An Essay Concerning Theistic Understanding: Reflections on Nietzsche’s Death of God by Matthew Fisher

I take Nietzsche’s observation regarding the death of God in The Gay Science (1882) to be pragmatic in character: for all intents and purposes, God is no longer a necessary postulate needed to account for the reality in which we live. With the deconstruction of the infallible nature of Scripture by the application of the historical critical method and recognition of the deterministic nature of the physical world system through scientific analysis, the attempt to base knowledge on God’s edict is rendered impossible.

Put simply, with the advance of human knowledge and social progress by Nietzsche’s time, God has become obsolete. I am a theist, I am a Christian, and I agree with Nietzsche. I do not wish here to provide an analysis and critique of Nietzsche’s observation, but to instead embrace Nietzche’s point and consider how theism can survive in the wake of this “death of God.”
In our current age of scientific progress, it is much more difficult to be a theist than an atheist. It appears that all things in the world are not only physically caused, leaving no room for divine intervention and providence, but also that the mechanisms of causality are further reducible to lower states of physical relation. Thus, the traditional theistic model of God’s relationship with the world appears untenable in our current age. Truths of faith, however, must not be jettisoned because they represent a fundamental understanding of reality based on experiential intuition. What is needed for theism, then, is a shift in understanding how theology is to go about doing its business of discerning and reflecting on God’s relationship with the natural system and the role of human nature therein.

Just as infants and young children have their whole world defined by their parents, religious epistemology is a mode of knowledge entirely defined by relation to God: our ancestors created systems of social order relative to their place in space and time based on an intuitional experience of a world that finds its source for existence in God. The significant knowledge gleaned from this intuitive experience, often pertaining to rules for social conduct and worship, was written down as sacred because such intuitional truths were considered to be fundamentally descriptive of a reality established by God. This epistemological mode continued throughout western history and we can see the zenith of religious epistemology at the eve of the Reformation, when the Holy See controlled not only the economy, culture, and political influence of Europe, but its font of knowledge as well.

With the dawn of the Reformation human thought began to free itself from the confines of dogmatic deduction for it was recognized that the content of human knowledge was not restricted to the authority of the Catholic Church. This epistemic shift laid the groundwork for knowledge based not on deduction from pre-established metaphysical principles, but based instead on induction from sense experience.

With the rise of the scientific method in the sixteenth century, humanity had discovered the most important epistemological tool since the birth of language. What’s more significant is that this method, based on observation, hypothesis, and experiment is not only self-authenticating, but it is also democratic because its conclusions can be verified by any person in any culture across the stars. Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Huygens, and Newton: these are the fathers of science’s “Patristic era,” and through their efforts a world was discovered that was self-developing according to the causal structures of physical mechanism. Questions regarding how God fit into this deterministic scheme rightly arose. For example, when pressed by Napoleon as to how God fit into his deterministic view of nature, Pierre-Simon LaPlace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis” (1). Thus with our scientific understanding God need no longer be employed to account for the efficient causes taking place in the world. Nietzsche’s age, and our current age as well, is the direct descendent of this paradigm shift in human epistemology. As such, we have come to realize that we do not need this thing called “God” to account for the reality in which we live. Epistemically speaking, therefore, we have become fully independent from God.

But notice something that is contained in this quote by LaPlace. When he says of God “I have no need of that hypothesis,” the true nature of the scientific pursuit is revealed: it is a method, not a metaphysic.

Far from establishing grounds for moral behavior and providing doctrine on how to live life, the scientific method is intrinsically descriptive in character. The scientific method analyses, forms hypotheses, and tests these hypotheses in order to form theories that are descriptive of the physical universe in which we live. More importantly, the method rejects a teleology of final causes in nature and so remains forever silent on purpose.

If anything, science tells us there is no such thing as purpose in nature for all is merely physical relation. Scientific analysis may tell us how our morals arose from natural selection and neurological representation, but the method cannot identify an objective morality independent of the physicality of the human subject (2). But the whole point of a religious epistemology is to grasp at a fundamental truth present through the basic intuition of experience and know it to be descriptive of reality regardless of human subjectivity. For example, in Genesis 1:31 we know that before humanity came along, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (RSV).

