Black Sabbath Get Nietzschean On God...Or Do They?

Black Sabbath's badass single for their new album 13, which flouts radio pre-packaging and sprawls to the 9-minute mark, immediately caught my attention - not only because of the Nietzschean line in the song title, but for the fact that it ends in a question mark. "God Is Dead?"

When I saw the single on YouTube, with a saturated Nietzsche in the foreground of an explosion, I knew the group was putting his ideas on the table - but in what way?

Nietzsche in Jena, Germany,
a decade after his breakdown.
Nietzsche, one of the towering atheists of the modern world, is known for several key contributions to the history of philosophy: the will to power, the eternal recurrence, the transvaluation of values, and the √úbermensch or "Overman." But all of these ideas hinge on his fundamental conflict with the Christian God. The folly of Christianity is a question which would obsess Nietzsche throughout his life, from early readings of David Strauss' demythologizing Life of Jesus Critically Examined, to his final writings: a series of bizarre, ranting letters signed "the Crucified One" after a psychotic break in Turin.

(Many, especially Christians, are quick to link Nietzsche's madness to Nietzsche's philosophy as an effect to its direct cause. That thesis is fragile at best; but there is still a lot to ponder about the relationship of those two things in any given individual life, including Nietzsche's.)

Nowhere is Nietzsche's persistent attack on Christian "slave morality" more memorable than in his "parable of the madman" (The Gay Science, 1882), which tells of a lunatic running through a village proclaiming the death of God:

Now, there are some key things to note about this story. Nietzsche's bullhorn is not a cool-headed philosopher or scientist, but a raving prophet. And he's not arguing that "God never existed," or "God doesn't exist"; it's not exactly the same kind of atheism we hear launched at Christians by Marxists or materialists. His point is not proofs, but parricide. "God is dead, and we have killed him." What does this all mean?

Nietzsche's proclamation of the "death of God" is tied in with what saw as the crumbling edifice of Western metaphysics and morality and their synergy with Christian dogma. Lesley Chamberlain has a good summary of Nietzsche's vantage point in an article for The Guardian:

While Descartes's scientific revolution and the Enlightenment – which established rationality as the driving force of general culture – pushed God out of the picture in France (and, with David Hume, in Britain too), in Germany, where a unique kind of philosophy emerged at the end of the 18th century, God still headed up systematic explanations of man and nature and the meaning of life. A version of God made the great systems of Hegel and Schelling, known together as German idealism, possible.

Nietzsche, as a mid-19th-century German philosopher, first declared God dead in the context of this idealism. He might just as well simultaneously have declared "reason" dead. Indeed, he did just that. For reason, in the idealist context, was not just some capacity of mind to prove propositions about experience true; it was, for Hegel, a supernatural force out there, moving the world towards progress. Nietzsche's rebellion was a way of saying that no great metaphysical forces governed human life and created a framework for meaning, every individual faced the possibly absurdity of existence alone..."Reason" with a capital R, the force out there that made possible the philosophy of Plato, of the intertwining of Reason and divinity throughout mainstream Christianity and western philosophy, cannot be used to explain the nature of "man". But that means that man, too, is dead. In fact, the most serious outcome of Nietzsche's death of God is the death of man, or mankind, as one entity, defined by rational capacity and slotted into a vision of "rational" progress.

Nietzsche's understanding of history and humanity is, at the very least, honest: he saw that our sense of meaning and values is tied up with belief in the "suffering God," and all that implies for the weak and unwanted of the world. (Nietzsche called Christianity a "slave revolt" in morality.) He also saw that our great thinkers and innovators were doing their best to make God completely obsolete. The conclusion follows: man is killing off God, and with him, the pity-ethics of Christianity and the tidy rationalism of philosophy.

For Nietzsche, this crumbling ends in nihilism, which is the last stage in the disease of Christian civilization. We are slouching toward the "last men" - a society of comfortable, blinking, mildly happy wimps; a sort of bland socialist utopia, the antidote to which, Nietzsche thought, was the "Overman," a strong, assertive super-human, willing a new morality based on cunning and courage, not pity and weakness. Nietzsche wanted to unleash these sensual powers in man; but the first step was calling it like it was. He had to diagnose us: that the West has killed God, and with it, everything God-ish. What went up, must come down.

Dosteovsky was on the same wavelength, creating characters more Nietzschean than Nietzsche himself. (Nietzsche even read Notes From Underground with great admiration and a sense of brotherhood - until he was warned by a friend about the Russian author's Christian slant.) His underground man was the harbinger of irrational and self-destructive impulses, and his Karamazov Brothers proclaimed that without God, anything is permissible. Like Nietzsche, he saw what the slaying of God really meant in all of its implications. (His remedy to the problem, of course, was very different.)

Nietzsche has had an immense effect on history: continental philosophers like Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida have all grappled with his explosive ideas; Christian thinkers return to him time and time again to argue against him or, in some respects, with him; Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar, says: "the new atheists, their reasoning is so shallow...Nietzsche was the only guy that ever, in my experience in reading, I felt like he grabbed my spine, my religious spine, and just shook it."

