My previous post in this blog, Behind the Western Horizon, was perhaps very emotional and cathartic. It might have been the stress that I came under during preceding two weeks, when I often spent more than 12 hours each day in my office—staying sometimes past midnight—researching when, why, and how people choose to believe or disbelieve. So in a moment of personal fragility, I wrote down whatever thoughts and questions were “moshing” inside the walls of my exhausted head.
Today I noticed that these thoughts, interestingly, resonate with the lyrics of a song from Black Sabbath’s latest album 13, which I have been listening to very often—almost daily—during the past month. When I wrote my previous post, I wasn’t particularly thinking of that song, which is for me very aptly titled God is Dead? (note the question mark!) But it seems that metal music, as usual, speaks for me—at least with respect to religious themes—even when I don’t try consciously to relate my own thoughts about religion to it. This time, however, I will try to use the lyrics of this song to talk about some issues related to religion and belief.
If you read the lyrics of the song—and compare them with my last post too—you may see how some lines strikingly express what I was trying to say in that post. The opening lines from the song go as follows:
Lost in the darkness I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my maker and Saviour
Help me make it through the night
The song proceeds with an apocalyptic scene of destruction and murder (a very recurring theme in Black Sabbath’s lyrics) followed by some kind of inversion of the Christian Mass. Then come the following lines:
When will this nightmare be over? Tell me
When can I empty my head?
Will someone tell me the answer
Is God really dead?
IS GOD REALLY DEAD?
God is Dead is a phrase that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined not to express atheism per se, but to sum up the notion that religion in the modern age has become obsolete or irrelevant. In other words, religion is no longer the guiding principle to which all spheres of life, such as science, politics, and morality should refer, as it was the case—or assumed to have been the case—in pre-modern times. The famous passage in which this phrase occurred, which, by the way, sounds as if it came from a Black Sabbath song, goes as follows:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. 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? […]
The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann
Although Nietzsche affirms almost triumphantly that “God is dead” and “remains dead”, he acknowledges that “his shadow still looms,” which brings me back to my aforementioned post. Even though my “God is dead,” to use Nietzsche’s metaphor, or, if I to use my own metaphor, He abandoned me in this world, I still feel the need for Him. His shadow continues somehow to loom over me, and I want some comfort for that. The torment caused by these feelings of abandonment and confusion over God has turned into a “nightmare” that persistently haunts one’s mind with this question, which Black Sabbath persistently ask in their song: Is God really Dead?
The death of God thesis became so widely accepted in many parts of the Western world to the extent that it invaded Christian theology itself giving birth in the 1960’s to a theological movement that bore the rather paradoxical name: “death of God” theology! The biggest demonstration of this theological movement came through a cover story for the Time magazine in April 1966. The cover consisted of the phrase “Is God Dead?” written in large red letters over an all-black background (something which, again, brings heavy metal into mind). The story looked at the crisis facing Christian theology at the time, which revolves around the question of how to make God relevant to an increasingly secularized society. Some theologians apparently found that the only solution to this crisis is to kill God off theology! The death of God theology coincided with the emergence of the secularization thesis in the sociology of religion, which stated emphatically that religion is progressively losing its significance for human societies. The two theses appear to be separate from each other: the first one is a theological proposition, whereas the latter is the outcome of a presumably scientific, disinterested analysis of modern societies. Contemporary critics of the secularization thesis as well as traditional theologians, however, would rather see the two theses as two sides of the same coin.
In the past three decades a counter-movement to secularization and death of God theses has spread throughout the world. Religion has reasserted itself vehemently in virtually all those areas from which it had previously been marginalized. This can be seen very easily in world politics, social and cultural “wars,” and even in science—the stronghold of secularism and the murderer of God, as Nietzsche once thought. Instead of declaring the ultimate death of God and the triumph of secularism, intellectuals and social scientists are hanging the obituaries of Nietzsche’s thought, death of God theology (see below the cover of a 2008 issue of Christianity Today), and the secularization thesis. In many cases the very people who previously advocated these theses are now recanting them.
Interestingly too, I have a poster hanging on the wall right opposite to me when I sit down at my desk in my office. The poster humorously expresses this reversal of paradigm by displaying two quotations: First, “God is Dead” (Nietzsche, 1883); and then “Nietzsche is Dead” (God, 1900).
I do not know what exactly to make of this liberal amalgamation of Black Sabbath, Nietzsche and me. I think there is a thread that runs between us three, but I cannot at the moment clearly define it or express it and I may actually never be able to do so. It needs further reading of Nietzsche’s and anti-Nietzsche’s rhetoric and more contemplation on my part about religion, which is anyway my job as a PhD student in religious studies. Until then, heavy metal music, particularly Black Sabbath’s (the foremost influential band of the genre) will probably remain my only solace. Therefore I conclude with these lines from God is Dead?
But still the voices in my head are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down the rain turns red
I don’t believe that god is dead
God is dead
GOD IS DEAD
God is dead
Postscript: For more on the relationship between Black Sabbath and Nietzsche you may want to read an illuminating chapter by William Irwin (a professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania), “Beyond Good and Evil: Facing your Demons with Black Sabbath and Existentialism” in his edited book Black Sabbath and Philosophy. You may also read his articles about the Black Sabbath’s latest album and its aforementioned song God is Dead?: “What Does Black Sabbath Mean by ‘God Is Dead?’ ” and “Black Sabbath Says ‘God is Dead’ ”