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With a work entitled The Anti-Christ and declarations like “God is dead” the thought of Frederich Nietzsche seems obviously inimical to Christian faith. This final post of the series (at least for a while) will offer, however, a mostly appreciative reading of Nietzsche’s thought, focusing on the legitimate aspects of his critique of Christianity.
I believe such an engagement is important for at least two reasons. Minimally, examining Nietzsche’s thought helps us understand a growing and prominent intellectual camp in contemporary society. Charles Taylor describes the cultural debates today as a complex three-cornered debate between secular humanists, neo-Nietzcheans, and religious believers; any pair can gang up against the third on some important issue. Secular humanists and Nietzcheans will accuse believers of being other-worldly; humanists and believers, however, find Nietzchean anti-humanism unpalatable; lastly, and ironically, believers and Nietzcheans join together in critiquing humanists for the failed promises and progress of the Enlightenment(1).
But beyond this, I think engaging Nietzsche’s thought seriously can have a healthy, purgative effect, providing the fodder for some fruitful self-examination and questioning.
Generally, his criticism of Christianity is two-fold. Nietzsche questions the motivation that Christians have for holding their beliefs and, furthermore, objects to the moral content of Christian teaching itself.
Fundamental to religious belief is a complex emotion Nietzsche uses a French word to describe--“ressentiment.” Simply put, this is a combination of envy and anger that expresses itself in slow seething and calculated revenge. Powerless to directly overthrow their oppressors, the weak develop the language of morality; “evil” is used to characterize the attributes and actions of those that dominate them and “good” to characterize their own attributes. “Slave morality” is an instrument for the weak to gain power of the strong. This is just another expression of the same natural drive that motivates all human action—“the will to power.”
Religious piety is motivated by this same drive. Nietzsche supports his claim with quotes from two influential church fathers. He paraphrases Aquinas who, in Summa Theologiae, describes the joy of the blessed in heaven as follows:
The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them(2).
Nietzsche couples this with a lengthy quote from Tertullian expressing a similar sentiment. Tertullian gleefully describes the fiery fate of the damned at the second advent—“How vast a spectacle bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? What sight gives me joy? Which rouses me to exultation?—as I see so many illustrious monarchs…groaning now in the lowest darkness…governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ…(3).”
“These weak people—some day or other they too intend to be the strong, there is no doubt of that, some day their ‘kingdom too shall come,” comments Nietzsche (4).
Beyond the dubious motivations for religious belief, Nietzsche finds the actual moral teaching of Christianity problematic. According to his analysis, the moral ideal of Christianity is asceticism and the eradication (Nietzsche uses the world “castration”) of legitimate desires and passions. Such a morality is anti-natural and, in the end, “hostile toward life (5).” --“The saint in whom God takes delight is the ideal eunuch. Life ends where the ‘kingdom of God’ begins (6).”
So, is Nietzsche correct in his assessment of Christianity?
Let’s address the two aspects of this critique in order. First is the question of motivation.
Christian philosopher Merold Westphal recommends that churches read Nietzsche for Lent (7). Instead of hiding the truth from us, our opponents, unlike our friends, are the ones that will tell us how it is. Are some of our beliefs motivated by fear, jealousy, and the desire for power, riches, and/or vengeance? Probably. The gospel of Matthew records the real reason the religious leaders of Jesus day handed him over to Pilate—envy (Matthew 27:18). Who’s to say that that same doesn’t happen in our theological debates today?
Now this doesn’t entail the falsity or the truth of a belief itself; it just points out that people, including religious people, can believe things to be true (or false), for bad reasons. We should acknowledge this and repent, praying for better motives.
And what about the content of Christian morality? Is it a form of asceticism, based on a fear and hatred of natural desires? Nietzsche, here, paints with a broad brush. For him Christianity, Buddhism, Enlightenment morality, and Platonism, are all versions of the same outlook, teaching adherents to view themselves and the world with discomfort and suspicion. Ultimately, this outlook advocates a withdrawal from the world.
This critique, of course, is of a corrupt version of Christianity, one greatly influenced by neo-Platonism and Gnosticism. Such versions are based on a faulty understanding of the doctrine of creation found in the Christian Scriptures. Here God creates the physical world and declares it to be very good. The God of the Bible, it might be argued, is a God of celebration, wine, and dance (John 2:1-11). Furthermore, God has taken on flesh.
Christians, historically, have not emphasized the former, and have failed, at times, to understand the full implications of the latter. To the extent that our faith has become “excarnated”, to use Charles Taylor’s term, there is a lot of relevance to Nietzsche’s critique. (“Excarnation” is Taylor’s term for a Christianity that has become both disembodied and intellectualized; Taylor correctly points out that it is at odds with the doctrine of creation and incarnation.) To this extent, Nietzsche helps us appreciate legitimate, life-affirming expressions of faith.
But what Nietzsche identifies as “asceticism” goes beyond matters of food, drink, and sexuality. He also denigrates certain values and virtues that are central to Christian teaching—community, compassion, grace, humility, meekness, and self-control, etc., and valorizes, to the point of incompatibility, virtues like autonomy, self-assertion, and non-conformity. This aspect of Nietzsche’s thought is fundamentally at odds with Christianity. Here, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, we have an issue of two incommensurable and competing ethical traditions—what from one camp looks “good” looks “bad” to the other, and there’s no agreed upon standard, external to the perspective, to which either side can appeal (8).
These valuations, it turns out, ultimately rest on two different understandings of reality. Nietzsche views reality as a chaotic conflagration of atomic forces and orthodox Christianity posits a triune, infinite, and self-giving God (9). This issue, like the question of ethical valuation, is also immune to purely rational arbitration.
This raises larger questions about the possibility of meaningful discourse, on these issues, between the two viewpoints. It also helps us understand Nietzsche’s writing style; he recognizes the problem of perspective and incommensurability. So, instead of using standard argumentation, one that assumes a shared conception of the good and rational discourse, he intentionally hurls aphorisms, sarcasm, and unflattering names to forcefully criticize, and convince, his readers.
It is tempting to respond in kind, along with a healthy dose of counter suspicion. But doing so would make us play into Nietzsche’s hands, revealing that, in the end, we value what he values, i.e. assertion and domination, and possibly, that we really do believe (or are really afraid) reality is the way he envisions it.
A more faithful response, one consistent to Christianity’s self-understanding, I think, would intellectually model Jesus’ teaching–“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). In other words, absorb the blow. Acknowledge and affirm what is true, good, and beautiful in what your opponent says. And in doing so, let your life bear witness to a truth that surpasses understanding.
Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He teaches philosophy courses at Kennesaw State University.