Monday, October 21

Nietzsche and God

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a 19th-century poet, composer, and philologist. His influence also delved into the field of philosophy, as well as beyond philosophy, particularly in ideas such as existentialism and nihilism. Nietzsche postulated, “God is dead” (German: Gott is tott), a rather unsettling concept. In his work Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, rendered as Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Nietzsche wrote a fictionalized treatise involving Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche believed that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (qtd. Christian 520). In other words, he believed that “the very concept of God as traditionally conceived in Western thought no longer has the power, as it once did, to transform human life” (521). It was his belief that while there are those who still believe that they believe in God, deep down, we seem to no longer have ultimate faith in God, but instead, faith in scientific and technological advancements (Soccio 468). Nietzsche was incorrect in his analysis, as we need a God now more than ever before, and belief in God has not waned, but remains prominent throughout the world.

Although he taught that true faith in God was not held by many, this would be a universal negative. It would require all of the knowledge in the universe to make this absolute statement, because it presupposes that Nietzsche knows the mind of every individual to live in the 19th century up to the present time. While it is true that we put faith and trust into science and technology, this does not lessen the fact that the idea of God is still highly relevant. Though a vast number of people have faith in this world and what it has to offer, a great many others hold faith in God and His promises. It should be noted that when God is mentioned, it is the Judeo-Christian God, and not gods such as Zeus, Brahma, Osiris, Odin, or others. “If there is no God, Nietzsche said, then all values must be revalued” (469). This gave rise to the development of nihilism, which can be defined as “the belief that the universe lacks objective meaning and purpose… Without God, there can be no objective base for values” (470). Nietzsche claimed that the decline of Christianity was on the rise, yet by the year 2013, Christianity is still prevalent.

The technical term for the phrase “God is dead” is theothanatology, which comes from the Greek words theos (God), thanatos (death), and logia or logos (word). Nietzsche thought that the world was no longer innocent. Yet was mankind ever truly innocent? His overall goal in the furtherance of the idea that God is dead” or irrelevant is to abolish morality, which generally stems from Christianity. Consider the analogy often given of the atheist professor. The professor relays to his students that they are nothing more than mere chemical accidents, or chemical hiccups, and have no morality to appeal to. Yet this professor goes home to his wife and children, hugs them and tells him that he loves them, and then proceeds to sit down and watch television. On television, the news reports a young girl’s rape and the murder of a teenager. The professor then ponders what he has seen and heard, and thinks that those people deserve justice, because the rape and murder are “wrong.” The question arises, then, of what kind of morality the professor is appealing to.

According to C.S. Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, “Each man is at every moment subjected to several different sets of law but there is only one of these which he is free to disobey. As a body, he is subjected to gravitation and cannot disobey it; if you leave him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice about falling than a stone has” (4-5). Indeed, we find that we are bound by a set of Natural Laws which govern the known universe. We are bound by the Law of Gravity, and as we are dissimilar to flying creatures, do not have the power of unaided flight. We can work within the boundaries and limitations of these Natural Laws – Mathematical, Physical, Chemical, and Logical – but we cannot truly break a known law. A scientific law is one that has been empirically tested, repeated and observed countless times. A hypothesis is an idea or notion which we may have about something, such as the Oort cloud. There is no evidence for an Oort cloud, yet some postulate that such a cloud exists simply to explain why comets still exist within the solar system. A theory, on the other hand, is midway between a hypothesis and a law – it has weight to it, and can in some aspects be tested, but has not been tested, observed and repeated long enough for it to become a scientific law.

Next, Lewis continues, “As an organism, he is subjected to various biological laws which he cannot disobey any more than an animal can. That is, he cannot disobey those laws which he shares with other things; but the law which is peculiar to his human nature, the law he does not share with animals or vegetables or inorganic things, is the one he can disobey if he chooses” (5). Ultimately, Nietzsche sought to usurp traditional morality, and diminish the possibility of moral absolutes. He held that there was no absolute morality to which he would appeal, no Moral Law. “This Law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it” (5). Lewis does not mean that there are not those who were unaware of an absolute morality, just as there are those who are color blind and have no perception of color or those who are deaf and cannot hear sound. However, as a whole, the human race appears to have some kind of absolute sense of morality to which they appeal. This is echoed several places in the Bible, in which we find that the law is in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). It was this that Nietzsche sought to demolish – the moral law.

