A madman ran through a crowded marketplace, holding a lit lantern on a sunny, bright morning and shouting, “I seek God! I seek God!” Because many in the market were atheists, they mocked this silly man. Is God lost? they asked. Did He lose his way? Is He hiding? Is He afraid of us?Has He gone a voyage? Or: Did God emigrate?

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘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? . . . 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.’ ”

This story comes from the pen of Friedrich Nietzsche, and is a source for “God is dead.”What Nietzsche, somewhat of a dystopian prophet, meant by it is that because the Western world no longer took the Christian God seriously (Nietzsche died in 1900), why should they take the morality that He imposed upon them seriously as well? Nietzsche understood that the West cannot give up the Christian God and continue as if nothing epochal had happened.He saw that all which leaned upon this God and His institutions, all which grew up on this God and His moral commandments, and all which understood itself in relationship to this God and His sovereignty—this would all crumble, leaving hordes of refugees burrowed amid the decomposing corpse of deity (“Gods, too,” wrote Nietzsche, “decompose”), and what cold monster, what infernal beast, would arise from the remains?

It wasn’t just that God was dead; for Nietzsche, all metaphysics was dead, all belief in any overarching metanarrative, any transcendent bond that could tie it all together and deliver it in a neat, mathematically precise package, any conception of divine ordering.Truth, said Nietzsche, was nothing but canonized illusions, metaphors that had petrified, and traditions that had become cultural addictions and ethnic habits.The only truth was that there was no truth, the only certainly was that there was no certainty.No eternal harmonies serenaded the spheres, but only random, discordant tones, beats, and rhythms ricocheting through interstellar chaos, like a piano heaved down some stairs.

Universal Human Rights?

However (supposedly) liberating this freedom from transcendence was supposed to be, it does leave humans, essentially moral beings, in a bit of a pickle, especially when it comes to the question of universal human rights.In a postmodern world, in a world in which God is dead, where does one get the idea of any kind of human rights to begin with, much less universal or transcendent ones?

Jean-Paul Sartre, the twentieth century’s most influential atheist, said that “the existentialist . . . thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.”Philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell wrote that “many traditional ethical concepts are hard to interpret, and many traditional ethical concepts are difficult to justify, except on the assumption that there is a God or a World Spirit or at least an immanent Cosmic Purpose.”

Of course, once you deny the idea of that God or World Spirit, once you remove this idea from the equation, what happens to the morality traditionally associated with this idea? Yes (and this is what Nietzsche saw): that morality must vanish as well.

A New Morality

All of which leads, then, to a new question: If this old morality is discarded, where do we get a new one? The answer, in principle, is easy, and obvious. We have to create it ourselves. Morality this way is horizontal, not vertical; it’s physical, not spiritual; it comes from mitosis, testosterone, and protein metabolism, not from the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.Right and values have to be contrived from among ourselves, concocted out of a boiling brew of human passion, flesh, and dreams, and not revealed by some brooding omnipresence in the sky.

But if human rights are now what we as humans alone create—how, then, do we do it? Where do we find them?If we don’t pull them out of the air, do we excavate them from the dirt?And once we find them, who bestows those rights upon us if not God?Other people?And what gives these people, as opposed to others, the authority to decide those rights to begin with, and then to bestow them upon us? How do we know if those rights are valid, anyway? And whose definition of validity is the correct one? And if someone give us those rights, what can stop them from taking those same rights away?And, besides, if they are rights, then why do we need someone to bestow them upon us? That is, if the rights really are rights, aren’t they ours by default?

These are not easy questions to answer; or, rather, they can be answered, but probably not in a way that would satisfy most us once we truly start thinking about them.

A Counterfactual Thought Experiment

Historians sometimes present “What if” scenarios. What would have happened if, for instance, Hannibal had sacked Rome, or if Hitler had been accepted at art school and become a professional painter instead of a politician? How different would the world be today? These ideas are called counterfactuals.

Scientists sometimes do experiments, not in labs, but only in their heads, because of the impracticality of doing them in the external realm.These are called thought experiments. And, to show the inherent dilemma that postmodernism (and the loss of transcendence and absolutes) poses in the area of universal human rights, what follows is a counterfactual thought experiment.

Suppose that the Nazis had won World War II. Suppose, too, that under their propaganda, they convinced the whole world that murdering Jews was a moral necessity.In fact, suppose they made being Jewish a capital offense in every nation.

What criteria—using all available resources in a secular, postmodern weltanschauung—could one draw from to dispute them?To argue that this murder of Jews violates human nature doesn’t work, because the Holocaust was central to the Nazi moral vision: the Jews, they believed, were bloodsucking vermin whose existence degraded human life and human nature everywhere.For the good of humanity, to best preserve human nature, Jews had to be eradicated.

And to argue that it violated universal law would be another false claim, because the murder of the Jews would not be criminal or even universal.On the contrary, because the Nazis made it a universal law that being Jewish was punishable by death, it would be criminal, a violation of universal law, to protect them.

Thus, if everyone on earth believed that the murdering of Jews was moral, and if it were the law all over the world—that is, a universal law that Jews were to be murdered—what conclusion could one draw, based on the presupposition that morality must be a human creation only, other than that murdering Jews was the right thing to do?

