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Carlson 20 March 2006 Spring Equinox
The “Death of God” as an Hermeneutical Concept in Hegel and Nietzsche (and Marx)
“God is dead. Let us not understand by this that he does not exist or even that he no longer exists. He is dead. He spoke to us and is silent. We no longer have anything but his cadaver. Perhaps he slipped out of the world, somewhere else like the soul of a dead man. Perhaps he was only a dream ... God is dead." – Jean-Paul Sartre “When gods die, they always die in many ways.” – Nietzsche I
As the above epigram from Nietzsche suggests, the phrase ‘God is dead’ [Gott ist tot] or ‘the death of God’ is multivalent; this is because its signification lies in the fact that it is, essentially, an hermeneutical tool employed on behalf of a number of disparate philosophical and theological agendas by thinkers ranging from Hegel to modern ‘death of God’ theologians like Hamilton and Altizer. I will attempt to explore the significance of this phrase as an hermeneutical tool not only in the work of Nietzsche, with whom it is most popularly associated, but also in that of Hegel and Marx (in whose work the phrase is not used explicitly, but for whom nonetheless the absence of God figures prominently). We will see, through these explorations, that ‘the death of God’ can be understood both positively and negatively: signaling the redemption of humanity and the world, or the total removal of value from the world – or, in a seeming paradox, both. While it seems that the phrase ‘death of God’ was first used by early Church Fathers, referring to Christ’s crucifixion, Hegel was perhaps the first to apply it in a
philosophical as well as theological context. Hegel in fact uses the phrase in three different senses, as Carlson points out. The first sense of the death of God connotes the abstract unknowability and unavailability of God (a problem even for the Greek thinkers), which Hegel characterizes as an “infinite grief [that] only existed historically…[i]t existed as the feeling that ‘God himself is dead,’ upon which the religion of more recent times rests.”1 This usage of the phrase is (in Hegel’s work) the closest to that of Nietzsche, as we shall see. By the “religion of more recent times,” it seems that Hegel refers to the Pietism of Jacobi and Schleiermacher (Carlson 24), which claimed that God is beyond human understanding—rendering, on Hegel’s view, the concept of God empty of all determinate content and therefore meaningless. This ‘death of God,’ then, has a negative valuation, for it connotes the failure on the part of philosopher-theologians to move through the three-stage process that authentically characterizes Spirit [Geist], a process that culminates in the full realization of the adequate Concept [Begriff], wherein God is both known by the mind [Geist] and experienced religiously as love. Because Hegel sees the unfolding of history as the necessary progress of human consciousness towards freedom, he must posit this (mis-)conception of the ‘death of God’ as merely an historical moment, one that must be and is superseded. This, then, is the first sense of the phrase 'death of God,' one that is philosophically sterile and incomplete. The second and third senses in which Hegel uses the phrase are interrelated, for they constitute, respectively, the passage from the
Faith and Knowledge (1802), trans. Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris (Albany: SUNY Press, 1977), p. 190. Cited in Carlson, Indiscretion, p. 24.
first moment to the second moment and from the second moment to third moment in the three-fold movement of Geist. This tripartite dialectical structure is the most outstanding feature of Hegel’s thought, manifesting itself in many different contexts (e.g., Logic, Nature, Spirit). In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, he defines Geist partially in terms of its activity, saying that its essential character consists in its “activity of self-manifesting.”2 (LPR 102; I:85) Thus the dynamic movement through these three ontological phases constitutes the mode in and through which Geist reveals itself, and this self-revealing is the essential nature of Geist itself. In the first moment, sometimes called ‘Universality,’ Geist (which is here equated to God) is defined as “absolute spirit, eternally simple spirit, being essentially present to itself. …absolute being-with-self and abiding-with-self; it is absolute substance.” (LPR 118-9; I:269) The second and third moments, sometimes called ‘Particularity’ and ‘Individuality’ (or ‘Singularity’) are summarized most concisely in the following passage:
“Manifesting” signifies “becoming for an other.” As “becoming for an other” it enters into antithesis, into distinction in general, thus it is a finitizing of spirit. […] It has an other over against itself, it has its terminus in this other, its boundary. Thus spirit that manifests itself, determines itself, enters into existence, gives itself finitude, is the second moment. But the third is its manifesting of itself according to its concept, taking its former initial manifestation back into itself, sublating it, coming to its own self, becoming and being explicitly the way it is implicitly. […] The third moment is that it is object to itself, is reconciled with itself in the object, has arrived at freedom, for freedom is being present to itself. (LPR 102-3; I:85)
These three moments are explicated many times in LPR in many different ways, and alluded to yet more times, for this dynamic structure is fundamental to Hegel’s thought. We might also refer to them respectively with the terms unity, diversity, and diversity-within-unity. In this context, the apparently static concept of
Emphasis always is the author’s unless otherwise noted.
