The rise of technology and the enframing of human experience via the same caused the death of God; an alienation from many former Western values; especially those related to romanticism and certain aspects of Christianity. Many of the institutions related to those values remained, but the essences of the values they represented have decayed.
The death of these values is the death of God. Friedrich Nietzsche said in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “God is dead, and we have killed Him.” In a certain sense, we create God. Our moral expectations emerge within society. Those moral expectations, whether overtly religious or not, take on the role of God. We constantly crucify and resurrect our God. At the outset of the modern era, this took place in a way that was obvious to some thinkers.
Some Writers on the Death of God
In particular, Martin Heidegger explores this issue directly and at length in his essay entitled, The Question Concerning Technology. This question comes up in others’ work as well, however, in different ways. For example, in Salome, Oscar Wilde describes a very literal death of God through the death of John the Baptist; and in that case, the extreme intensity of Salome’s desire for a connection with the divine is what kills him.
In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe shows us what happens to a society when a modernized religion and government is introduced to a society for the first time; and in this case, the protagonist, Okonkwo, encounters the death of his “God” (that is, his old tribal way of life), and, consistent with the idea that he represents the moral ideal of his old society, he responds to that by committing suicide; an act that not merely mirrors what happens to his society, but which also entails, in and of itself, a repudiation of his tribal mores.
Heidegger: Technological Enframing as the Death of God
For Heidegger, the way in which one experienced being, drawing it out from the nothingness had everything to do with language. For him, language is beyond individual human knowledge; it is an evolving body of knowledge all its own, which man, as the guardian of language, has access to, and has the ability to shape.
As man’s knowledge has expanded, so has the tools of his language. But with the advent of the modern era, as man’s ability and propensity to, through technology, make use of the earth’s resources in an industrial capacity, man’s worldview has begun to narrow to see things in very particular terms – technological terms; and over the course of this process, man’s participation in being has narrowed to those things which can be held to be bound by the parameters of the technological worldview. Technology, in this way, is an event which appropriates man to itself; it is his new god.
The Role of Technology in the Ancient World
In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger speaks at length about the role technology once had in human culture. He refers obliquely to the role that technology had in reference to God, vis a vis its relationship to the ancient customs of worship (“There remains…something that is above all responsible for the sacrificial vessel. It is that which in advance confines the chalice within the realm of consecration and bestowal.”).
In this passage, we see that the customs of worship and culture (that is, God) appropriate technology, and shape its function in society. The broader passage describes how man once drew objects from the void into a sense of Dasein. Man, in this way, had a deep, interactive relationship with existence which affected the way in which things were drawn into being for him. The “Agathon,” if you will, cast its light upon the world, illuminating it to man.
The Crucifixion of God on the Cross of Technology
But now we see that, much to dear Martin’s alarm, God has been mercilessly crucified on a cross of industrialized steel beams. Later on in the essay, Heidegger talks at length about the exact way in which God has met His demise in the modern culture. “…when man, investigating, observing, pursues nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.”
I don’t think that Friedrich Nietzsche could have said it better; in fact, this may be the best clarification one could make of the concern he expressed that one could make. The appropriating event of technology causes human participation in Dasein to narrow radically; being itself dissolves into Cartesian particulates of clear and distinct measures of resource captured by a standing reserve, in the process of which, anything which can be experienced as meaning melts away into a nihilistic void.
Salome: Man as one Who Loves God to Death
How did this happen? Oscar Wilde’s Salome clues us in. The play has very Platonic and mythological themes in it. Salome represents a deep human desire to receive the Agathon – the divine illumination. Oscar all but bludgeons us over the head with his comparison of Salome to the moon. In the very first few lines of the play, he draws this comparison and encapsulates the plot: “How beautiful is the princess Salome tonight! Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.”
He continues to draw this comparison over and over again. Salome is pale like the moon. The moon is a virgin like Salome. Once Salome decides to dance for Herod in exchange for Iokanaan’s head, the moon turns blood red. The text draws this comparison repeatedly and consistently. Why is this important, and relevant to the death of God? For several reasons.
The Astronomy of Salome
On the level of astronomic science, the moon revolves around the earth and reflects the light of the sun. In that sense, it “seeks” light, and “occupies” the earth. This makes it, and therefore Salome, a symbol for that aspect of mankind which traverses all the earth relentlessly seeking truth, and illuminating the world with such light as it finds.
