When Nietzsche announces the death of God – through the persona of Zarathustra and the madman in the marketplace – his statement is not a theological one but a cultural one. Philosophy maintains a logic or set of parameters for understanding ramifications for culture, though this process is as much that of the historian or anthropologist.
Nietzsche himself was professing neither atheism nor nihilism. On the contrary, he observes that Western morality has been historically – and precariously – based on traditional Christianity. Over centuries, Western society weakened its belief system, eventually scoffing at its own foundation.This was not simply a secularism. The West increasingly depended on an ethics founded on a system no longer efficacious. The process may have been a historical exhaustion, while rationalism, science, and technology, hastened the defaulting of religious belief to a public morality. What rationalists and atheists did not pursue was to understand and anticipate the effects of the demise of this singular structure on the ethics of society at large. To them, the topic was an abstract matter of proof versus refutation, of belief versus non-belief, without a cultural context. What happens when society at large comes to realize the basis of its ethics?
Nietzsche argues that God maintains an inner logic, an inner life, so to speak. The biblical or scriptural presentation of God maintains this inner logic so long as the society reflected the sociological structures wherein the entire cultural structure supported itself. The scandals of medieval popes or wars of religion in the Reform centuries had no effect. When the structures of society began to change dramatically, economic, material, environmental, the foundation became to change. Kierkegaard may have been the first insightful philosopher and Christian on the topic of God.
Kierkegaard observes the difficulty of belief or faith in God. The doubt would not have arisen in an earlier era, and this paradox furthers Kierkegaard’s distress. He observes the inevitability of faith as subjective, that a believer becomes a blind “knight of faith,” that no institutional presence or church could compel or persuade in the modern era. Further, Kierkegaard reacts in horror to realize the implications of two famous biblical stories. God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, a potential murder. Kierkegaard wonders how Christians can continue to celebrate the figure of Abraham, realizing the existential despair that Abraham suffered at the whim of God, and the decision to resist God against ethics. Then, too, God hatches a bet with the Devil to torment Job and test his fidelity. Kierkegaard thus observes that God and ethics are not necessarily compatible within the Christian tradition. Kierkegaard does not reject the existence of God but Nietzsche logically follows up the social implications.
The madman in the marketplace is a vivid story. Here is Nietzsche’s own text, from his Joyful Science:
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. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned 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? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”