the ‘death of God’ in Hegel signifies, intriguingly, the very movement from one moment into another. Hegel argues that these “distinctive determinations are the forms through which spirit has to move” (LPR 410; II:194), and the movement from one to another may be symbolically construed as the ‘death’ of the previous form. The movement from the first to the second moment is understood religiously as God negating himself as abstract, independent, self-contained spirit which is solely in and for spirit, thus ‘dying’ in his abstract form, and entering into the world, assuming finitude and determinate particularity. This process is referred to in theology as kenosis, the ‘self-emptying’ of God, the relinquishing of his universal form to become man (i.e., Jesus). The same thing is understood philosophically as the absolute concept finding expression in a determinate form (e.g., a particular linguistic formulation or logical proposition). We can say that Geist must necessarily actualize itself in a particular determinate form because not to do so would constitute a limitation of its freedom, and a contradiction of its universal and infinite nature. Furthermore, according to Hegel, consciousness requires an object in order to become selfconsciousness. It is in and through the process of positing an other that Geist can come to fully know itself. Religiously, we can say that God had to incarnate as a human being to redeem human beings and annul the finitude of worldly life. This is necessarily accomplished through a second death of God, his death as Christ, which constitutes the reconciliation of the third moment. Through taking on human finitude to the furthest extent (i.e. painful physical death), God has bridged the gap between self and other, has actualized his potential for humanity and thereby simultaneously
actualized humanity’s potential for divinity. Thus these two deaths, on the principle of double negation, acquire the highest possible positive valuation. (Carlson 38) Hegel writes in the final version of the LPR (1831):
Concerning Christ’s death, we have still finally to emphasize the aspect that it is God who has put death to death, since he comes out of the state of death. In this way, finitude, human nature, and humiliation are posited of Christ—as of him who is strictly God—as something alien. It is evident that finitude is alien to him and has been taken over from an other; this other is the human beings who stand over against the divine process. It is their finitude that Christ has taken… It is out of infinite love that God has made himself identical with what is alien to him in order to put it to death. (LPR 466; II: 247)
It is key that throughout this process, God maintains himself as himself in the other. In the above passage, Hegel implies that God must posit within himself what is most alien to himself in order to become fully himself. That is, if God’s nature is infinite, his being must comprise the entire spectrum of possibility. Thus Hegel views the entire three-phase process as occurring within absolute subjectivity. (LPR 410; II:193) The subject-object distinction is real in Hegel, but inessential and relative compared to its status in Descartes or Kant, for it is characteristic of only one of the three moments. In fact God is here defined as that which can posit and resolve these contradictions, these opposites which imply one another:
This is the life, the deed, the activity of God; he is absolute activity, creative energy, and his activity is to posit himself in contradiction, but eternally to resolve and reconcile this contradiction: God himself is the resolving of these contradictions. (LPR 413; II:196)
God, then, negates his abstract being by ‘dying’ from that indeterminate form, pouring himself into the world and becoming that which most alien to him, a finite human being. And yet he remains himself in the other, thus making Christ a
coincidentia oppositorum of both human and divine natures. Thus God becomes a certainty to man, is immediately sensibly present to man. But in this form, he is limited, the process is incomplete; so subsequently, through negating the finitude of the human, God returns to his divine nature, thus elevating the finite to the infinite and permanently annulling the static limitation of humanity as merely and solely human. But note that this return to that state of the infinite is not a mere reiteration of the first moment, because here the particular that is negated is simultaneously preserved in the absolute, and thus the third moment has its unique character in the fact that the absolute subjectivity includes its own object (LPR 410; II:193), it is complete in itself as the fully adequate Concept. Otherness, as a moment of the divine nature itself, is stripped of its power to limit us and thus its terror. (LPR 468; II:250) How can the finite be simultaneously negated and preserved in the passage to the third moment? The answer has, in part, a linguistic basis. In German, the verb used to denote the passage from both the first to the second moment and the second to the third is aufheben, often translated as ‘sublate.’ In fact, this is a very flexible term in everyday German, and includes these senses: 1) to abolish, annihilate, annul, dissolve, nullify, supersede, rescind; and 2) to lift, merge, raise, save, preserve. Through a fusion of these two semantic fields for the term, we arrive at an understanding of the passage from the second to the third moment, and, by extension, the passage from death to resurrection of the Christ. This linguistic fact could perhaps be used to support an argument that the philosophy written in any language is simultaneously enabled (in the sense of concepts made immediately available for
