Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 4

rublev_trinityI hope you’ve enjoyed Hart’s dense and challenging engagement of Nietzsche. This Part 4 closes out the relevant section on Nietzsche from Beauty of the Infinite (92-127) with which we began. Concluding that section, Hart writes:

Obviously there is something dubious about any attempt to abstract a “historical” Jesus from the New Testament, and to his credit, this is not really Nietzsche’s aim; nor is his Jesus any more implausible than that of, say, Harnack. If anything, Nietzsche’s reconstruction of the figure of Christ is to be preferred to many others, in that he is at least candid enough to confess how much of an imaginative project it is that he has undertaken. “What I am concerned with is the psychological type of the redeemer. For it could be contained in the Gospels in spite of the Gospels, however much mutilated and overloaded with foreign traits: as that of Francis of Assisi is contained in the legends about him in spite of the legends” (AC, 140-41). This “could” is at least some kind of admission of the ultimate impossibility of pursuing such a psychology as a purely “scientific” project. To treat the Gospels as palimpsests, concealing the original text of the historical Jesus, is often to arrogate to oneself considerable license for creating a Jesus amenable to one’s purposes; this has long been the special disease of the search for the historical Jesus, and it is certainly the case with Nietzsche; but The Anti-Christ does not simply limn a caricature and then make it an object of ridicule. Still, it is just as well to note from the outset that, in the end, Nietzsche’s “psychology of the redeemer” must be accounted an imaginative failure, if for no other reason than that it never actually succeeds at all in reinterpreting the figure that appears in the text of the Gospels, but becomes instead an incredible feat of hermeneutical intuition; so remote is the portrait Nietzsche draws from the narrated Christ of the Gospels that the texts can be used to very little effect, with the result that his Jesus turns out to be less a subversion of the biblical Jesus than an arbitrary (and rather conventional) construction. Christ, for Nietzsche, remains a point of particular resistance for the narrative of power, as is evident from the extreme inventiveness required of him as he attempts to commensurate and encircle Christ’s aesthetic force; and still invention flags, falls far short, exceeded in every direction by the uncanniness of the Christ of the Gospels – and this failure could not be more instructive.

Nietzsche expresses special contempt for Renan’s use of such psychological types as the hero or the genius to describe Jesus. One cannot, Nietzsche insists, call heroic a person who preached that evil should not be resisted, who knew only “blessedness in peace, in gentleness, in the inability for enmity” (141); “idiot” is the better epithet (perhaps on the model of Prince Myshkin): Christ lived in a sweet delirium, in which a life of eternal love seemed present in each moment, in which all men appeared as equal, the children of God; an inner world of his own creation, one to which he fled principally on account of his excessive sensitivity to touch and abrasion, his morbid dread of reality’s sting; his was a child’s evangel, an exhortation to simple faith, a devotion to an inner light and an immunity to all concrete realities (29-32, 141-44). Nietzsche rejects as barbarizing falsifications all attributions to Christ of irony, gall, or esprit, and all the nonsensical apostolic dogmas of a “second coming” or “final judgment” (142-43). Jesus was indifferent to dogmatic Judaism and to all formulations of religious orthodox; for him the entire world was a language, a system of spiritual symbols (144). This is why Christ’s evangel could not possibly survive him:

such a symbolist par excellence stands outside of all religion, all conceptions of divine worship, all history, all natural science, all experience of the world, all acquirements, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art – his “knowledge” is precisely the pure folly of the fact that anything of this kind exists….he never had reason to deny “the world,” he had no notion of the ecclesiastical concept “world.”… Neither can such a doctrine argue: it simply does not understand that other doctrines exist….Where it encounters one it will…lament the “blindness” – for it sees the “light” – but it will make no objection. (145)

Christ’s good tiding were that all sin and guilt were remitted, all punishment abolished, all separation from God overcome – now, in the present; he taught no system of belief, but only a sense of blessedness, a form of life; “evangelic practice alone leads to God, it is God!” (146). S the supreme symbolist, able to acknowledge the actuality of only his own inward universe, even his use of such terms as “son of man,” “God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” was metaphorical, a poetical plying of symbols of eternal “fact” (146). “But it is patently obvious what is alluded to in the symbols ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ – not patently obvious to everyone, I grant: in the word ‘Son’ is expressed the entry into the collective feeling of the transfiguration of all things (blessedness), in the word ‘Father’ this feeling itself, the feeling of perfection and eternity” (147). Even death, for such a one, is only a symbol, and Christ’s death was a final realization of the life he led (147-48). In short, Nietzsche’s Christ is a study in the psychopathology of moral and intellectual angelism. Unfortunately, this figure – though somewhat altered, is at the last boringly familiar: in Nietzsche’s Christ, as I have said, one renews acquaintance with Hegel’s “beautiful soul.”


The church, then, according to Nietzsche, actually represents the absolute opposite of Christ’s evangel; “in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross” (151). The church was built by staggeringly unimaginative philistines, unable to understand or, certainly, to imitate Christ’s life; they transformed their master into a savior, a judge, a rebel against the prevailing social order, the one son of God; though Christ’s death was itself free of all ressentiment, in the minds of his disciples it became an act of sacrificial propitiation (152-54). Nietzsche especially condemns Paul for his role in this falsification; to Paul he ascribes a positive genius for hatred, and accuses him of inventing the resurrected Christ, the lord of history and the doctrine of judgment: in order, so the story goes, to extend his sacerdotal tyranny over the herd (155). Only by way of such dogmas could the church inveigle into its fold the impudent dross that became its vast constituency (115-16). Nietzsche’s treatment of Paul is, as it happens, easily the weakest, tritest, and most risible portion of The Anti-Christ; one could scarcely conceive of a diatribe that could succeed better at being at once so unbalanced and so platitudinous. But from the morass of these pages one can still extract the substance of the accusation being made, and it is one with a certain real gravity for Christian thought: that the historical church, far from simply failing to live up to Christ’s teachings, contradicts them in every essential feature. This is no simple attack on Christian hypocrisy; not only does the church fail to live up to what it professes, but that very profession is diametrically opposed to everything Christ was. Such an accusation carries with it an altogether devastating force – if, that is, one is actually convinced by Nietzsche’s portrait of Christ.

It would be fruitless to ask whether Nietzsche’s Christ is a psychologically plausible figure (perhaps he is); but as a historical reconstruction he is rather absurd, and more or less unimaginable in terms of Jesus’ time and place. It is difficult at first to know what to make of Nietzsche’s portrait, chiefly because it describes so singular a pathology in Nietzschean psychology: for the “man of ressentiment” everything is a cause of pain, and so he resents (EH, 229-31), but Christ’s reaction to reality’s afflictions, as Nietzsche imagines him, is neither resentment nor resistance, but an ethereal withdrawal, detachment, and tabescence of the will. This makes no very creative use of the texts; the more one inspects the picture presented, the more it looks like pure invention or a feat of divination more penetrating than any mere hermeneutical method: the Christ of the Gospels possesses simply too much irony and gall for this to be taken as an incidental addition to the memory whose impression was left in the Gospels (so much gall, in fact, as to be the cause of some considerable discomfort to Christians who occasionally wish that this biblical Christ cut a somewhat more domesticated figure – not so feckless as the piscine imbecile Nietzsche describes, of course, but something no more threatening than a social worker, or a community organizer, or ideally a conscientious bourgeois). The oddity of Nietzsche’s Christ is how close he comes to a cliché on the one hand and how remote he seems from the texts from which his picture is extracted on the other: he appears in The Anti-Christ as a sort of outlandish hybrid between a fin de siècle Parisian decadent, nourished on absinthe and opium, and an autistic child. The implausibility is difficult to exaggerate; the fiction is so thoroughly polemical that all proportion and narrative continuity is lost – an imaginative failure, as I have said. It would seem that, for Nietzsche, the figure of the Gospels remained to the end indomitable: in Christ he encountered a restive, alien, and intractable quality that had to be put at a distance by a combination of invective and extravagant psychological speculation. Admittedly, to deem The Anti-Christ an artistic failure is an entirely aesthetic evaluation, but in regard to Nietzsche nothing could be more pertinent. In this work, finally, the form of Christ remains rhetorically untouched (which is what is at issue for Nietzsche: he is not like Harnack, deluded that he can retrieve something of Christ’s historical substance as an objective quantity). To Nietzsche, whose limited psychological phenomenology can accommodate nothing that does not obey the simple taxonomy of active and reactive, Christ can be grasped only as withdrawal, dissolution, spindrift evaporating at the verge of the great ocean of violent energy that is the cosmos; it is inconceivable to him that the lamb brought to slaughter could be also the lion of Judah. But if there is an energy – which Christians call agape – that does not conform to this polarity between active and reactive, dominant or dominated, but is at once creative and responsive, evoking and evoked, and is able to constitute the distance between differences as neither force, nor violence, nor plain univocal heterogeneity, but as an analogical peace, as the gaze of recognition and regard, as a gift; if, in short, Christ represents a model of being that is active in receiving and creative in responding, or in which these things abide within one another, indivisibly, then the Nietzschean cosmos is revealed to be not simply an arbitrary fiction, an aesthetic perspective, but also perhaps – by comparison – a fairly squalid one.


This is, of course, what is at stake in Nietzsche’s “psychology of the redeemer,” and this is why Jesus must tenant his narrative in just this fashion. The otherness that Nietzsche encountered in Christ, the strangeness and refractoriness to conventional psychology, is openly acknowledged in The Anti-Christ: Christ desired no power and suffered from no resentment toward his persecutors – indeed, he loved them. For Nietzsche this means Christ was a dreamer, which is to say a decadent, a creature of perishing life; but then again, perhaps a dreamer might also be creative. A certain degree of detachment from merely “obvious” circumstances, a certain distance and oneiric cast of mind, is required for any creative action; a new practice requires a new imagination of the world. Depending on the “dreamer” or the dream, the oneiric may be a force of historical effect, cultural change, social genesis, or revolution; the oneiric may be that rhetorical excess that reconstitutes understanding and practice, that alters the vision of others; it need not be only an inward and perishing force. A Christian might well acknowledge that Christ was a masterful “symbolist” – the documentary evidence is sufficiently convincing – but precisely in the sense that Christ showed that the world was a text that could be read differently: according to the grammar not of power, but of agape. The Christian contention, then, would be that this “dreamer” could also, in reenvisaging the world, initiate a real historical sequence, a positive if oft-imperiled “new creation.” He was a “revolutionary,” recasting the very form and reconstituting the very substance of the human in the life he lived in perfect faithfulness. And obviously the church may then regard itself as somehow a partial realization and imperfect enactment of this new creation – this kingdom without coercion – that was made flesh in Christ and is continuously made present in the Spirit. The church has Christ as its beginning and its end. Nor need any Christian meekly accept the Nietzschean division between what Christ saw and what he did: or rather, what Christ saw and what, in consequence, he did not do. One might even ask if Nietzsche is not engaged throughout The Anti-Christ in a strategy of ressentiment, the interposition of a moral interval between Christ (the agent) and the church (his agency), in order – to use Deleuze’s happy turn of phrase – to separate Christ’s (aesthetic) force from what it can do. A deviousness bred of weakness and a poverty of aesthetic imagination will – so one is reliably informed – inevitably assert itself in this way. In truth, Christ’s cleansing of the temple precincts, his creation of a new and holy space within history, can be conceived quite compatibly together with his “symbolic” pronouncements; his injunction to “render unto Caesar” may be regarded not merely as a dreamer’s recoil from “reality,” but as the active rejection of one order in favor of another, intended to make room for the concrete community of the church and its peculiar practices. For Nietzsche this remains always inconceivable: to allow that the symbolist of the Gospels could be also creative, forceful, imperious, and capable of discrimination and judgment – to allow, that is, that the “idiot” whose rejection of power was final and still free of resentment could genuinely enter into history, or constitute an apprehensible aesthetic form among the many forms cast up by time, or pose against all philosophies of will and power the historical example of a community able to live, however imperfectly and infrequently, by charity rather than by force – would give the lie to Nietzsche’s own narrative of cosmos and history, his own metaphysics and (more importantly) aesthetics.

Again, there is little but force of rhetoric behind Nietzsche’s constant reversion to a pagan vision of the world as perpetual agon, a terrible collusion of chaos and order, which is shaped and controlled through the judicious deployment of various powers, such as “reason” or “the state,” or (as is the case with Nietzsche) merely affirmed as wasteful but indestructible creativity. Nietzsche is a pure metaphysician insofar as he cannot endure the “irrational” idea of a freely creative and utterly transcendent love; he thirsts for the soothing fatalism of “necessity.” Thus he merely repeats the wisdom of totality, how redoubled and reinvigorated by a critique internal to itself: like Dionysus, totality rends itself apart to give itself new birth; the limbs of Parmenides are reassembled in the form of Heracleitos. If, however, the language of Christ’s evangel is taken seriously, for even a moment, a certain salutary trembling must pass through the edifice of totality: it is irreconcilably subversive of all the values of antique virtue and public philosophy, whether guarded by Apollo or animated by Dionysus; it makes every claim to power and to rights not only provisional, not only false, but quite simply absurd. Christians claim that the beauty that appears in Christ, contrary to all judicious taste, abides with and in the poor, the godforsaken, the forgotten, and the lowly, not simply as a sweetening of their lot with bootless sentimentality, or because Christianity cherishes life only when it is weak, perishing, and uncomely, but because Christ – who is the truth of being – indwelling among and embracing these “slaves,” shows them to be luminously beautiful. Can this be believed? To entertain the possibility that such a language could indeed effect the reality it depicts, even if fitfully and failingly, or to imagine that the future that impends upon every instant might lie open to the practice of such a reality, would require a far more radical historicization of thought, a more radical antiessentialism, than Nietzsche’s: it would require the belief that nothing in the world so essentially determines the nature of humanity or the scope of the human soul that there is no possibility of being reborn.

Finally, of course, as I have repeatedly insisted, it is taste, rather than historical evidence, that must dictate whether one elects to see Christ as a creator of values or as an impotent decadent. Again, it is Nietzsche’s aesthetic evaluation – I this case his preference for the form and allure of noble values over Christ’s gospel of love – that remains unassailable. The metaphysical aspects of his critique, which continually float to the surface wherever they are denied, are embarrassing if regarded as anything other than facets of an imaginative narrative, an attempt at a more compelling story, whose appeal is rhetorical, whose logic is figurative, and whose foundation is none. Nietzsche’s disdain does not follow from the force of his reasoning; it is that force. Despite which, certain of his postmodern followers all too often allow the metaphysical within Nietzsche to predominate (quite contrary to their intentions) by taking his narrative of being and his distaste together in such a way that the narrative comes to constitute an assumption that functions all the more pervasively for going unacknowledged: the Heracleitean cosmos is taken as, in some sense, as unproblematic and unarguable truth, and the only alternative to totalizing metaphysics (of which, however, it is a very venerable variety). Still, in the case of Nietzsche, it is the aesthetic side to which theology must attend, because this provides the only real challenge to the Christian kerygma: one gospel confronts another; Nietzsche’s preferences are all. They are preferences that are scintillatingly well expressed in numerous passages throughout his writings, such as one notable reflection in The Anti-Christ upon the kind of persons – the sordid little provincials – one finds everywhere in the New Testament: “Their ambition is laughable: people of that sort regurgitating their most private affairs, their stupidities, sorrows, and petty worries, as if the Heart of Being were obliged to concern itself with them; they never grow tired of involving God himself in even the pettiest troubles they have got themselves into. And the appalling taste of this perpetual familiarity with God” (144). In fact, Nietzsche may well be right; there is little in the New Testament, given his tastes, that might favorably compare with Homer – or even with Apuleius. One Gospel story that one can assume, from this quotation, earned Nietzsche’s disdain is that of Peter, hearing the cock crow and, remembering his denial of Christ, going apart to weep. Nowhere previously in the literature of antiquity had the tears of a rustic been treated as anything but an object of mirth; certainly to regard them as worthy of attention, as grave or meaningful or tragic or expressive of a profound human grief, could appear only grotesque from the vantage of a classical, noble aesthetic. There was indeed a revolution, a slave revolt, both in those frightfully subversive tears and in the shocking tastelessness of a narrator so indiscreet as to record them, so vulgar as to view them with anything but elevated contempt. And FNinsanethis is where the battle lines, ruefully to say, between Nietzsche’s narrative and the Christian narrative have been irrevocably drawn. The most potent reply a Christian can make to Nietzsche’s critique is to accuse him of a defect of sensibility – of bad taste. And this, in fact, is the last observation that should be made at this point: Nietzsche had atrocious taste.

…I intend nothing facetious in saying that Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself – of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity (and at a time when and in a land where modernity had gained a commanding advantage over it); this first eruption of the postmodern, which arrived appropriately as a rediscovery of a pagan ontology and aesthetics, reminds theology that against the God declared in Christ, Dionysus and Apollo stand as allies, guarding an enclosed world of chaos and order against the anarchic prodigality of his love. Many of theology’s native resources might otherwise have continued to lie largely unexploited. Since Nietzsche was always sufficiently aware that the “death of God” is not something that has simply epochally occurred, but must now be narrated and invented (lest only the “last man” inherit the earth), he always showed enough good manners to confront theology with what is clearly a story, stridently posed against the Christian story. And so theology is reminded that it has – and may boldly tell – another tale: one in which the being of creation is an essential peace, hospitable to all true difference, reflecting the infinite peace of God’s triune life in its beauty and diversity. For this recollection of its uniqueness within the world totality describes, and for this provocation to renew the kerygmatic essence of theology, Christian thought would be churlish not to be grateful.


AC (The Anti-Christ)
BGE (Beyond Good and Evil)
EH (Ecce Homo)
GM (On the Genealogy of Morals)
TI (Twilight of the Idols)
WP (The Will to Power)


One comment on “Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 4

  1. A brilliant commentary. 🙂


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