In the late 19th century western philosophy was starting to get honest about its godless trajectory. Thinkers had placed the knives of reason upon thinking itself and began to come to some stark honesty about what they really believed about God, truth and morality. The pariah Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work only became popular after his death, was perhaps one of the most honest. Many of the conclusions were that God was dead1, truth was perspectival rather than universal and morality was a fake, a ploy to keep people in chains when they were made for greatness. Nietzsche wrote many works addressing these realities many times using metaphors to describe his views. For example, in his treatment of morality, he chose the title beyond good and evil. In his treatment of what he thought human beings could become he chose the language of “superman” or “overman” to describe a higher human race which history and evolution would produce. To this sort of thinking GK Chesterton responded pointedly in the early 20th century in his classic work “Orthodoxy”
This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either. 2
Though Nietzsche was certainly a man hiding his ideas in metaphors when he suggested to us a world “post-God” and what such a world would become I find him quite clear. In writing about the implications of his views, Nietzsche wrote the now classic parable The Madman.3 In this short work he artfully portrays what the world after the death of God would have to be like. In this essay I want to highlight a portion of The Madman and then, in a way of sorts, look at how we have indeed attempted to answer Nietzsche’s questions. I will then ask whether the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is a better guide for staring into the empty void of life under the sun. I will close by simply arguing that the death of God has indeed been quite the exaggeration.
It is hard to quote just a portion of The Madman, but even quoting the entirety of even the short parable would consume too much space here for our purposes. I suggest that you take a quick trip online to read the whole thing and I will highlight a few sections here. After a madman frantically asks the question “where is God” he is chided by some modern atheists and he replies to them in vigorous prose.
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. “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? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
I have highlighted just a few portions of this passage for us. In the first we realize that when we loose sight of God, we realize that there simply is no higher purpose, no meaning and life is cold, dark and void. As we stare into that void we realize that we no longer have any center to life, nothing to base our journeys on, no truth, no moral accountability and all is up for grabs.
Nietzsche realizes that humans need such things. He therefore predicts that various festivals of atonement (trying to justify ourselves and our guilty consciences) and sacred games (dalliances to fool ourselves into believing life is meaningful) will be created by to help people deal with the infinite nothingness of life with no higher purpose. Of course, Nietzsche’s own solution, was to will to power and become a great person towering over and dominating others who were stuck in the herds of humanity groveling in morality and superstitions. That, however, is for another essay. Here I want us to look at the sacred games and efforts towards atonement that we have indeed undertaken since the unhinging of the earth from its sun, people from their creator.
Our Sacred Games
In light of the loss of ultimate meaning, some atheistic thinkers have taken up the more modest task of creating “local meaning” for ourselves.4 If we can but tell ourselves that life matters in the day to day, we can escape the reality that all those days taken together are ultimately meaningless, empty and void. If we can only tell the truth to keep quiet we can live our short miserable life in an blissful ignorance. Or at least we can tell ourselves we are good enough, smart enough and people like us. By creating these “sacred games” we can escape the truth of life’s meaninglessness and smile along a way filled with a myriad of distractions. Before we look at these games, let me affirm all of them. They are good things to pursue, but they are horrible God-substitutes. In fact, if there is no God, all of these pursuits will drown in their own meaninglessness. OK, to quote WOPR from War Games: Shall we play a game? Of course you would, these are the games we play to avoid facing our maker or facing the void of a world without God.
The Distraction Game
Some might say the questions of truth, meaning of life, existence and the question of God are very important. More than often I hear them summarily dismissed. These questions are not important!?! Really? I have more important things to do in life. Life is hard, we have to work and get by, I don’t have time for all this philosophizing. We seem to make time for reality shows, tweeting, face-booking and recounting how awesome TV show characters are. So we stay distracted, living our lives by what is on TV tonight. Is there anything more? Don’t ask, don’t tell. Some time ago, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal marveled at our unwillingness to wrestle with the deeper questions of life. His reflections were before internet, TV, smart phones and the wonderful distractions of the modern era. His words are as relevant as ever:
I see the terrifying immensity of the universe which surrounds me, and find myself limited to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am set down here rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and will come after me. On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape….As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on leaving this world I fall forever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God. Without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery. 5
The Knowledge Game
Knowledge and education are sacred in our culture. It is said that education is somewhat like a magic bullet that cures all. If we throw money at education then all will be well in the world. I am heartily for education, but learning must have truth at its foundation. Learning does not make life meaningful unless our knowledge serves some purpose and is guided by a moral compass. It cannot be an end in itself. When knowledge has no moral guidance or high good in mind, we can become arrogant. As the ancient apostle wrote “knowledge puffs up” in pride. The outcome can be a world where we think the educated are superior to the uneducated. Elitism anyone? Furthermore, being educated is preferable than a life without learning, but great evils can and have been done by the most brilliant people.
