Archives For Religion

How Nietzsche Killed God

Mark Beuving —  August 22, 2012 — 3 Comments

On a bright nineteenth-century morning, a madman lit a lantern and rushed into a crowded marketplace in a German town. “I seek God!” he exclaimed. No self-respecting townsperson in the post-Enlightenment world believed in God, so the madman’s cry was met only with laughter.

“I’ll tell you where God is,” returned the madman. “God is dead! God remains dead. And we have killed him.” At this, the townsfolk grew silent. The madman went on to explain the ramifications of this murderous act, but still no response from the crowd. Throwing his lantern to the ground, the madman cried out, “I have come too soon! The deed has been done, but news of it has not yet spread this far.” From there, the madman went into church after church, singing a funeral dirge to God and declaring the churches to be nothing more than tombs to the divine.

Friedrich Nietzsche told this parable of the madman (loosely paraphrased above, you can read the whole text of this short parable here—I’d definitely recommend reading it). The story is provocative, to say the least. What exactly did Nietzsche mean when he said that God is dead? How is this possible?

Nietzsche’s parable is brilliant. His observation is incredibly astute, even if you don’t like what it’s saying. Before Nietzsche came on the scene, humanity had indeed killed God. Or the notion of God. With the Renaissance, gifted individuals recovered something of the ancient Greek way of thinking, which set aside myth, superstition, and revelation and focused on what a person could learn for himself. Beginning with myself alone, how can I use my brain and my senses to decide what is true and what is false?

This return to autonomous human reason picked up in the Renaissance, came to a head in the Enlightenment, and then continued to grow bolder and more absolute. By the time Nietzsche came on the scene, people no longer needed God. Science was explaining away the mysteries of the world, and Darwin had finally developed an alternative explanation for the origins of the world.

And so Nietzsche entered the proverbial marketplace declaring the death of God. God had been killed, yet people didn’t seem to be aware of the implications of their unadulterated faith in scientific naturalism.

But Nietzsche’s parable isn’t as hostile toward religion in general as it might appear. Nietzsche had a huge problem with Christianity as an institution, but he kind of admired Jesus (sound familiar?). Nietzsche wasn’t trying to get people to stop believing. To the contrary, he recognized that some sort of spirituality was necessary to find meaning in life.

In The Madman, Nietzsche rightly emphasizes the significance of losing faith. The people in the marketplace did not believe in God, but to a large extent their lives would have been shaped by a memory of this belief. Nietzsche warns us that if God is dead—really truly dead, entirely discounted—then everything will change.

What Nietzsche is saying in The Madman is not that God is dead so let’s throw a party, he is saying that God is dead and he must be replaced with something. In the post-Enlightenment world, faith in God had been replaced with faith in science. But Nietzsche, himself an atheist, insists that a person cannot live a faith-free life. God is dead, so what must we do to find meaning for our lives in his absence?

“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?”

Here is why I bring all of this up. Even a bitter atheist like Nietzsche knows that life is meaningful. He understands that life cannot be lived apart from some sort of spiritual pursuit. What “festivals of atonement” or “sacred games” must we develop in order to replace our old, dead religions? Even an atheist fills her life with liturgy. If we deny the existence of a transcendent God, we are the only possible replacements. Prepare yourself, you’ve got some huge shoes to fill.

Nietzsche’s spiritual alternative to God was a fascination with the world around us. We will find meaning for our lives precisely by rejecting false notions about God and jumping into the world around us. For Nietzsche, vitality itself was the meaning of life.

What I find fascinating is that this is exactly the approach that the Preacher tried in Ecclesiastes. He, too, supposed that meaning could be found by throwing himself into life. But what the Preacher found is that all of life is meaningless apart from God, yet overwhelmingly meaningful with God.

This world is a certain type of place, and regardless of what we choose to believe, the world itself does not change with our convictions. As Francis Schaeffer would say, people can choose to believe what they want, but they still have to live in the world that God made. It’s a meaningful world, a world that is badly broken yet still overflowing with glory, and a world in which God is anything but dead.


What Science Can’t Do

Mark Beuving —  January 23, 2012 — 6 Comments

Science is all-powerful. There is nothing it can’t explore, nothing it can’t explain, no problem that it can’t solve. At least, this is what the Western world has believed since the Scientific Revolution. But is it true?

Though science and religion are constantly billed as opponents, they actually can, should, and often do work hand in hand. In fact, modern science began as Christians (along with non-Christians working within the consensus of the Christian worldview) began to explore the world that God had made, believing that since the Creator was rational and orderly, the universe could be explored and understood. Science can help us understand the world that God made, and thus understand more about the amazing mind of God. When each discipline is properly understood and interpreted, science and religion work together for the glory of God.

Yet science has become something of an idol in our day. Science is seen as infallible. Whatever science says goes. This is problematic because science is often used in ways that are, well, unscientific.

I want to point out three things that science can’t do and draw out some of the implications of this.

Science can’t…

  1. Tell us the purpose of anything.
  2. Give us the meaning of life.
  3. Provide us with moral standards.

Science can tell us more than we ever wanted to know about human anatomy, it can describe what makes up the heart and the brain and how these fascinating organs function, but it can not tell us the purpose of a person. To describe the purpose of something implies a knowledge of the reason it was made the way it was. Science can tell us a lot about the way a human being works, but it cannot tell us the intent behind the design of a human being. (It attempts to do this using evolutionary theory, but a nonrational force such as “natural selection” (which isn’t really a force at all), can’t have  a purpose behind anything it does).

Similarly, science can’t tell us the meaning of life. It can describe and categorize life and our experience with the world, but it cannot explain what it all means. People try to use science to tell us that the world is an accident, that life has no meaning, but these types of determinations are outside of the jurisdiction of science. These are metaphysical questions, not scientific questions.

Finally, science cannot give us morals. Morality is all about what a person should do. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Science is a discipline of description, not prescription. Thus a scientist can tell us how people behave, but he or she cannot justifiably tell another human being that one attitude or action is wrong or that another is right.

Yet people often try to use science to tell us these things. When they do this, they are using science as a smokescreen to make metaphysical statements. This is simply unfair. Science is helpful when used properly, but when it is used to make determinations that are beyond its scope, it becomes a means of control.

So let’s continue to pursue science, but let’s be cautious of “scientific” statements that go beyond the realm of science. Science can help us to understand the world we live in and to solve some of the problems we face (though we have to acknowledge that science is constantly causing new problems), but only the Maker can tell us the meaning of the world He created. Only God can tell us how we should behave. Only He can give us the purpose of our existence.

Of course, we have always known this to be true. But when enough authoritative voices tell us that we can only believe that which can be scientifically proven (a statement, by the way, which cannot be scientifically proven), we begin to doubt the obvious. And claiming to be wise, we become fools.