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Open sea

Friedrich Nietzsche defined modernity in one short sentence: God is dead. Widely misunderstood as a profession of atheism, what the German philosopher meant was a mere statement of fact that “ belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable”. What makes belief unbelievable?

We should note that what has become unglaubwürdig – unbelievable, is not the Christian God as such, but rather “belief in the Christian God”. Nietzsche is too good a theologian to assume that God needs to be believable. Faith has never depended on reason. It is reason that used to depend on faith. From classical Greece through the Age of Enlightenment, one could not trust human reason without believing in a rational God that makes reason believable.

This relationship was first stated by Plato and reaffirmed, in a different form, at the beginning of modernity, by Descartes. Put shortly, it purports that timeless truth dwells in a timeless mind. God is implied here as an ontological axiom for both.

It is exactly this alleged timelessness of either mind or truth that had become unbelievable when Nietzsche wrote that God was dead. Take for instance Darwin’s comment on Plato:

Plato says in Phaedo that our ‘imaginary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, and are not derivable from experience—read monkeys for preexistence.

The most severe implication of evolution here is not its rebuttal of Genesis literalism – liberal theology has already done it – but its redefinition of mind as a mere biological adaptation. Moreover, if our “imaginary ideas” are biological, the “real” ones are historical. Transcendental truth is an illusion.

Thus the Gordian Knot of metaphysics was cut, and the ontological argument was rendered obsolete. The God who died was the God of philosophers.

Personal faith is, of course, hardly affected by this, because personal faith does not have to be believable. Therefore: “ the event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension”. What has to be believable is only belief as the foundation of sociopolitical institutions “for example, the whole of our European morality”. It is here that Nietzsche anticipates the chill of the “eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth”. Mankind will have to navigate through the night without stars. There will be no more eternal verities and moral absolutes to guide our sociopolitical institutions.

Yet Nietzsche is not in a gloomy mode. He salutes the dead of God as mankind’s ultimate adventure in knowledge. It is because the illusion of eternal truth obfuscates perennial truth – science versus metaphysics, experience versus Platonic contemplation, that th dead of God opens such an unprecedented opportunity:

At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.

The question is if we truly want to navigate these dangerous waters, to inhabit such a meaningless universe, to dare into most fantastic science and heart-stopping growth without God, any god to turn our eyes on? The content of the last two centuries has been that of desperately searching for a new god.