analysis to the philosopher by his language) and limited (in the sense that only those concepts are made available) by that language. There is not adequate space to rehearse that argument here, however. In conclusion, since the double death of God in Hegel constitutes the death of death itself, it is profoundly positive, indeed unveils to man his essential unity with God, the affective dimension of which is infinite love. II Before proceeding to treat Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘death of God’ in some detail, I wish to pause and briefly treat Marx as an implicit ‘death of God’ thinker. Marx, like Feuerbach, was a Young (or ‘Left’) Hegelian at University. The Young Hegelians wished to reinterpret Hegel along radical and more pragmatic lines, believing that the implications of his thinking had failed to actualize themselves in the real world. They especially seized upon Hegel’s idea of the ‘unhappy consciousness,’ articulated in his Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit, the consciousness which conceives of a perfect God in another world, man’s true home, beyond the miserable material one. This in fact divides human nature against itself, for humans are an aspect of God’s nature (and vice versa), and therefore the qualities of God they worship are also qualities of themselves; the failure to realize this results in a state of alienation.3 Inverting Hegel’s categories (as they often did), the Young Hegelians—specifically Bauer, Marx, and Feuerbach—argued that man, not God, was a priori in the relationship and that alienation results from the failure to realize that God is a human
Singer 1980:20-2 and 1983:84-5. Note that the implications of this idea of ‘alienation’ are not explored by Hegel himself.
creation and that his divine predicates are humanity’s own higher qualities. This analysis of the problematic was then extended by Marx to all human products, with famous results. We can see the early congruence of these thinkers at this time (1841) by comparing the following passages.
The true Ens realissimum [is] man… [R]eligion itself…in its essence, believes in nothing else than the truth and divinity of human nature. …the true sense of Theology is Anthropology, that there is no distinction between the predicates of the divine and human nature, and, consequently, no distinction between the divine and human subject. (xvi-xvii)
‘I detest all the gods’ is [Philosophy’s] own profession, her own slogan against all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity. There shall be no other beside it. (Doctoral thesis, quoted in Singer 1980:21)
Feuerbach and Marx also agreed in reversing the Hegelian movement from the universal to the particular, the Absolute to the finite, thought to being. Rather, said Feuerbach, “I do not generate the object from the thought, but the thought from the object” (xiv) and Marx, “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. …Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” (Marx 47) We should note here that Marx diverges from Feuerbach in denying his presupposition of an abstract human individual. (Marx 122) Thus Marx, though he did not proclaim the death of God per se, began his career with a denial of God qua God that, as we shall see, prefigured the thought of Nietzsche. III Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ is profoundly different from that of Hegel, though not absolutely different, as we shall see. His first proclamation that “God is dead”
comes in §125 of The Gay Science, in the story of ‘The Madman.’ This passage, foreshadowing the style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, does not state its meaning explicitly, but does yield to interpretation in light of Nietzsche’s work generally. It is phrased as a lament, accusing its listeners of having killed God; Nietzsche means by this the decline of belief in God in European society. On Nietzsche's view, men created God (as they created all systems of meaning or value), hence to cease to believe in him is to kill him. Now, more of the Madman’s lament is concerned with the effect of God’s death than the death itself. That effect, he predicted, would eventually be the total breakdown of morality and possibly even the fall of Western civilization. “Whither are we moving now? … Is not night and more night coming on all the while?” the Madman cries. In §343 of GS, Nietzsche is more explicit about his meaning and his fears, writing:
The greatest recent event – that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable – is even now beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. …what must collapse now that this belief has been undermined—all that was built upon it, leaned on it, grew into it; for example, our whole European morality. …This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending – who could guess enough of it today to be compelled to play the teacher and advance proclaimer of this monstrous logic of terror, the prophet of a gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth?
One unfamiliar with Nietzsche might misconstrue this to mean that he supported Christian morality and religion; but we must note here that Nietzsche is not so much concerned with the truth-value of a proposition,4 but with whether that proposition is ‘life-promoting’ or ‘species-cultivating’. Though he himself was an
Cf. TI, “The Problem of Socrates, 2; and BGE 1.4.
