Reflections on the Death of God

In Section 125 of “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche introduces the haunting, enigmatic motif of the death of the God. In this paper I will briefly summarize this section and put it into conversation with some of the passages that precede it. I will identify what I take to be Nietzsche’s message. I will consider the merits of that message and what the proper response to it might be.

As he often does, in Section 125 Nietzsche makes use of an evocative short narrative as a vehicle for his observations. He tells us of a madman who causes a disturbance in the local market place. “Whither is God?” the man cries. “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The listeners who had at first jeered at the madman are reduced to a stunned silence by his piercing jeremiad. He continues: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”

If we are to fully grasp what Nietzsche is trying to convey here, we must read 125 in continuity with prior sections. I find section 117 particularly relevant. Here Nietzsche draws attention to a peculiar feature of our present age, a feature so pervasive that we often fail to see just how radical it is: “Today one feels responsible only for one’s will and actions, and one finds pride in oneself….But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself….While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery….There is no point on which we have learned to think and feel more differently.”

As Nietzsche points out, the valorization of autonomy is a recent development. The world in which we live, move, and have our being is not the world of the ancients and medievals. Theirs was a teleological universe of antecedent ends given by nature, tribe, or Deity. In contrast, ours is a universe of unencumbered selves, self-legislators pursuing their own ends in their own ways. The ethic of community has given way to the ethic of contract, the kingdom of heaven to the kingdom of ends. We have stoned the prophets, committed the scriptures to the flames as sophistry and illusion. Our creed proceeds not from the finger of God but from the pen of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  

The death of God and the birth of authenticity are but two sides of the same coin. And tracing their reverberations is the work of generations. That project is inaugurated in section 108 with confidence and panache–”God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.–And we–we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” But by 125, awareness dawns that the implications of this epochal event are as onerous as they are invigorating.

I agree with Nietzsche’s diagnosis of our predicament, but since I’m not yet familiar enough with Nietzsche to assess his prescription, I will instead try to give the beginnings of my own. It seems to me that the proper stance toward the death of God is neither despair nor elation, but cautious optimism. Whether His death is a gain, a loss, or something in between, it behooves us to see clearly the opportunities it affords us and the real costs it extracts from us if we are to grasp what is at stake in our present age. We should embrace autonomy and authenticity as genuine goods, while also recognizing that we are not disembodied souls floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy. It may be that to live well is to find the most creative and authentic mode of being within the contours of the existence gifted to me by forebears and fate, to carry out the duties that press upon me in the way that only I can. For better or worse, we are all gods now, called to shape the lump of unorganized matter allotted to us into something that we can call good.

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