“God is dead,” declares Nietzsche’s madman in his oft-quoted passage from
The Gay Science
. Though not the first to make the declaration, Nietzsche’s philosophical candor and desperate rhetoric unquestionably attribute to its familiarity. In graphic brushstrokes, the parable describes a crime scene:
“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…Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?…Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”(1)
Nietzsche’s atheism, unlike recent atheistic mantras, was not simply rhetoric and angry words. He recognized that the death of God, even if only the death of an idol, introduced a significant crisis. He understood the critical role of the Christian story to the very underpinnings of European philosophy, history, and culture, and so understood that God’s death meant that a total—and painful—transformation of reality must occur. If God has died, if God is dead in the sense that God is no longer of use to us, then ours is a world in peril, he reasoned, for everything must change. Our typical means of thought and life no longer make sense; the very structures for evaluating everything have become unhinged. For Nietzsche, a world that considers itself free from God is a world that must suffer the disruptive effects of that iconoclasm.
Herein, Nietzsche’s atheistic tale tells a story beneficial no matter the creed or conviction of those who hear it.
Gods, too, decompose.
Nietzsche’s bold atheism held the intellectual integrity that refused to make it sound easy to live with a dead God—a conclusion the self-deemed new atheists are determined to undermine. Moreover, his dogged exposure of idolatrous conceptions of God wherever they exist and honest articulation of the crises that comes in the crashing of such idols is universal in its bearing. Whether atheist or theist, Muslim or Christian, the death of the God we
we knew is disruptive, excruciating, tragic—and quite often, as Nietzsche attests, necessary.
Yet for Nietzsche and the new atheists, the shattering of religious imagery and concepts is simply deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction. Their iconoclasm ultimately seeks to reveal towers of belief as houses of cards best left in piles at our feet. On the contrary, for the theist, iconoclasm remains the breaking of false and idolatrous conceptions of God, humanity, and the cosmos. But added to this is the exposing of counterfeit motivations for faith, when fear or self-interest lead a person deeper into religion as opposed to love or truth, or when the source of all knowledge becomes something finite rather than the eternal God. While this destruction certainly remains the painful event Nietzsche foretold, God’s death turns out to be one more sign of God’s presence. As C.S. Lewis observed through his own pain at the death of the God he knew: