Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nietzsche, God, and the Cross

Of all the challenges posed to Christianity in the modern age, I think the ones raised by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are among the most serious.  While many debates center around the notion of the existence of God or of the historical Jesus, Nietzsche cuts to the very core of Christianity, to the very logic of the story itself, and attempts to show why the logic not only doesn’t work but is in fact, on his view, evil.  Now Nietzsche is a double-edged sword.  He makes very similar attacks on the philosophy and science of his day, and probably for that reason he has been relegated to the sidelines of philosophy, someone you talk about in the context of the existentialist movement but not someone you take seriously if you are doing philosophy or theology (especially not in an “analytic” context).
Yet, for all of this, I think Nietzsche deserves to have a more active place in our theological discussions.  Nietzsche’s attacks on both religion and philosophy are motivated in part by his concerns about objectivity, which is a popular theme in my own thinking.  Nietzsche is also concerned with what he sees as a hostile taking over of ethics by those who wish to confine humanity to live within certain docile “norms.”  Nietzsche in some respects might be said to want to “unleash the beast within,” and this is partly what happened with his thought when it was co-opted by Nazi Germany as philosophical justification for the atrocities of the holocaust.  While we must be careful to avoid such errors ourselves, perhaps a more favorable interpretation of Nietzsche might be this: Nietzsche believes that we are most human when we are most free to express ourselves in our unique, individuality.  Nietzsche wants us to be pure individuals not constrained by any other.  In this sense he actually has great respect for Jesus, it is more Jesus’ followers Nietzsche is upset with because he feels they have hoisted constraints onto humanity which have prevented true individuals from coming into existence.
Now with this overarching interpretation in mind, we can consider Nietzsche’s distinction between the Nobles and the Plebes in society.  The Nobles are those who are strong, successful, powerful and therefore free from constraints which might make them incapable of being a true individual.  They can shape their identity in whatever way they would like, they are not dominated by someone else.  The Plebes, on the other hand, are forced to see themselves in relation to the Nobles.  They can only exist at the pleasure of those higher up the food chain than they are.  They depend on them for their support, and they therefore resent them.  This distinction gives rise to two types of morality, in Nietzsche’s estimation.  The first type, associated with the Nobles, celebrates all that is strong and inherently good in itself.  It finds virtuous those who are able to enact their will without relying on others.  The second type, associated with the Plebes, is rooted in the notion of “revenge.”  Dominated as they are by others, the Plebes dream up an eschatological system of morality, one based on a “final judgment” which will bring down the “evil” Nobles (from the Plebes’ point of view) and exalt the humble Plebes.  It is easy to see from this description how Nietzsche goes about critiquing Christian morality and theology.
One other detail of Nietzsche’s thought will be useful to note here before launching into my own response to Nietzsche.  That is Nietzsche’s conception of how the two systems of morality he has sketched would make sense of an “enemy.”  On the common, Plebian notion of morality the enemy is one to be detested and hated and most importantly viewed as “evil.”  Not so with the Nobles.  When two Nobles view one another as enemies, they have a core of deep respect for the other’s individuality and strength.  Whatever rivalry they feel towards one other, whatever opposition, they still acknowledge one another as equals (at least in worth and dignity).  To use Nietzsche’s own words, “He tolerates no other enemy than one in whom nothing is to be despised and a great deal is worthy of respect!”  (First Essay, On the Genealogy of Morals).
There are several different ways of responding to Nietzsche, many of which I think miss the point of his arguments.  My own response to Nietzsche is not an attempt to rebuff his critiques of Christian ethics or theology (even if I do not agree with all of his characterizations of either) but instead to note a problem with his notion of individuality as it might exist in the real world.  Something later existentialist writers (such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir) will emphasize which Nietzsche does not is that we are always existing in relation with other people.  As such, we are always subject to the influence of others, always defining ourselves at least to a certain extent in respect to others, etc.  Given the expansiveness of human relationships it seems as though it is impossible for “true individuals” in the sense meant by Nietzsche to exist in this world.  It is important to note that this move does not negate the force of Nietzsche’s arguments, but it may have the effect of saying that in some respect all of us are Plebes and there are no true Nobles.
This analysis opens up a very interesting possibility to me.  The truly unique individual is one who is entirely free of the constraints of other people, not in any way dependent on them for its own life and self-understanding.  We have suggested that such an individual cannot exist in this world because of the expansive and inter-connected nature of human relationships.  I want to go a step farther and suggest that such a description of “Nobility” could be applied to the notion of God.  Now I recognize that Nietzsche just turned over in his grave at my writing this, but I also think that such a notion of God would be radically different from the traditional conceptions of God that Nietzsche was reacting against.  God as the wholly unique, self-defining individual is not the eschatological God of much traditional Christian rhetoric. This is not the God who can be coaxed by human ritual and action into bringing about the kingdom of bliss for the underdogs.  This is not the God who can be made in our image to justify our own endeavors.  This is a fiercely unpredictable God, the God of Job who brings calamity on the faithful without explanation, the God of Noah who can destroy humanity if it is so pleases him.
As frightening as this image of God is, I think Nietzsche also provides a very intriguing way of conceptualizing what happens at the cross.  Remember that in Nietzsche’s conception of the Noble morality, an “enemy” is one who must command complete respect.  A true Noble will not look on the Plebes as his enemy because they are unworthy of the same respect as he has for himself or another Noble.  Seemingly this means that Nietzsche cannot conceive of the Christian notion of redemption because it implies a higher being condescending to care about lower beings.  Yet I think that endowed with the notion of “incarnation” the cross can take on a new and profound meaning in Nietzsche’s system.  The cross can be seen as a moment exemplifying the concept of an “enemy” in the Noble system of morality.  At the cross God the Father is put in opposition with God the Son, who because of his own divine nature can embody a being whom the Father must fully respect and see as a worthy equal, something which could never be accomplished by a human “plebe.”  In other words, at the heart of the Christian story is a moment in which God has become God’s own enemy on behalf of humanity.
Now I fully recognize that Nietzsche would be intensely dissatisfied with this interpretation of his own philosophy.  I’m also going to openly admit that I’m not certain I believe the theological interpretation I have just given (though I think this “Nietzschean theology” is a perspective that could be valuable to theological discussions).  I do think, however, that this is a very interesting way of thinking about both God and the cross drawn from within Nietzsche’s thought (even as he attempted to derail both the notion of God and the cross).  It is food for thought if nothing else, a way of conceptualizing Christian theology which also wrestles with some of the greatest challenges to Christian theology.


