Be the Madman!
“Have you heard of the madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly, ‘I seek God! I seek God!"
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote these words in 1882. In this “Parable of the Madman,” those who heard this madman cry out to God mocked and laughed at him, because they did not believe in God.
What follows is a speech of the madman that has become famous, yet I believe largely misunderstood:
"Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers.”
Far from some atheistic remark, in context of his world and the time of his writing, Nietzsche was referring to the brave new world that was being created by his elite contemporaries - a world where civilization, nation states, philosophy, and our very own understanding of the human life and how to live it would be unchained and separated from belief in God. Never before had this been done, but he recognized its rise among the horizon of the future.
Nietzsche himself didn’t believe in God, and floated between skepticism, nihilism and atheism in some complex mixture of the three. However, as the madman continues his speech, it’s clear that Nietzsche wasn’t exactly sure as to the results of such a monumental shift in Western history. He continues,
“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 hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?.. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
How relevant are these questions, even all of these years later. The void left by God in our Western world - how can it be filled? Can someone really drink up the ocean, and simply see it gone? Could we grab a little sponge and erase the horizon? Is it possible for the Earth to be separated from the sun and still exist - or, is it possible for humans to be separated from God, and still flourish and live? Or, will we simply find ourselves rocking to and fro, sideways and forwards, losing all sense of direction or even our own understanding of direction - and if we actually try to live in this way, will we be sailing towards… nothing?
This is the attempt of “killing God” by our Western society. Yet, to say we “killed” him as if it had already been done is false. It’ll be something our Western world may always be trying to do. Because within us, we know we can’t fill the void left within us, and no replacement of God could ever be an adequate substitute. I think Nietzsche wondered about this as well. We cannot fill the void of God missing in our Western world as much as we could drink up the sea. What authority is left to guide us? To tell us right from wrong? To define what is just or unjust?
These questions still remain inside of us, and without God, who or what would define these things? What authority is left to lead us? Nietzsche prophetically saw how we would try to fill that vacuum. The speech of the Madman continues:
"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? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
The work of working out life after God in our Western world would be, according to Nietzsche, the greatest and heaviest deed of humankind to embark on. But how could we do it? Is not the only possibility that we would need to become gods ourselves? To take on ourselves the role that God used to play in our Western world - defining right from wrong, imposing a moral authority to guide justice and correct injustice according to our own definitions, to provide purpose and meaning as the creation of our own hands - or, in other words, trying to become our own creator.
The vacuum of divine authority is a dangerous one. The 20th century saw more death and bloodshed from far-left (communism) and far-right (Nazism) efforts of trying to create civilizations apart from God, proving the chaos that can result.
Yet, even after these failures, we’re still trying in our modern times. And welcome to yet another tipping point of this ultimately secular project that we just may witness in our day.
I believe that this secular project will fail, yet again. As much as our sinful hearts desire to be divine and to have complete authority over our own lives, we will fail our efforts in doing so. For this is the very definition and origin of sin, all of the way back in the Garden of Eden.
Also, I don’t think it is difficult to find obvious factors that point in the direction that we as a society are not flourishing. Few people look at our country and say, “Hey! Things are going really well right now in America.”
As our nation still labors with all their might to define the human life after God, I, like many others, look at the future of America as Nietzsche described- one that is unsteady, rocking back and forth, unsure of where is up and down anymore. What's the answer for our own nation? I don't know.
I do know, however, that humans ultimately cannot live apart from belief in God. I know our sinful hearts cannot repair its own brokenness. I know we help. Help from the outside. I think innately we all know this. The anxiety of so many is only increasing in modern times, more evidence that the project of being our own gods simply isn’t working.
Advent reminds us that help from the outside did come. Help from heaven. Born in a manger, a light that shone in the darkness.
Maybe we need to be that Madman, unashamedly, through neighborly love and service, saying “Seek God! Seek his Son! His Kingdom has come, and his light can shine in your darkness.”
For when this secular project fails, those who embrace faith in Christ may not be seen as so mad after all, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus will once again prove to be Good News.