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"God is dead" (German: "Gott ist tot" (help·info); also known as the death of God) is a widely-quoted statement by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It first appears in Nietzsche's 1882 collection The Gay Science (German: Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), in sections 108 (New Struggles), 125 (The Madman), and for a third time in section 343 (The Meaning of our Cheerfulness). It is also found in Nietzsche's classic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also sprach Zarathustra), which is most responsible for popularizing the phrase. The idea is stated in "The Madman" as follows:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. 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?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann
The phrase "God is dead" does not mean that Nietzsche believed in an actual God who first existed and then died in a literal sense. Rather, it conveys his view that the Christian God is no longer a credible source of absolute moral principles. Nietzsche recognizes the crisis that the death of God represents for existing moral assumptions: "When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident... By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands." This is why in "The Madman", a passage which primarily addresses nontheists (especially atheists), the problem is to retain any system of values in the absence of a divine order.
The death of God is a way of saying that humans are no longer able to believe in any such cosmic order since they themselves no longer recognize it. The death of God will lead, Nietzsche says, not only to the rejection of a belief of cosmic or physical order but also to a rejection of absolute values themselves — to the rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law, binding upon all individuals. In this manner, the loss of an absolute basis for morality leads to nihilism. This nihilism is that for which Nietzsche worked to find a solution by re-evaluating the foundations of human values. This meant, to Nietzsche, looking for foundations that went deeper than Christian values. He would find a basis in the "will to power" that he described as "the essence of reality."
Nietzsche believed that the majority of people did not recognize this death out of the deepest-seated fear or angst. Therefore, when the death did begin to become widely acknowledged, people would despair and nihilism would become rampant. This is partly why Nietzsche saw Christianity as nihilistic. He may have seen himself as a historical figure like Zarathustra, Socrates or Jesus, giving a new philosophical orientation to future generations to overcome the impending nihilism.
Misunderstandings of the death of God
When first being introduced to Nietzsche, a person can infer the “death of God” as literal. To Nietzsche, the concept of God only exists in the minds of his followers; therefore, the believers would ultimately be accountable for his life and death. Holub goes on to state that “God has been the victim of murder, and we, as human beings, are the murderers” (36).
Another purpose of Nietzsche’s death of God is to “unmask the hypocrisies and illusion of outworn value systems” (Pfeffer 18). People do not fully comprehend that they killed God through their hypocrisy and lack of morality. Due to hypocrisy “God has lost whatever function he once had because of the actions taken by those who believe in him” (Welshon 40). A god is merely a mirrored reflection of its people and the “Christian God is so ridiculous a God that even were he to have existed, he would have no right to exist” (Welshon 39). Religious people start going against their beliefs and start coinciding with the beliefs of mainstream society. “[Moral thinking] is debased and poisoned by the influence of society’s weakest and most ignoble elements, the herd” (Welshon 16).
Humanity depreciates traditional ethics and beliefs and this leads to another misunderstanding of the death of God. During the era of Nietzsche, traditional beliefs within Christianity became almost nonexistent due to the vast expansion of education and the rise of modern science. “Belief in God is no longer possible due to such nineteenth-century factors as the dominance of the historical-critical method of reading Scripture, the rise of incredulity toward anything miraculous . . . and the idea that God is the creation of wish projection (Benson 31). Nietzsche believed that man was useless without a God and “no longer possesses ideals and absolute goals toward which to strive. He has lost all direction and purpose” (Pfeffer 76). Nietzsche believes that in order to overcome our current state of depreciated values that a “strong classic pessimism” like that of the Greeks is “needed to overcome the dilemmas and anxieties of modern man” (Pfeffer 65).
“Either we died because of our religion or our religion dies because of us” (Pfeffer 73). This quote summarizes what Nietzsche was trying to say in his concept of the death of God- that the God of Christianity has died off because of its people and their beliefs. Far too often do people translate the death of God into a literal sense, do not take responsibility for the death of God, and depreciate the value of traditional Christian beliefs - all leading to the misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s philosophy of God’s death. Now in a world where God is dead we can only hope that technology and science does not take control and “be treated as the new religion, serving as a basis for retaining the same damaging psychological habit that the Christian religion developed” (Magnus 36).
Nietzsche and Heidegger
Martin Heidegger understood this part of Nietzsche's philosophy by looking at it as death of metaphysics. In his view, Nietzsche's words can only be understood as referring not to a particular theological or anthropological view but rather to the end of philosophy itself. Philosophy has, in Heidegger's words, reached its maximum potential as metaphysics and Nietzsche's words warn of its demise and that of any metaphysical world view. If metaphysics is dead, Heidegger warns, that is because from its inception that was its fate.