  1. Replies
    1. Beautiful pic there, Steve. From Yosemite I'm guessing?

  2. Thanks for the post, Alex. I have only two comments:

    First, the idea of the "fiercely unpredictable" God that you characterize in your neo-Nietzchean conception of the noble God was in circulation long enough before Nietzsche to be considered one of the standard views that he was reacting against. Responding to the Scholastic depiction of God as having a will that was harmonious with the laws of nature and with our notion of reason (with the result that there were certain things that God just could not do because such actions ran afoul of these two attributes of God), the Nominalists asserted in response that such a God was not the supremely powerful God of the Scriptures. This disagreement over this metaphysical question about God's nature has been argued by some philosophers to be one of the factors instigating the arrival modern mindset itself (for example, see Michael Allen Gillespie, "The Theological Origins of Modernity" [Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008]). It's also fairly easy to see how it was this unpredictable God that led Luther into his psychological fortress of holy terror to which his extreme theology of grace alone was an antidote. Reformation theology, or at least certain Lutheran strands of it, can be seen as the reaction to this unpredictable God that the Nominalists had brought to life in the 14th century. Since the early modern period happened before Nietzche started writing, it is plausible to think that even the unpredictable God is consciously considered (and condemned) by Nietzsche. And, if you ask me, it would probably have been the case that Nietzsche had the nominalist God more in his mind than the scholastic God given his location, since it is plausible to think that this unpredictable God had become the "traditional God" given that roughly 300 years had passed between the German Reformation and Nietzsche's philosophical writings. This point doesn't defeat anything that you've said, since Nietzsche, as you note, would have been pissed at any attempts to appropriate his philosophy into some rehabilitation of a Christian God, no matter whose God it is; it is more just an interesting point of information and a suggestion that perhaps Nietzsche has the God that you propose more in his mind than the "traditional" God whom you describe in your post (and that I describe as the scholastic God).

