Staring into the Abyss.
Standing on the Precipice (Opinion Piece)
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche(in Beyond Good and Evil §146)
Nietzsche conceals a complex idea in a single paragraph and presents it simply. Encrypted within this statement are multiple layers of meaning and interpretations. His pronouncement reminds me of parallels (original to the Scriptures) that Jesus makes to his disciples in Matthew: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16 [BLB]). The Apostle Paul iterates them with “….But I wish you to be wise to good, and innocent to evil. (Rom 16:19 [BLB]), and Rom 12:17 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” [BLB]
A curious reader may ask, what has all this to do with Christian Apologetics? The truth is that Christians are exhorted to “contend earnestly for the faith having been delivered once for all to the saints.” (Jude 1:3 [BLB]). To contend with or for (ἐπαγωνίζομαι, epagónizomai) means: to struggle, grapple with, resist, withstand or pit oneself against with skill and commitment, in this case while standing on the very thing being assaulted (Faith, πίστει (pistei)). The exhortation is to withstand those concepts and persons who undermine the Christian faith, composed of “enemies both foreign and domestic.”
The idea of contending for the faith, of striving against the darkness and evil that permeates “the abyss” and overflows into our natural world, is a tenet of Christianity. It is a call to arms, a reminder that we must remain vigilant in the face of temptation and stay true to our beliefs and values. The exhortation demands that we remain steadfast in our pursuit of truth and righteousness, lest we become lost in the darkness of our own souls.
Allegorically, the Abyss for the Christian, should represent: That quintessential place that excludes the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the direct experience of living. The abyss often describes a place of darkness and despair and it is often associated with the idea of a spiritual void or a place of separation from God. The Abyss comprises of :
- The bottomless pit, in which all the God-less sensations and thoughts are contained. Of products of the carnal mind. (Romans 1:28-32).
- The darkest place, that conceives iniquity in action; the root of all God-less human behaviours, patterns of activity and vain speech: “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
- The place of defilement. (Matthew 15:18, Titus 1:15).
To argue that one “contends for the faith” is to argue that one grapples with that which is contained within this Abyss. Each identifiable component is a monster; which could be identified as the products of the carnal mind, representing the darker aspects of human nature. They can also represent the embodiment of evil, resulting in chaos and destruction that can arise when humanity is morally unrestrained in its actions. In Christian theology, monsters can be seen as symbolic of the spiritual trials that believers must face in order to resist temptation, avoid falling into sin and remain faithful to God .
Nietzsche warns of the dangers of engaging in a struggle against evil and darkness, the potential for becoming consumed by the very thing being fought with. If one gazes too deeply into the Abyss in which they are contained, it sets a person at risk of becoming like the very thing one is fighting against. He warns that in contending with monsters, the adoption of evil methodologies in the struggle, results in ones humanity becoming diminished, even if the actions carried out are in a righteous cause. The resultant state of succumbing to the dark and primal desires that lurk within the human psyche (Jeremiah 17:9), is that one becomes defiled (morally impure or unclean) and one’s soul is tainted by evil and darkness.
A believing Christian makes contact with this Abyss on a daily basis. There are numerous places devoid of God, that describe the infinite chasm that lies beneath unbelievers everyday reality, a place in Nietzsche’s famous quote, where “God is dead”. The demise of God is the product of the human will and of the human deed, not an accident (Romans 1:18 “…..who suppress the truth in unrighteousness”). But where does this idea come from, and what does it mean for our understanding of morality and society? The passage that this quote comes from is found in Nietzsche’s book, The Gay Science, where he challenges the Enlightenment’s claim that reason and science can do a better job than God for humanity. In order to fully understand the context and meaning of the quote, one must turn to the parable of the madman:
THE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed1Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche seems to have been very knowledgeable about the Scriptures but not in a way a Christian would understand. Firstly, he describes a madman as someone looking for God, in direct contradiction to what the Bible states in Psalm 14:1 “…..The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt; their acts are vile. There is no one who does good.” Secondly, he parodies 1 Kings 18:27 where Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal with …… “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Lastly he titles two of his books The Antichrist and Ecce homo (behold the man). Pontius Pilate uses these Latin words in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Gospel of John, when he presents a scourged Jesus, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion and death(John 19:5). “…[I]n Nietzsche’s hands, Ecce Homo means Behold a Man, a unique man, an example of man, a man for your consideration, not a model for morality, not a man for mimicry or devotion”.2“What Is the Meaning of Ecce Homo?” Nietzsche’s Last Laugh: Ecce Homo as Satire, by Nicholas D. More, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 37–204..