Nietzsche believed there could be positive possibilities for humans without God. Relinquishing the belief in God opens the way for human creative abilities to fully develop. The Christian God, he wrote, would no longer stand in the way, so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge the value of this world.
Nietzsche uses the metaphor of an open sea, which can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The people who eventually learn to create their lives anew will represent a new stage in human existence, the Übermensch — i.e. the personal archetype who, through the conquest of their own nihilism, themselves become a sort of mythical hero. The 'death of God' is the motivation for Nietzsche's last (uncompleted) philosophical project, the 'revaluation of all values'.
Although Nietzsche puts the statement "God is Dead" into the mouth of a "madman" in The Gay Science, he also uses the phrase in his own voice in sections 108 and 343 of the same book. In the madman's passage, the man is described as running through a marketplace shouting, "I seek God! I seek God!" He arouses some amusement; no one takes him seriously. Maybe he took an ocean voyage? Lost his way like a little child? Maybe he's afraid of us (non-believers) and is hiding?-- much laughter. Frustrated, the madman smashes his lantern on the ground, crying out that "God is dead, and we have killed him, you and I!" "But I have come too soon," he immediately realizes, as his detractors of a minute before stare in astonishment: people cannot yet see that they have killed God. He goes on to say:
This prodigious event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.—trans. Walter Kaufmann, The Gay Science, sect. 125
Earlier in the book (section 108), Nietzsche wrote "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." The protagonist in Thus Spoke Zarathustra also speaks the words, commenting to himself after visiting a hermit who, every day, sings songs and lives to glorify his god:
'And what is the saint doing in the forest?' asked Zarathustra. The saint answered: 'I make songs and sing them; and when I make songs, I laugh, cry, and hum: thus do I praise God. With singing, crying, laughing, and humming do I praise the god who is my god. But what do you bring us as a gift?' When Zarathustra had heard these words he bade the saint farewell and said: 'What could I have to give you? But let me go quickly lest I take something from you!' And thus they separated, the old one and the man, laughing as two boys laugh. But when Zarathustra was alone he spoke thus to his heart: 'Could it be possible? This old saint in the forest has not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!'—trans. Walter Kaufmann, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, sect. 2.
What is more, Zarathustra later refers not only to the death of God, but states: 'Dead are all the Gods'. It is not just one morality that has died, but all of them, to be replaced by the life of the übermensch, the new man:
'DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE OVERMAN TO LIVE.'—trans. Thomas Common, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, Section XXII,3
Death of God theological movement
The cover of the April 8, 1966 edition of Time and the accompanying article concerned a movement in American theology that arose in the 1960s known as the "death of God". The death of God movement is sometimes technically referred to as "theothanatology" (In Greek, Theos means God and Thanatos means death.)
The main proponents of this theology included the Christian theologians Gabriel Vahanian, Paul Van Buren, William Hamilton, John A.T. Robinson, Thomas J. J. Altizer, John D. Caputo, and the rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein.
- Christian atheism
- Deconstruction and religion
- Postmodern Christianity
- trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale; Twilight of the Idols, Expeditions of an Untimely Man, sect. 5
- Wolfgan Muller-Lauter, Heidegger und Nietzsche: Nietzsche-Interpretationen III, Walter de Gruyter 2000
- Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsches Wort 'Gott ist tot (1943) translated as "The Word of Nietzsche: 'God Is Dead,'" in Holzwege, edited and translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
- Roberts, Tyler T. Contesting Spirit: Nietzsche, Affirmation, Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Precurors to 'Death of God' theology
- Benson, Bruce E. Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008.
- Holub, Robert C. Friedrich Nietzsche. New York: Ywayne Publishers, 1995.
- Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen Higgins. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
- Pfeffer, Rose. Nietzsche: Disciple of Dionysus. Canbury: Associated University Presses, 1972.
- Welshon, Rex. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2004.
'Death of God' theology
- Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).
- Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).
- Bernard Murchland, ed., The Meaning of the Death of God (New York: Random House, 1967).
- Gabriel Vahanian, The Death of God (New York: George Braziller, 1961).
- John D. Caputo, Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God, edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
- Hamilton, William, "A Quest for the Post-Historical Jesus," (London, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1994). ISBN 978-0-8264-0641-5