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.

Conclusion
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.

22 comments

  • Not surprisingly Mr. Saugstad has succeeded in almost completely misunderstanding Nietzsche; but then most do. Nietzsche was not an atheist, and he never turned his back on the”Unknown God;” the very point of such a poem is that God was unknown to the masses – particularly to those who were so certain of their sanitized, predictable God of the ‘bible.’ His critique is just as valid today as then, and perhaps more so – there are so many today, with their “moral majority” and their “Christian right” who have never know God at all. Nietzsche remains . . . a prophet, a seer, a mahatma of the future humanity. Today he stands before and within the Unknown God, sharing in the Divine Nature of a God that will always be completely unknowable to human beings.

    • Hi Kevin –

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Unfortunately, Andreas is currently unable to quickly, or easily, reply to you — but I hope one day soon, he will be able to share his thoughts on what you shared.

    • no he was an atheist his concept of eternal recurrence has no room in it for a god

  • Nietzsche had something greater than god at the end. It is called family or volk.

  • “Will to power..” has not only revolutionized philosophy, but also psychology – to this very day.
    Nietzsche’s genius has not only put a monkeys head on religion, but also on God himself.
    To live by an antique system created by the desperate minds of the underfed 20. centuries ago, is not only ignorant, but destabilization of the true living.

  • Lars,
    With Nietzsche’s genius it’s easy to see how we’ve come so far. Disease, famine, murder, rape, greed, global warming. I guess when I watch the evening news I fail to see how his genius has provided us with betterment of society, much less hope. Where do you find hope in this world ? I wonder how he could put a monkey’s head on God, without being all-knowing. Apparently the world needed to wait until the last two centuries for someone to figure out this mess. He has no doubt made a mark on this world, but hardly one big enough to grant him “God’ status.

    • His hope was for the overman not hope for the masses with your comment I have to say you have no understanding of his writing

    • “Disease, famine, murder, rape, greed” are all incidents occuring throughout our history, regardless of moral value. Now, why you tie global warming to a discussion about Nietzsche is rather wicked.
      What Christianity has done, is to fill our minds with belief of a world to come, which rids our world of human suffering. An absolute conformity, rid of instincts for lust, “sin” etc – through the teaching of original sin. This teaching is dangerous. Because suffering is the only mechanism for growing human strength and knowledge.
      Nietzsche was the first to prove that this dogmatism has and will keep falling, leaving a bliss of confusion and absurdism.

      And as to how I find hope in this world;

      I dare look into our reality. Human nature as a will to power. Every priest as a slanderer, denier of reality. Denying Life! I look into this horrible carnivalistic reality each day with nausea and disgust. And I find beauty. This is where the paths of people like you and me divide. People like you get hopeless in these situations, whereas I keep moving forward – resisting any illusion offered from, again, people like you.
      As Nietzsche theorizes in “The birth of tragedy”, romans were accepting our reality of suffering through “Dionysian revelry” in tragedy.

      I wish the worst suffering of all upon your type of people. You are weak, and you should feel bad about it.

  • While I respect his thoughts and commitments, I get the sense that Nietzsche shared his “wisdom” for himself. Jesus came to share truth in order to save others — ultimately dying on the cross for us. It is hard for me to imagine Nietzche dying for his words for us. God forgive me if that is judgemental but……I think you need to see the purpose behind the words first.

  • My interpretation of Nietzsche’s ideologies regarding religion is that he’s dead on accurate. The moral decay of this society and history has proven that as a civilization, we fall woefully short of being civilized. Oceans of blood have been shed in the name of religion over centuries up to the present. Religiosity is merely a mindset based on ancient old doctrines that no longer pertain to contemporary society.

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  • Nietzsche saw himself as a prophet of new morality, and aimed to create a moral code that succeeded where religion had failed, therefore I find it hard to accept earlier comments that Nietzsche was not an atheist. However perhaps Nietzsche believed (I don’t pretend to be an expert) that the religious slave-morality that suppresses mankind was not the a creation of God but in fact a product of the church?
    Nevertheless he’s undoubtably has much to offer to a study of the link between religion and morality.

  • The problem he has is here

    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
    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 problem was that he tried to live a life according to the dictates of his own mind.
    Thats a recipe for failure ever time. Zack is right , we have moral decay and oceans of blood have been shed “in the name of religion” But what is missing here is that the blood shed and moral decay is not the fault of God. People have free will. To many people seem to believe that
    those who claim to be Christians should be robots unable to do anything but Gods will. That of course is patently obsurd.The person who does not claim Christianity is free to live his life as he pleases, unecumbered by ethics. Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler. to name a few.
    Zack points out accurately what happens when people either aren’t saved or do things contrary to the Bible.

  • Nietzsche is such a hard pill to swallow that most people find ways not to believe in him. they always use an argumentive adhominem to undermine his credibility . He said very few people have the courage to act on what they really believe . I enjoyed what you had to say . however his family taking care of him in the end is not an argument for what he personally did not believe . would you agree

  • I stopped reading at ‘The Happy Science’. This author does not have the intellectual bravery to handle Nietzshce if they can’t use the word ‘Gay’ as it meant in that context, a completely non-offensive word.

