Chapter V – The Death of God
“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?” — Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125
God is dead. In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed this statement, now famous, concerning Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage, the persistent retreat of religious belief from the collective memory and of its continued obsolescence from the popular consciousness, leading to a gradual re-consideration from its religious moral foundation and the abandonment from its associated accepted social norms and attitudes.
The process of de-Christianization that was the mark of 18th century Enlightenment Europe found its synthesis in the relegation of the Judeo-Christian social and moral ethic to the pre-rational and pre-scientific era of humanity that was the human reality of the 19th century. In a sense, Nietzsche’s affirmation was itself predictive, if not, prophetic. It anticipated the social upheavals of the 20th century that occurred more specifically after the decade of the 1960s and revealed the fundamental mental attitude of modernity, being in truth the cause of the post-modern moral situation: the realization of human autonomy in its social, religious, political, and intellectual implications apart from divine dispensation and religious authority, and the progressive rejection of the supernatural claim on the temporal sphere of natural existence. Nietzsche’s predictions were themselves far-reaching and certainly, its intimations were difficult to foresee. Centrally, the period of the 19th century was the era of science dominated by its remarkable advances as evidenced in its discoveries and acquisitions in the chief fields of physics and chemistry, its wondrous technological inventions in engineering and its civilization altering contributions to the life of humanity apparent in its increased economic production, its material improvements and its medical achievements. It was the century of the steam engine, and of the locomotive; the century of microbiologist Louis Pasteur and of Augustinian geneticist Gregor Mendel. It was also the century of philosopher and economist Karl Marx, of the unsanitary factories and the exploitation of workers; a century, in fact, of revendications and of seditious movements. With the advent of scientific materialism, the psychic hold of religion on Western European society was continually losing its moral and its intellectual force, it was being abandoned to the vestigial pages of the uncivilized and unprogressive Judeo-Christian past and of humanity itself; while Charles Darwin’s study of the finches laid down the foundations of naturalism and decidedly undermined millennias-old account of the origin of sentient life, Karl Marx was putting into writing a thorough critique of the capitalistic economic structures, exposing with vehemence the perceived exploitation of the working proletariat, an event that directed the march of Marxism, and disseminated social and economic dissatisfaction during the period and resulted in the spread of the revolutionary sentiment across Europe.
Despite the advances of scientific materialism, the intellectual questioning of religious belief, and the social and the political changes that resulted which involved the passing away of the old social and economic order, religion retained its general social and ethical role in many European societies. Victorian England is an apt example of the remnant influence that religion retained in regulating social mores and providing a legal justification of acceptable attitudes. Victorianism particularly emphasized moral and ethical justice as the pre-requisite requirements of the edification of a higher culture; it was a social and cultural period that codified human interactions and placed value on the provision of right conduct and right social arrangements. Nonetheless, for part of the intellectual elite, a comprehensive emancipation from accepted standards of behavior was proceeding. It was the continuation of the process of the demotion of the Christian social and political order that was the inheritance from the Enlightenment period; a reversal that was progressing and leading to the complete liberation of humanity from its intolerant and its primitive religious remembrance. In France, this development was apparent in the writings of great literary minds. Whereas in “Germinal” French novelist Emile Zola critiqued the conditions of mine-workers in 19th century France, French writer Guy de Maupassant was in his seminal work “Bel-Ami” exposing the unperceived mendacity and dissimulation that paced the apparent moral and codified existence of high bourgeois culture; “Bel-Ami” was a particular intrigue that revealed the dangers of careerism in the realization of social ascension in relation to immoral behavior and romantic promiscuity.
The 19th century’s moral order was being put into question and it was presaged in the advances of scientism and the consolidation of atheism. The intellectual elite perceived farther than the popular awareness and anticipated the developments of the following century. Nietzsche’s declarations constituted a lamentation of the coming surrender of the Judeo-Christian ethical heritage, and dreaded the descent into cultural nihilism and of the relativity of life. In truth, religion was losing its inherent relevance retaining as a remembrance the memory of its essential moral and ethical foundation. The processes of the 20th century directed unquestionably towards the loss of the social and cultural existence of religion and of Christianity in particular.
In America, during the early decades of the 20th century, this was specially evident in the certain embrace of secular morality and specifically, in the gradual acceptation of artificial contraception as a means to regulate the natural cycle of the female reproductive system. In Europe, the events of the First and the Second World Wars convinced the intelligentsia of the inane characteristic of life; this appeared in the emergence of existentialism and absurdism and the admission of the loss of life devoid of meaning. From Samuel Beckett, to Albert Camus, to Jean-Paul Sartre, the trend was self-evident and led to the denial of existence in an attempt to affirm its value in the face of the rejection of Judeo-Christianity. Everywhere, the Christian religion was being deprived of its inherent substance, an evolution that came in display in the occurrences of the second part of the 20th century.
