Faithful Wounds of an Enemy

Nietzsche's "Death of God" Invective

By Liam Atchison

Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 4 · Winter/Spring: pgs 30-39.

In 1993, my missionary friend and I had rocketed out of the clean, orderly western portion of Germany on what had been a pristine autobahn until we reached the old border with formerly Communist Germany. I felt a slight chill as we crossed the cold war boundary, where the superhighway continued but narrowed to one functional lane. All of eastern Germany seemed to be under reconstruction. Expeditions to East Germany were now perfectly safe and nearly uneventful, but still had a sense of the novel only three years after the Berlin Wall had collapsed. Our ultimate destination was Lutherstadt Wittenberg, home of the Protestant reformer, but the intermediate objective circled on my Michelin map was paradoxical Weimar, the sooty Stratford-upon-Avon of Deutschland and silent neighbor to the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp of the Nazi era. Here, in a city the size of Boulder, Colorado was the home of the composer Liszt, literary giants Goethe and Schiller, and one who served as the greatest object of my current interest: nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

The year before, I had read an article in Architectural Digest about the reopening of the Nietzsche archives in Weimar. Since the turn of the century the museum had been located in the house Nietzsche died in, but the Communist government removed all the museum articles to a warehouse where every physical link to the philosopher whom the idealogues associated with fascism was to be stored and forgotten. After the wall fell, Nietzsche's life was unpacked and restored to the house where for ten years his sister had nursed the insane philosopher and subsequently assembled a shrine to his memory.

After exiting the autobahn at the Ausfahrt für Weimar, we were welcomed by a spanking new petrol station which seemed strangely out of place in the dreary surroundings. We refueled the car and literally descended into the city where we enjoyed an incomparable cup of dark, oily German coffee on the fußgangplatz in the Goethe-Schiller district. We then followed signs to the Nietzsche house.

We found the house in an old residential neighborhood of the city and parked the car across the street. I pulled an old, slim, used biography of Nietzsche by Mügge out of my rucksack. I had purchased it just before flying to Europe. For the next few moments I read portions concerning the philosopher's strange and tragic life from the volume. My friend, who admitted to knowing relatively little of Nietzsche, looked vacantly at the house as I read and occasionally shook his head in pity. I felt pity too, but I thought how ironic it was that we were sorry for a man who despised this very kind of sentimentality with a white-hot hatred. If he were there, he would have thundered something like, "Pity? How dare you inflict me with your syrupy Christian sentimentality that is merely a by-product of the slave mentality of your faith!"

We got out of the car slowly and walked toward the gate. I'm not sure if it was the gloomy surroundings or the sad tale, or both, but I felt an oppression along with my anticipation. Then came a shiver as I remembered that on pilgrimage the evil Hitler had walked this same path leading to this shrine of the Übermensch. We stood before the gate but could not open it. Locked. Of course the museum was closed; it was Sunday. I actually laughed later to realize the great cosmic joke at the end of our disappointing journey: in death, the self-proclaimed "most essential opponent of Chris-tianity" was symbolically forced to yield to the Christian observance of the resurrection of Jesus!

An Angry Counselor

Less than two decades after Nietzsche's death, social philosopher William Mackintire Salter wrote, "Criticism of Nietzsche is rife, understanding rare."{1} Even when I was a philosophy major at university, Nietzsche seemed to me to be a strange cross between Carl Sagan and Taz the Tasmanian devil. He seemed to have a great yet condescending mind combined with a wild, vituperative rage. He is usually identified with bombast and a series of philosophical phrases he made familiar to the Western world: the Superman, Eternal Recurrence, the Antichrist of nihilism, Zarathustra, and the Death of God. He is also usually dismissed on the basis of these same phrases, especially the last one. Yet Salter is correct-understanding of Nietzsche is rare. As was true of other philosophers, Nietzsche's thought was progressive while he lived, and he underwent various stages of development, some elements of which contradict others.