    You seem like the type that wants ‘Nigger’ out of Huck Finn and Uncle Tom’s cabin, books that, despite being profound anti-slavery and anti-racist novels that touch the heart, must be ‘corrected’ with a flick of the pen and a deletion of a phrase.

    This is a terrible act for two reasons.

    First – and this is most obvious in this case – it destroys the great diversity and transformative power of language. As shown most obviously in the use of the word ‘Nigger’ in modern Black Culture, words can be changed and their power to hurt reduced via reappropriation. In the case of ‘Gay’, the word can be prevented from ‘harming’ if we used it MORE in other contexts, specifically as ‘happy’. But you insist that its injury be held above the heads of everyone, so that whenever a homosexual sees the word ‘gay’ meaning happy you INSIST they must be offended. You make everything into a potential area of ‘offense’.

    Secondly, it is the erasure of history. It says that history can not be seen, its words must be ‘edited’. Consequently, Oppression and its horrors are also erased. Students learn that Huck referred politely to Jim as an ‘African American’ – and no longer do they learn that language can hurt.

  • Nietzsche was what could be called a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”. Not only do Christians misinterpret him, but atheist do as well. He was not an atheist. There is a distinctive difference between Christianity, Christendom, and Christ. He knew this, and even today so many do not. It coincides with Kierkegaard, who was a Christian- who believed a Christian’s job was to introduce Christianity to Christendom Nietzsche asserted that all of the cathedrals and churches rising up were proof that “God was Dead”. He wasn’t stating his own belief, he was attacking Europe. Nietzsche was more of a social commentator in the guise of a philosopher. It’s hard to explain this to people- so I will just state it. Kierkegaard set out to destroy philosophy and he succeeded. Philosophy is just psychological truths- it’s often idealistic and not pragmatic. The bridge between Kierkegaard and Science is Pragmatism. I would even go as far as to assert that Nietzsche could have been a “Christian”. For one, pity is a vice, even if you are a Christian. But Christendom tends to glorify the poor over Jesus. The misalign what Jesus means by “what you do to the least of these…” All the glory doesn’t go to the poor, it goes to Christ. In order to pity someone you have to consider yourself better than them, better off, etc. We all die, and God doesn’t practice partiality, so pity is not what Jesus meant by “what you do to the least of these…” As for concluding that his family “pitied” him while he died is neurotic. If anything it clarifies what is meant by pity being a vice- if they did pity him, he died despite it. People should seek improvement, we should aim to discover anew. If people simply pitied, there would be no cures for otherwise life-threatening sicknesses- including syphilis. Even calling himself “The Anti-Christ” is highly superficial, and he knew it. “The Church” has created a singular Anti-Christ, when Jesus clearly said there many. He even called “Peter” Satan, because Peter thought to keep Christ from the Cross. There is no Anti-Christ, Christ has been established. There is only a Man of Lawlessness. They are characteristically different. The same is our misinterpretation of what “love” is. God is Love, so the only way that human love equates to “real” love is when we love like God loves, love what God loves. So for Nietzsche to attack pity and love is a rational cause. I had a Catholic once tell me to always choose life: my life, her life, an unborn fetus’ life. But, my life is not life, your life is not life, an unborn fetus’ life is not life. Jesus is life, without Him life is just a gradual decay- a process of dying. Nietzsche never once tried to tell someone how to think, he always challenged their thinking. Most philosophers try to tell you what to think, to conform you to their idealism. For me, Nietzsche is more of an artist, a brilliant one. When I realized this, I stopped being objective with his work. The very essence of his thoughts emphasis doing so- to stop being so objective. There’s a reason he was, and still is, so impacting on modernized societies.

    I’m a Christian, but Nietzsche doesn’t scare me. He is dead. However, to incriminate him and determine where he is with God is to deny to myself that I still have to die.

  • Not your typical christian

    Jsut in the end it states he had SYPHILLIS.wHICH THAT EXPLAINS HIS REBELIION ANTI-CHIRSTIAN VIEWS.He was gay!.Living in those Liberal European days,but there were still enough “RIGHT-WINGERS”,Whic if they knew he was living in the closet it would impacted his career.So his best way was attack Christianity.people when they oppose God they have a Reasona nd rebellion lifestyle.Just observe their lifestyle and you will have your answer why people hate Christians and GOD.Hoping they appease their dirty conscious,by trying to prove or manipulate their views to everyone that God don’t exist.If you check STD facts shhet.it states majority of the time catching Syphillis is higher between Gay sex.Which i had a feeling where this Man/Philosopher was coming from.

    • Erm, i’d hate to break it to you but you don’t need to be gay to have syphillis moron. In the times of Nietzsche it was a fairly common disease and has no relation to sexuality what so ever.

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  • No Idea if he was theist or atheist. But whether he is in hell or heaven. Who are we to decide? Maybe in God’s eyes He looks more worthy of his heavenly kingdom than any of us. Have you ever come to thing of it?

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