Nietzsche & Christianity

by Andreas Saugstad

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is considered as being one of the most important and original thinkers in the history of Western thought. He grew up as the son of a Lutheran pastor, and attended some of the best schools in Germany at that time. Only 25 years old, he was appointed professor in philology at the University of Basel. At the age of twenty, he wrote a poem to “the unknown God:” “I want to know you — even to serve you.”

“God is dead”
But Nietzsche turned his back on the unknown one. He became one of the most significant critics of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Nietzsche is famous for having invented the phrase “God is dead.” In a parable in The Happy Science, Nietzsche lets the “madman” say: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him!” Now if God is dead, he must have been alive once.

Nietzsche’s famous slogan may therefore be interpreted as an attempt to say that God as an object for human faith is dead. Scholars have thought that Nietzsche was describing Europe in the 19th century where people no longer believe in God, where faith in God did not easily fit in to life anymore. But “God is dead” also seems to imply not only that it is impossible to believe in God, but that there is no God. As G.E. Morgan writes: “Beyond question, the major premise in Nietzsche’s philosophy is atheism.” Nietzsche is what we may call a “naturalist,” i.e. he believes that nothing more than nature exists and than human beings are advanced animals.

When God is dead, we lack something to hold on to in life. All absolutes disappear from human life, if God is dead. As one Nietzsche scholar, Alistair Kee, writes, this leads to existential terror. Nietzsche was painfully aware of the fact that as human beings we are in search for meaning, and that we want to answer the many questions we have, and understand the sufferings we go through in life. But when God is dead we don’t have any absolutes, what regulates us in immanent life are the thoughts and perspectives we manage to produce. This godless universe is a scene where humans must project their own meanings into the act, but, as Nietzsche says, there are eternally many perspectives on reality and every human being may with the help of will and motives produce his or her own perspective on reality.

The criticism of empathy and love Nietzsche challenged some of the main thoughts within Christianity in a very concrete way. Sometimes he seems to admire Jesus, and claims that the church made a picture of Jesus which is not veridical. He is skeptical to the church and its ideology, and claimed that the existential perversion which, according to him, Christianity represents, does not stem from Jesus himself, but from the church. According to Nietzsche there has only been one Christian, and he died on the cross. Nevertheless the teachings of Jesus that we find in the Gospels, are attacked by Nietzsche.

The Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, claimed that pity was the essence of Christianity. In Matthew we read about Jesus that “When he saw the multitudes, he was moved by compassion for them.” (Matt 9:36) Nietzsche was critical to the ideal of compassion in Christianity. In Anti-Christ he wrote that “Christianity is the religion of pity.” The German thinker, claimed that pity had a depressive effect, and that this quality is opposed to those emotions and attitudes which lead to the promotion of life.

Pity & Pietism
Pity and pietism both create slaves, he thought. The alternative to the Christian psychology Nietzsche found in what he called “the will to power.” One must try to affirm one’s actual nature through willpower, not try to create some church-made identity which limits one’s personal development. As an autonomous being one is not to limit oneself with such destructive emotions, but rather acknowledge one’s natural motives and feelings. “Egoism is not evil” Nietzsche writes somewhere, and opposed to Paul in his letter to Galatians, Nietzsche believes that one should say “Yes!” to one’s own nature, and self-assertion is not sin or immoral in any objective sense.

But is Nietzsche’s psychology acceptable? Nietzsche was well aware of the evolutionary theory that developed in the 19th century, and although he has written some critical comments on Darwin, some of of his thought may be regarded as a “vulgar Darwinism.” What is interesting here is that sociobiologists now acknowledge empathy as a fundamental human ability, and that the ability to show sympathy with others is important for the survival of the human species. More importantly, psychologists claim that living an authentic life is impossible without developing empathy. We know that mothers have a special compassion for their children. But it is also claimed, for instance by Heinz Kohut, that empathy is a fundamental ability for being able to develop relationships with other people, and thus develop one’s personality.

Pity in Christianity is connected to agape divine love. In the Bible we see that Jesus claimed that love is the most important moral quality. Jesus taught that if someone forces you to go a mile, go two miles with him (Matt. 5:41), and on the compassionate Samaritan (Luke 10:15-37) that is sacrifice for the sake of others. In 1 Corinthians 13:7 Paul writes that love does not seek its own.