atheist, he did not believe that most of the ‘herd’ were strong enough to disbelieve in God without succumbing to decadence. How did it come to pass that God was slain? Nietzsche argues that Christian morality sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The victory of Christianity was the victory of slave mentality, whose reactive modes of valuation labeled as ‘evil’ the qualities of the rulers (e.g., wealth, power, pride, prosperity) and as ‘good’ the opposite qualities (e.g., modesty, humility, patience, justice). (GM 1.13ff) Another of the Christian values was the “will to truth” which Nietzsche calls the kernel of the ascetic ideal. (GM 3.27, p. 160) It is this value that is the downfall of Christianity, as he argues in his quotation from GS (§357, quoted at GM 3.27), saying that “Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness taken more and more strictly” has undermined an unsupportable religious worldview that believed
“as if everything were preordained, everything a sign, everything sent for the salvation of the soul—that now belongs to the past, that has the conscience against it, that seems to every more sensitive conscience indecent, dishonest…” In this way Christianity as a dogma was destroyed by its own morality… After Christian truthfulness has drawn one inference after another, it must end by drawing its most striking inference, its inference against itself…
This Christian ethic of truthfulness manifested itself most prominently in the sciences, philosophy foremost among them. Its investigation of, and attempt to critically explicate, all aspects of human life necessarily begins to question the foundation for religious beliefs, spurred on perhaps by the findings of the physical sciences. On Nietzsche’s view, this has lead inevitably (though among thinking persons first), to “unconditional honest atheism,” which he calls “the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two
thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” (GM 3.27, p. 160) The other reason for the inevitable death of God in Nietzsche is the misconstrued positing of a ‘true world’ on the part of religion that devalues this world and is eventually found to be unverifiable. In Twilight of the Idols he outlines (on pp. 484-6) his critique of the erroneous construction of the world of the afterlife or the kingdom of God (depending on how one understands “true world”). The idea of it progresses from “attainable,”5 to “unattainable for now,” to “unattainable, indemonstrable… [but] a consolation,” to “unknown…[and] not consoling” to “useless” and “refuted,” to “abolished.” With the abolition of God’s world, the abolition of God must necessarily follow. This is precisely what Nietzsche says thinking people must do, arguing later in TI:
That nobody is held responsible any longer, that the mode of being may not be traced back to a causa prima, that the world does not form a unity either as a sensorium or as "spirit" – that alone is the great liberation; with this alone is the innocence of becoming restored. The concept of "God" was until now the greatest objection to existence. We deny God, we deny the responsibility in God: only thereby do we redeem the world. (TI 500-1)
However, we have seen that the denial of God may have dire consequences for morality. Nietzsche was, in point of fact, opposed to morality as such, but he recognized its importance for preserving society and preventing man from despising himself or “taking sides against life.” (WP I:4) Further, the degradation of morality signaled, for Nietzsche, the onset of that state of man and society that would characterize the coming century and potentially spell its doom: nihilism. Nihilism is
An imagined historical moment in which the true world was actualized in the very being of the sage.
that state in which “the highest values devaluate themselves” (WP I:2), triggered by the realization of their “absolute untenability” and the inability to posit a “beyond… that might be ‘divine’,” both brought on, ironically, by the cultivation of truthfulness, as noted above. (WP I:3, 5) Nietzsche’s notebooks, originally organized and published by his sister after his death as The Will to Power, provide us with further information about the causes of nihilism as a psychological state. These are three-fold, and labeled in §12 as the misconstrued concepts of “aim,” “unity,” and “truth.” The first two, especially the second, are implicit criticisms of Hegel’s philosophy. “Aim” refers to the positing of a teleology, a meaning in events which in fact aim at nothing and evolve towards nothing, for they are nothing more than the flux of becoming and passing away. (Cf. WP I:4) “Unity” is the positing of
a totality, a systematization… (―if the soul be that of a logician, complete consistency and real dialectic are quite sufficient to reconcile it to everything). Some sort of unity, some form of “monism”…but behold, there is no such universal! (WP I:12)
The language of this passage is unmistakably attacking Hegel, the logician in question, whose philosophical enterprise Nietzsche reduces to a psychological need “to be able to believe in his own value.” (Ibid.) Thus for Nietzsche, only the second moment of Hegel’s dialectic, the determinate, is real and verifiable.6 The third cause of nihilism is that of the misconstrued positing of the world beyond, the “true world,”
As is so often the case, Nietzsche’s arguments consists of semi-substantiated assertions that, for this writer at least, cannot convincingly dismiss in a few lines hundreds of pages of carefully argued (if sometimes obscure) philosophical prose. This is not to say that Hegel’s views, especially that of teleological history, are irrefutable, but that such a refutation must at least approach the sophistication of thought or thoroughness of the refuted.