Thus creation is intrinsically sacred in the theistic world-view apart from human identity. Who today, with the threat of global ecological collapse, would disagree with this intuition? I draw on this not to evangelize but to merely highlight an example were a truth of faith is descriptive of reality prior to scientific analysis. Sure, we should apply science to how this understanding arose, and determine how it functions in human identity and social structures, etc., but the fundamental reality of the sanctity of the world is intuitively present in subjective experience before testing of the hypothesis takes place.

There is, therefore, an intrinsic Truth to reality that science and theology are trying to determine, the former pertaining to the domain of physical truth, the latter pertaining to ontological truth (3). The question then becomes whether or not it is possible for these two domains to intersect and if physical truth can be descriptive of ontological truth. For the theist, the former is contained in the latter and so I hold that theological truths cannot contradict physical truths for theology and science are distinct epistemological modes for investigating the common foundation of reality. But likewise, physical truth necessarily reflects a degree of ontological truth for physical truth is born out of the same foundation—being itself.

Just as the scientific world-view holds that the universe is intelligible through studying its physical relation, so to does theism hold that God is intelligible through the analogy of being. From the subjective experience of what it is like to be, the never-ending journey of discerning Truth in reality begins, and this journey carries with it all sorts of baggage pertaining to physical existence. If religion served the epistemological function in humanity’s childhood, then the rejection of God in favor of a socio-scientific epistemology can be seen as indicative of humanity’s teenage years, where the authority of one’s parents are rejected in favor of one’s own identity as determined by one’s environment. Like teenagers, we have become bitter and angry at our God for throwing us into this world of suffering and abuse. We see how God has been understood throughout human history and how such understandings have led to the antitheses of the truths they claim to hold.

By Nietzsche’s time we had no choice but to reject God, the common theory responsible for these absurdities. But notice, we may have the light of induction leading us through the tunnels of existence, but we are left with insurmountable questions pertaining to purpose and meaning that the scientific method is not set up to answer. We forever wander the labyrinth that is the search for purpose and meaning in a life where only death is certain. So, are we to reject the methodology of science in terms of learning about how morality and social systems are constructed? Absolutely not! The theist can no longer afford to avoid or reject the conclusions reached by the sciences and their application to society, morals, and human communities. More importantly, the methodology must be embraced by theology as revelatory of the Truth present in reality alongside the revelations of Scripture, tradition, and living faith.

Thus we are today on the eve of a new paradigm shift. Turning back to the (admittedly idealized and overly simplified) metaphor of human development, Nietzsche’s observation marks the high point of the teenage life: the fundamental rejection of our parents as necessary for our lives. Where we were once children, clinging to the imperatives of religious doctrine, we have thrown religion aside in our effort to define ourselves for ourselves in our own reality apart from any relation to God. Considering the moral atrocities of our previous century we are, pragmatically speaking, no better off with God dead than with God living. The only difference is that I can no longer base my faulty morality on a misunderstanding of Biblical interpretation. I must instead base it on psychological behavior, neurological brain states, and in the end whether or not a quantum string vibrates this way or that.

The past has come and gone, and even should the theist wish to return to the religion of humanity’s youth, we cannot. To draw on St. Paul, when we were children, we thought like children and when we were teenagers, we thought like teenagers. Now it is time for us to continue our pattern of growth as a species and recognize that we are now adults wherein the value of the subjective experience of being in the world, and the objective data of science, are mutually correlative and significant for discerning fundamental Truth in reality. The knowledge gleaned by the application of the scientific method, therefore, is not a threat to theism, but is instead a mode of human epistemology that needs—no, must—be employed alongside the modes of revelation and tradition in order to properly discern the nature of the universe, human identity and creation’s relationship to its creator. As theists we can no longer live in the childhood psyche that is ancient religion with its cultural exclusivity born out of a static paradigm of human nature.

As an atheist, one must recognize the limited scope of the scientific method and see religion, even with all its problems and failings, as a function of the intrinsic quest for meaning that lies in the heart of every human seeking to transcend the existential limitations of time and space.

