Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 1

Written by Mark Farnham

On July 23, 2010

My day won’t come until the day after tomorrow. Some people are born posthumously…The sort of predilection strength has for questions that require more courage than anyone possesses today; a courage for the forbidden; a predestination for the labyrinth.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Preface

That Friedrich Nietzsche was a prophet is neither a new or particularly insightful observation. He saw himself as one who straddled the past and the future, acting as a bridge for those in the present to understand and attain a future vision. Many readers of Nietzsche also see him as prophetic. The question remains, however, of what, exactly, was he a prophet? One should not be quick to assign an omniscient scope to Nietzsche’s foresight, for he certainly did not foresee the way his writings would influence and inspire some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. A chastened sense of prognostication, then, needs to be assigned to Nietzsche.

One of Nietzsche’ primary targets (if not the primary target) was Christianity. To even survey all that he said regarding Christianity would require as many volumes as he himself wrote. An examination of his attack on Christianity reveals a recurring pattern, however. Nietzsche attacked Christianity primarily in its expression in 19th century Europe (especially German Lutheranism)[1], more so than he did the Christian faith as given in the Bible and historically interpreted. Nietzsche’s knowledge of the Bible is questionable and his account of its contents alternately reveals insight and ignorance. What Nietzsche did know quite well was the nature of European Christianity in its post-Enlightenment expression, an expression that he found to be particularly distasteful and destructive of life as he saw it. As he said, “What decides against Christianity now is our taste, not our reasons” (GS, Book 3, 132, p. 123).

The purpose of this series of essays is to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s critique of 19th century European Christianity was not only insightful, but prophetic in that he understood the effects of the corruption of Christianity to an extent that few in his day could have foreseen. It will also be demonstrated that ultimately Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian faith itself falls woefully short, and reflects nothing more than an aesthetic bias against some elements of Christian faith rather than a genuine philosophical challenge.

[1] Nietzsche has little to say about American Christianity, probably because of his apparent disdain for anything American: “what do I care about the pathetic drivel of American idiots and asses?” (EH, “Why I Am So Clever,” 4, p. 92).

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