Nietzsche’s philosophy that “God is dead” has helped advance nihilism, socialism and existentialism. The “God is dead” movement spearheaded by radical theologians Paul van Buren and Thomas J.J. Altizer in the 1960s and 1970s would not have been possible without Nietzsche’s work. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Altizer actually believed that God had died – not metaphorically, but literally. The April 8, 1966 edition of Time magazine had the cover title “Is God Dead?” The article therein dealt with the aforementioned movement sometimes known as theothanatology. Martin Heidegger viewed Nietzsche’s philosophy as a death of metaphysics. In his view, he believes that it will lead to the end of philosophy itself. In 1961, Protestant theologian Gabriel Vahanian published a book titled The Death of God. In it, he determined that the idea of God in the “modern mind” has sense of the sacred, the providence of life, and the sense of purpose. He argued that a post-modern and post-Christian culture was needed to invigorate the experience of God.

Inevitably, Nietzsche’s ideas have consequences. If God is dead (irrelevant), also making absolute morality irrelevant, then there are no moral absolutes and there exists no universal standard by which we ought to live. If God is dead, there exists no rational purpose or order in our lives. If God is dead, any indications of intelligent design seen in the known universe is nothing more than the projection of the wishes of men seeking purpose. If God is dead, then it follows that mankind is completely free to create their own values, and some things may be true for some but not true for others. Subsequently, if God is dead, then the earth and those on it are man’s concern, and not anything to do with an afterlife. Clearly, there are consequences for this type of thinking. Essentially, the idea that God is irrelevant, if God exists, is a challenge to His authority over our lives. The concept that mankind can create their own destiny, become “overmen,” if you will, has been present since Eden. In the Bible, the serpent told Eve that “ye shall be as gods” (Genesis 3:5).

This idea is carried over when man attempts to build the Tower of Babel. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves’” (Genesis 11:4). This is echoed in the probable account of the fall of Satan, in which Satan said in his heart, “I will raise my throne above the stars of God…. I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). The Mormon doctrine teaches that, if you are a good Mormon, you have the potential to become a god (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 345-347, 354; D&C 132:20). Interestingly, the Catholic Catechism 460:80-81 says, “’For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.’ ‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” While the Catechism is quoting from Saint Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, it is nevertheless a part of church doctrine.

In Greek mythology, the Titan Atlas holds up the heavens. He was forced to separate Gaia, the earth, and Ouranos (Uranus), the sky. Figuratively, Atlas’ presence clarified “the Greeks’ religious viewpoint, for it was his job to put the authority of heaven at a distance” from the Garden of Hesperides, which has been compared to the biblical Garden of Eden (Johnson). Essentially, Greek mythology gave the gods many human qualities and flaws. In Plato’s Euthydemus, Socrates referred to Zeus, Athena, and Apollo as his “gods” as well as calling them his “lords and ancestors.” Many Egyptian pharaohs declared themselves to be gods. Evidently, mankind has always sought to become gods, or some higher kind of being. We have sought to be in control of everything, to be more than we are. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, or Overman, is not dissimilar to this. The Overman can be defined as “Nietzsche’s ‘higher type,’ a more-than-human being that will emerge only by overcoming the false idols of conventional morality and religion” (Soccio 471).

