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The Death of God, the Mission of Modern Psychology, and Me
The question, “Is God Dead?”, first entered my consciousness when I was ten or eleven years old. I saw it on the cover of a Life magazine, and it’s lingered in my mind ever since. At the time, though, I wasn’t too concerned with His possible demise. I had pretty much determined that God lived inside each of us. No matter how hard I tried, I hadn’t been able to find God in the lukewarm rituals of the Protestant faith. Instinctively, I knew God wasn’t dead, He was just hiding within each of us, waiting to be discovered.
I became interested in Freud in high school and entered college as a psychology major. After several years studying psychology, I underwent an existential crisis: I couldn’t bear the thought of my future career as a psychologist consisting of continuously instructing strangers about how to live their lives. It would be too boring to endure. So, I transferred to art school (a Nietzchian choice, I now see). For years, the question languished in the back of my brain: “Is God dead?” Or was the idea only yellow journalism or intellectual coffeehouse chatter? But all this background is bringing me ahead of myself.
It wasn’t until last month that I finally learned God’s death was first announced by and perhaps directly attributable to the philosopher Frederic Nietzsche. Only now am I beginning to understand the enormous impact of those three little words.
As a newly-renewed psychology major, I am fascinated by Nietzsche’s bold declarative question, “Who among philosophers before me has been called a psychologist at all?” (Nietzsche, 16), and how his thoughts anticipate, influence, and in fact, define modern psychology. Therefore, in this essay, I am attempting to interweave the death of God with the mission of contemporary psychology, and to offer some of my own thoughts and experiences. If I have added a distinctly personal spin to the proceedings, forgive me; I believe Nietzsche would have accepted the voice of personal experience.
“Whither is God” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers” (Nietzsche, 95). Thus, in 1882, Nietzsche created a madman who announced the end of Christian tradition and in so doing, the beginning of modern life. In conclusion, the madman proclaims to the listening crowd: “This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars–and yet they have done it themselves” (Nietzsche, 96).
Nietzsche could be mistaken for an atheist, but no man can kill something he doesn’t believe in. Even if man could kill God, God is a Supreme Being who possesses the power to resurrect Himself. Nietzsche’s point, then, seems to be that mankind cannot destroy God for all eternity, but that men can banish God from their lives. The death of God, serious though it may be, is a metaphor.
The metaphors flooding my mind are these: Man has murdered God, been tried and found guilty, and is currently serving a life sentence without Him. God first threw us out of the Garden, now we’re throwing him out of the asphalt jungle. We have replaced original sin for man-made guilt, anxiety, and despair. The reality of God’s death may be too much for man, a mere mortal (and now, more mortal than ever), to bear, as also is the lack of meaning in life. But every metaphor and consequence arising from the original theme begs the question, “God is dead, long
live . . . ?”
* * * * *
Nietzsche qualifies his metaphor and hints at some answers. First, he states that ” . . . the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable” (Nietzsche, 447). Second, he describes man’s life after God’s death:
“Indeed, philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel as if a new dawn were shining on us when we receive the tidings that ‘the old god is dead’; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, anticipation, expectation. At last the horizon appears free again to us, even granted that it is not bright, at 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’ (448).
The open sea is our psyche. But before I become too blithe in my interpretation, I must remind myself that the death of God tormented and tortured the philosopher. He sailed on through dark and into mostly uncharted waters to explore the human mind and human behavior–in a word, psychology. With prescient references to various Freudian concepts, Nietzsche discusses sublimation, instinct, repression, guilt, and ego. Still, we may worry that he’s left us behind and half-jokingly wonder, “Is there nothing sacred anymore?” Nietzsche would answer, “No. God is dead, long live psychology.”
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi neatly summarizes the connection between Nietzsche, ‘the first psychologist,’ and modern psychology:
“After all, at least since Nietzsche concluded that God was dead, philosophers and social scientists have been busy demonstrating that existence has no purpose, that chance and impersonal forces rule our fate, and that all values are relative and hence arbitrary. It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning” (215).
Just as there was “no psychology before him,” it is highly doubtful there could have been any without Nietzsche. Csikszentmihalyi not only accepts Nietzsche’s premise that life is meaningless, he also offers this insight on the link between the “first psychologist” and the role of modern psychology:
“If values and institutions no longer provide as supportive a framework as they once did, each person must use whatever tools are available to carve out a meaningful, enjoyable life. One of the most important tools in this quest is psychology” (16).
The highest calling of modern psychology, then, is to recognize our instincts, repressions, guilt, and the like, and to ask, “How can mankind be improved?” Modern psychology accepts God’s death, doesn’t mourn His passing, and goes on to acknowledge Nietzsche’s logical implication of personal responsibility (“All of us are his murderers”) and the “superman” who seeks perfect personal transcendence. Modern man can depend on himself and only himself for rewards and satisfaction, and his inner quest requires great discipline. Suffering may still impart meaning to life, as Nietzsche postulated (453), but we are secular victims, not religious martyrs or Greek tragic heroes. Besides, we don’t have the time; instant gratification is our goal, if it can be said to be a goal or if we have any goals at all.
* * * * *
The purpose for modern man is to find purpose in his life. He must re-create himself in his (small “h” intended) own image. Attractive and repellent, unprecedented and overwhelming, our task may be more than we can bear. We have our doubts about ourselves and are also suspicious of science; the science of psychology may be more an art than a science. Nietzsche might have predicted our misgivings. He might also have pointed out that, in the end, we are human, all too human, and perhaps we cannot transcend ourselves or science without God.
By looking at the death of God, the mission of modern psychology, and my thoughts about both, I had hoped to reach some definitive conclusions. I have not. I have, however, suggested a number of questions that will continue to interest me as a fledging environmental psychologist. In summary, I have only this to say: If God is truly dead, may He rest in peace.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. 1954. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
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