Anyone of a certain age will surely recall the almost palpable ripple that reverberated through public awareness when, in April 1966, Time Magazine famously featured a stark black cover interrupted by a single startling question: “Is God Dead? The words shouted from the newsstands in large, bold, red text. Up until that moment, interest in the question, while growing, had been limited to a small group of radical (mostly Protestant) theologians as the so-called “Death of God movement” gained traction in academic circles. But, as usual, the public lagged behind the academy. The editors of Time had posed a question that had never even occurred to the average American. In 1966, fully 97% of Americans reported a belief in God. The notion that he might have died – or that he even could die – no doubt came as a surprise. Those who took the time to read the accompanying article would have been even more surprised to learn that, according to 19th-century philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), God was dead because we had killed him.
The backlash was immediate and heated, sparking more than 3500 angry letters to the editor. Time was accused of blasphemy and criticized by pretty much everyone, from ordinary Christians to politicians to entertainers. Even Bob Dylan, the acknowledged celebrity icon of the era, objected. It is not known how many actually read the cover story, which was a somewhat superficial attempt to offer a coherent account of the topic. But it likely would not have mattered anyway. Most of the criticism was directed at the inflammatory cover itself.
Though it would ferment in the underbelly of academia, as an actual movement within theology, the “Death of God” school was short lived, losing much of its momentum by the end of the decade. Indeed, Time ran a follow up cover story just two years later, asking, “Is God Coming Back to Life?” But by then the die was cast. The question had captured the imagination – and the fears – of the public. After all, many still remembered the horrors of the Second World War, most had witnessed the shocking assassination of President Kennedy, the Cold War was in full swing, the “skirmish” in Vietnam was well underway. The cover of Time had put into words a question that people did not realize they had – until they heard it said out loud. In 2008, the Los Angeles Times named the “Is God Dead? issue among the “12 magazine covers that shook the world.”
It is surely one of the great tragedies of the last century that so few grasped the real nature of Nietzsche’s terrible, prophetic voice. For his famous declaration, articulated in his parable, The Madman, was not in fact a theological pronouncement on the death of God; it was a declaration of a cultural fact. The Madman was really a warning, intended to alert the listener to what would follow upon God’s demise. Perhaps at some future date, an exceptionally insightful historian will record the cover of Time as evidence of the one moment when we might have taken heed of Nietzsche’s profound appeal to the men of his time, restated anew. If only it had been heard as a call to wake up to the nihilism poised to descend on our culture in 1966. Had we understood what Nietzsche saw during the twilight of the 19th century, it might have caused us to pause – or even to reverse – a movement that, in 2020, seems finally to have arrived at its destination.
It is a well-documented fact that America’s commitment to its religious heritage has been declining now for decades. A notion that, in 1966, had not yet seeped into the common sense of the culture has become the de facto assumption at work in the public square. Recent studies show that the percentage of those in “Gen Z” (ages 5-24) who identify as atheists is already double that of the adult population. What may be worse, anecdotal evidence suggests that this phenomenon is often due more to a fear of being “outed” as a believer than any real convictions on the subject. This should not surprise us. The effort to purge God from our culture has been going on for a long time now. Those who continue to affirm his existence are often ridiculed and sidelined. The campaign seems to be working. Perhaps we have finally been successful in convincing our young people that life has no meaning. Perhaps the Madman’s time has finally come.
It would be difficult to dispute Nietzsche’s pivotal significance in the history of Western thought. Indeed, scholars tell us that few thinkers of any age can claim to equal his influence. His legacy is complex and disputed, defying any attempt at quick reduction. His outright rejection of the possibility of any systematic account of reality, of metaphysics, of the possibility of arriving at truth in any stable form, brought the modern project to its logical conclusion and provided a point of departure for the new strands of thought that followed. He reveled in what he saw as the constantly shifting incommensurability of opposing points of view. And unquestionably, he is the progenitor of the proudly dogmatic irrationality of post-modern thought, having declared reality to be inherently conflictual, irreducible, irresolvable. (Fast forward, for example, to Derrida’s “différance.”)