    Second, I think that, at least at this time, a big problem for the viability of this neo-Nietzschean theology of the cross is that it ultimately generates a problem of God's motivation to save human beings. As you know, the idea that the son is the one rejected by God is not new, as it plays such a prominent role in Barth's theology and on all of us theologians who are rightfully indebted to him. But Barth's theology sustains the biblical notion that God is interested in us because God is love which is ultimately an act of condescension to us because we are other than God. The Noble, as you point out, has no interest in those who are weaker than he is. So the view of God that you describe here presents a prima facie reason for why God would be completely uninterested in saving human beings. There are ways to get out of this problem, but I thought I would just state the problem so that you could address it (perhaps in some future post).

    1. Thanks for the comments! Both very interesting, I'm going to hit them in reverse order.

      I think your second comment is correct in noting that there is a potential problem to be worked out here in a "neo-Nietzschean" theology. This is actually one of the reasons why I expressed such caution about accepting the theology I have outlined. I'm not really sure how to solve this problem without getting perilously close to a Marcion-like heresy, which is why I present this more as food for thought than anything else.

      In regards to your first comment, I partly agree. I think it is certainly the case that the "unpredictable" God was a perspective in Christian theology long before Nietzsche came along, as you have noted with the scholastic-nominalist debate. However, I'm not sure from my readings of Nietzsche that anything like nominalism was in his mind. I think Nietzsche is largely reacting to German Idealism, which probably is closer (at least in my estimation) to the scholastic God in your dichotomy. In this sense I think Nietzsche is in a similar vein to the kinds of criticisms of Christianity that Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky will make. But whereas they are distinctly Christian voices themselves, and so very often considered in theological discussions, Nietzsche is an outsider to Christianity and his criticisms are usually just rejected and not considered in "productive" theology despite having some interesting potential theological implications.

  3. "This is a fiercely unpredictable God, the God of Job who brings calamity on the faithful without explanation, the God of Noah who can destroy humanity if it is so pleases him."

    While I agree with the 'fiercely unpredictable' description, there 'was' an explanation in Job, and in the Noah narrative.

    And how does God's being a Trinity...three persons...factor in to your Noble theory?

    I hope you will submit this piece to Philosophers' Carnival. I'm hosting it February 20.

    Interesting stuff, thanks!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Maryann!

      I realize there is an explanation given in the texts of both of the stories I cited, though at least in the case of Job (and possibly also for Noah, though I don't remember off the top of my head if this is the case) the explanation is never given to the human character involved (God expressly refuses to tell Job why he is suffering). So from Job's perspective, the calamity remains unexplained and unpredictable.

      The trinity question is really interesting. The comment above by theolosopher ties in with this a bit, actually. He raised a question about divine motivation in saving humanity in this Neo-Nietzschean model. At least two of the possible ways of solving this that I am aware of would bring the trinity into play, though both of them end up probably being heretical notions of the trinity. The first is a kind of Marcion-like solution: God the Father (fiercely unpredictable) is effectively overcome by God the Son (sympathetic to humanity) on the cross in their moment of opposition. The second is a more Arian-like solution: God the Father, though in principle unconcerned with humanity (Noble v. Plebian distinction), has occasionally taken notice of some exceptional human beings (i.e., Noah, Moses) and used them as vessels for his purposes on earth. The most exceptional was Jesus, who took on the character of being himself "divine" in the moment of the cross (following the Nietzschean paradigm of Noble Opposition).

      Granted, both these solutions are heretical. I'm not sure there is an orthodox way of incorporating what I have said about Nietzsche into theology. But I think its very interesting that we can derive any sort of quasi-Christian theology from Nietzsche's thought.

  4. Interesting post. I'll have to read Nietzsche.


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