Tuesday, 27 June 2006

For the love of God (20): Why I love Nietzsche

A guest-post by Byron Smith

“Is not every unbeliever who has a reason for his atheism and his decision not to believe a theologian too? Atheists who have something against God and against faith in God usually know very well whom and what they are rejecting, and have their reasons. Nietzsche’s book The Antichrist has a lot to teach us about true Christianity.” —Jürgen Moltmann, Godless Theology.

My early years as a Christian were spent in a fairly dualistic Christian culture. Creation and redemption were frequently opposed: salvation meant redemption from the world, from worldliness, from distractions and secondary things. Explicitly and implicitly I received the message that anything that was not a gospel-matter didn’t matter.

Friedrich Nietzsche awoke me from my Platonic slumbers. I began with Beyond Good and Evil (1886): “Christianity is Platonism for ‘the people.’” Nietzsche’s humorous, vigorous, irreverent and megalomaniac take on Western culture and thought helped me to see the world-denying resentment behind much that passed for Christian thought. Reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) and the Bible, I rediscovered a world-affirming faith. Not a naïve optimism, nor Nietzsche’s heroic Übermensch, but a realisation that the author of salvation is none other than the creator who declared everything “good, very good.” The God who raises the dead brings not redemption from the world, but the redemption of the world.

Nietzsche seeks to vanquish the shadows of god that linger on in Western culture after it has rejected Christianity. The god he banishes is one to whom I’d also like to bid good-riddance. Nietzsche, a self-styled anti-Christ(ian), does Christians a great service through his iconoclasm. Although usually pegged as a philosopher (he briefly held a university position as a philologist), he is also able to “theologise with a hammer,” sounding out the hollow idols and ideals of the Western tradition. This task is integral to any Christian theology worthy of the name.

“I beseech you my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go” (Zarathustra, Prologue, §3).

22 Comments:

Ben Myers said...

Editorial note: Although I originally entitled this series "20 Theologians and Why We Love Them", the series isn't quite over yet -- there are still another five or six to come.

byron said...

Thanks Ben!
Looking forward to the rest of the increasing inaccurately titled series.

byron said...

I forgot to include the reference for the initial Moltmann quote. It is from a short piece here.

Jonathan said...

Interesting. I wonder if Nietzsche would've accepted Kierkegaard's distinction between Christendom and Christianity. Both attacked Christendom, that's for sure. When Nietzsche said "God is dead", he refers to the fact that God is dead in the hearts of man, and remains a hinderance for progress. Kierkegaard would agree, and that is why he tries his best to rekindle the faith.

Arvid said...

What do you people over here think about the radical orthodox reading of "God is dead" as simply declaring the death of the nihilist/voluntarist/humanist projection of the cartesian ego, the idol of modernity? Quite a nice thought: “... the God from which nihilism emerges is still-born, an idol.” (Michael Hanby). Or, perhaps, the idol from which nihilism is born is, simply, is "taken care of" by its own offspring.

Gaunilo said...

Unexpected, but quite thought-provoking. Nice job, Byron. I often think that the props given Heidegger's demolition of the "onto-theology" and his earlier "destructuring" of the history of metaphysics misses the debt he owes to Nietzsche. It is he who first took from us the "god of the philosophers" and of metaphysics. Awaking from our Platonic slumbers, indeed.

As I once heard Marion say (proving that history indeed has a sense of irony): "Philosophy can take away the idols from theology that philosophy gave to it in the beginning."

Gaunilo said...

"awakening," that is

Drew said...

Byron had given me a heads up on it - so not so much a surprise (to give a sense of an inner circle here ;)

But seriously - great post.

As for "declaring the death of the nihilist/voluntarist/humanist projection of the cartesian ego, the idol of modernity", I think we need to be careful not to reduce Nietzsche's reading to only this - he is declaring this, but this doesn't exhaust his statement that God is dead.

Love the Marion quote Gaunilo...

the increasing inaccurately titled series.

Yes, there is something Douglas Adams about it all, isn't there?

Ben Myers said...

One of my favourite Nietzsche quotes: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?" (The Gay Science, p. 182).

Only someone who had spent plenty of time in churches (Nietzsche was a pastor's son) could have come up with a statement like that!

kim fabricius said...

Ironically, Nietzsche's attack on Christianity - not always either fair or consistent, but scoring enough palpable hits to make it probably the most formidable in intellectual history - stems from his excessive nominalist emphasis on the will which has its origins in the thought of Thomas Ockham, who influenced Luther - and so the genealogy begins, climaxing in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche himself. Pannenberg interestingly claims that the decision-of-faith theologians (including the early dialectical theologians and even the maturer Bultmann) collude with Nietzsche's preoccupation with the primacy of the will, with its ontological thinness.

