God is Dead, and We Have Killed Him

November 20th, 2008 / 6 Comments

graffiti on a brick wall with the word God crossed out on itGraffiti across from The Menagerie pub where Ikon holds their gatherings.

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?

Are you?

Comments (6)

  1. Danny / November 20, 2008 / http://www.coldfire.wordpress.com

    I had similar thoughts to you about Neitzche, but then I saw that same first quote in Shane Claiborne’s first book and it really had me thinking for a long time. He makes a very serious critique of Christianity

  2. Nathan / November 21, 2008 / http://theorthodoxheretic.blogspot.com

    Hey Scott,

    JF’s friend from college here. Thanks for the post

  3. Nathan / November 21, 2008 / http://theorthodoxheretic.blogspot.com

    Sorry, it cut me off…

    Can Christians learn anything from Nietzsche by way of appropriation? A million times yes! Nietzsche’s critiques were probably necessary, especially of the “God of Ethics.” (As in, “You should beleive in God, because that will help you be a kind person”). That kind of god needed to die. That god is almost exactly like Santa Claus.

    But don’t be too taken in - N hated Christians, Chrisitanity, and Jesus. And unlike most atheists, he understood Jesus’ teachings perfectly. He just thought they were for the weak and despicable of our society, and the strong and privledged did not need that kind of crutch. I guess he was also right about that, as long as we can agree with Paul that we are weak and foolish.

  4. functionally godless : fables agreed upon / December 2, 2008 / http://www.dansanders.net/2008/12/02/functionally-godless/

    [...] post on what Nietzsche was really talking about (when he said “God is dead”) at Scott Lenger’s blog (link).  This concept also brings to mind the work of Richard Rubenstein, whose [...]

  5. Andy / December 5, 2008

    I take issue with the suggestion that we have “reduced God to merely an idea.” Maybe this is true for those without any sense of a unified Church that guides teaching on faith and morals. Catholicism has been waging intellectual “battles” since its inception. Jesus implied this when he said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

  6. Sue / April 27, 2009

    Christianity was never ever about Real God but was/is a mind created system of IDEAS about Real God.

    The intention of which was to both control The Divine and reduce The Divine to the human scale only. And was thus also a projection of the collective tribal ego.

    Such a Such a “god” could then be used to justify all of the inevitable horrors perpetrated by the tribal collective.

    During and after the Renaissance when science became the official way of thinking about everything altogether,the archaic god-ideas quite rightly became essentially irrelevant.

    No longer really believable. And besides which the Process that IS True Religion has nothing whatsoever to do with belief in any idea(s) about The Divine.

    Nietzsche was just describing the then (and now) truth about Western culture. Namely that he (and we) are now all thoroughly trapped in the entirely godless Newtons Shackles, or Weber’s Iron Cage, in which the Divine Radiance and hence even the possibility of a truly Divine Life has been banished from the Western “cultural” landscape.

    The situation pointed to by Nietzche has since become infinitely worse. Every minute fraction of our “culture”, and hence of our individual body-minds is now patterned by the dominant ideology or paradigm of scientism—no exceptions.

    No amount of Jesus or Bible talk can, or will make the slightest bit of difference to this situation.

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