The Pleasure Game
Another great game we play to fill our lives with meaning is the pleasure game. We can get high, we can get naked, we can go through multiple relationships one after another. We play the game of love to get what we want and we purchase various pleasures on the internet or on the corners of city streets. We even have something called “sexual addiction” today. Married people do this all the time and it is not called an addiction. What changed? We unchained pleasure from its purpose and removed it from its proper context. Why? If God is dead we can do whatever, whenever and whoever we want. Sadly, numerous children today grow up without two parents and broken bodies, disease and death line the avenues of this sacred game.
The Power Game
We like to control things so we seek out little kingdoms for our own sovereignty. If we can control some area of life, we’ll forget that ultimately we are going towards a certain death, the day of which I have zero control over. So we try to control our boyfriends or girlfriends, our families and friends and others seek to rule in business and politics. If life is short and death is waiting for me at least I can try to be in charge along the way. Everyone will love me for it! Or not…but at least I’ll get mine.
Festivals of Atonement
So we have our games to prop up life, but what are we to do when we still feel guilty and we have the haunting fear that something may be wrong “with us” or even scarier “with me.” Well, we have our festivals to atone for our many sins indeed.
Festival of Blame
We know something is wrong with us so it must be somebody’s fault. We love the festival of blame in our culture. It is always “their” fault that we can’t fix the mess of our lives. It is the other team’s fault. We blame the other political party, we blame other nations, we blame our culture, we blame economic systems and we absolutely love to blame our parents. After all, my teachers have told me that I am great and special my whole life, so all that is wrong must have come from elsewhere. Life is too short to feel guilty, admit sin and seek forgiveness. Shifting blame can atone without me coming apart.
Festival of Me
Once we shift blame away, we can focus on what is truly the wonder of our universe…ME! Yes, when faced with our sins, just tell yourself you are AWESOME! Live life for your plans, your purposes, your pleasures, your successes, your happiness and all will go well. After all, if you don’t look after yourself, who will?
So what happens when our sacred games and festivals still leave us feeling empty, alone and stuck in shame? We are told to play them harder or try another game. Such is the only recourse with a life without God under the sun. Yet perhaps the death of God was not so rightly ascertained. Perhaps there is a living voice speaking to us from eternity. Staring into this void, the preacher of Ecclesiastes was just as honest as Nietzsche but found another game. It was a game of truth and a struggle before God and not a denial of him. Solomon would tell us that knowledge, pleasure and the right use of authority have great purpose under the sun if used and aligned with the purposes and commands of God.
Long ago another voice, one greater than Solomon7 spoke to us about looking into the world which is so prone to fear, anxiety and diversions. While we run around seeking knowledge, pleasure, power and distraction, worrying about clothes and food and other needs his voice thunders clear: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.8
The madman need not incessantly look for God when his sanity arrives when he is found by his creator. May we all be found by and rest in Him.
1. The phrase God is dead did not intimate that God was alive and now dead. Nietzsche was communicating that the idea of God which had been the foundation of western culture for centuries had been disassembled by the thinker and philosopher of his day.
2. GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VII THE ETERNAL REVOLUTION, available for free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.html
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para.125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.
4. See the interesting dialogue between a Christian professor and atheistic punk rocker turned scientist in Preston Jones, Greg Gaffin, Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?: A Professor And a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarity Press, 2006). Gaffin acknowledges life to ultimately have no higher meaning but we create our own meaning through various means. In my opinion Gaffin treats evolution/naturalism as a sort of religion which I find both interesting and revealing.
5. War Games, United Artists, 1983.
6. Blaise Pascal, Pensées
7. See Matthew 12:42
8. Matthew 6:33,34