Nietzsche, Friend of Thinking Christians

As I said on our “God Is Dead?” podcast episode, I encountered Nietzsche via his famous sound-bite as a high school student.  I had no idea that his literary output could consume a library shelf, that his targets of scorn were just as often liberal atheists as they were Christians, or that his particular brand of unbelief rose from a great love of the Greeks.  What I did know is that I had a name to add to my list of enemies, that Nietzsche was now next to Darwin and Sagan in my list of enemies to conquer some day.

Now, twenty years later, I’ve come to regard Fritz differently, not as a co-religionist but as a friend of sorts.  I actually dug into his corpus as an undergrad and learned to appreciate the lively and pugnacious character of his prose, even as I couldn’t ultimately embrace the right-wing politics that seem to go along with his larger project.  When I could finally understand Hegel (which is to say in the last stretch of my Ph.D coursework), I learned to read him in conversation with a longer philosophical conversation.  As a professor I’ve taught excerpts of his Birth of Tragedy (next to Aristotle’s Poetics) in order to introduce English majors to the grand questions that animate literary criticism.  I’ve taught through Genealogy of Morals for an introductory religion-and-philosophy class, and I’ve re-read Beyond Good and Evil in my mid-thirties, re-discovering Nietzsche’s project of re-imagining philosophy in a thoroughgoing atheistic framework.

On this end of that twenty-year bout with the German, I’ve come to realize that, ultimately, Nietzsche’s vision of reality will likely remain the second-most-compelling universe, next to Augustine’s, but that he’s still far more compelling than Sagan or Dawkins or most of the folks that I call liberal atheists.  His strengths are not unique, I’ve come to discover, but they come to the reader as a peculiar combination that spur Christians, I think, to ask questions that might not occur to us without being in conversation with him.

Four of those strengths stood out to me in particular this December, as I reread Beyond Good and Evil:

  1. Nietzsche’s atheism, in Genealogy of Morals and in Beyond Good and Evil, begins with history and never pretends that Christianity never happened.  Whereas Richard Dawkins asks his readers to imagine a human existence shaped exclusively by late-Enlightenment, Oxford-flavored reason, as if such things could rise out of nowhere, Nietzsche grants that, for all of the damage that Platonism and Christianity have done to Europe, the complexity of soul that they’ve bestowed upon Europeans is inescapable, and any satisfying atheism must not be the ahistorical un-belief of the liberals but a post-Christian, post-faithful way of being, not merely atheist-Mensch but ubermensch.  In this respect Nietzsche shares a strong point with Marx, whose vision of humanity after the Communist revolution does not have a definite shape because, as a post-Capitalist reality, must build itself on foundations not yet imagined.

    This sort of atheism is a good friend for Christians because, at least in North America, atomistic individualism, the sort that has a statistical majority of Americans “believing in God” but a tiny plurality claiming membership in any church, seems to be bearing out what Nietzsche seems to suspect.  To wit, there is no single shape of atheism but a range of atheisms, each intelligible only as a post-Christian reality, and to treat them intelligently, both as Christian missionaries and as Christian cultural critics, a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do.  The Church of England priest (or the Oxford professor) who announces that there is no god but remains convinced of the superiority of Christian-flavored English culture just isn’t the same as the Kentucky Wal-Mart worker who votes Republican and doesn’t go anywhere on Sunday mornings but knows exactly which Baptist church she doesn’t attend, and neither of the above stands identical to the “spiritual but not religious” sorts of folks that one tends to meet in university towns.  Nietzsche, in other words, reminds us to mind the history.

  2. Nietzsche’s philosophical departure from Christianity is radical because he won’t let important ideas be trivial.  The God who calls for the care of the poor is gone?  Then economics should reflect as much.  The Bible that elevates the meek and the weak to prominence in the new Kingdom is no longer a holy book?  Then those who have the will to impose a different vision of goodness on the world should step up and do so.  In terms of The Karamazov Brothers, Nietzsche wants a full-blown revaluation of what’s important, something like Smerdyakov’s, not the kind of limp and polite atheism that a Miusov lives.

    Again, for a Christian thinker, reading Nietzsche’s explorations of good and bad, as opposed to good and evil, remind us just how much of European and post-European (which is to say those places on Earth colonized at some point by Europe, which is to say most of it) notions of good life, as persons and as communities, remain Christian in their basic contours.  We can affirm or reject the shapes that secularized Christianity takes on on this place or that, but we do well to remember that the equal dignity of all human beings, the elevation of freedom for all human beings as the goal of human community, and other such “ultimate terms” have their roots in Christianity, even if their latter-day branches pretend otherwise.

  3. Nietzsche confronts us with the doctrines and the attitudes of our own that are ultimately more atheist than Christian in character.  As I noted above, my departure from Nietzsche and my departure from right-wing American politics came roughly during the same span of years, and one significant reason for those departures’ coincidence is that so much of right-wing politics partakes of Nietzsche’s vision.  I might not agree with much of what I read in Nietzsche, but I do read a text that follows its own ideas out to the conclusions that follow, and such an exercise helps me to see the consequences of my own ideas.

    Fritz is certainly an atheist, but he’s also a lover of the Greeks, and one notion of political life that’s unintelligible to the Greeks is that the weak should be dignified.  The powerful can give food to the hungry, clean up the filthy for service in the houses of the grand, and even hand-pick specific and deserving individuals from among that rabble to rise to “our” ranks.  But an Exodus, in which a band of slave-laborers becomes the chosen people, without any discrimination between those fit to be a royal priesthood and those who are truly slavish in nature, is out of the question.  I often tell my own students that they’re welcome to make a case for certain, Nietzschean-sounding politics in other terms, and I’ll listen to their accounts, but I also warn them that dodging the intellectually honest reality that one confronts is a step in the wrong direction for a thinker dedicated to truth.

  4. Finally, a close reading of Nietzsche gives us Christians occasion to examine our own intellectual lives to see what’s worth our holding onto, what we should discard, and what simply needs re-examination.  None of these possibilities is already set before the examination begins; for all I know, the next conversation about the Nietzschean character of right-wing politics might convince me that, in fact, wealthy benefactors are better distributors of material resources than are elected officials, that the politics of public welfare are in fact anti-Christian.  Just as possible is the conversation that convinces you that the way too many evangelicals treat women resonates more with Nietzsche’s post-Christian world than with the teachings of Jesus.  The point is not that Nietzsche is right in most cases or that Nietzsche is wrong in most cases but that the questions arise because we’ve engaged with his books, and that’s worth something.

Dealing with a writer who thought himself my enemy, who titled one of his significant books The Anti-Christ, has been an interesting journey.  Ultimately I think that the way I live with Nietzsche now, neither as my guru nor as my partisan foe but as a tutor in question-asking, stands to bear the most fruit, and I think that the same stance towards other non-Christian philosophers (Marx comes to mind first, but there are plenty of others) might likewise be the most fruitful for us Christians as we live out this leg of the grand Christian race.  My hunch is that learning to treat all important texts, be they treatises or epics or tragedies or novels, likewise is part of what it means to become a literate Christian.

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