For whatever reasons, I should admit that I never really took seriously, nor thought it worthwhile to explore, the statement by Nietzsche that “God is Dead.” Philosopher Peter Rollins has made me wish that I had taken the opportunity to pursue Nietzsche a little deeper. Contrary to popular understandings, Rollins suggests that Nietzshe’s argument isn’t so much a criticism of the existence of God, as much as it is a criticism of the Christian’s claim to belief in God. During his talk at the Emergent Mid-Atlantic Conference (and also in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal), Rollins argues that Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” beautifully exposes how insignificant God has become in the life of the contemporary church.
First, the passage in context from Frederick Nietzsche’s 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.”
Peter Rollins responds that,
…Neitzsche is drawing out the idea that God is dead, in the sense that God no longer has any transformative power. God has simply become an idea. We’re theoretical theists, so we believe in God in our minds. And we’re practical atheists, we live as though God does not exist. We rely on our jobs for money and we rely on our friendships for meaning, so God is reduced to a private sphere and doesn’t really have any public significance anymore.
from Talk 1 at approx. 23 minutes
I think nothing affirms the suggestion that Christianity has lost its transformative power quite like the notion of a “Christian” bumper sticker. How is a slogan on a bumper sticker in any way evidence of the life-changing transformative power of God? The notion that a bumper sticker might have anything at all to say about Christianity simply suggests that for many Christians their faith is worth about $1.50. As such, we have become, as Rollins mentioned above, little more than theoretical theists.
At the same time I feel that my example of Christianity isn’t much better. Do others see me as a peculiar individual whose actions are driven by the foolish notion of some rumored “event” involving death and resurrection, or is my identity constructed more from my music collection, choice of clothing, and the amount of gigahertz I can fit in my pocket? Am I also living as though God is dead?
Likewise, are the recent intellectual battles waged in the name of Evangelicalism, such as California’s Proposition 8, the public display of the 10 Commandments, and the exhaustive attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, also evidence that God has been reduced to an idea? Where is the transformative power in those examples? If not there, does this transformative power exist elsewhere in the greater life of the Church?
Jesus said we are each to take up our cross and follow Him. Rollin’s argument suggests that, if that’s the case, much of what goes on in the name of Jesus in the contemporary Church might be missing the mark. Are we in fact living as though God is dead?