I have a close friend who, outside my siblings, has known me longer than anyone. We met in school as teens and have stayed connected since, though less in touch at times than we should have allowed ourselves to be. I moved to California last year and since Doug lives here with his family, we’ve been able to renew our friendship face to face.
Doug and I shared and processed faith together throughout High School, we both traveled the world involved in Christian ministry, and we both stood up as groomsmen in each other’s weddings. Doug is way smarter than I am, so when life’s questions and complexities led him to question and later abandon his faith, I wanted to know why. We discussed it off and on for years I suppose. I tried to challenge him; he definitely challenged me.
I think Doug would agree that German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) came to represent the main lines of argument that express his reasons for letting go of Christianity. I explored Nietzsche briefly years ago but have recently wanted to better understand the force of his rhetoric and his case against faith. So I’ve picked Nietzsche back up and intend to make my way through a few of his more important works.
My friend Doug has also agreed to write up a series of posts on Nietzsche for us here. I can’t wait. I think we’re looking at sharing those by the end of the year, but they’ll appear eventually. In the meantime, I thought that in addition to getting back into Nietzsche for myself I’d also revisit what others have to say about him. Irish philosopher William Desmond has been reading Nietzsche for decades and reflects on Nietzsche’s thought in Is There a Sabbath Rest for Thought? I’ve tapped into British philosopher Denys Turner, also a life-long reader of Nietzsche. And of course there’s David Hart who reflects upon Nietzsche at some length in his The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003). None of these (Christian) thinkers dismiss Nietzsche out of hand. On the contrary, they’re life-long readers of Nietzsche and take his challenge seriously, engaging it with a sense of urgency about his abiding relevance.
Hart especially leaves no doubt as to the depth of his respect for Nietzsche, a figure who appears repeatedly in Hart’s essays and conversations. The section I intend to reproduce here (without footnotes) in 4-parts for those who do not own BOI that portion that engages Nietzsche most directly (BOI, 93-127). This will provide a place for comments and interaction as well. Buckle your seat belts, return your trays to their upright and locked position, and keep an unabridged Webster nearby.
David Bentley Hart (BOI, 92-127):
This is one reason for turning, belatedly perhaps, to Nietzsche himself, in whom theology encounters all the most truly daunting challenges to Christianity emanating from antiquity, modernity, or postmodernity expressed with a purity and force quite simply unmatched in any other thinker. He is also undoubtedly the figure who most conspicuously looms on the threshold of postmodernity. In greatest measure it is he who has determined what ethos must govern any philosophy that would convert disenchantment with (or enmity to) all discourses of transcendence into a vigorous and creative style of thinking, without illusion or regret. Being without transcendence or transcendent purpose: this ontology has had no more eloquent and consistent advocate than Nietzsche (nor one in whose rhetoric the confrontation with theology is more explicit). Not that Nietzsche’s thought as such has been accepted uncritically by postmodern thinking: Deleuze and Foucault come closest to assuming a Nietzschean position without apparent embarrassment, but even they – in their sober moments – decline to take the rhetoric of the will to power as far as Nietzsche did; of the better part of postmodern thought it may be said that insofar as Nietzsche’s metaphysical inclinations are recognized, they are often rejected, and insofar as the more disturbing ethical implications of Nietzsche’s writings are acknowledged, they are not embraced. But this is why Nietzsche is often preferable to his epigones: he announced his ontology without deluding himself that it somewhere makes room for an ethics of political or moral “responsibility.” He understood both options the epoch “after” Christianity offers: the “pagan” or the “gnostic,” exuberance or withdrawal. The former he endued with the name of Dionysus, the latter (unfortunately) with the name of Christ, and he recognized the impossibility of a reconciliation between them: especially one framed in terms of the “ethical.” Moreover, Nietzsche’s thought is still quite close to theology, in unexpected ways. If nothing else, it was his ardent conviction that the pain of existence must never be thought just cause for a hatred of the world (a maxim at the heart, though Nietzsche denies it, of a Christian sensibility). More importantly, though, his method was evangelical; his ontology appears in his writings only as part of a thoroughgoing assault on Christianity, one conducted rhetorically, diegetically, in terms of aesthetic critique. He confronts theological reflection, therefore, with a polemical challenge, a war of narratives, and in doing so he liberates theology from apologetical dialectic, in which it has no ultimate stake, and calls it again to its proper idiom: a proclamation of the story of peace posed over against the narrative of violence, a hymnody rising up around the form of Christ offered over against the jubilant dithyrambs of Dionysus, the depiction of an eternal beauty advanced over against the depiction of a sempiternal sublime.