Now, if one is not comfortable with that conclusion, what could it mean but that, contrary to the Nietzschean postmodern moral vision, morality would have to transcend mere human invention.Human rights would have to be something like sunshine, which comes from above, as opposed to cakewalk jazz, which we concoct from within ourselves.

Jefferson’s Ideal

However much one could justifiably mock some of the pretentiousness, not to mention hypocrisy, of Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was still onto something with the preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Nothing in these words are above criticism; every thought, every phrase, could be challenged. (For example, Aristotle, a perspicacious soul, thought it self-evident that humans were not equal and that some people were, indeed, born to be slaves.)Yet Jefferson, hardly a conservative Christian (hardly a Christian at all, at least theologically), nevertheless placed the foundation of these “unalienable rights,” not with the British Parliament, not with the king, not even with the Continental Congress, but with a “Creator.”Sometimes dubbed “the apostle of reason,” Jefferson showed some remarkable reason here by placing these “unalienable rights” in a transcendent realm, the only place they could be “unalienable” as rights.

How fascinating that Jefferson, about as “secular” a Founder as America had, nevertheless understood that only with the “Creator” could these rights be secure. The mere fact that they are “rights,” as opposed to “privileges” (he didn’t write that all people are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable privileges”), implies that there’s something that we have, by virtue of merely being human, that transcends humanity itself.That is, some aspects of being human are so sacred, so foundational, that no one can justly take them away from us.They have to come from, in a sense, a source “above” us, which alone makes them “inalienable.”

Otherwise, what?If our rights are derived from humanity, from human needs, from human nature, from human desires alone, because these needs, natures, and desires are malleable, fluctuating, and transient—maybe all human rights systems based on them must be as well? Hence, maybe they aren’t so “inalienable” after all?

Maybe that’s good; maybe human rights should change along with desires and needs; maybe our freedoms should fluctuate with the weather or the moon? If so, then nothing is absolute, nothing is certain, including what has come to be termed “universal human rights.” In fact, it’s hard to see what those rights would be, and who and how they would be defined and, even more so, why anyone would feel an absolute moral imperative to respect them anyway.And though they might be “human,” who determines whether they are “universal” or even “rights”?

The state?Perhaps!Yet what the state imposes the state can take away.If human rights are created by political fiat only, then they are technically no different than tax codes, speed limits, and Keep Off the Grass signs.If the state decides that murdering Jews or any other group is legal, or even moral, and if there is no higher realm to appeal to—then what can one conclude other than that, well, murder must be the right thing to do?

But if that cannot be right, why can’t it be? The only answer, it seems, is that some values, some rights, must transcend any and all human inclinations.But how could that be in a Nietzschean postmodern world, where nothing is imposed upon us from above, but instead comes only from within us?The answer, then, is that Nietzsche was wrong; a transcendent morality must exist, whether or not we openly acknowledge it.

Another Preamble

In contrast to Jefferson’s preamble, the preamble of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, voted by the United Nations, states essentially that the rights expressed in the document were created “by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world” and are seen “as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.”That’s fine, and the rights enumerated in that declaration certainly seem fair and comprehensive.

Yet the concept is problematic, even at the most basic level.Putting aside the dubious moral standing of the United Nations itself, who were these “representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds” and what gives them the authority to determine what our “rights” are, and then seek to impose them upon others? The point is not that the document is bad; the point is that, in contrast to what Jefferson did, humans declaring some concepts as “universal” and as “rights” simply does not make them so.And the fact that it was voted by some duly representative body means nothing morally, as well.After all, the history of humanity is filled with duly elected laws that have trampled upon the most basic human rights.

One could argue that what the United Nations did was not create these rights, but rather simply acknowledge and then codify them. That move, conscious or not, implies, then, these rights existed prior to, and even transcendent to, the august body that defined them—like Einstein, not creating general relativity but simply discovering what was already there to begin with.If so, then again, we’re left with the somewhat inevitable conclusion that universal human rights are not what we as humans create, but, in a Jeffersonian sense, are something we’re endowed with by our Creator.

Doesn’t Work

A Christian and an atheist were having a debate about the existence of God and morality, and the atheist said that all morality is purely local, purely cultural, and that one is no better than the other.The Christian then said, “Well, in some cultures, people love their neighbors; in others, they eat them.Which culture would you choose to raise your family in?”

However lofty the intellectual appeal of postmodernism, no one lives it out, neither in the personal realm and certainly not in the public one.No matter how liberal, open-minded, secular, tolerant, and progressive, people and societies sooner or later run into moral situations that, regardless of what they want to call it, reflect moral absolutes that, logically, must be transcendent, that must be followed, regardless of how many humans might deem it otherwise.

Sure, even if we acknowledge the transcendent nature of universal human rights, because they are not shouted down from the sky we have to figure out what they are, which itself poses a host of questions. Fair enough!But at least we have an absolute starting point to work from, a safer place for human rights to be lodged than in the fluctuating and fickle and often evil hearts of humanity.

Thus, Nietzsche’s madman might not have been so mad after all.He was onto something, which is why, in metaphorical language, he shouted: “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” Or, rather, what were we doing when we unchained human rights from transcendence?


Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.