“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed
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.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
“True, every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God’s death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity.” Thomas J.J Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism
The theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins is currently running a series of online seminars which I highly recommend, explaining his project of pyrotheology, taking questions, and following up with an online discussion group. Listening to the second seminar, I could feel a couple of things falling into place for me, which I will share in case they do for you too.
Rollins opened the seminar with Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman, one of the key foundation texts of the radical theology movement. There is an important detail in the opening, quoted above. The people the madman addresses are not the devout ones, who we would expect to be deeply shocked by his views. Rather, most of the audience do not believe in God, they are the urban sophisticates, the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of their day. We can hear their rather embarrassed laughter at this fool banging on about a God who has surely for all practical purposes been left behind. The madman, and Nietzsche, are not addressing themselves to believers but to unbelievers.
Why is this? Why does this proclamation of the Death of God matter to a world in which, as Nietzsche so clearly foresaw, God is becoming less and less relevant? This made more sense to me in the light of a distinction Rollins makes – the madman has experienced a loss of connection with meaning and knows how painful this, whereas his critics, even though they disavow belief in God, still cling on to an assumption that there is a cosmic order of some sort. Their God has simply changed name, whereas the madman’s God is dead. Put another way the death of God is not an intellectual experience but an existential one.
What does this mean? It means that belief in a supernatural Deity is intellectually untenable for many, perhaps most, modern Westerners. But often, the Deity is replaced by some other way of thinking about cosmic order. I have previously commented on the number of people who seem to think that “Things happen for a reason”. Others might think of human reason, or the scientific principle, or the progress of civilization, making money, or even having fun as giving order and meaning to life. What has happened in this situation is that one Deity has been swapped for another – possibly for a less harmful Deity, but another Deity nonetheless. In Keep The Aspidistra Flying, written in 1936, George Orwell satirised the “money-god” almost universally worshipped in his society. It is hard to argue too much in that respect has changed since.
So this is where Christianity has something to say to us. At the very centre of the Christian religion we have a person, who in some way is himself God, hanging on a cross being tortured and crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15, 34 & Matthew 27, 46). The essence of Christianity is separation from God, and from all source of meaning. And this is not just something we can accept as a proposition. It is something we experience, maybe when we go through painful loss or bereavement, disability, redundancy, or something we have worked hard for being destroyed or taken away. As we rage, we can know that God, and any idea of transcendent meaning, is truly dead.
At such times it is tempting to rationalise these things, to think that we are being made a better person or being tested by them. Such explanations are occasionally examined in the Bible but are ultimately rejected. Accept there is no meaning, no transcendence and no guarantees, grieve for them however you must. But the story doesn’t quite end there. The resurrection accounts are confused but, after the death of God, it is very clear what represents him in the world – “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4, 7-8) or, as Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically,
“And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.”
God is dead and we only have each other now to depend on. If we experience the death of God, of transcendent meaning, then we can understand that all we have left is to love each other as best we can. And that, my friends, is the good news.
“When someone wants to tell me the absolute truth it is because he wants to put me under his control, under his command.” Gianni Vattimo After the Death of God
“Oh, truth—I guess truth is what you believe in
And faith—I think faith is having a reason” lyrics to “Stand by You”, by Rachel Platten
The parallels may not seem obvious. On the one hand we have an eminent Italian philosopher in his eighties, a Marxist and a Catholic who proclaims the death of God. On the other hand, we have an American singer-songwriter in her thirties, who happens to be Jewish and best known for upbeat rock anthems with a bit of personal bite. But what I find so intriguing are the similarities in the messages they proclaim.
Vattimo draws a contrast between Dostoevsky, who said that if forced to choose between Christ and truth he would choose Christ, and Aristotle, who said that Plato was his friend but truth a greater friend. Tyrants, he points out, have always been on the side of Aristotle, willing to trample over all relationships and human wellbeing in the interests of what they see as the truth. This issue has become very urgent in our current “post-truth” era, where it is more obvious than ever that different groups within society have very different, competing versions of the truth. As someone who works in education, and believes in its power to change lives, I like to emphasise the value of evidence and logic to arrive at some form of truth. This approach is extremely valuable and has led to extraordinary advances in science and human wellbeing. But, painful though it is for me to admit it, it has its limitations. Evidence rarely leads directly to conclusions – it usually requires interpretation. It also requires some form of consensus about what constitutes valid evidence. Within quite narrow confines where these things are established, such as empirical science, academic debate or courts of law, this works quite well. But in wider public debates it carries problems.
