Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity 4

Written by Mark Farnham

On August 13, 2010

Nietzsche’s Christianity

The European expression of Christianity in Nietzsche’s day is key to understanding his critique of it. “Nietzsche was living at a time when the balance was still in favor of the religious, but prophetically he could anticipate a coming age in which the balance would tip in favour of the irreligious.”[1]

Many Christians are put off by his verbal assaults without remembering that he was writing against a certain form of Protestantism and Catholicism that may, upon closer examination, be significantly different than the form of Christianity that many in the world today practice. There is no doubt that he did write many things that Christians of all ages would find offensive. And he certainly attacked the heart of the Christian faith in addition to the peculiarities of German Lutheranism in his day. It would be a mistake, however, to reject all his criticisms of Christianity outright. Nietzsche had an uncanny grasp of what the Enlightenment had done to Christianity, and some of his censure is unparalleled in its accuracy. “Enlightenment denarrativization came at a high human cost, and nobody has understood that cost better then Friedrich Nietzsche.”[2] Nietzsche’s love for Greek tragedy sprang, in part, from a sense of loss that both Socrates and scientific naturalism had introduced—a loss of the great myths that made life fascinating, enthralling and interesting. While initially confident in science and its ability to explain away “the god of the gaps,” he eventually came to see faith in science as also contributing to the stultifying of life: “But you will have gathered what I am getting at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests” (The Gay Science, Book 5, 344, p. 201). Myth was necessary for the reenchantment of life, for without it, there would be no Dionysus. Without myth “all cultures lose their healthy, creative, natural energy; only a horizon surrounded by myths encloses and unifies a cultural movement. Only by myth can all the energies of fantasy and Apolline dream be saved from aimless meandering” (The Birth of Tragedy, 23, p. 108).

In contrast, cultures that had lost or done away with myth were life-denying and pathetic.

Now place beside this type of mythical culture abstract man, without guidance from myth, abstract education, abstract morality, abstract law, the abstract state; consider the rule-less wandering of artistic fantasy, unbridled by an indigenous myth; think of a culture that has no secure and sacred place of origin and which is condemned to exhaust every possibility and to seek meager nourishment from all other cultures; that is the present, the result of Socratism’s determination to destroy myth. Now mythless man stands there, surrounded by every past there has ever been, eternally hungry, scraping and digging in a search or roots, even if he has to dig for them in the most distant antiquities (The Birth of Tragedy, 23, p. 108-9; emphasis mine).

This was Nietzsche’s evaluation of Europe in his day, especially Germany. The loss of an inspiring and noble myth by which people could interpret their lives resulted in “feverish and uncanny agitation” in which hungry people greedily grabbed and chased after nourishment. What Nietzsche was not as keen to recognize, however, was that the same disenchantment that plagued European culture also plagued Christianity. The same Enlightenment that had demythologized science and the humanities had demythologized Protestant Christianity.

The Enlightenment had dealt a severe blow to Christianity as its status as unchallenged presupposition gave way to a brutal historicist, empiricist and rationalist attack smashing the foundations of Western civilization. The response by European Christians ran the gamut from fideistic entrenchment to surrendered accommodation. Specifically among intellectuals, accommodation seemed to be the “enlightened” way to deal with these challenges. As a result of the philosophical and theological developments from Descartes and Hume to Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher, Christian theology progressively capitulated for the sake of retaining its respectability.[3]

Descartes introduced “the first truly magnificent philosophical system of the modern period.”[4] He wanted to know what could be clearly and distinctly known without uncritically holding what his philosophical predecessors had accepted without justification. He doubted everything until he found the one thing he could not doubt—himself—as famously preserved in his dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” In doing so, Descartes introduced a massive philosophical and cultural shift from God as Subject to the autonomous rational human being as Subject. “The self that becomes the star performer in modern European philosophy is the transcendental self, or transcendental ego, whose nature an ambitions were unprecedentedly arrogant, presumptuously cosmic, and consequently mysterious…the transcendental self was nothing less than God, the Absolute Self, the World Soul.”[5]

The starting point for knowledge, then, became man, and not revelation. Descartes intention, however, was not to reject God. A solution had to be found to preserve belief in God. Descartes developed what is essentially a variant of Anselm’s ontological argument—that since one can conceive of a perfect being (a being than which nothing greater can be thought), that being must exist. The significance of Descartes’ project is that God’s existence is no longer accepted upon the testimony of the Christian Scriptures, but is now accepted because the notion of God is innate in man’s mind. That is, man can autonomously reason to God. This set the stage for the “crisis of major proportions” that marked the transition from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth. “Supernatural revelation faded out early as a primary proof” and reason “overshadowed revelation in the early eighteenth-century debates.”[6] Additionally, the living, personal God of the Reformation had degenerated into a corpse of impersonal substance, from which succeeding generations of vulturous thinkers would strip its flesh.

As a radical empiricist, David Hume rejected the concept of innate ideas and restricted human knowledge to analytical truths (i.e., all bachelors are unmarried men) and synthetic truths (i.e., 2+2=4). Any claim to truth that did not meet these qualifications was to be considered nonsense, even if it helped people to practically live day to day. Yet at the same time, “he used a set of devastating arguments to show that the unqualified faith of the Enlightenment in the powers of reason and experience was limited.”[7] The effect of Hume’s philosophy was the introduction of a flood of skepticism that would only partly be dammed by Kant.