Biographer Rüdiger Safranski suggests that Nietzsche's "entire philosophy was an endeavor to cling to life even when the music stopped" - music meant everything to the philosopher. Safranski concludes: "There is no point of arrival in Nietzsche's philosophy, no outcome, and no end result. [Eight months before his death Nietzsche wrote: "I did everything well, but never had a clue about it - quite the contrary."] There is only the will to an unceasing adventure in thinking. Sometimes, however, the feeling creeps over us that perhaps the soul should have sung on after all." Cheerfulness kept breaking end - but Nietzsche always slammed the doors.

Human - all too human. In October 1865 Nietzsche gave up alcohol and tobacco - but then found himself consuming copious quantities of cakes and pies!

joel hunter said...

Another helpful contemporary interpreter is Merold Westphal. I was just writing about him today and his essay on "When Not to Refute Atheism." He draws a helpful distinction between atheism that arises from skepticism and atheism that arises from suspicion. The skeptic demands sufficient evidence and is concerned with rational belief. "Skepticism is directed toward the elusiveness of things, while suspicion is directed toward the evasiveness of consciousness." Nietzsche, as a prophet of suspicion, exhibits the critique of religion that parallels Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah (not to mention Jesus, Paul and James). Like Sartre, he understands the scope and meaning of the Fall. Hence, the hermeneutics of suspicion is deployed to expose how much we are shaped by precisely those values we claim to disown.

Arvid said...

As I once heard Marion say (proving that history indeed has a sense of irony): "Philosophy can take away the idols from theology that philosophy gave to it in the beginning."

To return to radical orthodoxy (which I've been reading for a while now). Those idols sure were given by philosophy, but this very philosophy could, perhaps, be traced back to the voluntaristic God of the early nominalists, and thus back to theology. This arbitrary "God" could easily be reduced to a deistic idol, opening up for the secular and the death of God as loss of faith (which probably is partly implicated in Nietzsches statement). Hmm... Dunno. I'm more or less brainwashed with radical orthodoxy at the moment, and my mind is spinning off after a night of wake...

kim fabricius said...

Nice one, Joel. I wonder if one might say that "skepticism" is an enlightenment phenomenon, "suspicion" a postmodern phenomenon (understanding the terms "enlightenment" and "postmodern" as more than simply chronological designations).

In his little book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005), David Bentley Hart contrasts the response of the not-quite-atheist (i.e. deist) Voltaire to the Lisbon earthquake with the darker broodings of Dostoevsky, in the character of Ivan Karamazov, on the innocent suffering of children. Voltaire, Hart observes, had "never passed through the ordeals of nineteenth-century idealism and materialism", and "the first real stirrings of an unabashedly explicit nihilism", and so "there was a depth of reflection upon the darker mysteries of existence, and upon the power of the irrational, that was forever closed to him."

byron said...

Joel: I found that reading Westphal (particularly his Suspicion and Faith) to be an articulation of what I had been groping after regarding Nietzsche all along: 'how you interpret unknowingly, I now proclaim to you!'

Jonathan
wonder if Nietzsche would've accepted Kierkegaard's distinction between Christendom and Christianity.
Probably not is my guess. That is, I suspect that he would have found problems with even a life-affirming Christianity. Anything that threatened his own ego was fair game.

Gaunilo: I too like the Marion quote.

Arvid and Kim: I have a hunch we can find the pre-shadows of the Enlightenment god of whom Nietzsche's obituary is so apt even prior to the medieval scholastics, though the line surely runs through them.

Arvid said...

Kim: nice twist this mentioning of Dostoyevsky - I happen to be reading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment (as a counterweight to Milbank and his lot), and have been reflecting upon the "theology" of Ivan Karamazov. Not being even half-way into the book, I haven't yet decided wether Ivan is an atheist or agnostic pessimist. Ivan says, in chapter four, that "I could never understand how one can love one's neighbours. It's just one's neighbours, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance." I don't know in which work Nietzsche first pronounces his famous statement, but The Brothers Karamazov is without doubt written before Also sprach Zarathustra. I'd like to know wether Dostoyevsky ever read Nietzsche, and what Martin Luther would say about the above quote. God is, in a sense, one of those "at a distance", but Luther said that He is closer to you than you are yourself. Appearantly not in the theology of Ivan Karamazov. Which God is it that Ivan talks about? The deistic? A Russian Orthodox deistic idol?

