This piece originally appeared in Christianity Today's publication PARSE under the same title. It can be found here. It has been slightly edited and reformatted.
I must confess that I’ve never read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science in its entirety, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Parable of the Madman therein. In this famous nihilist’s tale, a lantern-wielding madman runs frantically through his village in the wee hours of the morning looking for God.
The madman cries out: “I seek God! I seek God!”
As he blunders through the darkness, he becomes the focus of much ridicule and scorn. The villagers chide him:
“Has he got lost? …Did [God] lose his way like a child? …. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us?”
In the face of the scoffing and laughter, Nietzche’s village idiot shockingly turns into village prophet and proclaims:
“Whither is God?...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?” (All quotes from Fordham.edu).
Despite his previous unreliability, the madman turns out to be the wisest of the bunch. He is the only one who has the courage to declare what the others are thinking and what they have collectively done. The concept, idea, feeling formerly known as “God” is dead. He is no longer necessary since humanity has progressed beyond its need for him. He was useful for a time, but no longer.
The Whereabouts of God
If I’m really honest with myself, there have been times in my life when I’ve much more resonated with Nietzsche than large portions of popular Christian thought. When faced with the glib and trite aphorisms so common to our tribe, it’s difficult to actually distinguish the whereabouts of God.
The one tension that has always caused a significant hitch in my stride toward Nietzsche’s brilliantly reasoned but pragmatically hollow nihilism, is the void he leaves in the quest for a meaningful expressions of ethics.
For if God is truly dead, there is no up or down, virtuous or vicious, noble or vulgar: there only is, what is.
When you accept the death of God and are confronted with any number of social or moral conundrums, you are left with mere preference as your guide. For example: While we may not approve of the oppression of women in various contexts around world, we are left weighing one set of cultural preferences against another. It’s he said, she said, on a global scale.
Nietzsche recognized this far before our time. He posited that one generation’s morality was a yoke of oppression to be thrown off by the next. The new generation’s revolution, was the previous generation’s immorality, and was the following generation’s oppression. This view of morality was undeniably fluid, and Nietzsche reasoned that there would always be a brave and powerful few who rose above it.
If Nietzsche is right, then the death of God is also the death of social justice. Working towards justice, apart from a divine decree that something is just, is merely a power play. We simply call something ‘just’ because we wish to enact our preferences upon another.
I have often been boggled when encountering conversations surrounding human rights, liberation, and equality in post-theistic contexts. As if these ideals are inherent things that we are all supposed to deduce from the natural world. It’s not as though I believe these are negative things (in fact I am a strong advocate for equality and quality of life, but this is because I believe they are divinely ordained).
The only reason that something like human rights or the sanctity of life could exist would be in the wake of a divine decree that it is so.
Otherwise, the only ethic we are left with at the end of the day is survival of the fittest. To pretend otherwise might be comforting, but it would be just as foolish as asserting the presence of the divine.
The Vapid Absurd
Few writers understand this better than Albert Camus. And few screenwriters understand this better than Woody Allen.
Absurdism. All we are left with is the absurd. Any attempt to construct morality or meaning for our lives is equally as vapid as our attempts to construct a deity.
Take the time to thoughtfully watch any film by the Coen brothers. I had pleasure of viewing their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis over this past winter break. It’s a heart-wrenching story of a notably flawed, and somewhat loveable singer/songwriter trying to make it in NYC. (Spoiler Alert!) I spent the entire film waiting for Davis to get his act together and catch that big break that he was looking for, but it never came. Davis endures many hardships, but at the end of the film he is left right where he started: broke, tired, and playing in the exact same dive from the opening of the film.
Was it a comedy or a tragedy? Neither. It was just depicting the perspective: that which is, is. And that is all there is.
What the Coen brothers seem to be indicating is the absurdity of effort or direction. It’s the same feeling you’re left with after an engaged viewing of A Serious Man (another Coen brothers’ project, loosely based on the book of Job). If Nietzsche’s madman is right, there is no proper orientation.
We’re lost at sea, with certain crewmembers that have convictions about bearing, and some who shout louder than others, but the reality is that no direction is better than another. We could paddle with all our might. We could drop anchor. We could throw ourselves over board. All of these decisions are equally valid and equally absurd.
The same is true of social justice. Why? Why create change? Though we think we’re heading in the right direction, isn’t any action, any decision, any effort morally neutral?
Even if we can attempt to create some sort of navigational beacon for justice apart from God, what is the point? If we think about life in relationship to the rise and fall of nations, all of human history recorded, and all of human history unrecorded; temporarily elevating suffering is akin to placing really nice La-Z-Boy chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Sure, it looks better, and may even feel comfortable for while, but the whole ship is going down.
We don’t need more La-Z-Boys. We need a lifeboat.
Unless we are are able to root concepts of justice and social change in a transcendent reality, we are merely attempting to will our preferences of reality upon another. Which, even in its own confused way, seems relatively unjust.
"... [Justice] is dead. [Justice] remains dead. And we have killed [her].
We have killed [her]—you and I. All of us are [her] murderers.”
“Whoever has overthrown an existing law of custom has always first been accounted a bad man: but when, as did happen, the law could not afterwards be reinstated and this fact was accepted, the predicate gradually changed; - history treats almost exclusively of these bad men who subsequently became good men!” from Nietzsche's Daybreak,s. 20, R.J. Hollingdale transl.