An immediate association to the phrase “the death of god” is of the decline of religiosity in recent history. Young people visiting churches these days do it mostly for aesthetic reasons (especially if there is an adjoining graveyard), or – most commonly – as a side effect of weddings and similar happenings. The notion of visiting the house of God and communing with the spirit (as it were) is present only in its absence. It used to happen, but it used to happen in the sense that history happened: to other people.
Nietzsche took a literal approach to the phrase in his parable of the madman. In it, the titular madman enters a marketplace in search of those who, like him, saw and felt the death of god. He asks, he shouts, he makes all sorts of noise in order to ensure that none present missed what had happened. Those present, as you might imagine, were none too impressed by this sudden outburst of religiosity in their daily shopping and socializing. They had other things on their minds, other things to do, and if god had died that was neither here nor there. And even if what the madman said was true, it was not their job to sort out what it meant.
The death of god is not a phrase to read literally, or even as a theological statement. Rather, it is to be read in the expressions of those who heard it spoken and were indifferent to it. Gods do not die, but being forgotten is the next best thing to it. The fact that Nietzsche chose to locate the parable in a marketplace is telling, as the market (literal or figurative) is where the things that matter take place. The fact that the Market has undertones of religious veneration only empathizes this point – the old order has made room for something else, something not overly concerned with the metaphysical bothers of old madmen.
The death of god is a sort of shorthand for a more comprehensive change in the ways humans and societies go about things. On a large scale, the notions of grand accomplishments and venerable institutions that have stood the test of time as a monument to human will, have been replaced by quarterly reports and cynical calculations of who will be the next corrupt leader of our defunct systems. On a small scale, individuals engage in activities they only peripherally understand and do not have any emotional investment in whatsoever. Being amazed by the grandness of the world is replaced by fulfilling the daily quota of productivity. Gone are glory and virtue – what we have left is an imperative to increase sales performance by another percentage point.
Nowhere is this as visible as when the humanities are asked to “prove” their worth according to some arbitrary measure of profitability or utility. The belief that having people around who are able to read, write, paint, appreciate works of art or in other ways convey the experience of being human – has somehow been replaced by something more banal. What is the ability to navigate humanity compared to the ability to navigate the flows of market demand in order to supply just the right content?
You probably remember this from your school days. How you became enthused about something, only to be told that you had to do something else. And, more importantly, that this something else was more important than the frivolities that had you so enthused. Not just once, or twice, but throughout the whole duration, until you became so used to it that it became second nature. Work now, play later; seldom the twain shall meet.
Of course, there are reasons for this way to go about education: it aims to prepare kids for the world they live in, and habits developed early are more firmly rooted than those adopted later. There are whole systems of thinking about this, and they all each strive to prove that they are more efficient than their competitors at creating market-ready pupils. The preparation for life as a human being is not only shaped by the necessity to perform in some sort of market setting – it is designed for and by these very settings, with explicit goals and timetables.
The notion that you have to get a degree to get a job is still prevalent, and thus there is a certain ambient pressure to get a degree. Education is an investment, and you have to discipline yourself to make it worth the money. Not because of an innate curiosity or propensity to certain kinds of knowledge, but to make the cost/benefit analysis turn out in the positive. Finding out that something is not for you is a costly discovery, and it is not unheard of to complete an utterly uninteresting degree by sheer force of previous investments. When it is too expensive to back down, the only option is to keep at it.
Weber described this situation as the iron cage of modernity. Your actions are not based on what you want (or even need), but on the impersonal workings of bureaucratic systems and invisible market forces. Your life trajectory is not defined by traditional human qualities, such as love, family, friendships etc, but by ever more abstract relations to bureaucratic institutions. Education is one such institution, and the ways in which a relation to it can go wrong are numerous and well documented. Indeed, averting being documented a certain way (ie getting a bad grade) can become a more important focus of your lived experience than human beings in your vicinity – be they family, friends or loved ones. These bureaucratic institutions have it within their power to radically redefine our lives with a single form letter.
Of course, there are reasons to invest time and resources to keep our relationships to these abstract systems positive. Making it through an education with a degree opens many doors; giving a correct account of your taxes saves a lot of trouble; knowing the intricacies of bureaucratic systems lets you tap into their resources and opportunities. The iron cage rewards those who allow themselves to be locked into it; even more so those who learn to play by its arbitrary rules.
But the sneaky corpse of god always lurks in the background. The sneaking suspicion that the meaning of life is not to get that degree, exploit that loophole or get that grant. Or the gut feeling the telos of your being is not to maximize the profit margin for a company that does not care if you live or die. Or that there might be something more to being alive than being a mere cog in a societal machine. Or that digging the pit of babel might not be the best of ideas.
There used to be monuments dedicated to the awe of being alive. Most of them are still around, albeit not recognized as such. They are silent discursive anomalies from the beforetimes, and it behooves us to find them and revive them. Not because it will increase our marketability, but because life is – in the old religious sense of the word – awesome.