Nietzsche’s quote “God is dead” is often misunderstood as a rejection of religion or an affirmation of atheism. It is often cited as a symbol of his rejection of traditional morality and religious belief. However, the understanding behind the meaning of this statement is not as straightforward as it may appear at first glance. On closer scrutiny, it becomes a warning about the dangers of nihilism and relativism that follow the abandonment of traditional religious beliefs.
Nietzsche is not arguing for the existence of God, but rather cautioning against the jump from science to scientism and the idealization of its capabilities. Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media theory, calls scientism “the refusal to consider anything without evidence” and compares it to a religious belief, “something more like faith in an empiricist universe”. 3Rushkoff, Douglas. Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. New York: W.W. Norton, 2022. pp. 56-57. Scientism becomes the new religion; its adherents represented by the atheists standing around the madman mocking him. Nietzsche argues that this type believe they hold the opposite of the religious mindset, but the irony for Nietzsche is that they are not opposites but merely varying manifestations of the same ascetic ideal.
Paradoxically, according to Nietzsche, it is that those who “idolise” science and reject traditional religious beliefs are equally vulnerable to the dangers of nihilism. They are casting out their epistemic certainty and grounding of truth and failing to draw the necessary broader metaphysical and moral conclusions of rendering God obsolete. Without God, Nietzsche asks, “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?” These questions highlight the sense of disorientation and despair that comes with the “death” of God.
“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? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? 4Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay ScienceFriedrich Nietzsche
When God is no longer the guiding force in the universe, humans must take on the responsibility of being their own gods, which may be witnessed to varying degrees, as occurring constantly in modern culture. They must become the authors of their own knowledge and the authors of their own ethics or morality. Humanity then becomes the sole arbitrator of what is right and what is wrong. We are no longer bound by religious doctrine or divine commandments, but we are also responsible for our own actions and decisions. Nietzsche saw a danger in the way that modern society has embraced this newfound freedom. He argued that by killing God, we have exposed the devouring vacuum of nihilism that threatens to consume us. Without a higher power to provide guidance and meaning, we are left adrift in a world without purpose or direction.
Nietzsche sees that this worry has not dawned on his contemporaries in the age of modernity. The madman throws his lantern to the ground, shattering it, and laments that he has come too early – that his audience is not yet ready to understand his message. He writes in The Will to Power “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism”.
Nihilism is the conviction that life has no inherent meaning, and that our highest aspirations and values are incompatible with the harsh realities of the world. Nihilists reject the idea of gods or higher purposes that would justify our suffering, and as a result, they often experience feelings of despair and hopelessness. In essence, to adopt a nihilistic perspective is to reject the value and significance of life itself, and to question whether existence is worth the struggle. This makes nihilism fundamentally at odds with the very concept of life, which is predicated on the belief that there is meaning and purpose to be found in our experiences.
Nietzsche summarises with his “comment on the apostasy” where the madman entered multiple churches on the same day and began to sing the “requiem aeternam deo”. When confronted and questioned about his actions, the madman responded by stating that the churches are now nothing more than the “tombs and sepulchers of God”. This is exemplified today, by how these structures have lost their previous cultural and religious significance in the minds of those who are now left with their presence. They exist as monuments or sarcofagi, testifying to a time when people placed greater emphasis on their Christian beliefs. However, even that function is now being further eroded, as some churches have been sold and repurposed as community centres, libraries, or museums, etc.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.(II Corinthians 13:14 [ASV])
- 1Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.
- 2“What Is the Meaning of Ecce Homo?” Nietzsche’s Last Laugh: Ecce Homo as Satire, by Nicholas D. More, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 37–204.
- 3Rushkoff, Douglas. Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. New York: W.W. Norton, 2022. pp. 56-57.
- 4Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science