Without the idea of God, Nietzsche believed, we could grow “beyond man,” as the Bible conveys that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-30; Ephesians 4:24; James 3:29), and hence, without God, we are without purpose, identity, and meaning. This gives rise to nihilism. In nihilism, life is meaningless and “nothingness” prevails. Life is simply fruitless, futile, and there is no higher purpose. The word itself comes from the nihil, the Latin root which means “nothing” or “that which does not exist.” The same root can be found in the word annihilate, which means to destroy complete or cease to exist. In effect, nihilism seeks to annihilate the metaphysical realm. It is the belief that values are without worth, and that nothing can be either communicated or known. There are different forms of nihilism. Moral nihilism (or ethical nihilism) rejects and denies the very existence of morality. Political nihilism is the annihilation of all social, religious and political foundations as a requirement for any future developments in society. Existential nihilism conveys that life has no meaning or purpose (what is the purpose or meaning of that statement?). Epistemological nihilism rejects the possibility that truth and knowledge exist (is that a true statement?).

The example of “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” often attributed to George Burkeley but technically written by William Fossett, is pushed one step forward in nihilism, in which the adherent asks, “did the tree exist to begin with?” The epistemological nihilist argues that truth cannot be perceived, and does not actually exist. This is a self-defeating argument, however, because for the nihilist to say that “truth cannot be perceived” would imply that they have personally perceived the truth… that truth cannot be perceived. This can be likened unto absolutism, which holds that there are no absolutes, to which one may ask, “are you absolutely sure?” If the absolutist replied with a “yes,” it would then contradict their previous statement. For an individual to suggest that truth cannot be perceived would, in and of itself, suggest that they have somehow perceived truth.

Nietzsche was highly critical of Charles Darwin’s work, particularly the mechanism through which evolution occurs. He proposed that it occurred through “the will to power.” It is therefore necessary to understand a bit of his background. He was born in the Prussian village of Rӧcken, a farming village (Soccio 454). When Nietzsche was four years old, his father died of a brain disease, and within a matter of six months, his two-year old brother Joseph also died (Grigg 106). At the age of twenty-one, he read Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World of Will and Representation, and having read this, “’in the place of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God at the ruling centre of the universe, Schopenhauer substituted a blind, aimless and fundamentally senseless energetic urge that he could describe as nothing more than the blind force of sheer ‘will’” (Wicks 3). At the age of twenty-four, Nietzsche became professor of classical philology at the Swiss University of Basel, a position which he held for ten years. He then wrote several works, the most famous of which is Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1833-35). At the age of 44, Niezsche is said to have witnessed a horse being whipped, and after a short series of events, fell to the ground and was insane for the next eleven years. He died in 1900, and was buried in the Nietzsche family grave beside the church in Rӧcken (Grigg 107).

The German philosopher’s most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “is a philosophical novel in which the fictional prophet Zarathustra, representing the Persian founder of the 6th century BC religion of Zoroastrianism, presents Nietzsche’s ideas to the world” (108). Found in its fullest form in The Gay Science, the parable of the madman seeking God, only to find out that “God is dead… [and] we have killed him,” is not a reference to the death of Christ. While the discussion of the death of God is found in this passage as a parable, Nietzsche refers to it in his own voice in sections 108 and 343 of the same work. His later identification with Dionysus, whom he calls himself a “disciple of the philosopher,” is in a sense both correct and incorrect. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, not a philosopher, and was the inspiration for ritual madness and excessive indulging in pleasures of the flesh. On the other hand, this identification, philosophically speaking, allows Nietzsche to call himself the first Immoralist. He set himself up as an equal opponent of God, shaking his fist at him.

As a result of the ponderings of Nietzsche, the question inevitably arises: is the idea of an infinite, perfect God irrelevant in today’s world, and is it true that no one actually believes in God when it comes down to it? If the idea of God is irrelevant, why does the idea of God continue to flourish? According to Douglas Soccio, “poll after poll reports that America is among the most ‘religious’ countries, with upwards of 80 percent of Americans attesting to belief in God. And the current attacks on Western culture by fundamentalist Muslims testify to deep-seated belief in God” (452). Indeed, attacks such as 9/11 proclaim that people still cling to the idea of God, even when they do not agree on who or what God is. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Baha’i, certain sects of Buddhism, and many other religious beliefs hold that God exists, and many adherents will clearly die for what they believe in. People will die for what they believe in; they generally do not die for what they know is false. If millions or perhaps billions of people across the planet did not actually believe in God, we would not go to such great lengths to try to further causes in His name, especially when it comes to arguments for God’s existence.