But, above all, Nietzsche was preoccupied with Christianity, which he considered to be the “archenemy of reason” even as he admitted the central role it played in his work. To Christianity he attributed the cultural decline and decadence he witnessed all around him. For Nietzsche, Christianity elevated the weak and the poor above the heroic and the great, valued passivity and obedience over the noble strength of real men, and had deluded mankind by making a non-existent God the arbiter of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” Such a stance was unsustainable, he declared; its very absurdity was causing the culture gradually to rot away from within – in a misguided effort to preserve it. Christianity had already lost its grip; it was simply a matter of time until men realized it. The only alternative was to abolish the Christian code of values and find a replacement.
Though Nietzsche celebrated this state of affairs, he was deeply fearful of what would happen once man woke up to the inevitable – to the nihilism of a world in which there was “no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress.” It is this concern that finds its most eloquent expression in The Madman. The parable is a profound exploration of what happens when the world comes unmoored from that which has secured its orbit, a desperate plea to the men of the age to wake up to the darkness they had themselves wrought. Of even greater concern, the Madman points out – if we do away with God, who will take his place? This is the question that would lead Nietzsche to proclaim the advent of his famous Ubermensch. The “overman” who, because he has mastered himself, will take the place of the gods. It was the “will to power” that would have to serve as a substitute. Though not Nietzsche’s intent, the Nazis would exploit this feature of his work in the next century.
Nietzsche’s protagonist represents a modern-day Diogenes, the ancient Cynic who lit a lantern in broad daylight and ran to the marketplace in search of an honest man. The parable opens with the frenzied entrance of the Madman, who also lights a lantern in “the early morning hours,” who also runs into the marketplace. But he is in search of God. “I seek God! I seek God!” he cries. The unbelieving on-lookers, astonished, begin to laugh and to taunt him, saying “Is he lost? Has he gone on a voyage?” In frustration, the Madman jumps into their midst and, “piercing them with his glances,” declares “Whither is God?” I shall tell you,” he says. “We have killed him, you and I. All of us are his murderers.”
Desperate to shed his light on the consequences of this unimaginable act, the Madman continues his plea. Don’t you realize, he shouts, that the death of God is like unchaining the earth from its sun? Can you not perceive that we are plunging further and further through an infinite nothing? That we have no way of knowing up from down, backward from forward? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? The Madman’s words evoke the sense of vertigo that comes with a blind plunge into space – a void with no boundaries, no signposts, no true north. They render visible the spread of a shadow gradually encroaching over bleak terrain. Darkness replaces the light – and the earth grows cold. Now it is man who is losing his grip. And we sense it.
A wordless uncertainty, often more felt than understood, lurks below the surface of our anxious culture, silently informing the vague but persistent anxiety that characterizes our common life. Nietzsche has explained it to us. Is it not clear that this is the world our young people inhabit? Is this not what they have been taught? In university classrooms throughout our country, they learn that science has “proven” that God does not exist, that their earthly home is one giant cosmic accident, the result of random particles colliding in space hundreds of millions of years ago. They are taught that they themselves are merely bundles of sense impressions, their bodies constructed from malleable matter, their thoughts, emotions, and urges the product of purely material processes and constantly firing neurons. They are indoctrinated into the idea that their identity is of their own construction. They have been left alone in a cosmos with nothing to guide them, not even a firm grasp of what constitutes their basic humanity, and no means of finding the way home.
Many fine attempts have been made recently to diagnose the current strife; many contain a great deal of truth. Who could deny the Marxism, cultural or otherwise, that fuels it? Or the clear evidence that well-organized forces of anarchy have been waiting in the shadows of our society, ready to pounce when the right moment came? Perhaps we will find the will and the strength to beat back the evil these forces represent one more time, enough at least to restore the order of law. Let us hope we do. But if our triumph is only political – or one realized only through superior might – it will be but a temporary victory. For the core of the problem will have gone untouched. Unlike the more overt violence running amok in our streets, it is hidden, but in plain sight. And Nietzsche’s madman shows us where to search. Yes, we have killed God, he says. But how? “How have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon?”
Yes – who, indeed.