Nietzsche, however, seems to have experienced the widest swing of the pendulum from clarity to insanity. One cannot read his Ecce Homo without witnessing the effects of mental illness. It is easy to discount Nietzsche on these grounds; we can conclude that only a madman would attack Christianity in such a vicious manner (and evidence of the philosopher's megalomania supports this estimation). Yet it is not so easy to draw such an inference from some of Niet-zsche's earlier works, particularly Daybreak: Thoughts on the Pre-judices of Morality, which contains some of his most powerful attacks on the Christian faith. Daybreak confronts the reader with the tre-mendous insight of genius, the profundity of which is like a lightning strike, and yet calls for something close to meditation for full understanding. Michael Tanner has observed the startling creativity and genius of this very lucid examination of morals and calls the work

…one of the supreme intellectual achievements, or attempts, of philosophy in its widest sense. I can think of few other books which require so active a reader; what, perhaps surprisingly, Nietzsche doesn't demand in his Preface [to Daybreak] is that one should, like him on his walks, carry a notebook{2} in which to record one's responses to his multifarious and intense stimuli. If one doesn't, the bombardment of such disparate insights as Nietzsche offers is likely to lead to enthusiastic reminiscences of how brilliant he is about religion, friendship, teachers, the current practice of philosophy, the nature of contemporary music, the treacheries of the heart, and so on, together with a failure to remember what any of these brilliant insights actually were.{3}

As far as I know, no apologetic work has directly addressed many of Nietzsche's arguments in Daybreak. Rather than search for a devastating refutation, I believe it would be more profitable to come to a very basic, almost oversimplified understanding of Nietzsche's problem with God that constitutes a continuing and influential challenge to faith. My reasoning for this is that the philosopher's huge contribution to contemporary post-Christian thought has been underestimated by many. Indeed, I am proposing something that many people previously would have considered unthinkable: that we benefit from Nietzsche as one who shows us our style of relating and we benefit from the rebuke.

(Granted, Nietzsche as counselor is not a new thought. It has already been suggested by Irvin Yalom in his novel, When Nietzsche Wept. In the book, Yalom unfolds the story of depressive Viennese therapist Josef Breuer. Breuer accepts the challenge to provide psychotherapy for Nietzsche, who has already exhausted the talents of a number of physicians. The philosopher is understandably daunting, as he would be to any therapist, and in the end it is Breuer who finds help for his own soul.)

The Enemy of the Christian

It first must be understood that Nietzsche never says he is an atheist, though one would sense he has a deep kinship with those who believe there is no God. Nietzsche actually criticizes atheists of the past for incompetence in their refutations of Christian philosophy,{4} and for their hypocrisy in supporting Christian institutions without believing in them. He says the latter preserves the illusion of the rationality of Christian tradition, and he thinks it would be much better to rebel against the authority of the church through "little deviant acts."{5} Nietzsche's quarrel is not with Jesus, either. Existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers noted that "Nietzsche stop-ped short (an astonishing fact!) before the figure of Jesus."{6} Ever the egoist, Nietzsche actually saw himself as a major figure in a spiritual line which included Jesus.{7} But perhaps most instructive in connection with these facts is Nietzsche's famous remark that the last Christian died on the cross. Nietzsche's quarrel is not with the concept of God, but with the Christian concept of God. He does not hate Christ, but the Christian. He does not attack religion (in fact he often employs other religions as allies), but he would destroy Christianity:

I condemn Christianity, and confront it with the most terrible accusation that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. To my mind it is the greatest of all conceivable corruptions. I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground, and too petty-I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind!{8}
Nietzsche does not hate the Old Testament, but he treats the New Testament as if it were diseased. This son of a Lutheran minister, who was related to perhaps a score of Lutheran ministers, hated the way Protestant pastors preached the Old Testament. He charged that their attempts to read Christ into the Old Testament were merely attempts to pull the Old Testament "out from under the feet of the Jews"-a mark of dishonesty and of ignorance of the science of philology.{9} He hated Luther particularly, because the reformer had had the audacity to resuscitate a dying church, which in Nietzsche's estimation would have been better off dead. Finally, he declares that all these things are connected because God is dead. But if he is not openly an atheist, what does he mean-and what could possibly be edifying about all of this venom?

