Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Death of God (Pt. I)

That was Nietzsche's declaration. Even if earlier both Heine and Hegel used the phrase. I'm not familiar enough with Hegel to speculate about what he might have meant by the phrase. Heine mentioned it once in The History of Philosophy in Germany.

Living in the 21st Century, though, "God is Dead" belongs to Nietzsche. Any precedents of usage are a curiosity at best: hints of some elusive profundity but conclusive of nothing.

It's an odd thing to declare something that is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, unlimited and a host of other perfect attributes has given up the ghost, passed on, expired, is pushing up daisies, or has bought the farm. Most Christians are justifiably perplexed that someone could say such a thing of their Infinite Creator God of Life.

There are at least two possibilities here: 1)either Nietzsche was nuts, or 2) maybe he meant something else, something not easily divined from the words of the phrase. Obviously, I am a partisan of the second option. Otherwise, there would be little for me to explain. And, unsurprisingly for those who know me, I am rather fond of Nietzsche's habits of thought, even when he's wrong, out of his depth, or dissembling.

What did Nietzsche mean by the "Death of God"? I've gone full circle on the importance of the "Death of God" in Nietzsche. When I first struggled with Nietzsche, I still considered myself to be an evangelical Christian, so naturally enough I thought "The Death of God" was the most important element in his thought and writings. Later, after disabusing myself of a few theological inanities, it was all too apparent that "The Death of God" was important but hardly central to his over all thought. Now, I'm inclined to think that if someone understands the place of "The Death of God" in the corpus of his writings, life, and thought, then everything else is straightforward and even easy.

Even if some philosophical prodigy were to show Nietzsche was wrong in all particulars and all generalities of his philosophy, he would still represent a major move in the history of metaphysics and philosophy. The style and
method of most writing philosophy and of metaphysics prior to Nietzsche in particular is best described as terminological. Terminological means divesting words and concepts of meaning until only one unambiguous meaning and usage remains. That is the promise of terminology: one word, one concept, one meaning, one usage, one referent.

As I said, Nietzsche breaks with this way of writing philosophy. This led many of his early commentators to describe him as a philosopher-poet. The poetic devices of irony, symbolism, sarcasm, personification, and the like are prominent devices for not only expressing his philosophy but for its formulation. Consequently, the major, and many of the minor points and elements of Nietzsche's philosophy have a richness and abundance of meanings and significances, befuddling to anyone who associates conceptual precision with singularity of meaning and usage.

In other philosophers, however abstract and difficult a phrase or concept may be to grasp, once a concept is made one's own, usage is straightforward. Whatever Kant may have meant by the Categorical Imperative, one knows that its meaning was arrived at by a process of eliminating ambiguity. Whatever The Categorical Imperative might be, one can be sure that concept is unambiguous, unless Kant made a mistake, in which ambiguity is evidence of error and imprecise thinking.

Applying this line of thought to "God," in hindsight that God should die becomes inevitable. Nietzsche's only explanation of the meaning of "The Death of God" makes it easy enough to dismiss by overlooking the possibilities and implications of the phrase. "The Death of God" means that God is no longer believable.

Nietzsche is different, especially in his later works beginning with The Gay Science. Arguments are made using imagery, metaphor, irony, and other "poetic" devices. Consequently, his writings must be unpacked, watered down, and decompressed.

The Death of God is a shorthand. The phrase appears maybe six or seven times in Nietzsche's published writings. But considered as a shorthand not only that God is no longer believable, but the whole conception of another world and another reality at best becomes a pale shadow of this world, of this world that was denigrated and maligned for the sake of some other, better reality beyond this vale of tears.

It was while I was reading Supplementary Article No. 4, The Odes of Solomon,in his The Jesus Puzzle that I understood simply and clearly that the Death of God meant the end of otherworldly mysticism. I was struck by the strangeness of the belief in the superiority of that other world. What is strangest to me is how I doubt the author(s) of The Odes of Solomon or almost anyone else of that time would have described their knowledge of this other world as grounded in faith. The existence of this other world would be commonsense itself, and to doubt its existence would be madness, and possibly a sign of demonic possession.

The Death of God means that any doctrine, teaching, or exhortation that derives its truth and authority from God and, more importantly, from another world and order of existence, has failed. Such doctrines and moral teachings are no longer believable. The questions of why? To what end? and How come? all lack answers.

Nor is this a private, individual matter. How are institutions to be grounded, organized, and justified? What about moral and legal accountability? With our increasing knowledge of human physiology, it becomes increasingly clear that supernatural "explanations" of human behavior are superfluous [for one example see: Do Fruit Flies Have Free Will?]. Or consider the increasing sophistication of brain imaging in showing a purely physiological basis for moral reasoning, or that other primates exhibit moral behavior.

Our institutions, our sense of morality, our justifications to ourselves for what we do no longer provide guidance for the world in which we live. This is not the fault of science, or of reason, or of human sinfulness. There is a mismatch between our moral and spiritual inheritance and the world in which we live.

We no longer understand ourselves, nor do we know how to find happiness, or even whether happiness is something that may be sought after. Considered most broadly, it is hardly any wonder that there would be doubt, uncertainty, and fear about what is human and what is not.

As a political and historical matter, this translates into ethnic cleansing, death camps, and apartheid. Further it would appear that any definition of humanity is framed so as exclude some types and not others. Even partisans of the broadest definitions of humanity have their doubts as to whether Eichmann, Milosovic, or Hitler are human. Definitions of humanity presume that some moral, non-biological component of humanity is essential and highly privileged. That humanity would have an essential moral/ethical component means that not every biological specimen of homo sapiens shares in this humanity to the same degree.

However human nature may be defined, human nature presumes the existence of some other nonhuman other from whom human embodiments of morality and virtue may be distinguished. Previously, this non-human other was God, now it is Albanians for Serbs, Jews for Nazis, Kurds for Turks, Shiias for Sunnis, and so on. One conclusion that may be drawn from our brief, albeit brutal, history of ethnic cleansing and genocide is straightforward enough: identity presumes some other, a "not-me" and a "not-us." Without God, humanity is indefinable. Perhaps this unarticulated need for God lurks behind the belief in space aliens whether among us, or out among the stars?

Traditional faith in God obscured a basic fact of being human: homo sapiens is a social animal. The Christian God with His Day of Judgment meant that each individual as an individual would be judged for his acts, sins, and words, and his alone. The chasm between individual human and individual human was taken to be absolute.

Being a social animal means, as foolish as it may sound in the 21st Century, that the place of human beings in the world is with other human beings. That no one seems to have understood this before, I can only attribute to theological tomfoolery. Human beings are only with the rarest exceptions found among other human beings. Those rarest exceptions, feral children illustrate the truth of this observation: they demonstrate no inborn goodness, no genius uncorrupted by civil society, or any other desirable qualities.

The Death of God then means a loss and a gain. The loss of a basic and fundamental sense of the moral agency as intrinsic to being human. Because our ethical, moral, and legal categories presume moral agency as inherent to our humanity, we no longer understand ourselves very well, either as individuals or collectively. Confusion reigns, and many desire most fervently a way back to how things used to be. The gain is liberation: we don't know, for good or evil, what we are.

The horror and wonder of it all is how strange we have become to ourselves.

[For my discussion of The Jesus Puzzle see here.]

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