It was Friedrich Nietzsche, the brilliant Prussian-born philosopher, who famously declared in 1882 that God was dead. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche told of a madman who lit a lantern early in the morning and ran into the market place shouting, “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” When mocked by the bystanders, the madman cried: “Where has God gone? I shall tell you. We are his murderers. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?” Seeing the looks on the faces of the bewildered punters, he went on: “I have come too early, my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling — it has not yet reached the ears of men.”
Well, it has now. The word came down via the First and Second World Wars, the ovens of Auschwitz, the Russian gulags, Mao’s mad slaughter, Pol Pot’s killing fields, and the rise of science as the explainer of all things. Nietzsche, son and grandson of prominent Lutheran preachers, was himself deranged for chunks of his life.
His stuff is great to read, though: wild, extravagant, prophetic, disturbed and disturbing. His words have certainly gained resonance in our times, when the credibility of religion and religious institutions is (properly) under huge pressure.
And yet, if God is dead, I can report from the Edinburgh International Book Festival that the corpse is a dead man dancing. God has not just been lurking around but packing them in. It seems that God, dead or alive, is still the hottest gig in town. There have been several sessions on Darwin, and where Darwin is, the deity is never far away. Harry Reid’s passionate defense of the Scottish Reformation and his rollicking, highly-readable new book on the subject got the audience buzzing.
Professor Sara Maitland talked about ancient and modern practices of silent prayer and meditation. Carole Hillenbrand and Yasmin Hai explored the subject of women and Islam.
Another sell-out session with an enlivened audience was titled “The Old Religion and the New Atheism.” David Fergusson, professor of divinity at Edinburgh University, feminist Catholic theologian Tina Beattie and atheist philosopher John Gray got to grips with some core issues at the heart of the current impassioned atheist-believer debates. The session certainly gave the lie to the daft notion that these matters are somehow settled.
But what about the situation away from the book festival tents and in the wider world?
The trumpeted notion that religion is dying on its feet is actually a very Euro-centric view. In many parts of the world, religion — for better and for worse — is flourishing and gaining many new adherents. And even in western Europe, where religious institutions are up against it, religion is still a subject that triggers great passions. This must be a source of enormous irritation to the “new atheists.” My own conviction is that Richard Dawkins and his colleagues have performed a great service to religion by asking some very sharp questions. What distorts the current rather hostile debate, though, is the lust for certainty exhibited on both sides. To say that science has made religion untenable is itself a dogmatic rather than a scientific statement, as dogmatic as anything uttered by a medieval archbishop.
What died in 1882 was an image of God. Today, God seems to be hauntingly present, even in his absence. Nietzsche seemed to know this would be the case. “God is dead,” he wrote, “but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.”
Dead? What must God have been like when He/She was alive?
Ron Ferguson is a former pastor and leader of The Iona Community now living on Orkney Island (Scotland) as a writer and broadcaster. The column first appeared in The Glasgow Herald and is used by permission.