“I seek God! We have killed him”

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is significant for the recent history of Europe, and not only because of his association with Nazi ideology.  I’ve been reading his The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil, both originally published in the 1880’s.

Some of Nietzsche’s views are offensive, such as his statements about women (e.g. “When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is generally something wrong with her sexual nature”), his rejection of morality and his advocacy of a superior class of men destined to rule and dominate others.  He famously asserted that “God is dead,” condemning and ridiculing Christianity in particular.  The Christian faith, he believed, was “the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit,” and he celebrated the signs of its decline.

He believed that European culture, at least in part as a consequence of the damaging influence of Christianity, had slid into a “morass of conformity, mediocrity and bureaucratic specialization.”  Now that God was no longer there, other than in the imaginations of the weak and gullible, men could assert themselves as masters of their own destiny.

In The Gay Science there is a section headed The madman.  A madman rushes into the town’s market place crying incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!”.  The crowd laugh and mock this display of foolishness, but he continues, grieving God’s absence and accusing his hearers, “We have killed him – you and I.  All of us are his murderers . . . Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?  Has it not become colder?”  In a typically Nietzschian twist he goes on, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?  There has never been a greater deed”.  The crowd are silenced by the outburst and confused about its meaning.  The madman forces his way into several churches, announcing them to be no more than the tombs and sepulchres of God.

In Nietzsche’s mind the madman speaks nothing but the truth.  God is indeed dead, and without him humanity can only look to itself for any inspiration, comfort and guidance.  Along with religious faith, external systems of morality have ceased to have any meaning.  Those who understand this must now assume command.  The absence of God ushers in a new era of freedom in which humanity can achieve its destiny as Lord.

It is hard to argue with Nietzsche that without God, the foundations of morality fall.  If concepts of right and wrong are devised by people and implemented through human institutions and culture, they can also be changed or done away with in the same way.

Particularly significant in the madman scene is a phrase Nietzsche emphasizes, that we have murdered God.  God has not merely died, gone away or become irrelevant, but has been killed.  Nietzsche talks of the final battle Christianity is fighting and need to vanquish the remaining shadow of God – possibly a task he himself feels called to help fulfil.  It is an act of will of the kind he so admires as humanity comes of age.

People may well decide to rid themselves of God, confident of their increasing powers, and seeking independence and freedom without him.  In many parts of Europe this has happened, but the result is not a robust humanity, free and creative, but confusion and a loss of confidence.  The carnage of war in the first half of the twentieth century, much of it inspired by godless ideologies, destroyed the hopes of many.  People still need meaning and direction for living, and no amount of material prosperity or technological advance, let alone Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”, with its ceaseless struggle for supremacy, can meet that need.

Perhaps this dismal scenario is what he envisaged.  But we must resist it.  The proud murder of God is a familiar concept in the Christian story.  He allows himself to be done away with.  But the hope of resurrection is never absent.  God is waiting and ready to be found by those humble and resolute enough to seek him.  We need, like the women on Easter Day, to revisit the tomb, and there to find that the God we are missing is not dead at all.

Peter Shepherd (May 2017)