The Meaning of the Death of God

Nietzsche believed that the first Christians{10} were part of a small Jewish sect that demonstrated the most genuine of beliefs in God because they had no sense of revenge toward others. They truly loved because they had no developed system of dogma but, rather, believed that Jesus' return was imminent. Nietzsche contends that what went wrong was this: When Jesus didn't return right away (as evidenced by the fact that people in the community began to die), Christians traded the concretion of God as all-powerful for that of a God who could be utilized for their agenda. In short, Christians began to make God less than God. According to Nietzsche, Christians were former slaves of Rome who decided to employ God as an instrument of their desire for triumph over their masters and revenge against those who abused them.{11} Though Nietzsche refuses to indict Christ, he lays most of the blame for this new style of relating at the feet of the apostle Paul. He explains that Paul was looking for an "out" in that he realized he was not good enough to meet the demands of the Jewish law-and so he destroyed it, both to triumph over it for reasons of ego and to wreak revenge on those who would oppress him by means of that law. Thus Paul becomes the paradigm in the philosopher's mind for all Christians thereafter.

Nietzsche's caricature of Paul is informed but fanciful. Of course, the philosopher fails to account for the ethical constraints that bound Paul and the other apostles to truthfulness. Yet, more disturbing than this, Nietzsche sneers at the fact that these supposedly manipulative and self-interested people marched off to their martyr deaths. In doing so, he completely misses the fact that it was not particularly triumphant to be a Christian in the first century. Paul's triumphant "out" meant that he consigned himself to beatings, imprisonment, ridicule from the scholarly community, not to mention being chased by angry people with curses on their lips and rocks in their hands. The revenge in being a Christian at that time certainly wasn't what I would call "sweet." A better word for this kind of revenge would be "lousy."

So what Nietzsche is basically saying is that God is dead and Christians killed him. Looking past his unfair treatment of Paul, what is there in the development of Nietzsche's indictment of Christians that is instructive? What can Christians learn from a counselor who is their unswerving enemy? I propose there are at least two major lessons to be learned.

Two Rebukes from an Enemy

We cannot accept every or perhaps even most of the criticisms Nietzsche offers Christians. Many, I believe, are based on faulty premises or selective argumentation. As demonstrated by his criticism of the apostle Paul, Nietzsche also frequently commits the motivational fallacy{12} which, in fairness to the philosopher, may have been tolerated more in the nineteenth century than it is now.

However, Christians should share in what Nietzsche calls his greatest passion: an insatiable longing for the truth. Out of a desire for the truth, Nietzsche spoke often and confidently about virtue. If we were to submit a list of Christian virtues to Nietzsche, he would concur with some, delete others, and supply a few new ones he believes Christians lack. Here we must be cautious. Nietzsche exalts Hellenic culture and often extols "virtues" because they were prized by the ancient Greeks. Among these things he points out as being virtues to the Greeks was envy.{13} As Nietzsche himself admits, this appeared as a virtue because of the premium some Greek authors placed on encouraging competition. Like fuel on the proverbial fire, envy promoted contest. New Testament authors rejected envy in the teeth of a culture that exalted it-not because, as Nietzsche may suggest, they hated competition (denied to "slaves"), but because it arose from those who would manipulate the truth rather than submit to it.{14} Envy is rightly rejected by sincere seekers of truth.

On the other hand, among the many instructive passages in Nietzsche's work there are at least two rebukes about styles of approaching the world which Christians should take seriously.

1. "You are not honest about your faith, your flaws, nor the nature of the world."

To Nietzsche, the greatest virtue was honesty. Honesty is allowing truth to permeate every enterprise. Here Nietzsche influenced even Christian philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel, who maintained that, for example, narcissism is a form of dishonesty about one's relationship to others because it is essentially a dream world in which one sees oneself at the center of the universe. In this dream world one cannot imagine the existence of others apart from their connection to oneself. The dishonest substitute for relationship is an invitation to enter the dream rather than to speak the truth in love.

But honesty cannot be selectively applied. This is why so many who claim to have a gift of exhortation are rightly considered obnoxious by the community. They too live in a dream world of their own making, where they are champions of truth in confrontation but martyrs who suffer for Jesus when they are confronted. This illustrates that one cannot have it both ways-that is, "honesty" toward others and dishonesty toward ourselves. Indeed, Nietzsche says Christians do not truly count honesty as a virtue.{15} True honesty is to make the Christian faith one's own rather than fearfully clinging to a Christian subculture which puts us out of touch with the legitimate demands of relationship. Nietzsche says if we claim to be pilgrims and sojourners, then we should be pilgrims and sojourners. This means living as true exiles in the wilderness, not as people who demand to be continually surrounded by sappy Christian music, fluffy Christian books, and neighbors who are just like us.

As to whether Christian values could stand up to the tensions of a real world in which Christians actually suffer, Nietzsche was skeptical. He even proposed a challenge to sincere Christians to live in the world without their Christianity, to discover whether they would be driven back to it because of its veracity:

Your evidence will be of no weight until you have lived for years on end without Christianity, with an honest, fervent zeal to endure life in the antithesis of Christianity: until you have wandered far, far away from it. Only if you are driven back, not by homesickness but by judgment on the basis of a rigorous comparison, will your homecoming possess any significance! {16}

Of course, Nietzsche had in mind people who were born, baptized, and confirmed into a Christian society such as nineteenth-century Germany. Yet the spirit of his challenge was to subject one's faith to the scrutiny of truth, which in a pluralistic society means to eschew denial-based evaluations such as, "I am not angry at God," "I am happy," "I am experiencing harmony," or "I understand the reason for my suffering and the suffering of others," when these and other dreamy wishes are simply not expressions of reality. They are not reality because they do not acknowledge the unrelenting tension of living in an uncanny world. Biblical authors did not demonstrate this kind of denial. Jesus said, "In the world you will have trouble." The New Testament thus contains few prescriptive lists of do's and don'ts, and most promises are eschatological-a truth we particularly seem to hate.

2. "You have surrendered hope for a desire to increase your own power."

We hate eschatology-the theology of last things, such as heaven and final redemption at the return of Christ-not primarily because we are irritated by timetables, speculations, or beasts with multiple heads and horns; our real irritation arises from our desire to resolve our pet issues now. To struggle with our problems until heaven seems unbearable. We protest that we are not motivated by future prospects because they are too far away and uncertain. Nietzsche would warn that a hope based on something other than the future could merely be a selfish wish for domination and revenge.

For years I have taught the book of Hebrews in New Testament survey courses and discrete elective courses. At some point in the course, I must explain the biblical author's concept of hope. Based on my understanding of the book, I explain that hope is faith that God will keep his promises for the future. I also say that I may well be mistaken, but that even the promised rest of Hebrews 4 is eschatological rather than something to be obtained right now. Without fail, students' hands shoot upward, and one of the first questions is along the lines of, "What about today? I'm looking for hope for today." My point here is not whether my exegesis of the homily or the passage is correct, but, rather, that we resist hope for the future because we feel a more compelling need for relief (or revenge) now.

At one point in When Nietzsche Wept, Yalom's fictional Nietzsche thunders against the suggestion that hope must be maintained above all: "Hope? Hope is the final evil…Hope is the worst of evils because it protracts torment."{17} The situation is invented, but the quote is taken from an aphorism which appears in Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human. Nietzsche gives the opposite view in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which is dominated by the theme of hope. Implying his vision for a future, the philosopher said, "We children of the future, how can we be at home in the world of today?"{18} Nietzsche was famous for his self-contradiction without apology, but it is at least clear that something about his perception of the typical hope of Christians repulsed him. When one really takes all of Nietzsche's work into account, one discovers that when he decries hope, he is actually pleading for it. This at first seems strange, but it is a continual feature of his writings. For example, on occasion Nietzsche defends the "virtue" of lying, when anyone familiar with his books knows that the philosopher has utterly surrendered himself to the pursuit of truth. In the same way, Niet-zsche is desperate for hope, but he doesn't seem to find a genuine manifestation of it displayed among Christians.

For Nietzsche, the hope shown by many Christians is a wish not for the future, but for the present. These wishes are in some way a desire either to have dominating power or to obtain revenge. Christians gave up true hope in the early centuries when they failed to long for a future redemption (presumably the return of Christ): " . . . they thought that they were redeemed from death and from day to day expected a transformation and not that they would die."{19} Perhaps influenced by Nietzsche, Marcel also contends for a "not yet" aspect of hope when he defines it as a memory of the future.{20}

