God is Dead

The short, famous, phrase of Friedrich Nietzsche, "God is dead," is an aphorism and not a statement of belief. Nietzsche did not originate the phrase, but he used it most notably in a parable about a madman. Using the form of a parable uniquely sets the phrase in poignant and poetic expression. If Nietzsche was only saying, God does not exist, that would be different. Most critically minded people today would agree that whatever we mean by God, we don’t mean an existing thing. But Nietzsche was not making such a simple claim.

In using the aphorism "God is dead," Nietzsche meant something quite different from "God does not exist." He meant that a system of historic and cultural meaning has collapsed. As he put it in his parable, he meant that a whole system of common, social orientation has been torn asunder.  “Is there still any up or down?” asks the madman. And “are we not straying as through an infinite nothingness?” These are not questions about whether object A or B exists. These are existential questions. They are questions about meaning.

One of the great misunderstandings facing theology today is the misunderstanding that theology is about truth-claims. As such, theology is often made to compete with science over the authority to say what is true. Theological questions are reduced to believing that God exists and then to believing doctrines that tell us what to believe about God. In our language about belief, God occupies the role of business executive whose company has a great product. Entertainment is the attraction. Loyalty is important. Testimonials are essential. Success is the mantra. Theology as the quiet and thoughtful subject that questions the meaning of life gets lost in the hustle and bustle about God.

God is dead is an aphorism that helps put a stop to the noise about God. The statement is not made to ask our agreement or disagreement. It is made to make us ask what it means. What does it mean to say God is dead? What has died?

The philosophical way of putting the aphorism is to say that metaphysics has died, but this is often of little help because we have to ask what is metaphysics? I would rather return to metaphors and parables. God is dead means that the curtain has fallen down behind the stage and has exposed the artificial setting of the actors. It means that our lives are not actually set to a script, that the world is not necessarily one way rather than another, and that we really are responsible for the things we say, the lines we write, and the votes we cast. The God who gave meaning to everything and who told us the way things should be is dead. Human beings have reached the age when we have to take responsibility for the way we create the world. Nietzsche used a parable to raise this remarkable question about the meaning of being human, and he used a madman to ask which way humanity can imagine going now.

What is regretful is that many people involved in a religion are too afraid of Nietzsche, or of what Nietzsche raised in his parable, because it seems either impossible or terrifying to imagine life without God in charge. Theologically speaking, though, this is the wrong way to think about God. In theology proper, God is not an agent. God is a question. God is the question about the meaning of life. And the answer to such a question is not in the stars, as Shakespeare said. The answer lies in human creativity, solidarity, and the will to enact justice. The answer, as Lloyd Geering likes to say, is in what humankind is willing to find “worthy,” and he points out that worthy is the root of the word worship.

Jesus told parables. This means that Jesus was not a literalist. We do not know a lot about Jesus but we know at least that much. Parables are not meant to be taken literally. This also means that Jesus relied a lot on his imagination. His idea of God, in whatever way he may have held it, is not specific. God is a glimpse of things differently arranged, as Bob Funk would have said, and Jesus offers fragmentary pictures given in parables. In parables, God is not a powerful agent who can change the world but the glimpse of a changed world that everyday characters, like you and me, can bring about. It is interesting that Jesus and Nietzsche meet in parable, suggesting that perhaps we need to reclaim God as a meaning question and let God die as a belief statement.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical-jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical-jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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