During the events of the 1960s, the Christian moral decline was demonstrated in the maturation of religious Liberalism, a growth that proceeded from the political Liberalism of the Enlightenment century, a proclamation and an elevation of the human conscience beyond and above the authority of religion, and of Christianity for that fact. In truth, it eroded the essence of the Christian religion which had hitherto been the complete and resigned obedience to the supremacy of the Magisterium, a crisis that came to the fore during the cultural upheavals of the period and concerning the Catholic Church, the events of the Second Vatican Council. Certainly, the Council was convoked in an effort to portray the teachings, the principles, and the beliefs of the Church in a language that was more accessible to the common person; nevertheless, this concession came at the price of the certainty of the faith, and following the Council a politicization of Catholicism came into effect that resulted in the officious but definite divide of sections of the Church into liberal and conservative factions along the lines of the preferences of the person’s individual conscience and inclination. While in the Western countries, the sexual revolution revisited and rejected the objectivity of the Christian moral system and increasingly embraced the subjectivity of ethical life, the relativity of cultural beliefs and the autonomy of human behavior, the developed countries in Latin America and Africa witnessed the embracement of political Marxism and the continued perception of the Latin Church and of Christianity in general, as a mere social force bent on improving economic conditions and addressing inequality; it is from these circumstances that the contemporary Christian Church and ecclesial communities have borne the conviction that the primary task of religion is to combat poverty, advocate for the end of war and uphold peace, and decry unjust social structures; irrespective of special efforts of evangelization and the concomitant relegation of the primacy of moral rectitude and orthodoxy as issues of non importance.
In this context, Nietzsche’s prevision of the degradation of the Christian moral order was insufficient to foresee the troublesome issues facing Christianity in its progress into the 20th century. The situation was encapsulated in the probable issue that Christianity and Catholicism had lost their innate and substantive spirit, incarnated in the centrality of obedience as the chief virtue of the religious soul, which in the contemporary period was being consistently formed into a specific skepticism and self-elevation. The comprehension was a manifestation of post-modern man’s unquestioned psychological maturity, a coming of age that involved the systematic re-questioning of religious dogma and the deconstruction of belief itself; as a matter of fact, humanity had come into adulthood and was contributing to the denial of the regality of faith and truth in the investigation and the practice of Christianity.
The pivotal poles of Christianity were being moved, represented into the primary virtues: obedience and altruism. The virtue of obedience has at its foundation the essential humility and represents at the same time, an expression of love. The Johannine Gospel emphasizes this reality.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. […] Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” — John 14:15, 21
St. John transcribes the words of Christ in his final intimate discourse and teaching to his disciples before his suffered Passion; if obedience is an expression of love, altruism is love itself. The chief character of altruism is self-denial in the recognition of the person of the Christ in the human creature and the impassioned acceptance of suffering as a means to achieve individual sanctity, in order to spiritually unite to Christ in the salvific grace of his life, and the reception of Heaven as the final promise of hope. The placid resignation before the face of suffering and the extolling of sacrifice as the poetic rhythm of the Christian pattern of living is losing its veritable power in post-modernity in which relativity, social materialism and the secular mental understanding are the dominant forces pacing the culture and civilization. The examples of the saints of the 20th century such as the Italian mystic, stigmatist, priest, and miracle-worker St. Padre Pio seem in removal from the experience, the orientation and the practice of the Christian; saints, in post-modern times seldom appear as models to follow but rather as an unrealistic surviving rarity of a past age to be contemplated in passing disengagement. The current stride is animated by a different rhythm that evades religious passion and upholds the mechanistic soul, that denies the supernatural as unknowable and irrational, fabulous and folkloric voire mythic, and that embraces material and technological innovation as the reasonable attitude and the widespread determination of human progress.
Friedrich Nietzsche lauded “Thus Spake Zarathustra” as his magnum opus, containing the central theses of the death of God and of the coming superhuman, the Ubermensch, standing as the realization of humanity’s consummate will in its determination towards existence. In the account, Zarathustra is a recluse who lived in the forest for 10 years before deciding to enter the world of man, in order to communicate a wisdom acquired through a time of spiritual meditation and cultivated in asceticism. The philosophical work presents the supernatural outlook and the religious behavior of the Christian conviction as constituting a repudiation of the dignity of man and of the value of the earth, of man’s reign over the temporal sphere of reality. It is this emphasis on the secular in contraposition to the sacred, and of the natural in contradiction of the supernatural that marks the fundamental complexion of modernism and of post-modernity.
The reassertion of the rights and of the value of nature that was a part of the character of the Enlightenment age, found its synthesis in the 19th century in a metaphysical orientation: naturalism.
Naturalism was itself the offspring of the Scientific Revolution, revealed primarily in the influent writings of philosopher of nature Isaac Newton, the founder of the modern and of the classical understanding of the physical world, of the theory of its immutable laws, and of its integral forces. Newton had posited that eternal Reason, the Judeo-Christian God was responsible for the creation of the natural physical world, but yet, having completed its realization had left it to the interplay of its own forces and of its indibutable laws. The Judeo-Christian divinity was himself a divine Watchmaker who was the imperious designer of a system of interconnected parts that collaborated to necessarily form an integral and logical constitution. In reality, it was a physical application and an elegant demonstration of the theological and the philosophical argument from design, which was the patrimony of the intellectual heritage of the Middle Ages and of classical Antiquity.