The Philosophy of Salome
On the level of philosophy, the natural light of the sun and the moon are shadows of the inner light which seeks inner illumination and freedom from the cave through spiritual enlightenment. In this sense, Salome represents the urge of the human spirit to receive the divine illumination. Salome also expresses some Nietzschean and Heideggerian overtones in that, in being denied total access to the divine, she responds by an exercise of power in order to take by force what will not yield itself to her willingly; killing the divine light by unconcealing it as a standing reserve; in some sense, Iokannan is now entirely subject to her will to power, in that she possesses his head – but in achieving this, she has destroyed his life, which is his very essence.
The Mythology of Salome
On the level of mythology, the moon has a number of meanings which Wilde exploits; and two meanings, in particular. The moon, in Greek mythology, is related to female sexual passion, and is represented by the goddess Selene; Salome sounds somewhat similar to Selene, and perhaps that is not a coincidence. It is certainly the case that she expresses an overt and single minded passion for Iokannan; even to the point of taking him against his will by having his head delivered to her arms. While, throughout the book, Salome and the moon are held in close comparison, at one point, Salome herself refers to the moon – and compares it, not to herself, but to Iokanaan (“I am sure he is chaste, as the moon is”).
This is interesting from the perspective of ancient mythology, because in ancient Semitic, Assyrian, Babylonian, and even surviving today in the symbols and etymology of Islam, the God of the Moon (Sin, Nanna, Allah, etc.) was a male god worshipped as the god of wisdom; and was frequently featured as the head of the pantheon.
This archetype is consistent with the position Iokannan holds as the one that speaks truth to power (as an aside, the last two syllables of his name spell out “Nanna” backwards, thus cementing that comparison; also, the first two syllables spell out “Koi” backward – perhaps related to the ancient Japanese Myth of the Koi, about a fish that swam upstream against many obstacles in a struggle with the world in order to seek enlightenment; but while that comparison can also be made, it is less clear), and inspires the fear and respect of all of the other “gods” (the other people present in the play; especially king Herod).
The Passion of Salome and the Death of God
So when we take all of these levels of meaning into perspective, the picture is very clear: Salome is that aspect of mankind which, with the passion of a virgin lover, pursues the divine enlightenment at full tilt – and at the expense of every other thing, and, ultimately, the very intensity and relentlessness of that pursuit destroys the very meaning of the divinity. This, then, is a very apt metaphor for modern man, who has relentlessly pursued knowledge hoping to find enlightenment, ultimately grinding under his heel the source of the enlightenment he had hoped to find. God is dead; we have claimed His head, and we have reduced Him to a standing reserve.
Chinua Achebe and the Spread of the Death of God
In Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, we see a dark warning (which he probably communicated somewhat unintentionally) about what happens to the societies of the world in the aftermath of God’s death.
Friedrich Nietzsche traces the process by which the Roman death cult which has, from its very outset, celebrated as central to all of its rituals, the intentional execution of God, set the stage for the death of God through the gash it cleft between the source of meaning and the physical world, leaving the exploitation of the physical world to those who have no interest in finding meaning in anything at all, and castrating meaningfulness as being not of this world, and thus not really relevant to the tangible aspects of man’s life, leaving man an aimless slave with no earthly will to power.
This leads to a scientistic dissolution of anything which can be pointed to as divine (and meaningful) into a nihilistic void, and leaves man rudderless, powerless, and, ultimately spiritually suicidal.
Heidegger Meets Achebe
Within this void, the Heideggerian enframing is the only thing which remains in man’s awareness of Dasein, and in the void, it is able to arrange all language, meaning, and human participation to suit itself and its expansion – and expand it does; even deep into the African continent, where, in Achebe’s semi-historical novel, Okonkwo, the symbolic representative of his culture as a whole, encounters the appropriating event that Western technology has become, and meets with his spiritual demise (which is then followed by his physical demise in the form of an act of suicide).
The Christian Ideal and the Transformation of Western Culture
The Western culture, which, for two thousand years, has been formed by the Christian ideal of a murdered and physically denunciated God, exposing the expansion of technological progress to a divorce from any sense of spiritual meaning, clearing the way for the likes of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, leading to the scientific and industrial revolutions – ultimately: to modernity – has been staggeringly successful from a Darwinist point of view.