But he's also affected the history of art, especially because of his emphasis on aesthetics and Wagner. (The theme song in 2001: A Space Odyssey is Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," named after one of Nietzsche's works.) The power of his words are hard to shake; and people are still invoking him in song.

Enter Ozzy Osbourne.

After a decades-long hiatus, the quintessential metal group Black Sabbath is back with "God Is Dead?" At first glance, I think many music lovers will draw the hasty conclusion: Black Sabbath, metal, Nietzsche - okay, classic case of rebelling against authority, throwing up the devil horns, rocking hard. But on closer inspection this reading is simplistic and doesn't wash.

The lyrics are worth repeating in full:

Lost in the darkness I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Savior
Help me make it through the night
Blood on my conscience and murder in mind
Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom
Now my body is my shrine
The blood runs free, the rain turns red
Give me the wine, you keep the bread
The voices echo in my head
Is God alive or is God dead?
Rivers of evil run through dying land
Swimming in sorrow, they kill, steal, and borrow
There is no tomorrow for the sinners will be damned
Ashes to ashes you cannot exhume a soul
Who do you trust when corruption and lust, creed of all the unjust,
Leaves you empty and unwhole?
When will this nightmare be over? Tell me!
When can I empty my head?
Will somebody tell me the answer?
Is God really dead?
Is God really dead?
To safeguard my philosophy until my dying breath
I transfer from reality into a mental death
I empathize with enemy until the timing's right
With God and Satan at my side
From darkness will come light
I watch the rain and it turns red
Give me more wine I don't need bread
These riddles that live in my head
I don't believe that God is dead
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide
Wondering if we will me again on the other side
Do you believe a word what the Good Book said?
Or is it just a holy fairytale and God is dead?
But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down the rain turns red
I don't believe that God is dead

Black Sabbath has a history of inverting assumptions about metal being satanic. As music critic Lester Bangs observed, Black Sabbath was "probably the first truly Catholic rock group, or the first group to completely immerse themselves in the Fall and Redemption: the traditional Christian dualism which asserts that if you don't walk in the light of the Lord then Satan is certainly pulling your strings, and a bad end can be expected, is even imminent."

Notice, too, Black Sabbath's subtle inversion of Nietzsche's dark aphorism. Rather than proclaiming the death of God and the arrival of the Overman with exuberance, Black Sabbath is asking if God is dead, and not because they'd prefer it that way. There is, in the song, a search for God's life, through a "nightmare" of darkness. "Maker and Savior," he sings at the beginning, 'help me make it through the night." We can see pretty clearly what this night is all about: Ozzy is not leaping "beyond good and evil," but jumping back from it appalled, looking at "rivers of evil," teeming with "corruption and lust, creed of all the unjust." The conclusion is that Nietzsche may have been wrong; and the last line of the song, "I don't believe that God is dead," is a flat-out disagreement with the capstone of his entire life's work.

In an interview, Ozzy Osbourne gives us some insight into what inspired the lyrics:

I was in somebody's office and there was a magazine on a table and it just said, 'God Is Dead,' and I suddenly thought about 9/11 and all these terrorist things and religion and how many people have died in the name of religion. When you think about the tragedy that's happened throughout time, it just came in my head. You'd think by now that their God would have stopped people dying in the name of, so I just starting thinking that people must be thinking, 'Where is God? God is dead' and it just hit me...At the end of the thing, there's still a bit of hope because there I sing that I don't believe that God is dead. It's just a question of when you see so many dreadful people killing each other with bombs, and blowing the tube trains up and the World Trade Center.

I think the point is clear - and the mention of religion is incidental to that point. Pascal admitted: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction." And Pascal was Catholic. Religious people have done, and will do, very heinous things in the name of religion, like so many 20th century dictators did in the name of a godless utopia. But "God Is Dead?" transcends this blame game - it's about the moral law, written on the heart, confronting the moral "beyond," no matter who goes there or for what reason. It's about facing down a monstrous situation and wondering where God could be. It's about the problem of evil. This is definitely not Nietzschean - Nietzsche would have seen no problem, because there is no God to square evil with, and no Christian framework to define it.

Black Sabbath invokes Nietzsche, but only to undercut him. Their lyrics show the "empty and unwhole" outcome of living in an age swallowed up in self-glorification and the thirst for power - an end reflected by Nietzsche's own end.

As Henri de Lubac puts it in The Drama of Atheist Humanism:

The tragic destiny of Nietzsche could be an indicator of our own, and it is in this that Nietzsche may, even in his blindness, have been truly a prophet. He unveils with naivete the eternal temptation of man, which is always resentment toward God. All this is, at bottom, much less new than he believed. And the future that all this prepares is also much less brilliant, much less 'superhuman.' Starting from such foundations, exaltation quickly leads to catastrophe, nor is heroism slow to change into abjection...

Nietzsche's "death of God" didn't unleash a happy flowering of superhuman glory in the West's life any more than in his. Black Sabbath is living proof. Instead, we collapse in terror, beyond reason as much as good and evil, returning over and over again to the same crossroads we thought we conquered: the longing for God.

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