What is the legacy of two thousand years of Christianity? What are the specific qualities that the Christian tradition has instilled and cultivated in the minds of men? They appear to be twofold, and dangerously allied: on the one hand, a more refined sense of truth than any other human civilization has known, an almost uncontrollable drive for absolute spiritual and intellectual certainties. We are speaking of a theology that through St. Thomas Aquinas assimilated into its grand system the genius of Aristotle and whose Inquisitors in the Church bequeathed to modern science its arsenal of weapons for the interrogation of truth. The will to truth in the Christian tradition is overwhelming. On the other hand, we have also inherited the ever-present suspicion that life on this earth is not in itself a supreme value, but is in need of a higher, a transcendental redemption and justification. We feel that there is something wrong with us, or that the world itself needs salvation. Alas, this unholy alliance is bound finally to corrode the very beliefs on which it rests. For the Christian mind, exercised and guided in its search for knowledge by one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive theologies the world has ever seen, has, at the same time, been fashioned and directed by the indelible Christian distrust of the ways of the world. Such a mind will eventually, in a frenzy of intellectual honesty, unmask as humbug what it began by regarding as its highest values. The boundless faith in truth, a joint legacy of Christ and Greek, will in the end dislodge every possible belief in the truth of any faith. For the Christian, belief in God becomes—unbelievable. Ergo Nietzsche:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in broad daylight, ran to the marketplace 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? I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers… God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
His listeners fell 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… This deed is still more distant from men than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”
God, as Nietzsche puts it, is dead; and you and I, with the relentless little knives of our own intellect—psychology, history, and science—we have killed him. God is dead. Note well the paradox contained in those words. Nietzsche never says that there was no God, but that the Eternal has been vanquished by time, the Immortal has suffered death at the hands of mortals. God is dead. It is a cry mingled of despair and triumph, reducing, by comparison, the whose story of atheism and agnosticism before and after to the level of respectable mediocrity and making it sound like a collection of announcements by bankers who regret that they are unable to invest in an unsafe proposition.
Nietzsche brings to its perverse conclusion a line of religious thought and experience linked to the names of St. Paul, St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, minds for whom God was not simply the creator of an order of nature within which man has his clearly defined place, but to whom He came in order to challenge their natural being, making demands which appeared absurd in the light of natural reason.
Nietzsche is the madman, breaking with his sinister news into the marketplace complacency of the pharisees of unbelief. We moderns have done away with God, and yet the report of our deed has not reached us. We know not what we have done, but He who could forgive us is no more. No wonder Nietzsche considers the death of God the greatest event in modern history and the cause of extreme danger. “The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries,” he writes. “Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist.” Men will become enemies, and each his own enemy. From now on, with their sense of faith raging within, frustrated and impotent, men will hate, however many comforts they lavish upon themselves; and they will hate themselves with a new hatred, unconsciously at work in the depths of their souls. True, there will be ever-better reformers of society, ever-better socialists and artists, ever-better hospitals, an ever-increasing intolerance of pain and poverty and suffering and death, and an ever more fanatical craving for the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers. Yet the deepest impulse informing their striving will not be love, and it will not be compassion. Its true source will be the panic-stricken determination not to have to ask the questions that arise in the shadow of God’s death: “What now is the meaning of life? Is there nothing more to our existence than mere passage?” For these are the questions that remind us most painfully that we have done away with the only answers we had.
The time, Nietzsche predicts, is fast approaching when secular crusaders, tools of man’s collective suicide, will devastate the world with their rival claims to compensate for the lost kingdom of Heaven by setting up on earth the ideological economies of democracy and justice, economies which, by the very force of the spiritual derangement involved, will lead to the values of cruelty, exploitation, and slavery. “There will be wars such as have never been waged on Earth. I foresee something terrible, chaos everywhere. Nothing left which is of any value, nothing which commands, ‘Though shalt!’” Ecce homo; behold the man, homo modernus, homo nihilismus. Nihilism—the state of human beings and societies faced with a total eclipse of all values—thrives in the shadow of God’s death. We have vanquished God, but we have yet to vanquish the nihilism that has risen up within us to take God’s place. There is a profound nihilism at work in this world. How are we to deal with this, the legacy of our greatest deed? There is no going back; there can be no going back. We are perched atop a juggernaut; the reins of that sad cart have been passed to us by the four Horseman of modernity—Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Darwin. Do we heave back on them now? I think not—we must drive them ever faster, until the juggernaut topples and we nimbles, we free spirits, have the opportunity to leap forward and beyond our time. Play more soccer.