This culture of enframing has overtaken and killed the ideal which cleared a path for it (in the sense that, like all aspects of the culture, the Western religion has been appropriated to its service, and, in some sense, has no essence that is apart from it). The enframing is not sated by the blood of its own God; and so it goes from place to place and kills as many gods as it can find.
The Encounter with the Western Modernism
Okonkwo is the very embodiment of his cultural ideal. At the very outset, we learn that he is a renowned warrior in a culture of warriors. He also is the ultimate expression of the value his culture places on individual achievement (versus family status); in spite of his father’s status as pariah and his mountainous debt, Okonkwo manages to rise to a position of power, financial wellbeing, and respect.
At a certain point in time, Okonkwo accidentally kills a man. Consequently, he exiles himself from his homeland for a period of time. During this time, European settlers and their religious converts arrive. They set up a regional Western style system of government. Their influence expands in two ways: firstly, they recruit those members of the society who are disenfranchised due to their inability to fit the social mold, or for other reasons that they have no control over (e.g., a propensity to give birth to twins), and secondly, they offer comforts of life made possible by the technological progress of Western culture.
The Last Gasp of a Dying God
In both respects, their expansion is accompanied by a distinct sensation that, even in such cases that it appears to operate on the basis of human kindness and mercy, there is a colder, more morally calculating idea behind it. It is an ideal which imposes itself. At first, Mr. Brown, the leader of the group, associates with the tribal leadership. He develops an understanding with them. But later, he gets sick and leaves (perhaps he’s the dying remnant of the Western God, gasping His last). Mr. Smith replaces him. He is less patient with the native culture. Mr. Smith is a truer representative of the imposing Western culture. Prior to this, Mr. Brown was patient and understanding, but his culture nevertheless influenced others and imposed itself on them. It upset the social norms, and fundamentally changed the essence of the society.
Okonkwo’s Spiritual Suicide as a Response to the Death of His God
By the time Okonkwo returns home, it is too late; the Westerners have fully colonized and subdued his village. He kills a representative of the Western government but finds that he does not have the support of the tribe. He realizes that his way of life is over. The value system he had embodied is dead.
He responds to this by killing himself – something which is a sin in his culture; and so his death is a spiritual suicide first, and a physical suicide second. The novel ends with the thoughts of the commissioner. This section has a very different feel from the rest of the book. It is crisp; scientistic; clear and distinct, and to the point. It reduces the incredible life of a man who had been the renowned embodiment of an entire culture to a single paragraph in a chapter of his book.
Why Okonkwo’s God had to Die
Modern Western Culture killed Okonkwo’s God in a cold, brutal fashion. But the truth is that the time for the death of Okonkwo’s God had come. This God was well worthy of worship; it was a God that galvanized a people; a God who inspired the individual to rise above his circumstance and sit with kings and elders; who smiled on a woman who would act on her own will to be with the man she loved; a God that made a man strive to be as strong and productive as he could possibly be.
But He was also a God who stole a boy from his family; and then had him murdered in cold blood by his adoptive father. He did this as compensation for a crime he did not commit. He is a God that left children in the forest to die; a God that cursed a part of the land; a God that left many disenfranchised in His wake. When the God killers came, they built their church on the cursed land. He sheltered the disenfranchised, and took root, systematically and permanently. It is the sins of the native God that gave it the means to do all of this.
The Cross and the Hope of Resurrection
What Achebe and Wilde did not see at all – and which Heidegger only glimpsed – is that which the appropriating event that the Roman death cult represents (though, perhaps, unbeknownst to its individual adherents) understands only too well: Gods have to die, periodically.
This is nothing new. The Egyptians worshipped Set as fervently as Osiris, the god he killed. And Osiris resurrected from the dead to give birth to Horus, the new god. The Greek story of the Phoenix also expresses this principle; so is the aforementioned Japanese story of the Koi. The Christian religion holds the cross as its highest symbol of worship. The cross is the implement of torture and death of its own God. Yet, Christians worship Him as risen. This is entirely appropriate. While the death of God was a long time coming, we may rest assured that His resurrection is immanent; but He will bear no resemblance to what He was before; if it weren’t for the nail marks in His hands, we would not even recognize Him.