Nietzsche and the “Death of God.”

and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who couldn't hear the music Nietzsche
Surely only Brits and Americans get tattoos of Nietzsche quotes

In connection with Episode 61, I submit the following discussion by The Big Ideas podcast concerning Nietsche's famous but often misunderstood claim that "God is dead."

The several participants in the discussion each address Nietzsche's pronouncement from different angles. Giles Fraser argues that the "God is dead" revelation is that humanity can only become free if it rejects the idea of the divine." Lesley Chamberlain sees Nietzsche's "death of God" as "an attack on the tight association of reason and divinity, which had begun with Plato and carried through the Christian tradition until René Descartes in the 17th century."

Nietzsche declared that God dead in the context of 19th Century German Idealism. He might just as well simultaneously declared "reason" dead. Indeed, he did just that for reason, in the idealist context, was not just some capacity of mind to prove propositions about experience true or false; it was, for Hegel, a supernatural force out there, moving the world towards progress. Nietzsche's rebellion was a way of saying that no great metaphysical forces governed human life and created a framework for meaning, every individual faced the possibly absurdity of existence alone.

While Jennifer Ratner places Nietzsche into an American context, where many of his 20th-century readers "religious and agnostic alike" are engaged in "serious, if agonised, efforts to read his "death of God" as a challenge to a more robust humanism, even a more fulfilling Christianity."

What I think each of these commentators have in common is approaching Nietzsche's "Death of God" as a portent of deeper cultural changes that have occurred in the 20th century.  Nietzsche becomes an intermediate between worldviews. Ratner quotes Walter Kaufmann as saying that "Nietzsche's pronouncement was an attempt at a diagnosis of contemporary civilization, not a metaphysical speculation about ultimate reality." This would seem to compliment the view taken by Rick Roderick in his lecture Nietzsche and the Post-Modern Condition. Here Roderick states that,

“The Death of God” is about the drying up of a horizon of meaning, and of a whole form of human life. And about Nietzsche’s both fear and exhilaration at what might come next. We still to a large extent live in the interregnum between worlds, if you will, or between paradigms. Not many people in the history of the world have faced that..."

It would seem that here, Roderick is supporting the notion that the "Death of God" is the death of an epoch – the end of a Christian era and the inauguration of a post-Christian one. What this means is that the Christian conceptualization of "God" was no longer a tenable idea and its abandonment meant not just a crisis of faith but a crisis of culture.

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. The Parable of the Madman

For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s statement, “God is dead”, represents the death of the transcendent realm and hence of metaphysics.

If God - as the supersensory ground and as the goal of everything that is real - is dead, if the supersensory world of ideas is bereft of its binding and above all its inspiring and constructive power, then there is nothing left which man can rely on and by which he can orient himself. That is why in the passage we quoted, the question is asked, "Aren't we astray in an endless nothing?" The statement "God is dead" contains the realization that this nothing is spreading. Nothing means here: absence of a supersensory, binding world. Nihilism, "the eeriest of all guests," is standing at the door. -Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead

This nihilism is, for Nietzsche, the “devaluation of all values", where the world is deflated, looking valueless and meaningless. But, this set the stage for a new set of values and the creation a new worldview.

Indeed, we philosophers and "free spirits" feel, when we hear the news that "the old god is dead," as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an "open sea." The Gay Science, Aph. 343

Nietzsche puts the question as to the value of life and man's place in it back in our laps, which is where it belongs. What begins as the lamentations of a "Madman" becomes "a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn."

For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred "Yes" is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world.

-Chris Mullen


  1. says

    Looking forward to your upcoming podcast! I tend to share a similar view to Roderick and Kaufmann that you quoted above in considering Nietzsche’s pronouncement, as a recognition of a kind of Cartesian surgical separation of mind and the material world, where the only kind of value we can inject into the world is a kind of extra, tacked on sort of humanist thing, having no real origin in the natural world. A realization of this might lead us to a kind nihilism, where “every individual faced the possible absurdity of existence alone.” But I don’t think that was Nietzsche’s intention, if I can be so bold to suggest that. What I’d like to think he was implying, at least in part, is that this nihilistic perspective is just as much a symptom of our ‘post-modernist’ predicament as our value-laden views (a predicament perhaps most visible in the irredeemable division we’ve created between the natural sciences and humanities in academia), the remedy for which is something along the lines of what Nietzsche wrote below:

    “All sciences are now under the obligation to prepare the ground for the future task of the philosopher, which is to solve the problem of value…”

    (‘Good and Evil, Good and Bad’ in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887/1967), Vol. 1, Part 1, Sect. 17, p. 798).

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