III. THE WILL TO POWER
Nietzsche, perhaps, still indicates a future; the scope of his influence on Western thought is, it seems, scarcely beginning to make itself manifest. For Heidegger, of course, Nietzsche was the liminal philosopher, the flash of lightning breaking out in idealism’s long, chill twilight, the fatidic Janus who at once, gazing forward, announced the death of metaphysics and, staring back, gave metaphysics its final form. In the eyes of some, however, Heidegger – however well he grasped Nietzsche’s epochal significance – still approached him with too ponderous, humorless, and Teutonic a spirit, and so failed to appreciate that Nietzsche’s “metaphysics” is a thoroughly ironic and consciously fabricated fable, devised (like Plato’s autochthonous myth) to accomplish and end, not discover an origin. Nietzsche should rather, they say, be taken as a liberator, not Janus but a true Dionysus, causing the citadels of metaphysics, faith, and reason to tremble at his passing, summoning free spirits to bacchanal, calling thought to festival and the task of affirmation before the aimless play of being. For Christianity, however, which has heard all of Dionysus’s claims before, Nietzsche may well represent an even more momentous turning in the thought of the West, to wit: the appearance at long last of a philosophical adversary whose critique of Christianity appears to be as radical as the kerygma it denounces. Nietzsche grasped, even more completely than Celsus (the only other significant pagan critic of the faith), how audacious, impertinent, and absolute was Christianity’s subversion of the values of antiquity: thus allowing theology to glimpse something of its own depths in the mirror of his contempt. In short, with Nietzsche the voice of unbelief at last swells to the registers of the voice of faith and so, curiously, does faith honor.
Of course, in its profound gratitude for Nietzsche’s enmity, theology must not be so flattered as to forget to respond to his critique, and to do so “genealogically”: to show, that is, that Nietzsche’s narrative rests upon premises it dissembles, and that this narrative is accounted for and already surpassed within the Christian story. Nietzsche’s critique cannot simply be dismissed, much less avoided, because it strikes too near the core of Christian faith and action; it is too cunning in its understanding of the language of Christian morality and hope, and too deft in its use of the quintessentially Christian practices of narration and evangelical exhortation. After all, the Nietzschean attack on the gospel is first and foremost a virtuoso performance, a rhetorical tour de force, moving from imaginative historical reconstructions to displays of brilliant psychological portraiture, from a kind of phenomenology of “the natural” to flights of apocalyptic hyperbole; and it calls for a comparable demonstration on theology’s part of a capacity for comprehensive and creative renarration. Unfortunately, the attempt by theologians to engage Nietzsche on his own terms has been rare (if occasionally notable), even though so much of the terrain of the postmodern lies under the ensigns of Nietzsche’s Antichrist. Nor can anything so comprehensive as an adequate theological response to Nietzsche be undertaken here; and it obviously lies outside the scope of the present chapter to deal with all of Nietzsche’s remarks concerning Christianity, which range from incidental bursts of invective to passages of sustained argument. Thus I shall confine myself to an account of Nietzsche’s treatment of, in order, Christian morality and the person of Christ; and to a partial assessment of the force of his critique, its consistency, and its resistance to reciprocal theological “deconstruction”; I shall address neither the factual accuracy of his interpretations of Christian history nor the limits of his grasp of the spectrum of Christian thought. It is more to the point to recognize in Nietzsche’s imaginative probings of the Christian tradition an attempt at narrative subversion; he understood that Christian truth depends first upon a story, and so to meet his critique of Christianity tellingly (so to put it), one must engage it on the field of rhetoric, persuasion, and aesthetic evaluation first, and not that of “historical science” or the discourses of “disinterested” reason.
This is obvious. What strikes one most forcibly in Nietzsche’s attach on Christianity is his distaste for Christian life as an aesthetic phenomenon; it is his sensibility, more than his reason, that suffers offense. “Modern men, obtuse to all Christian nomenclature, no longer feel the gruesome superlative that struck a classical taste in the paradoxical formula ‘god on a cross.’ Never yet and nowhere has there been an equal boldness in inversion, anything as horrible, questioning, and questionable as this formula: it promised a revaluation of all the values of antiquity.” Few are the transgressions of good taste and spiritual hygiene that cannot, in his eyes, be laid to Christianity’s charge: as the one great curse pronounced on life, its ethos is no more than a perfidious inversion of noble values, an occult strategy of vengeful resentment, and an exaltation of weakness and deformity at the expense of strength and beauty; as the most acute and perverse kind of decadence, its enfeebling creed drains life from this world by directing life’s energies toward another, unreal world; as absolute enmity toward life, it is the poor man’s Platonism: vulgar idealism, expressed most perfectly as hatred for the life of the flesh. It was in the Christian tradition uniquely, he claims, that
antinature itself received the highest honors as morality and was fixed over humanity as law and categorical imperative. – To blunder to such an extent, not as individuals, not as a people, but as humanity! – That one taught men to despise the very first instincts of life; that one mendaciously invented a “soul,” a “spirit” to ruin the body; that one taught men to experience the presupposition of life, sexuality, as something unclean; that one looks for the evil principle in what is most profoundly necessary for growth, in severe self-love (this very word constitutes a slander); that, conversely, one regards the typical signs of decline and contradiction of the instincts, the “selfless,” the loss of a center of gravity, “depersonalization” and “neighbor love” (addiction to the neighbor) as the higher value – what am I saying? – the absolute value! (EH, 272)
Christian benevolence is merely part of the pathology of decadence, “irreconcilable with an ascending, Yes-saying life” (EH, 328); and the Christian version of the “other” world is merely a squalid defamation of the world that is, an idealization that derogates the actual, a soothing premise of immortality that thwarts life’s proper instincts (AC, 118, 155-156). With gaze fixed on this fabulous eternity, eyes averted from the spectacle of the world, how can the Christian fail to find life impure? For Nietzsche, no doctrine could more exquisitely encapsulate the inmost essence of Christian faith than the immaculate conception – whereby the church “has…maculated conception” (AC, 147). In short, whereas everything beautiful and noble is accomplished through the refinement (the spiritualization) of the passions (of desires, even of cruelty), the church, on account of its inability to transfigure the animal passions through salubrious disciplines, must prescribe instead their extirpation; unable to transform life into ever higher expressions, Christianity is the gospel of castration.
Nietzsche’s gift for denunciation of this sort is all but inexhaustible, and in the course of their elaboration, as a kind of concrescence of their inner logic, a contrary form takes shape, a god appropriate to Nietzsche’s own special piety; against the figure of the crucified God he poses that of Dionysus, god of indestructible life, ecstasy, joy, and power. The polarity is expressed with particular force and lucidity in one of the notes collected in The Will to Power:
Dionysus verses the “Crucified”: there you have the antithesis. It is not a difference in regard to their martyrdom – it is a difference in the meaning of it. Life itself, its eternal fruitlessness and recurrence, creates torment, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering – the “Crucified as the innocent one” – counts as an objection to this life, as a formula for its condemnation. – One will see that the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. In the former case, it is supposed to be the path of a holy existence; in the latter case, being is counted as holy enough to justify even a monstrous amount of suffering. The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich, and capable of deifying to do so. The Christian denies even the happiest lot on earth: he is sufficiently weak, poor, disinherited to suffer from life in whatever form he meets it. The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction.
As Deleuze describes the opposition, Christ’s suffering indicts life as unjust, as guilty and deserving of the suffering it endures, as in in need of salvation, and as a dark workshop where life itself can be loved only when it is tender, weak, in torment, mutilated; but the suffering of Dionysus is the justice of being. Whereas the cross symbolizes contradiction and its solution, Dionysian affirmation lies beyond either contradiction or reconciliation.
Of course, all his vituperative venom would seem merely coarse and childish (and frankly, much of it does anyway) were it not for the extraordinary story Nietzsche tells regarding the way Christian morality overturned the antique order. I shall not recite in detail the account Nietzsche gives in On the Genealogy of Morals of Christianity’s “slave revolt” in values; it is sufficient to recall his claim that Christian morals are nothing but those values that are inevitable for slaves, the weak, and the ill constituted, somehow grotesquely elevated to the status of universal law and then – through a cunning supplantation of the “aesthetic” values of the nobles by the “moral” values of the herd – imposed upon the strong and healthy. In this slave morality, with its inordinate emphasis upon pity, relief from suffering, consolation, and comfort, one finds all the symptoms of nihilism and decline consecrated with the holiest names (AC, 117-18). And yet, despite having been incubated within the most debile constitutions, Christian values did indeed triumph over the noble values of antiquity, on account of the force, subtlety, and inexhaustible energy of ressentiment, the spite that animates the impotent and incites the mob against its masters. To those whose diseased natures are in the thrall of resentment – who are “neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward,” who love dark corners and who are silent, forgetful, humble, self-deprecating, and clever (GM, 38-39) – that attainment of which they are most incapable (that is, noble “goodness”) must be in fact “evil”; indeed, the Christian image of the Evil One is nothing but a distillation of the instincts of the higher type of man (AC, 117). Christian love is really only the flower that adorns the nettles of a very particular Jewish species of hatred, a sublime vengefulness directed against the healthy, strong, and vigorous (GM, 35); Judeo-Christian morality is the ingenious creation of an indefatigably aggressive impotence, which transforms itself into an irresistible power: like the power of vermin, indestructible by its atomistic multiplicity, collectivity, smallness, and voracity. Amid Nietzsche’s rhapsodic celebrations of his wild, rapacious, thoughtless, generous nobles, one might well lose sight of how brilliantly the Genealogy describes the logic, the fearful inventiveness, of the resentful heart; it is here that Nietzsche, with keen precision, strikes one of his surer blows against the church’s understanding of itself: he knows well, and savagely exploits, a certain predisposition in Christian thought – perhaps, Nietzsche might argue, a mechanism for preserving itself against critique – to suspect its own motives, to anticipate the discovery of hypocrisy, egoism, and sin in even its seemingly purest motives. For Nietzsche, however, much more is at stake: hypocrisy, impurity of motives – complaints of this nature would serve little purpose of themselves; it is the very content of Christian morality, its intrinsic enmity toward life, that he detests.
What is good? – All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power itself in man.
What is bad? – All that proceeds from weakness. (AC, 115)
Nurture of the weak, the essence of Christian morality – indeed, preservation of the weak in their weakness – functions only to obviate the process whereby life evaluates, selects, and elects itself (AC, 118).
The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? – Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak – Christianity…. (AC, 116).
There can be no more damning accusation, in Nietzsche’s eyes, than that Christian values stand in contradiction to natural existence; there should be nature in morality, he protests; one’s values should have life’s own shape (TI, 48). But where nature is weak, there is the church strong, thriving where life is in retreat, amidst illness and decrepitude; Catholicism’s ideal is the world as one vast lunatics’ asylum (AC, 167). It is chiefly the cruelty of the Christian creed that Nietzsche decries, its ruthlessness in teaching humanity to despise joy and vital sensuality (AC, 131), in further advancing a certain Jewish falsification of nature (AC, 134), and above all in seeking to poison and crush the strong. Christianity, simply said, is false to the world (AC, 125).