The 19th century naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin can be credited to be the definitive founder of modern naturalism. Itself, naturalism was the metaphysical position that the natural physical world was itself the sole reality, and the natural laws and the natural forces were the exclusive causative agents of the creation, the evolution, and the diversity of the special and earthly eco-system. It was a position that great influenced multiple disciplines from anthropology, to geology, to medicine and the biological sciences. Darwin’s achievements to the legacy of science and to humanity in general, was an impressive rejection of the Judeo-Christian creator as the first, efficient, and final cause; it presented the repudiation of the supernatural and rang the progressive eclipse of metaphysical causality and the twilight of philosophy as a rational investigation into the realm of objective truth. In many respects, Darwinian naturalism was the response of the Kantian efforts to circumscribe the human reason to the phenomena of nature, and the restriction of the ontological noumena as epistemologically unknowable. Naturalism was in its quality, a remarkable extension of empiricism, the cornerstone of the scientific method and of its repeated concern to the life of sense-experience as the source of scientific and noumenal truth. The rational mind became enclosed and limited to the phenomenal sensation, of the five contacts and frames, that provided the windows of contact to the physical world: vision, touch, olfaction, hearing, and taste. The end results, were the celebration of materialism and reductionism, defining physical matter as the atomic constituent of reality. In many respects, naturalism was not truthfully a contradiction of spirituality as portrayed in the Asian religious genius whether in Buddhism, Confucianism, or Hinduism that admitted to the possibility of an informing spirit animating sentient being within the confines of nature. Nevertheless, in the case of Western civilization, naturalism was conditioned due to its emergence from and its association with empirical epistemology as the guarantor and the certainty towards the accession of knowledge.
Consequently, the supernatural became in the rationally concerned and the habitual person, as the realm of the unknowable, a dimension understood to be established as pre-rational, voire, irrational, emotive and regressive. Naturalism was a confirmation of the Scientific Revolution, of the Enlightenment and of the Industrial Revolution birthing an artificial pattern of life disconnected from nature and characterized by the uniform depletion of natural resources and of the mass exploitation of the human person, now determined to be – as foreseen by Karl Max – as a material and economic entity in the ordering of a capitalistic society. Man had finally achieved autonomy from the divine Legislator, affirmed his liberty in the material universe and still, was accepting the solitude, the amorality amid the struggle of nature, as the essential constituent of the real.
In the sphere of politics and of society, secularism echoed the triumph of methodological and philosophical naturalism. The political French Revolution of 1789, had spread in Europe the victory of the secular, of the age, with the citizen no longer convinced that religious organization could offer the bond of the civic state. In Catholic France, secularism had won a revolutionary battle exhibited in the nationalization of the Church, the intolerance of dissent, the cult of the State and the worship of the deistic Supreme Being, the divine Reason. Progressively, religion was being erased from public display, now impounded to the private sphere of personal activity and the expression of a passive emotivity. The death of God as forecast by the German philosopher became visible in the era of the 20th century. The multiple episodes in North America over the placing of the Ten Commandments on sacred secular ground, the re-consolidation of religious education, the controversy over the teaching of evolution in the classrooms as opposed to creationism, and the revival of social and cultural moral ethic concerning the issues of artificial contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, were indeed, a symptom of the profound malaise that was resultant of the continued erasure of the notion of God from the secular, developed, industrialized, and scientific positions that were the mental furniture of post-modernity. To state that God was dead was to affirm that man was now solitary, a novel creator of moral values and on path to auto-determination.
The Council Vatican II was a creative response to the post-modern crisis, an implicit acknowledgment of the undeniable fact that the Catholic Church and Christianity, were now in an explicit divorce from the life of the everyday fellow. The contemporary world had unconsciously inborne a reflexive aversion to Christianity due to the centuries-old reactionary struggle between the Catholic Church and secularity since the advent of modernity. In an attempt at reconciliation, Pope John XXIII had willingly convened the Second Vatican Council in order to operate a renewal of the language of the Roman Church, an effort to obtain a new relevance of the faith in the regular human being. Revolutionary changes were in order such as the millennial transformation from the Latin mass to the Ordinary mass, the replacement of Latin, the official language of the Church, to the adoption of the vernacular, and the open recognition of the goodness and of the value of human cultures in their global multiplicity and international diversity. The world, which formerly had been viewed by the fervent Catholic as in opposition to the Roman Church, and to Christianity itself, was now good. This involved the renunciation of the theological dichotomy of the unequivocal incompatibility between the spirit of the Church and of the world’s informing spirit, of the secular and of the sacred, of the new Jerusalem — the representative of the luminous religious forces of the Christian Church –, and of Babylon — the symbol of the tragic and the tenebrous world in need of redemption and of salvation. The irrevocable conflict between the Church and the secularity was nearing its end; in effect, it was dead.