Immanuel Kant “awoke from his dogmatic slumbers” after reading Hume. As a devout Lutheran, he was greatly concerned that Hume had so completely made Christian faith seem irrational. His mission was to provide the foundations for once again deeming faith to be rational. By separating the noumenal from the phenomenal, Kant thought that he had protected God from the critiques of Hume and scientific naturalism. In The Critique of Pure Reason he expanded the notion of the self that Descartes had introduced. The self was no longer the passive recipient of knowledge or sense data; rather, the human mind became the active subject, imposing order on nature. In The Critique of Practical Reason Kant reversed the order of morality and religion, positing that morality produces religion, not vice versa. Morality was innate for Kant, and was not motivated by religion, but rather was the motivation for it. From this Kant developed his famous categorical imperative—“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[8] For this morality to be virtuous, however, it must be motivated not by any selfish interests, such as love or pity, but purely out of a sense of duty. “In Kant we can see the forces of Nietzsche’s comment that ‘morality is anti-nature’, a rejection of the instincts and passions.”[9] Kant’s impact on nineteenth-century European Christianity, is twofold: first, while God can be rationally believed once again, he is virtually unknowable; and second, Christianity is reduced to morality.[10]

As an absolute idealist, G.W.F. Hegel posited a principle of absolute unity that comes to particularity through a process in history. Every individual mind is an aspect of the grand mind of the absolute (or God, as Hegel saw him), a corporate consciousness. The absolute comes to consciousness by negation (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis), which brings more concrete knowledge. The absolute has greater universal knowledge of the concrete realities of the world. The absolute, by means of Hegel’s dialectic, comes to perfect knowledge and becomes the true concrete universal, knowing reality perfectly in its concreteness. At that time all things become one with the absolute at the omega of history. Unity and diversity are in a dynamic, reciprocal and eschatological relationship with one another when perfect consciousness is realized by the universal. It will include all finite minds in its attainment of the one indivisible Geist. Through his construction Hegel succeeded in erasing one of the key distinctions of Christianity—the Creator/creature distinction, in which God eternally remains other than creation. By making everything (including God) a monadic reality, God becomes indistinguishable from human beings.[11]

Friedrich Schleiermacher carried Kant’s epistemological principles to their logical conclusion, while at the same time rejecting his religion within the limits of reason alone. “Like so many of his contemporaries, Schleiermacher thirsted for the Infinite, which was something quite different from trying to reconcile religion with reason, or to reduce it to ethics.”[12] One could not attain knowledge of God through human intellect. Rather, a feeling of absolute dependence is the means by which people come in contact with God. In place of the autonomous human intellect of Descartes, Schleiermacher set up autonomous human emotion. This is nothing more than religious phenomenalism. One is religious not by adhering to a body of knowledge or doctrine, but by experience. “Thus Schleiermacher individualized, as well as psychologized and emotionalized religion. Each individual was an embodiment of the All, and experienced the All in his own unique way. If Schleiermacher’s God was not pantheistic, he was certainly immanent, to be found in the world, more particularly in man’s soul.”[13] Religion was, finally under Schleiermacher, a radically subjectivized human experience whose sole expression was some kind of morality.

The next part of this essay will explore what effect these philosophers and theologians had upon the Christianity with which Nietzsche was familiar.

[1] Alistair Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified (London: SCM Press, 1999), 28.

[2] David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 299.

[3] Although there were many other philosophers and theologians who contributed to the decline of Christianity in Nietzsche’s day (most notably Kierkegaard), for the purpose of this essay, only the five mentioned above will be examined. Interestingly, Nietzsche mentions the impact of Descartes, Hume, and Kant (among others) that culminated in Schopenhauer, giving Germany its “first admitted and uncompromising atheist.” This atheism was “a victory of the European conscience won finally and with great difficulty; as the most fateful act of two thousand years of discipline for truth that in the end forbids itself the lie of faith in God.” (The Gay Science, Book 5, 357, p. 219)

[4] Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006), 154.

[5] Robert C. Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self, A History of Western Philosophy vol. 7 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 4.

[6] Franklin L. Baumer, Modern European Thought: Continuity and Change in Ideas, 1600-1950 (New York Macmillan, 1977), 185, 188.

[7] Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750, 13.

[8] Readers of Nietzsche can certainly see the similarities between Kant’s categorical imperative and Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, while at the same time appreciating the differences.

[9] Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750, 39.

[10] Robert Solomon mistakenly associates Kantian moralism with Christian ethics. He states, “Nietzsche’s nihilism is a reaction against a quite particular conception of morality, summarized in modern times in the ethics of Kant. Quite predictably, much of Judeo-Christian morality—or what is often called Judeo-Christian morality—shares this conception.” See Robert C. Solomon, Living with Nietzsche: What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 123. One only need read key theologians in the history of Christianity, such as Augustine, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, to know that there is a world of difference between Kantian ethics and Christian ethics.

[11] This distinction is lost on Gilles Deleuze who mistakenly thinks that Christianity is Hegelian: “What has been discovered in Hegel’s early writings is in fact the final truth of the dialectic: modern dialectic is the truly Christian ideology;” Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (trans. Hugh Tomlinson; NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 18. Throughout this volume Deleuze ties Christianity with a Hegelian dialectic, but he is grossly mistaken, as Hegel is one of historic Christianity’s most destructive enemies.

[12] Baumer, Modern European Thought, 278.

[13] Ibid., 278.

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