But what exactly, one must pause to ask, is the world, and what precisely is nature? The current emphasis in the academy on Nietzsche’s “antiessentialism” and irony often fails to do justice to his equally pronounced inclination toward miraculously broad, but earnest, pronouncements.
Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…
…life simply is will to power. (BGE, 203)
The lessons of nature are “agonistic,” they enjoin contest and struggle, presuppose injustice, and have no end but ascent, growth, expansion, and ever greater acquisition. Values, though, that require the suppression of this “nature” rather than its spiritualization and the recognition of its necessity in the economy of culture (albeit in refined form), are the unique achievements of the most depraved world-haters: of, that is, priests. Whether or not it is the case (as Karl Jaspers claims it is) that in opposing unconditional nature to unconditional morality, Nietzsche knowingly violates his own injunction against absolutes, it is quite beyond dispute that, for him, consonance with nature is the standard against which any morality must be measured. And Christianity, in his eyes, slyly exploited (and became deeply complicit in) the greatest inversion of nature ever visited upon the human animal: The fabrication of the soul.
The very idea of an abiding agent, a stable presence lurking behind the play of action and appearance, can be an invention only of the cunning of the weak, a metonymic knot tied in the warp of language to provide nature’s disinherited offspring with terms whereby to reproach the strong nobles who prey upon them. “To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength (GM, 45). As Deleuze phrases the matter, every force – and force is the prior truth of things – goes, if unimpeded, to the limit of its power or desire; nor is force something distinct from its power, which can remain intact when withdrawn from its manifestation, but is like light and the shinning of light: one thing. Reactive forces, however, seek to make the active forces themselves reactive by separating the active from what it can do: the triumph of the reactive is always brought about by subtraction or division. True force is desire, creativity, will to power, and so – as Callicles attempted in vain to explain to Socrates – even when the weak and reactive band themselves together to oppose the strong, they do not form a greater power, but still, in order to work their will, must introduce an interruption – and interval of factitious interiority – between active force and what it is capable of accomplishing, because, says Deleuze, “from the point of view of nature concrete force is that which goes to its ultimate consequences, to the limit of power and desire”; this force must be displaced by a moral interval, a “subjectivity” that separates it from itself, if it is to be overcome; but “[i]n each case the separation rests on a fiction, on a mystification or a falsification.” To Nietzsche it seems clear that the notion of some fixed and punctiliar subjectivity dwelling below the level of will, drive, and affect is mere fantasy, an illusion created by the enticements of grammar: even as it would be an error to imagine the existence of some independent substance called “lightning” apart from the lightning flash. The “natural man” is not undergirded by some invariable substratum of “self,” nor is there some naturally present moral interval wherein such a man could reflectively choose to withdraw from his act, or recoil from his own force; the bird of prey is not free to be a lamb, nor is it accountable – guilty – for being what it is. But Christian faith feeds upon, above all, the phenomenon of “bad conscience,” the strange and unnatural internalization of the strong man’s most aggressive instincts: the violence that was forced to turn inward upon the self in the very degree to which constraints were placed upon it by the emergence of civilization. As Nietzsche tells the tale, the strong, semibestial men of war whose savageries made the building of civil societies possible were – once immured within political and social order and made subject to the laws and penalties of the state – little better than caged animals yearning for the wild, longing to set free their repressed vitalities. Driven into a suppressed but habitual frenzy, they transformed themselves into adventures and torture chambers, constructing ever greater heights and depths for their inner worlds; and this hypertrophied interiority (which is also the predisposition to “guilt”) proved of inestimable value to the church. For Christianity then ingeniously multiplied the sense of guilty indebtedness civilized peoples feel before their ancestor gods to an infinite sum, by devising the monstrous notions of an eternal penance due for sin and debt before the divine of such magnitude as only God himself, the creditor, could discharge (a payment, made out of “love,” that actually binds humanity to God by an equally infinite debt of gratitude) (GM, 45-92). Writes Nietzsche, with elegant exactitude, “the priest rules through the invention of sin” (AC, 166).
(to be continued)
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)