In 2016 those problems became painfully apparent, especially with the British vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US president, both strongly against conventional wisdom and the views of nearly all those in both countries who considered themselves to be opinion-formers. One way of interpreting both movements is a rebellion by those who considered that the truth as they saw it had been suppressed and ignored for a long time. Both votes were characterised by a debate that did not take place at a level of evidence and rational argument but howling slogans at each other and a frightening level of personal abuse. To use my earlier language, there is no consensus on what constitutes valid evidence, so arriving at an agreed truth is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Indeed, to use Vattimo’s insight, the really scary thing about the “post-truth” era is not so much lying and misinformation – we have always had those – but the denial of the validity of alternative viewpoints. When the Daily Mail proclaimed three High Court judges as “Enemies of the People” they were claiming a unique insight into the interests of “the people” and implying that anyone resisting this interpretation of “the people”‘s views needed to be silenced or removed. The Nazi echos of this headline were commented on at the time.
So this is what brings me to consider the argument put forward by Vattimo and Platten. The ability of truth to guide us may have been weakened, so what can we use? At this point I would like to join Shakespeare to my argument, and quote what for me is the most powerful and harrowing scene ever put on the stage. At the close of King Lear, the mad, homeless, broken king is restored to the daughter whom he rejected and sent away.
Lear: Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Cordelia: And so I am, I am.
Lear: Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
Cordelia is of course dead wrong – she has every cause not to love her stupid, headstrong, pompous and selfish father. But she does not at this point value truth. Instead, in a Christlike gesture, she forgives him. This actually is a repeated theme in Shakespeare – Portia eloquently advocates for mercy and Prospero ends up forgiving those who tried to kill him and his daughter. Conversely, failure to forgive leads to dire consequences – consider the pointless body counts in Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth.
The message is pretty clear and is echoed in the chorus of “Stand by You”, which takes on heavy echoes of gospel music:
“Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you”
I find this a beautiful poetic summary of what I am trying to say here. I certainly don’t think we will ever “find heaven”, or for that matter, absolute truth, in this life or the next – all we have is this world and the people in it. But what we can do is “walk through Hell” with each other, showing support, solidarity and yes, love. Rather than focusing on power and trying to prove ourselves “right”, or impose our views on others, maybe we can make more effort to “stand by” each other. Without compromising our views, maybe we could use a bit more kindness and forgiveness in our public debates. Because after all, what is the alternative?
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” Matthew 7, 13-14
“There is nothing that so thoroughly erodes action and distorts life than expecting to be saved and rewarded by a Superbeing, nothing more at odds with the kingdom of God than this cynical economy of rewards and punishment which demeans life into a means to an end, that turns life into a coupon redeemable for an eternal redemption, for an eternal reward, and the love of God into credit in a celestial bank.” John Caputo, “It Spooks”
Back in the 90s, when I was an active evangelical, I went with a group of friends to see a play called “Who Killed Hilda Murrell?” If you are old enough you may remember Hilda Murrell, a horticulturalist and environmental campaigner (and like me, a resident of Shrewsbury) who was kidnapped and mysteriously killed in 1984. The circumstances of her death have given rise to conspiracy theories and the play suggested that she may have been killed by the secret service, or others acting on their instructions. Discussing the play afterwards, a friend, who was also a Bible study group leader said he had been wondering how far Christians should really get involved in causes like this. Coming from the background I do, I was a little shocked by this and suggested that surely Christians should be concerned about the potential for environmental disasters. “It’s ok,” he said, “God would stop anything like that happening if He wanted to.”
This view was being expressed particularly starkly, but the gist of it is not uncommon among conservative Christians. I thought of this recently in relation to the above quotation from Matthew. Many orthodox Christian writers over the centuries have used this metaphor for the Christian life – hard road and narrow gate. But does it make sense?
For what is really so hard about the orthodox Christian picture? You believe what you need to believe, you endure this life one way or another and then you get to spend eternity in heaven. In practice, this life and this world do not matter very much as they are only a testing ground for the next ones. So we do not really need to worry about anything or concern ourselves with issues of social justice, the environment, crime and so forth. All that matters is that we take God’s escape route and ideally bring a few people with us. There is only one question that matters and you have the correct answer. As Brian Maclaren put it, this is “elevator religion” that gets you out of the world and into paradise.
What is so difficult about that? This “cynical economy of rewards and punishments” is surely the wide gate and the easy road.
But what if we do not find the idea of the Superbeing or the afterlife convincing? What if we think that this is our one life and our one world? In that case things become a whole lot tougher. In that case, how we spend our life is of ultimate importance because it is the only one we will get. In that case, the world’s issues press in on us because this is our only planet and its inhabitants do not have another world to make up for this one.
Above all, this perspective is death to complacency. We cannot relax in the confidence that someone else will step in and fix everything. If we destroy the planet it is destroyed. There are no guarantees of success and we must take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.
This is truly the narrow gate and the hard road. There will always be an audience for the message that someone else is taking responsibility for your life and your world but that path leads to complacency, injustice and damage – in a very real, physical sense it leads to destruction. But there is another road available – we take responsibility for ourselves and our planet. That road does not carry any guarantees but can lead to life, a life lived to its full, and might, just might, lead to a better world too.