As adults who have grown past the self-centeredness of our teenage years, we realize that our parents have wanted all along for us to grow up so that they could release us into the world and see us flourish as productive members of the world they brought us into. They revel in our joys, applaud our success, continue to critique our dumb mistakes, and they give us shoulders to cry on when things go wrong — but they don’t make our decisions for us. We have to make our life our own, but they ask only that we continue to love them.

So it is with God: we may not need God to account for the reality in which we live, but the relationship nevertheless remains. If the death of God has brought about the noontide in human understanding (4), today is the evening meal when we return from our studies to the table of our home, where we sit with our parents who gave us life and share with them in active communion what we have learned about ourselves, and the world in which we live.

1. Graham Upton and Ian Cook, “Laplace, Marquis Pierre-Simon.” A Dictionary of Statistics. Oxford University Press (2008), accessed 17 October 2011, http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t106.e886>

2. In The Moral Landscape (New York: Free Press, 2010 [eBook]) Sam Harris attempts to root morality in a scientific understanding of human nature based on the thesis that “meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures—and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain” (23).

Although I agree that the subjective understanding of morality arises from neurological representation as derived from natural selection, I find Harris’ effort to establish objective morality in the physicality of Homo Sapiens limited in scope for two reasons. First, by limiting the definition of what is moral to what constitutes “the well-being of conscious creatures,” Harris loses sight of the objective nature of morality, which religion is trying to articulate albeit often detrimentally, and so cuts out the non-sentient universe from partaking in the intrinsic Good that is existence. Second, if the objective nature of values is evolutionarily and neurophysiologically dependent, then it is likely that a different intelligent species would form their understanding of the well being of conscious creatures according to their neurophysiological patterns of representation pertaining to the sense data of their world.

Thus, one could account for an objective morality for humans, and an objective morality for species X, but both of these moral systems would be valid representations of values indicative of the well-being of conscious creatures, “translate[d] into facts that can be scientifically understood,” (17) as they are neurologically constructed in each species. Both humanity’s and species X would have an “objective morality” as understood by scientific analysis. Therefore, we are once again back into moral relativism, something Harris denies (50-51).

3. Here I am articulating an epistemological relationship between science and theology similar to that of Karl Raher. See Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations 22: 2-3 ([Limerick]: Centre for Culture, Technology and Values: 2005). According to Rahner, “Natural science investigates in a posteriori experience individual phenomena which human beings (ultimately through the experience of their senses) encounter in their world, and the relationship of these phenomena to one another. Theology has to do with the totality of reality as such, and with the ground of this reality, and its method is ultimately one of a priori questioning. Consequently, there need be no fear of a conflict of competence between natural science and theology, provided that, when such unintentional violations do occur, they inform one another of them.”

4. Friederich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Norwood, Mass: Norwood Pess, 1896). 401-405.

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6 thoughts on “An Essay Concerning Theistic Understanding: Reflections on Nietzsche’s Death of God by Matthew Fisher

  1. I believe Nietzsche was sadly noting that God is no longer part of our lives, that our participatory awareness of being part of a sacred universe had/has dimmed to the point of virtual extinction. As a result, we have lost all touch with transcendent levels of existence, and are left with nothing but this material level where everything can be seen, touched, weighed. Thus, no ‘light’ from the above touches us anymore, because we’ve chosen to go it alone, full of ourselves and deluded. He was sickened by this. The deepest wounds to the human soul are caused by our lack of appreciation of levels.

  2. Thank you for the replies gentlemen. Andrew, I think you hit the nail on the head: the loss of God is a loss of transcendence. I understand that there are many different ways of conceiving of “God,” some being not a all personal such as in Buddhism, but all point to some transcendent level of reality that is “greater than” the physical. I admit, it it is hard to make an argument, if not impossible, for the ingression of this transcendence into physical being in light of physical causation. However, since Nietzsche’s time we have seen science rise to meteoric heights and explain so much. yet, I think we are now left with a sense of a “now what?” I wouldn’t try to convince anyone of one transcendent perspective over the other, only that they think about their relationship with transcendent reality through their own experience in being. If there is none to be found, fine by me.

  3. Hey! Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed studying Nietzsche in an “Existentialism” undergrad philosophy course. I’m glad that you chose to consider the “death of God”, as most people condemn it and sweep it swiftly under the rug. I agree with you that it is an important statement.

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