I’m a philosophy guy. I recieved my bachelor’s in philosophy, I got over half way through a master’s degree, I even allude to my philosophical tendencies in this blog title.
My philosophizing predates my following of Christ. I am much less of a philosopher than I once was. Occasionally, though, I try to do philosophy in the name and cause of Jesus. I’ve been pondering a statement lately.
The statement is “God is dead”
Ordinarily, people view this as an atheistic battle cry. But the statement is much more nuanced than that. There’s actually numerous ways people can use the term. I thought I’d explore some of these.
The statement is associated with Frederick Nietzsche. If he did not originate the phrase Nietzsche certainly is the one who popularized it. And Nietzsche’s own complex relationship with Christ and Christianity is something of a mirror of the phrase “God is dead.”
Nietzsche is a wierd philosopher. He’s frustrating and fascinating and incredibly inconsistent. As his philosophical career drew to a close, he became increasingly difficult to comprehend. There’s a goodly ammount of research, theorizing, and hypothesizing around the condition of his mental health toward the end of his life.
Therefore, anybody who says “Nietzsche believed X” is either over simplifying, way smarter than me, or simply wrong. He’s just not the sort of guy who lends himself to blanket statements about him.
Nonetheless, an incredibly brief but relatively accurate statement about Nietzsche is that he hated Christianity and Christians with a fierce passion… but he was fascinated by the person of Jesus.
This is all a bit of a digression, though. Back to his famous words: “God is dead.”
On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much wiggle room. It seems to be saying: God used to be around. Now he’s not.
One of the things that can be meant by the statement “God is dead” is that in one sense, he used to be around. God was alive in so much as people’s actions were altered by their belief in God. But then something happened. A cultural shift. A scientific discovery. We realized that there was no God after all. In this sense, he died.
A slight modification of this meaning is the idea that God is rendered irrelevant to our every day lives. His centrality, soverienity, etc., has been reduced. This modification comes in two flavors.
Somebody might say “God is dead” and mean it’s a good thing that we’ve realized that he simply isn’t important.
Or somebody might lament “God is dead” and she might mean that we have forgotten God. This person might think that belief in God was a delusion that actually made us better people; or they might believe that our de-emphasis on God is a bad idea; we kill God in so far as we don’t do what we should be doing, we don’t act in the way we should be acting.
I’m not in agreement with any of these, really. But I do think that there is something very valuable about the phrase “God is dead.” It’s stated provactively, violently even.
The bottom line about the usefulness of the phrase is this:
If it can stay dead, it was never God at all.
We have this idea in our heads. This idea is what we think about God. If this idea is somehow compatible with the idea of being dead, then the idea is simply not very close to the reality of God.
God is unkillable, undie-able. Somebody might point out that the cross flies in the face of these claims. I think this would be a fascinating and huge issue. For now, I’ll side step that issue by putting it this way:
Really, the idea seems to be that God is still dead. The idea is that God stays dead. Saying “God is Dead” is just a short, pithy idea. But it loses most of it’s punch if we accept the idea that death was a temporary thing for God.
No matter how you look at it, I think the value of the phrase “God is dead” works like this:
If you harbor an idea in your head, and if you think that this idea is God, you should try to imagine this entity dead. If this idea makes sense, if you can envision your idea dead, then your engaged in idolatry. Your image is not of God at all.
So here is the rather strange challenge all this implies:
Summon up everything you think you know about God. Picture Him.
Could he die? Could he die and stay dead?
If he could, then it’s probably time to start over, re-discover God. Because He’s bigger than death.