Agape at Agape
Nietzsche understood perfectly what the Christian idea of agape was all about — active sympathy for the weak and self-sacrifice for those who need help. But Nietzsche was critical to this cardinal virtue of Christianity. For Nietzsche happiness would not be obtained through Christ-like self-sacrifice. To associate “love” with commandments and externally given moral rules would prevent the autonomous person to live in freedom and self-realization.

The alternative to Christian ethics is that every individual that every free human being creates his or her own categorical imperative. Instead of giving the weak attention, one must cultivate the strong. The eternal Yes! to life may be realized through that which is already biologically vital, a perspective different from Jesus’ perspective, where ministry for the weak is the central task (cf 1. Cor. 1:27). Christianity is according to Nietzsche a non-progressive religion, because it -in opposition to many other ideologies- emphasizes the weak. The ultimate identification with the weak was of course Christ — God hung on a cross!

But Nietzsche seems to have misunderstood or failed to notice core elements of the theology of the early Christian church. In the theology of the church father Irenaeus, recapitulatio is an important concept. By this Irenaues meant that the key to understand the redemption in Christ is the restoration or recapitulation of the weak in this world.

The same point is emphasized by the Christus Victor theology, which also was important in the early church. According to this theology, the victory of Christ over the forces of death on the cross was a key to understanding Christianity. According to this line of thought, Christ’s ultimate empathy leads to the source of life, so that humans can live eternally. Opposed to what Nietzsche thought, this implied an eternal Yes! to life, not an hostility to vitality and a degenerative emphasis on empathy.

But Nietzsche nevertheless questioned Christianity vigorously. Nietzsche was skeptical to the emphasis on judgment in the Bible, and the New Testament idea of eternal pain (Matt. 25:46). Many will perhaps be able to identify with Nietzsche here, and Nietzsche dealt with this problem in in his sophisticated and rhetorical ways. Nietzsche quotes Dante and Thomas Aquinas in order to show that Christianity has presented ideas that are difficult to accept. His point was that Christianity talks about the Gospel (“Good news”), while still many Christinans believe in eternal judgment. I his Divina Comedia, Dante described a literal and very concrete helle, and in Summa Theologica Thomas Aquinas writes that a part of the pleasure in heaven will be to look down and see how the lost are punished in hell.

Nietzsche’s Rhetoric
Nietzsche was not a philosopher in the same sense as we have philosophers at universities in the Western world today. Nietzsche is definitely one of the most creative writers in the Western tradition. His texts are full of rhetoric, allusions and creative language-games. As a former professor he was competent in literature and philosophy, with a mastery of language that few others, if any, have shown. But a weak point in Nietzsche’s philosophy is that his texts seem to lack logical arguments.

Nietzsche is a philosopher who tries to show that his opponents are “fools”, and his strategies are that of rhetoric. But one may feel that Nietzsche gives few analytical arguments and that his arguments are without logical plausibility. One example of this we find in Anti-Christ, where Nietzsche writes that whoever has theologian blood in his veins has a wrong and dishonest attitude towards things from the very first. “What a theologian feels to be true, must be false: This provides almost a criterion of truth.” This might be funny, but it is rhetoric, and nothing more. Nietzsche never challenged the classical attempts at defending the existence of God in Christian philosophy, developed by thinkers like Justin Martur, Anselm or Thomas Aquinas. Thus Nietzsche’s approach to religion may seem to lack a strict and logical argumentation.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche is a giant in literature. His posthumous reputation is secured because of his influence on postmodernism. Thinkers like Foucault, Richard Rorty and Don Cupitt have developed ideas in relation to Nietzsche, and thus his ideas are central among leading Intellectuals today. His phrase “there is no truth, only interpretation”, may be a heading for postmodernism.

Nietzsche’s life was not the best. Because of severe headaches, he had to resign as a university professor. He traveled around in Europe, and wandered around in the Swiss Alps, with poor physical health in a universe which, according to him, was without objective meaning. In 1888, Nietzsche turned mad, because of the effects of syphilis. Since then he was dependent of his sister and mother. Ironically, Nietzsche became absolutely dependent on empathy and love — the cardinal virtues of Christianity.

In 1900 Nietzsche died.

God could ascertain that Nietzsche was dead.