God without God

Stephen Mulhall

  • Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics and Law by Gianni Vattimo, translated by William McCuaig
    Columbia, 197 pp, £16.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 231 13082 1

When Nietzsche’s madman tries to proclaim that God is dead, he soon realises that his intervention is premature. Although his audience already think of themselves as atheists, the madman sees that they don’t really understand what that means; self-comprehension is still on its way to them, like light from a remote star. Nowadays, many philosophers who take this aspect of Nietzsche’s work seriously tend to write about the death of God as if it were old news – rather more than a century and half old. They take God’s death for granted as a widely accepted fact of modernity, and ask what the significance of that death is for our moral and political values, and, more generally, for the idea of human life as having significance or meaning. But judging the madman’s message to be old news is precisely what his fellow citizens do in the parable – a judgment that betrays their lack of self-awareness, and shows these men of knowledge to be unknown to themselves. How, then, should we judge our contemporary men of knowledge?

For Gianni Vattimo, the death of God means the dissolution of any ultimate or absolute structures of value. Belief in God is simply one example of a more general human tendency to posit something wholly external to the human situation as the objective foundation of its meaning or worth. If there were a God, so the thought goes, His will would confer absolute authority on a particular system of values, and hence a particular way of living; and even if there were no God, a similar authority might accrue to any understanding of human life if it were grounded in some other aspect of reality taken to be objective – the nature of reason, for example, or of the gene.

To acknowledge the death of God, then, it is not enough to embrace atheism. Thoroughly secular accounts of the worth of human life that invoke an ultimate foundation in reality are nonetheless theological: they amount to a refusal to accept that God is dead. This is the negative or critical aspect of what Nietzsche and Vattimo call nihilism; to accept it means ensuring that one’s philosophy is thoroughgoingly anti-foundational. It also means recognising what Vattimo calls the hermeneutic nature of human understanding. If we cannot prefer one account of the meaning of life over another because it reflects the way reality ultimately is, then it seems we must recognise that every such account is simply one more human interpretation or construction: a making of meaning from within a particular cultural moment rather than something read off from the way things really are.

Vattimo knows that the most likely response to this nihilistic vision is despair: he sees its expression in the reflorescence of fundamentalist thinking – religious and nationalist – but also in the spread of purely relativist moral and political attitudes. For if all value-systems are simply human interpretations, surely none has any more claim on us than any other; all are equally subjective, hence essentially arbitrary and lacking in authority. How, then, can we accept the insights of nihilism without devaluing all our values and revealing human life as essentially meaningless? Vattimo’s positive or constructive version of nihilism aims to show us, by adapting Heidegger’s intuition that the possibility of our salvation might lie within what seems to be the deepest threat to it.

Nietzsche prepares the way for Heidegger here, when he argues that his own discovery of the repellent nature of Christianity – and hence of the need to transcend it – was made possible by Christianity itself. For the Christian conception of a divine Reality lying behind the realm of appearances, and more specifically its practices of confession and self-examination, created and fed an ascetic drive to uncover the truth of things at all costs. So, when Nietzsche argues that Christian self-sacrifice actually constitutes a sado-masochistic denial of life, he sees himself as having uncovered the truth about religious belief, and hence as embodying the moment in which the Christian will to truth turns on itself and devours itself. The death of God is thus a kind of suicide; the history of Christian self-denial culminates in the denial of Christianity as an authentic form of human understanding.

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