In Book Three of his work, The Gay Science, Nietzsche begins with a legend of how, years after the Buddha’s death, his shadow, large and terrifying, appeared on the wall of a cave for all to see. He uses his now notorious phrase: God is dead. So begins the series of aphorisms which demolish both the metaphysics and the morals of the Enlightenment and culminate in the famous passage about the Madman who rushes into the town square to berate the polite atheists who have gathered there, and to make them realize that the slaying of God (which they have accomplished) brings terrifying responsibilities in its wake, principally that of creating meaning in an intrinsically meaningless universe. Here is a taste:
“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.
Like many Christians, I have found the Madman passage to be helpful in setting forth in dramatic form the implications of atheism and the incoherence of humanism—that form of atheism which wants to retain the capital of a religious outlook (such as morality) while abandoning its foundations. Nietzsche was particularly good at sniffing out any hint that metaphysics might be sneakily smuggled back in to philosophy even though its foundation in God had been destroyed. He called Kant the deadly spider because of the metaphysical webs he wove out of nothing. He feared that music gave people other-worldly longings when this world is all that there is. He even objected to language of scientific laws because the term implied the existence of a lawgiver.
Yet in the figure of the Madman, Nietzsche does more than demonstrate the inconsistency of polite Enlightenment atheism. He even does more than challenge those same atheists to have the courage of their convictions and realize how terrifyingly cold and chaotic and empty the universe now is. He also points to the problem which culture in general faces once any notion of sacred order is abandoned. When God is slain, everything becomes negotiable. Christians must grasp the significance of this if they are to understand why everything—not just the supernatural doctrines—they hold dear is currently crumbling around them.
The Madman is touching on an important truth: social orders (that is, the ways in which cultures organize themselves) are typically rooted in some kind of sacred order. This does not have to be the Christian sacred order, of course, nor does it have to be true. It simply has to be believed in order to have a hold on the popular imagination. For example, ancient Athens may not have a had a theological framework of marked coherence, but the belief in a gaggle of gods and the power of fate served to set Athenian society on the foundation of something other than its own immanent existence. Its poems and plays pointed to this larger perceived reality. Medieval and Reformation Europe was very different to fifth century Athens, but Christianity provided a similar foundation. The laws of the various lands did not have authority simply because the local lord had imposed them; they reflected (in some way) the created order which itself reflected the character of God.
When all that is sacred is profaned, what therefore happens? Cultures—specifically the values and practices which they embody and the institutions which cultivate, enforce, and transmit them—cease to have any means for justifying themselves other than themselves. In short, cultures need to become self-justifying, which is highly problematic because (as the Madman points out), the earth has been unchained from the sun. Everything is up for grabs. There is no transcendent authority to which appeal can be made for arguing that one practice or value is intrinsically better than any other. As with the implications of atheism in Nietzsche’s day, the implications of this will not be immediately understood or be visible. But over time, culture—its values, practices, and institutions—will atrophy and collapse. For, as Philip Rieff argued in his significant work of cultural criticism, My Life Among the Deathworks, no culture has ever been able to justify itself purely with reference to itself. Perhaps as Christians we might take some comfort from the fact that humans will always be made in the image of God and therefore have some vestige of the knowledge of God, but society in general is not so constructed. And the Bible itself speaks of times where everyone did what was right in their own eyes – a kind of Rieffian situation – and this was the harbinger of social collapse – collapse precipitated by God’s judgement but collapse nonetheless.
Why is it important for Christians to understand this difference between the moment in which we now live and the cultures of the past? Because we live in unprecedented times. Rieff draws attention to this by calling what we now have not a culture but an anti-culture. With no sacred order to give our culture any real authority, iconoclasm becomes the order of the day, whether it is the direct repudiation of historic practices and beliefs (cf. the fate of marriage as a monogamous, lifelong union of a man and a woman) or the more subtle but no less lethal mood of irony that greets any attempt to see the great people and ideas of the past as having any intrinsic value for the present or the simple ignorance of history that pervades much of the educational system. If further evidence is needed, think for a moment about how yesterday’s unexceptional moral positions are todays unforgivable thought crimes, for which there is apparently no statute of limitations.
The language of ‘redeeming the culture’ has always perplexed me somewhat. Sinners are redeemed; I am not persuaded that cultural practices and institutions can be. Applying the concept to culture often seems to be little more than a way of allowing middle class Christians to indulge their particular personal passions—artistic, intellectual etc.—in a way that sounds especially sanctified. Cultural practices and institutions can be reformed, reformulated, revised, and redirected to be better and do better—the ending of the American slave trade would be a case in point. But we now live in an era where the disagreement between Christians and the cultural panjandrums is not simply over precisely what kind of sacred order grounds our culture. The panjandrums reject any kind of sacred order and immanent pragmatism now rules the day. Culture, in the traditional sense, no longer exists. Even the most optimistic of culture redeemers cannot redeem that which is not there.
So where do we go from here? First, we need to understand that things may well become much worse. The recent moves in New York and Virginia towards normalizing post-natal infanticide shocked many. But why? A culture with no sacred order undergirding it is really a culture where morality will be guided by and large by taste, which (as we know) is a function of fashion and thus unstable, malleable and (most importantly) perverted by sin.
Second, taste is also a matter of aesthetics, not argument. Let us not overestimate the power of arguments in our culture. I doubt that most people believe gay marriage is good because they have read the arguments and been persuaded by them. They consider it good because, well, preventing two consenting adults from being happy is distasteful. That is an aesthetic matter, not the result of logical argumentation.
Third, let us work hard to provide those in our churches with solid meat, particularly young people who are trying to orient themselves in this chaotically fluid environment. As Rod Dreher has commented on a number of occasions, you cannot fight something with nothing. Western culture as a whole has nothing, and its members are therefore horribly vulnerable to being taken over by all manner of twisted ideologies, from the violent vision of ISIS to the allure of political extremism at either end of the spectrum. We need to provide that which the New Testament presents as normative: a vision of reality grounded in the gospel and exemplified in belonging to a community marked by love. The gospel cannot transform what does not exist; but it can transform lives that are nauseated by the nihilism of our anti-culture.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.