Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 5

Written by Mark Farnham

On August 20, 2010

As a result of Enlightenment thinkers, Christianity had become just a shadow of its former self. “This sea change in perspective unleashed tidal waves of destructive nihilism which Friedrich Nietzsche, in moments of philosophic lucidity, had prophesied as a result of living in an ‘unsponsored’ universe.”[1] With each instance of surrendered territory, philosophical naturalism pressed for more conquest until European Christianity had given up most of its foundational beliefs. Baumer notes that,

It is possible to discern, amidst the disagreement [over the nature of God], certain new developments that changed rather drastically the conception of deity as traditionally held in Christian Europe. To put it another way, God, still identified by most with the God of Christian revelation, now acquired new attributes (and lost others) in response to, not only the skeptical crisis and the desire for religious peace but also the new cosmology [of Descartes and Locke].[2]

Christianity had been understood as a supernatural life that was based on an eternal, divine personal Being who had condescended to reveal himself to created human beings, both verbally and in the historical incarnation of the Son of God, who then died to remove the curse of sin from humankind and rose again to bring abundant life in the here and now and eternal life in the hereafter. European Christianity in the 19th century had devolved into a cold, static state of dead morality based on admitted myths that were ahistorical, but useful for maintaining the power of religious authority. Almost nothing was left of historic orthodox Christianity but the forms of religion, the dead husk of appearances with no substance behind it.

Nietzsche was alarmed that people had not perceived the “mortal danger” of Kant’s categorical imperative, the ethical view of impersonal duty. He asked, “What could be more destructive than working, thinking, feeling, without any inner need, any deeply personal choice, any pleasure? as an automaton of ‘duty’? It is almost the recipe for decadence, even for idiocy” (The Antichrist, 11, p. 10). He understood that with the death of God, morality was no longer tied to a transcendent being, but rather was the tool of human authorities to manipulate gullible people. Nietzsche was disturbed by the lack of insight in his fellow man. He was even more disturbed by those who understood this, and yet still clung to religion in spite of their understanding. Kee tries to explain the dilemma. “It is not difficult to see why people who lose religious beliefs ignore the full implications of their new situation. It could be inconvenient: they do not want to lose the comfortable and familiar elements in their social lives, or their careers and professional status.”[3] This upset Nietzsche tremendously. He saw how this turned a person against herself, robbed her of life and sickened her.

Parasitism as the church’s only practice; drinking all the blood, all the love, all the hope out of life with its ideals of anaemia and ‘sanctity’; the beyond as the will to negate every reality; the cross as the mark of the most subterranean conspiracy that ever existed,—against health, beauty, against anything well constituted, against courage, spirit, goodness to the soul, against life itself… (The Antichrist, 62, p. 66).

Enter Nietzsche who acts as coroner to declare the demise of God and as artist to paint a picture of the glorious future. “Perhaps Nietzsche attacked a Christianity whose vision had become severely blinkered, a faith which allowed for too little in the way of joy and beauty, and so distorted eternity and wisdom.[4] In Nietzsche’s perception, Christianity was the enemy of life, vitality, instinct and the will to power. He saw that the ravages of critical scholarship had forced Christianity whimpering into a corner with nowhere left to run. Christianity had been exposed as non-historical, empirically unverifiable and irrational. As a result, its metaphysics were nothing more than superstition, its epistemology a charade, and its ethics nothing more than a tool of priests with which to manipulate and oppress the herd who still believed.

What Nietzsche saw when he examined Christianity was the bloated corpse of a host that had been attacked and overcome by parasites until it too became a parasite sucking the life out of people and cultures. The reason behind this, said Nietzsche is the inherent ressentiment of Christianity that seeks to overthrow the strong (On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, 10, p. 20-21). Hence, Christianity overtook Rome, spread around the world, each time assimilating elements of pagan culture and religion, changing itself with every successive accommodation. “Every time Christianity expanded to greater and cruder masses of people whose presuppositions were increasingly remote from the presupposition under which it arose, it became increasingly necessary to vulgarize Christianity and make it barbaric,—Christianity soaked up doctrines and rites from all the subterranean cults of the imperium Romanum and bits of nonsense from all kinds of sick reason” (The Antichrist, 37, p. 33).

Nietzsche was not the first to proclaim the death of God. Thirty years before his own proclamation, Max Stirner had written, “man has killed God in order to become now—‘sole God on high.’”[5] Later, Ludwig von Fuerbach would argue that the concept of god is the product of human invention in The Essence of Christianity.[6] Finally David Strauss wrote that Christianity was based on an “ideal” Jesus, not the historical Jesus. This led him to ultimately reject Christianity altogether.[7] Nietzsche, however, took the ideas of Stirner, Fuerbach and Strauss to their logical conclusions and was the bridge to a new dawn. He was a force, a destiny, dynamite. “I know my lot. One day my name will be connected with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis such as the earth has never seen, the deepest collision of conscience, a decision made against everything that has been believed, demanded, held sacred so far. I am not a human being, I am dynamite” (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am a Destiny,” 1, p. 143-4).

Nietzsche was right to see himself as dynamite. His writings accelerated the direction of the philosophy and culture of Europe, especially in Germany. In theology, his predictions achieved a certain measure of fulfillment, culminating in the “death of God movement” in America in the 1960’s, which was led by Thomas J.J. Altizer and Paul Van Buren.[8] Interestingly, this movement coincided with a recovery of sorts within philosophy of God as rational explanation of metaphysics. Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, published in 1967, sparked a revival of interest in the topic of God, and paved the way for his later books, which have reinforced the idea that it is as rational to believe in God as it is to believe in the existence of minds besides one’s own.[9] The effect of Plantinga’s writing was that a philosopher could ply his trade again without having to deny or downplay his belief in God. This was the contradiction of Nietzsche. He could both predict the direction of theology, while at the same time failing to anticipate the future of philosophy.

The last part of this essay will present Nietzsche’s antidote to Christianity and conclude with a final observation on his role as prophet of modern Christianity.

[1] Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept, 188.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified, 30.

[4] Stephen N. Williams, “Dionysus Against the Crucified: Nietzsche Contra Christianity, Part II,” Tyndale Bulletin 49:1 (1998), 150.

[5] Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, ed. John Carroll, trans. Steven T. Byington (London: Cape, 1971), 25; cited in Benson, Graven Ideologies, 73.

[6] Ludwig von Fuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Elliot (NY: Harper & Row, 1957).

[7] David Strauss, The Life of Jesus: Critically Examined (Kessinger, 2008); The Old Faith and the New (Holt, 1873).

[8] Representative of their works is Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).

[9] Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).

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