Byron: of course you're right.

(I'm afraid that this comment is a mess. My English is... well... at least not my Swedish.)

kim fabricius said...

Hi Arvid,

Dostoevsky (1821-1881)never knew of Nietzsche (1844-1900), but Nietzsche certainly knew of Dostoevsky. According to P. Travis Kroeker and Bruce K. Ward (in Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity [2001] - which I highly recommend), "the available evidence indicates that Nietzsche was thoroughly familiar with all Dostoevsky's major works except The Brothers Karamazov, which was not available in French or German before the onset of Nietzsche's madness." Nietzsche wrote that Dostoevsky was "the only psychologist . . . from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life."

The Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) remarked that Dostoevsky knew everything that Nietzsche knew - and more.

Arvid said...

Kim: that actually makes more sense than Dostoyevsky reading Nietzsche. Must try to get my hands on a copy of Remembering the End.

Benjamin Myers: must just express my gratitute to you, for this great blog, and for the thought-provoking For the Love of God-series.

Ben Myers said...

Arvid, you said: "I happen to be reading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment" -- me too, and it's a delightful experience!

Patrick McManus said...

At one point in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov professes the following to his brother Alyosha (as Arvid quotes above): “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbours. It’s just one’s neighbours, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance.” Alyosha responds with his own confession: “but yet there’s a great deal of love in mankind, and almost Christ-like love. I know that myself, Ivan.” To this Ivan counters with a raw and subverting rhetoric:

Well, I know nothing of it so far, and can’t understand it, and the innumerable mass of mankind are with me there. The question is, whether that’s due to men’s bad qualities or whether it’s inherent in their nature. To my thinking, Christ-like love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods. Suppose I, for instance, suffer intensely. Another can never know how much I suffer, because he is another and not I. And what’s more, a man is rarely ready to admit another’s suffering… One can love one’s neighbour in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible.

Ivan’s rhetoric is striking in its severity. To him, as to all Nietzschean anti-Christ’s, belongs the task of endlessly deconstructing the particularity of the act of love, the lover and the suffering bound up in that love. One can love in the abstract (which is in itself meaningless) but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of the concrete love of one’s neighbours (let alone their enemies!) the self-enclosed self cannot open to the other except to subjugate the other in a power-play. Alyosha’s confession of Christ-like love, even in its fantastic naiveté, is the confession of the believer, a confession, that for all of its credulity, arrests the reader with an eloquent and sublime beauty. Yet Ivan’s prophetic tirade is itself attractive to the believer for the believer knows that she cannot love as Christ loves, that only Christ can love with Christ’s love; but, and here opens the wide chasm between Ivan and Alyosha, because of Christ’s love—because of the miracle of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—real and genuine love of the neighbour is made actual and not merely a possibility! More to the point, Ivan cannot love because Ivan’s God does not love. Alyosha can love because Alyosha’s God “gave himself as a ransom for many”.

Mike L said...

Joseph Ratzinger is well acquainted with Nietzsche's thought and has referred to it in both his recent encyclical and in a book he co-authored just before becoming pope.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Patrick.

Another way of putting the attractiveness to believers of Ivan's nihilism is that, at bottom, there is something deeply Christian about it.

This becomes clearer still in Ivan's tirade to Alyosha on the suffering of children. Ivan insists that the sheer scale of such horrendous evil - indeed such horrendous evil to a single child - cannot be justified as a necessary consequence of humnan freedom, nor as a hidden contribution to an ultimate harmony, nor can the damnation of the evil-doers salvage the project of creation (for eternal punishment cannot restore the innocent victims). Such traditional Christian theodicies themselves, Ivan sees, are a sacrilege - and Aloyosha's God - the suffering God of the Crucified - would agree!

As David Bentley Hart puts it, "Ivan's rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience," and his argument thus acts as a kind of theological purgative. The only response to Ivan is Alyosha's - not a theological justification of God at the expense of the victims, but the praxis of the cross in self-sacrificial service to the suffering.

byron said...

Such traditional Christian theodicies themselves, Ivan sees, are a sacrilege - and Aloyosha's God - the suffering God of the Crucified - would agree!
I've recently been posting a series called "Why it is wicked to solve the problem of evil". Sorry to do the whole self-linking thing.

Another way of putting the attractiveness to believers of Ivan's nihilism is that, at bottom, there is something deeply Christian about it.
Moltmann would agree - check out this brief article about the necessity of including protest atheism within the scope of religous dialogue.

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