appears to want to embrace a Christian Ethical/Moral framework, but reject the existence of the author in whom those moral values inhere. Thus she finds herself coining a nonsensical, self refuting term: "Christian atheism" and thereby living by a system whose meaning has been eviscerated.

Regarding "The Madman," don't you find that our society today resembles the marketplace in which the madman cries out? Were I to invision myself standing on the campus of UW-Madison delivering the news that I was seeking God, I would be met with equal incrdedulity that anyone would believe that God existed. Yet were I to challenge the atheistic, naturalistic audience that I would attract with the questions that the madman poses, I doubt that I would receive adequate answers for them.

Of course, I realize that Nietzsche is trying to herald the arrival of the Ubermensch, and that the Madman realizes that his audience is not yet ready for this "truth." But the questions are good. If God is dead, how do we account for the repercussions of this news? "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?"

The existential fallout of the madman's declaration demands satisfactory answers -- answers that neither Nietsche, nor any other athiest has yet provided.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Many churches today are "sepulchers of God" even though God is very much alive. However, his glory has left the churches because the churches have left God behind in favor of methods, formulas, and popularity.

Kevin Winters said...

Or they have left God behind due to dogmas, theistic arguments for his existence, and supposedly deductive arguments for his nature and being.

Douglas Groothuis said...

"Or they have left God behind due to dogmas, theistic arguments for his existence, and supposedly deductive arguments for his nature and being."

There is a non sequiter if I ever saw one.

Kevin Winters said...

No, actually, I was speaking of God's glory departing from the "sepulchers of God." The irony behind Nietzsche's pronouncement of God's death is that it is the Christians who have killed him. This is becaues they have left behind the intimate God, the one who dynamically acts within history and is known through genuine interaction with mankind. Nietzsche rejected 'analytic' approaches to and deductive arguments for God because they divested God of his true essence--as the Word, the speaker, the interlocutor. By making these contingent and hence unnecessary aspects of God's nature, they have killed God.

Zarathustra said...

Kevin, this post is getting a bit old, but I hope you check back. I am interested in how you believe that Nietzsche would define the "true essence of God." Do you think that Nietzsche believed in God? If so, how do you believe that he would characterize the relationship between God and humanity?

I don't believe that Nietzsche is indicating through the madman that it is the Christian who has killed God. Although the result of much of what passes for Christianity today might result in the "death of God" in terms of how Christianity is lived out, to read this back into the madman might be a bit anachronistic. Without going to the text to get the quote verbatim, Nietzsche wrote (roughly) "The only real Christian died on the cross."

The death of God did not transpire because Chrisitans left behind the intimate God, but rather because the Superman outgrew his need for such a childish concept. God was no longer necessary as a crutch to prop up this new man, instead, the Ubermensch would live and rule by the imposition of his will.

Kevin Winters said...

Zarathustra,

I recently threw together a summary/commentary on BĂ©atrice Han's "Nietzsche and the 'Masters of Truth': The Pre-Socratics and Christ," in Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity, 165-186. In her work Han shows, convincingly in my mind, Nietzsche's great respect for Christ and reasons for his disrespect for Christianity, despite his avowed atheism (so, yes, Nietzsche did not believe in God). It is from her comments that I made that comment. So, feel free to come on over and make a comment or two.

Luke said...

Is there any good commentaries on this book from the Christian perspective or is this one too

controversial?