Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 2

Written by Mark Farnham

On July 30, 2010

Nietzsche was prophetic in many ways, both in his style and content. Walter Kaufmann compares Nietzsche to some biblical prophets because of the way he shared the angst and suffering of the very people to whom he was speaking.

Sometimes prophecy seems to consist in man’s ability to experience his own wretched fate so deeply that it becomes a symbol of something larger. It is in this sense that one can compare Nietzsche with the ancient prophets. He felt the agony, the suffering and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequences, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of a coming generation.[1]

The style of his writings certainly lends to an image of Nietzsche as a prophetic figure rising on the scene in the late 19th century. Merold Westphal agrees, adding that Nietzsche is not only a prophet, but also a positive theologian:

There is something quasi-scriptural and quasi-traditional about Nietzsche’s relation to the theologian. For he performs if we will let him, the task of a prophetic protest, the ad hominem critique of theology by its own professed standards. And for Jewish and Christian monotheism, if I am not mistaken, both scripture and tradition include important strands of prophetic protest. Amos and Jesus are quite different from Nietzsche, but all three managed to get very religious people angry at them in strikingly similar ways.[2]

The content of Nietzsche’s writings, however, contrasts sharply to that of biblical prophets. Whereas they often spoke humbly as the mouthpiece of God, he, as Kaufmann notes, spoke out of conceit and as one wretched, forsaken and, in keeping with his admiration of the Greeks, tragic. His style was shocking, but no less than his content. And it is his content that sets Nietzsche off from other critics of Christianity, both in its insight and foresight.

Even though Nietzsche did not write like a typical philosopher, he nevertheless thought as comprehensively as any before or after him concerning the religion and the transcendent. Iain Provan remarks that, “Nietzsche is undoubtedly one of the great predictors and shapers of the world in which we now live.”[3] What exactly did Nietzsche predict? Quite a few things, as it turns out. The primary concern of this essay is his foresight into the corruption of Christianity and the resulting death of God. Nietzsche saw clearly what this meant for the main concerns of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Metaphysically, the Enlightenment and the enthronement of scientific thinking left no room for God, “and with his death came also the collapse of all religious and philosophical absolutes—the collapse of the metaphysical and theological foundations of Western culture and specifically of traditional morality.”[4]

Epistemologically, the death of God meant the end of absolute truth, objectivity, universality and eternity. Fact is replaced by interpretation; Truth is replaced by truths. As a result, truth is only a metaphor, and only serves a practical purpose (to survive), not a transcendent one. Ethically, the death of God meant the end of a universal, normative ethic. Nietzsche called for a revaluation of all values that would go beyond good and evil and be replaced by a sliding scale of noble and plebian values.

Nietzsche was prophetic in many ways especially in his insight into Christianity and foresight of its direction at the end of the 19th century. His declaration of the death of God was not only perceptive in his own day, but a premonition of a future day when this event would finally be recognized in its fullness. The fact that Nietzsche was so astute concerning his own day has led some to downplay or deny his premonition of the future, but that seems to be an unnecessary dichotomy.[5] Also, Nietzsche was adept at detecting idolatry, and he foresaw the disaster that would befall a society that did not reject idols. He understood the effect that nihilism would have if a society went too far in its celebration of the death of God and abandoned all meaning and values. Regarding the death of God and idolatry, Nietzsche was tremendously prescient, and his vision of the future is worth exploring.

In his day, much to his dismay, people continued to practice the trappings of Christianity even though, for all intents and purposes, they had stopped believing in God as he had been traditionally understood. Nietzsche was frustrated that no one seemed to understand the possibilities that lay in the future now that God was dead. “He foresaw a point in the future when its reality would dawn widely on Western culture, leading to widespread nihilism…He also foresaw that most people would be unable to accept the intrinsic meaninglessness of existence, but would seek alternative absolutes to God as a way of investing life with meaning.”[6] The prospect of “alternative absolutes” was just as troubling to him, since he knew that anything that was absolutized (except the self) could quickly become the foundation for the next oppressive religion. This does not mean that Nietzsche wanted to return to the “instinctual swamplands of the primitive psyche.” As Danto explains, “It is a call to creativity, to new structures and to fresh ideals, in the light of which we might make ourselves over in an image of our own. God being dead, there is no reason to cringe in the corner of an unreal guilt. And let not something else take the place of this supernatural god, to make us feel humble and insignificant.”[7]

The evidence seems abundantly clear, then, that Nietzsche is widely regarded as not only possessing amazing insight, but also foresight. Just what did he foresee? The following section will address two of Nietzsche’s major critiques of Christianity, followed by a historical summary of how Christianity had changed by Nietzsche’s day to become something deserving his scathing attacks.

[1] Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychology, Antichrist, 4th ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 98.

[2] Merold Westphal, “Nietzsche as a Theological Resource,” Modern Theology 13:2 (Apr 1997), 216.

[3] Iain Provan, “To Highlight All Our Idols: Worshipping God in Nietzsche’s World.” Ex Auditu 15 (1999), 19.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arthur Danto emphasizes Nietzsche as philosopher rather than prophet because Nietzsche did more than just proclaim God’s demise, he also proposed an alternative to Christianity; Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher, expanded ed. (Columbia Classics in Philosophy; NY: Columbia University Pres, 2005), 218. Earlier in his volume, however, Danto seems to accept the idea of Nietzsche as prophet to some degree. Speaking of the way disaffected teenage killers sometimes reference Nietzsche as an inspiration, Danto notes that he does not think that to avoid this misuse, Nietzsche would have wanted “his thought to be relativized to a metaphor and turned from exhortations into tropes. He wrote clearly and pungently and ornamented his texts with brilliant images, the better to prepare the mind for receiving the sharp and pointed messages it was his prime intention to plant into the flesh of the soul. When one lays out the propositions, they stand on their own. The philosopher was in the employment of the prophet; Preface to the Expanded Edition, xviii; emphasis mine.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher, 176.

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