In the university classroom of Nietzsche’s time, professors were tasked with cleaning their blackboards once their classes were complete for the day. They were provided with a pail of water – and a large sponge with which to wipe away the residue of their lesson. The Madman’s question is Nietzsche’s stark indictment of the academy of his time, a world Nietzsche left in disgust barely ten years after reaching the pinnacle of academic achievement. He resigned his post as the Chair of the Philology Department at the University of Basel – and left behind what he called the pedantic sophistry of the professorial class. It was the academy that gave us the “sponge” with which to wipe away the horizon. University professors (though in Nietzsche’s mind, in league with Christianity) were enabling the descent of nihilism on the culture of his time.
It is an understatement of the first order to declare that the same is true today. The academy continues to “wipe away the horizon” for our young people, unformed children still, who enter university life already inclined to pick up the sponges themselves. The calamity we face is above all a failure of those who, with our full permission and a great deal of our hard-earned cash, have been given free rein over what our children are taught. It is the result of corruption in public schools, in higher institutions of learning, in academia itself, promoted by an intellectual elite with an ideological agenda that manifestly seeks the deconstruction of the person, the breakdown of the family, and the ruin of souls. Abandoned to the isolated world of social media where nothing is as it seems, our children are without defenses, having been robbed of the only armor effective in such a battle.
But the Madman is not finished yet. There is one more question that remains. How, he asks, shall we, who are “the murderers of all murderers” comfort ourselves? God 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? After so great a deed, do we not need to become gods ourselves simply to seem worthy of it?” And here, Nietzsche’s terrible prophecy meets the situation on the ground.
A dark faith has appeared in the public square. Public protest has become a new religion. It comes complete with rituals, prayer, and sacrifice, the current version of the Madman’s sacred games. Fervent homilies are shouted through microphones, spontaneous exhortations to the community to repent of its sins. There is even an opportunity for both individual and communal confession, most certainly a modern day “festival of atonement.” People bow their heads and genuflect before the unholy demands of the mob. But the sinner has little hope of redemption. There is no possibility of forgiveness. He can submit to shaming, apologize endlessly, humbly admit his wrongdoing – but there is no mercy to bestow on him. There is but one mortal sin and all have committed it. Forgiveness is no longer in the lexicon. The one penalty is excommunication. But in this religion, the sinner is not only shunned, he is canceled, erased.
Those who refuse to see the parallels to the Nazi onslaught, to the purges of Stalin, to the deadly Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao, are ignorant of their own history. They are living in an alternate reality. For just as in the innumerable totalitarian regimes that have come before, the symbols that speak to us of our culture, of our tradition, are being taken down, one by one. Holy rituals imbued with the meaning of the ages are attacked and denied their place. Such things are a threat to the new order. For they point toward a transcendent reality that has now been relegated to a sinful past. Even the signs of America’s greatest sin – that of slavery – are evidence of man’s ability to recognize evil in all its forms. They reveal his capacity for conversion, forgiveness, and redemption. Instead, the complexity of human experience is denied and violently erased. In the process, history itself disappears from view, no doubt only to be tragically repeated by those that come after us.
As shattering as they were, what is taking place in our streets in 2020 are not the angry protests of the 1960s. The steep descent of our culture was already underway at that time. Those events were merely the accelerant. We have been in free fall ever since. But the average American has not been watching. And suddenly we find ourselves in a new reality, an utterly predictable situation, searching for a way to respond to the hysterical tantrums of unschooled children raging against something they cannot name.
The young people who are burning our cities and issuing impossible demands are fighting with the only weapon left to them: the will to power. They are filling in the void left by the death of God with a fearful power, unmoored from any sense of right and wrong. They have been told that such things are up to them.
There is no one to blame but ourselves. For though the Madman tries valiantly to get the attention of his hearers, in the end, he realizes that he has come too early. “This tremendous event is still on its way,” he says sadly, “still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man.” Just as the light from a distant star requires time to reach us, so too, do deeds “require time even after they are done, before they can be seen or heard.” God’s death occurred long ago. But the event has taken until now – finally – to reach us.
The Madman is at last led away and called to account, having sung his requiem to the eternal God in diverse churches. “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” he asks. He is clairvoyant. Have we not noticed that many of Europe’s historic churches have been turned into shopping malls and casinos? That the ones that remain are mostly empty? Is it not time to acknowledge that a similar fate could await our own? Are we going to watch in silence while the same shadow gradually darkens the landscape of America? Is it not time to light our own lanterns?
Perhaps the Madman’s time has finally come. Perhaps this time we will take heed of his warning.
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