Reflections on Post-Christian Europe

I recently returned from a two-week trip to Germany where I visited the major university centers of Freiburg, Heidelberg and Tübingen. These cities, dating back to the Middle Ages, each possess remarkable charm, with stunning architecture, cobbled streets and quaint, cottage-like houses. I was particularly struck by the churches and small cathedrals which, as you can imagine, are opulently decorated with stained glass and remarkable stonework.

The Freiburger Münster cathedral (above) is especially spectacular. Begun around 1200 and finally completed in 1330, the Münster features both Romanesque and Gothic characteristics, and to my mind perfectly captures the stereotypical qualities of a mid-sized European cathedral. The interior inspires reverence and solemnity, and my wife and I moved silently through the aisle and trancept while one or two parishioners prayed nearby. It seemed a natural place to seek God.

Diagnosing A Post-Christian Culture

But sadly the reality of the situation in Germany is that very few people seek god, and the majority of these beautifully-crafted churches are empty, perceived now as the irrelevant relics of a backward and unenlightened age. The University of Chicago recently published a study showing that Germany – and especially the eastern half of the now reunified country – ranks among the worlds’ most atheistic countries. Once the vanguard of Protestant theology, Christianity is now all but dead in Germany.

As I toured these spectacular churches with these statistics in mind, I couldn’t help but reflect on a famous passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science. Published in 1882, the books contains a section known as the “parable of the madman.” In it, Nietzsche describes a crazed man with a lantern rushing into a crowded marketplace at dawn and yelling, “I seek god! I seek god!” The crowd, being the sophisticated, enlightened atheists that they are, laugh and mock him. The madman, Nietzsche writes, responds:

“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

The crowd stares bewildered at the crazed man, not knowing how to react. Sensing that they cannot understand the significance of his proclamations, the madman throws down his lantern, a symbol of Promethean insight.

“I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

Nietzsche’s point is that while modern culture has abandoned faith in god they nonetheless fail to recognize the significance or implications of a godless universe and continue about their regular lives as though nothing has changed. Despite his many faults, Nietzsche fully grasped the terrible consequences of Darwinism and the secularization of Europe, and wished to provoke a more nuanced, truthful investigation into what it means to be authentically atheistic.

The parable closes with the madman wandering through Europe’s empty churches:

“It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

The Work Ahead

Europe has yet to accept that their beautiful, empty churches stand as glaring reminders that they have all but eliminated god from their worldview without absorbing the terrible consequences of atheism. Many Germans – as well as Americans – live complacently in absentminded acceptance of the “death” of god while still believing that they can lead normal, ethical lives. It is, as the madman said, still too early for them to recognize that without god we enter into a new, radical stage of human existence, one that necessarily entails unprecedented suffering and hardship.

To facilitate a spiritual reawakening in Europe, I wonder if it is necessary to patiently remind Europeans that without god – the lynchpin of objective moral commands and obligations – we are utterly free to behave as cruelly and irresponsibly as we please. Perhaps Nietzsche, who explored the consequences of atheism more thoroughly than anyone in the modern age, can aid us in this task.

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