Psychologically speaking, research has shown that belief in a high power can be a source of tremendous comfort in times of stress and anxiety, as evidenced in the 1995 study from P.C. Hill and E. M. Butter as well as the 1997 study from K.I. Pargament. Religious beliefs can also give meaning to things that otherwise appear to have no meaning or a purpose. Religion is still prominent in the world, and the idea of God is clearly not irrelevant. Particularly in Middle Eastern countries, religion is intertwined with government. Muslim nations are run by Muslim law. Religion and philosophy are inexorably intertwined as well, as philosophy is the art of wondering, with philosophy coming from philosophia, meaning “the love of wisdom,” and both religion and philosophy attempt to answer the “big” questions: Does God exist? Is there meaning and purpose, or is all meaningless? Why do we exist? Do we exist? Is there other life elsewhere in the universe? Such questions shape our worldview and presuppositions, and ultimately determine the way we live our lives.

Nietzsche wanted to replace Christianity, with its reliance on an infinite Creator God, with a new world, a new society, built upon a foundation deprived of a god, without morality, without meaning and without purpose. These ideas had impact on several of the most powerful men in the twentieth century, including Adolf Hitler. Nietzsche believed that Christian concepts limited human potential, preventing us from truly rising to power and greatness. It was his contention that since God is dead; we must be worthy enough to take His place. “However, he wrote that man was not ready for such an exalted position, and until man was able he must live through a temporary time of upheaval and revolution” (UCOG 56). In part, his predictions did come true, but not the its fullest extent. His teachings influenced a quickly shifting world that had already been influenced by minds such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Sӧren Kierkegaard. Aside from Hitler, others such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung were influenced by these philosophies.

According to historian Paul Johnson, “In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology… the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatsoever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind” (48). This “new messiah” is Nietzsche’s Overman, which he believed humanity could become without God. Johnson concludes, “The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge, They were not slow to make their appearance” (48). The twentieth century has been called the “Century of Physics,” sparked by Einstein’s special and general theories, which brought forth nuclear energy and space travel, taking mankind to new heights. It was also a century ravaged by war. The first two world wars, along with several others, occurred in the 20th century. It can rightly be called man’s finest hour (in terms of technological and scientific advancements) and yet his worst (in terms of war and its effects).

Finally, we must ask: do some reject God merely so that they can have the freedom to do as they choose without being held responsible, and regardless of any consequences? Time and time again people who do not express belief in God (specifically the Christian God) do not want for there to be a God, because if He exists, and if we truly sin, then we are all to be held accountable for our actions – even our thoughts. Nietzsche’s philosophy ultimately leaves mankind without a purpose, without a place, without meaning, and without reason to live. What standards should we live by if there is no absolute standard? What morality should we live by if there is no absolute morality? The philosophy itself is a radical concept, and has had very serious consequences. Perhaps the fabled bathroom graffiti holds some truth which says, “God is dead” – Nietzsche, and “Nietzsche is dead” – God. Nevertheless, we can understand from this that the quest for meaning and purpose in the universe has not ended – it lives on.

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Christian, James L. Philosophy: An Introduction To The Art of Wondering. 3rd ed. California: CBS College Publishing and Rinehart Press, 1981. 521. Print.

Grigg, Russell. “Nietzsche, the man who took on God and lost!.” Journal of Creation 24.1, 2010. Creation Ministries International. 106-112. Web. 6 Dec 2011.

Johnson Jr., Robert Bowie. "Athena and Eve." Answers In Genesis. Answers In Genesis, 1 Dec 2003. Web. 6 Dec 2011.

Lewis, C.S.. Mere Christianity. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 4-5.

John Ross Schroeder, et al.. Life's Ultimate Question: Does God Exist?. 2nd ed. Ohio: United Church of God, 2008. 56. Print.

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Wicks, R. Nietzsche. Oneworld, Oxford, 2002. 5-6. Print.

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