Nietzsche's rebuke offers a profitable warning. You see, a person of faith reaches a crossroad when he or she cries out, "Oh, that it would not always be this way for me." And there are two possible responses at the crossroad: We can reduce the possibility for hope to mere wish by turning to a formula intended to manage life in light of the fact that God cannot be counted on to help. After all, where is the promise of his return? We have to manage somehow until he comes back. God could even be enlisted in a sort of spiritual manner; he could be demanded to solve certain problems before Christ returns and thus demonstrate his faithfulness to our satisfaction. To Nietzsche, all of the possible elements of this response are no more than a gripping desire for revenge at being abandoned in a wilderness. A second response is to long for the future in such a way that our primary passion is for dependence upon God that evokes petitions for perseverance. God may or may not address our most difficult issues in the interim, but we will live as pilgrims-homeless and alienated, yet joyful to anticipate a home-until he fulfills his promise.

How to Love Your Enemy

I stated earlier that there are good reasons why Christians should not accept all of Nietzsche's opinions of Christianity. Whether we reject or accept his criticisms, they are certainly not to be feared. He may be the most brilliant buffoon who ever lived, if we denote that word in its original sense to mean "one who makes himself appear ridiculous to create laughter, perhaps for serious ends." Indeed, he has played the role of buffoon perfectly. An illustration of this comes from my university days. I sat down at a desk in a classroom to await a lecture in the course "History of Philosophy." The previous week's lecture had been an overview of nineteenth- century philosophers, Nietzsche included. As the professor prepared to speak, I heard other students giggling and looked up to see a quotation scrawled on the blackboard behind the lectern: "'Nietzsche is dead.'-God"

Nietzsche's buffoonery seems sometimes harsh and nearly always overstated. Nevertheless, he has something to say to Christians. Preoccupation with the philosopher has always been considered a great hindrance to benefiting from his genius (and has also proved dangerous in the history of the twentieth century), but it is also a loss to reject him completely. He holds before each of us a mirror. The glass is sometimes foggy, at other times cracked, but there is no doubt our reflection can be found in that mirror. I am convinced there is much to be learned from this dark genius. Seldom without an opinion, Nietzsche even held one on the benefit of his philosophy to his enemies. He claims that he can help Christians to better obey Christ's command to love one's enemy: "Learning from one's enemies is the best way toward loving them; for it makes us grateful to them."{21} Is it possible to be grateful for Nietzsche?

{1} William Mackintire Salter, Nietzsche the Thinker: A Study (New York: Freder-ick Ungar Publish-ing Co., 1968), xxvii.

{2} Tanner alludes to Nietzsche's aphoristic method of writing in which he would carry a notebook with him on walks and errands so that he could record his thoughts. Like Pascal before him, he would later edit and arrange these fragments to construct a book for publication.

{3} Michael Tanner, "Introduction," in Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, En-gland: Cambridge University Press, 1982), viii.

{4} Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Pre-judices of Morality, 96. (Numbers in Nietzsche’s works refer to sections.)

{5} Nietzsche, Daybreak, 149.

{6} Karl Jaspers, Niet-zsche: An Introduc-tion to the Under-standing of His Phi-losophical Activity (Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Ari-zona Press, 1965), 142.

{7} Salter, 33.

{8} Maximilian A. Mügge, Friedrich Nietzsche (London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, N.D.), 66.

{9} Nietzsche, Daybreak, 133.

{10} I want to be careful with this term “first Christians” in connection with any discussion of Nietzsche’s thinking because he sometimes contradicts himself. Sometimes he speaks of Jesus as the only Christian, other times that the apostle Paul is the first Christian, and still at other times that there is a distinction be-tween the first Christ-ians and those who come later.

{11} Salter, 257-259.

{12} The motivational fallacy is a non-sequitur in which the author rejects an argument based on the secret, unknowable motives of the one putting forth the argument. Ironically, it was the apostle Paul who recognized the destructive nature of this fallacy in 1 Corinthians 4:5. New Testament authors agreed that judgment of motives is reserved to a sovereign God alone (He-brews 4:11-13; James 2:4).

{13} Nietzsche, Daybreak, 38.

{14} 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-19.
{15} Jaspers, 202.

{16} Nietzsche, Daybreak, 61.

{17} Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 69.

{18} Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 377.

{19} Nietzsche, Daybreak, 72.

{20} Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator (Glou-cester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978), 53.

{21} Nietzsche, Mixed Opinions and Max-ims, 248.