already addressed above.7 Thus Nietzsche concludes that “We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.” All these values, which have been “designed to maintain and increase human constructs of domination” are “falsely projected into the essence of things.” (Ibid.) Ironically, despite his critique of Hegel, one could see Nietzsche’s line of argument as mirroring the former’s thought, though with a very different result. I refer to Hegel’s basic conception of the unfolding of the human consciousness of freedom, as explicated primarily in his Philosophy of History, Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit, and Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. According to this conception, each stage of consciousness proves inadequate, and is sublated by the next stage, the seeds of which are implicit in the former (e.g. from sense-certainty to perception to understanding in philosophy, or from the Greek world to the Roman to the Germanic in history). Though Hegel saw his time in history and his philosophy as the culmination of these processes, in a sense Nietzsche has simply extended them, seeing the seeds of post-historical nihilism as implicit in Christianity and European society even as Hegel explicates them. Thus Nietzsche also asserts a kind of teleology, though one in which the terminus (where knowledge is no longer compelled to go beyond itself) is, paradoxically, the devaluation of all that has come before. Does Nietzsche then believe that the world is utterly valueless? What does he wish to put in place of the dead God? Reading the Madman’s words, “Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it [i.e. the act of slaying God]?” we
This point is not an explicit critique of Hegel, for while he probably did adhere to a belief in a world beyond, his theology focuses on the actualization(s) of the divine universal Geist in this world.
might imagine he wishes to replace God with the human subject, as Feuerbach did. Yet Nietzsche denies the “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” and its God’s-eye view. (GM III:12) There is no permanent ‘doer’ behind the deed, and neither can the self be an instantiation of a universal Mind in the absence of such a Mind. The self is merely a flux of instinctual drives, states of mind, and affects. However, Nietzsche, despite the fact that he greets the news of God’s death with exhilaration and gratitude (GS 343), is not content for their to be no value whatever in the world. The popular misperception that he is a nihilist in this sense is explicitly refuted by his statement in part (B) of WP §12: “Once we have devaluated these three categories [see above], the demonstration that they cannot be applied to the universe is no longer any reason for devaluating the universe.” That is, he believes the categories have devaluated themselves through their falsehood, and because they have been applied to a merely fictitious world, they cannot ultimately devalue the real world, our world that has been rendered real through the recognition that it is the only true world. Whence, then, comes value? Zarathustra-Nietzsche points towards the need for value, saying “But tell me, my brothers, if humanity still lacks a goal—is humanity itself not still lacking too?”8 Since man placed values in things in the first instance (though he came to see those values assigned him by tradition as self-evident and inhering in reality), he can create value anew, along life-affirming lines. How? Zarathustra answers:
TSZ, I, “On the Thousand and One Goals”, p. 172 of The Portable Nietzsche.
To esteem is to create: hear this, you creators! Esteeming itself is of all esteemed things the most estimable treasure. Through esteeming alone is there value: and without esteeming, the nut of existence would be hollow. (TPN 171)
Thus what we esteem creates value for us, and we may pursue it, insofar as we are able. Nietzsche’s own philosophy seems to be to affirm life, to affirm all the natural drives and affects that slave morality and traditional religion wish to deny and abrogate. One needn’t wonder whether one’s values are ‘true’ or ‘false’—in fact, all “judgments of value, concerning life…can, in the end, never be true” (TPN 474) for “facts do not exist, only interpretations…” (TPN 458). Therefore, one is free to exercise all one’s capacities, to exercise one’s will to power, to develop a personal style and taste. (GS 290) Nietzsche is, despite all his cynicism, finally trying to articulate a perspective that is profoundly positive in comparison with (what he sees as) the world-denying negativity of Christian morality and its correlates. Insofar as one does not embrace the nihilism of despair, then, one may say, with Thomas Altizer, “God is dead, thank God!”9
BIBLIOGRAPHY Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. (LPR) Peter C. Hodgson, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
I am aware that the context of this comment, Altizer’s belief in the death of the transcendent God but continued existence of the immanent God, is not entirely Nietzschean. See William Braden’s article-cum-blog on Altizer entitled “The Private Sea”; http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/lsd/braden10.htm
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. C.J. Arthur, ed. New York: International Publishers, 1970. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. (GM) Walter Kaufmann, ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. (TPN) [Including selections from The Gay Science (GS), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (TSZ), and Twilight of the Idols (TI).] Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans. New York: Viking Penguin, 1954. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. (WP) Walter Kaufmann, ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. Singer, Peter. Hegel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Singer, Peter. Marx. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Conventions Abbreviations are listed above. I have used, in the text, single quotes as ‘scare quotes’ and double quotes to indicate an actual quotation. Where possible, citations were made in the most economical style possible, i.e., that of a journal article. Since I did not understood the German pagination of Hegel, I used a numeral ‘I’ to indicate the pagination up through English p. 390, and a ‘II’ to indicate the final section, where the German pagination starts over at 177.
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