Though Nietzsche’s overall intent is to drive home to his readers this epistemological view and its implications for religious, moral, and social thought, he also recognizes that such would be impossible without discussing more specifically the faults of previous systems, as well as how things got to be the way they are. Because of this, the vast majority of his work serves as a post-modern critique of classical Christianity. Nietzsche bases the majority of his case against faith on his interpretation of the historical development of civilizations.
His narrative begins with the fundamental assumption that, “In the beginning, there was chaos” (Linker; see our first post for Works Cited). The governing force of the world was not a god, gods, or a universal sense of fellowship, but raw power. In fact, to Nietzsche, it was only through naked force that morality even came to be. “The pointless, anarchistic violence that characterized the prehistoric world [only] came to an end when certain individuals began to focus their will to power on the goal of decisively triumphing over others.” Linker continues, that having achieved their material and perhaps financial conquest, this new elite then sought to do the same ethically and religiously and therefore “foisted the first ‘moral valuation’ onto mankind” (Linker). Thus strength did not arise from moral principles, but moral principles from the strong (see Nietzsche 32).
When most speak of the oppression of the ruling class, they do so in quite a different vein – following Rousseau, Locke, Marx, etc. – that is, to criticize if not to condemn outright. Nietzsche, however, while believing oppression to be the historical norm, views this as an affirmation of human nature and history rather than an attack on it. Since the acts of the powerful are based on their natural superiority, their behavior is not to be condemned, but rather embraced. To Nietzsche, then, “the good is nothing other than an expression of what the members of the victorious class do and what they affirm. And what they do is triumph ruthlessly over the weak by violence” (Linker).
In this narrative, religion, too, rose from the foundations of this strong-man society, as the strong of each culture formed their own creation and founding myths (complete with divine ancestors) in order to both justify the use of their power and to keep the people under the illusion that this was simply the way the gods wanted things to be. Thus in the Nietzschean state of nature, “All human greatness demanded great suffering, harsh discipline, renunciation of comfort, courage against pain, and even cruelty in its use and elimination of the weak” (Wiker 103). Writing within a few decades of The Origin of Species Nietzsche therefore believed strongly in the harshness of a Darwinian world ruled by ‘survival of the fittest’, and made full use of its darkest implications. Yet he went even further in his understanding than Darwin himself dared to go. As one writer put it, “Darwin focused on survival and Nietzsche focused on the fittest” (Wiker 108). Thus in Nietzsche’s world, the natural and historical foundation of both church and state is that of naked force, and true religion and statesmanship have never forgotten it.
It is in reading Nietzsche’s version of this history that the reader begins to see why the author places most of the blame for European faults on Christianity. The presence of Judeo-Christian values like faith, hope and love turned all natural religion and morality on its head, inverting the values to which most humans had subscribed and reinventing the idea of God as transcendentally perfect, rather than a mere projection of human nature into the heavens. Nietzsche not only dismisses Israel’s claim as God’s “chosen people among the nations,” but also regards the Jews as “a people ‘born for slavery’” (195, quoting Tacitus). Their crime is the tendency of their prophets to reject all things high (wealth, virtue, vice and pleasure) and to exalt all things low (poverty, piety and compassion). In other words, if “the significance of the Jewish people is to be found,” it is that “with them that the slave-insurrection in morals commences” (Nietzsche 195).
Nietzsche more than likely did not understand just how right he was, nor how wrong. While Nietzsche’s thought begins and ends in chaos, Judaism has quite a different approach: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1 ESV). Thus, while this does indeed imply a certain “slave morality” among mankind, it is a slavery in which the weak, fallible and finite is subjected to the truly Powerful, Perfect and Infinite. The rub for Nietzsche comes in the fact that he is grouped among the former, rather than praised among the latter. But Judaism is also more than this. Jewish morality is rooted both in the character of God himself and in their unique historical encounters with him, particularly in their divinely led exodus from slavery in Egypt. Moses captures this balance of faith and faithfulness perfectly: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). The more humans witnessed of God’s power and goodness, the more they realized their own need for his steadfast love and providential care.
This same emphasis is seen when Yahweh reveals the covenant to Moses on Sinai:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. . . . You shall not make for yourself a carved image . . . . You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain . . . . Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exo 20:2-11)
Each of these provisions points to God as Creator and Redeemer, to their deliverance out of Egypt, to his uniqueness and transcendence, to his divine character and sacred nature. This relationship between faith and faithfulness is preserved, too, when we move to the moral aspects of the covenant. He is all loyalty, life, faithfulness, integrity, truth and satisfaction (vv. 12-17). Nietzsche takes special exception to the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exo 20:14). “Wherever the religious neurosis has appeared on the earth so far, we find it connected with three dangerous prescriptions as to regimen: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence” (Nietzsche 47). And not to be outdone by such pithy and forthright statements as those of the Decalogue, he adds later: “Even concubinage has been corrupted—by marriage” (123). Yet there is something is this account that is so striking that even Nietzsche (especially the power-monger he is) cannot fail to be impressed with. This divine-human encounter is not all love and happiness (at least as most would understand it). Upon seeing “the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off” (Exo 20:18). Reverent fear is therefore a vital part to the Jewish faith.
Christian morality maintains this same basic framework of faith and faithfulness, but with a strong emphasis on the condition of the inner man as a prerequisite to right action (as we have pointed out before). Because of this, the concept of love, though ever-present throughout the Old Testament, plays a more prominent role as the guiding theme of Christian morality. So while incorporating Judaism’s emphasis on imitating God (Eph 5:1) and holy living (1Pe 1:15, quoting our passage above), greater emphasis is placed on God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Thus, “We love because he first loved us” (1Jo 4:19), Christians are to “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), and are to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
Jesus himself initiated this shift in thought in the first chapter of his Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5). He says concerning the Hebrew Scriptures, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). So while murder, adultery, illicit sex and perjury all remain sins, he also condemns hatred, lust, divorce and oaths (vv. 21-37). And while other commands remain equally in force, like the lex talionis (“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” v. 38; see Rom 13:1-7) and the second greatest command (“You shall love your neighbor,” v. 43; see 22:39), both are further clarified in the command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). Thus, to employ the words of the Apostle John, “There is no fear in love,” but the perfect love of the New Covenant casts out the fear of the Old (1Jo 4:18).
This shift in emphasis, however, is an even farther cry from the harsh realties Nietzsche “found” and glorified in the pre-moral age, and the reason why such a religion found him as an ever-ready enemy. Thus while most within the Western tradition view Christian charity as one of the greatest enlightening (though unfortunately inconsistent) influences in history, to Nietzsche it is a sort of cultural blindness, an outright ignorance of what true nobility is. “Love to one only is a barbarity, for it is exercised at the expense of all others. Love to God also” (Nietzsche 67; see too our discussion of this among his contemporaries)! Prior to the rise of such an ideal, ‘love’ merely represented the feelings of affection and passion, yet “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it certainly, but degenerated to Vice” (Nietzsche 168). This same tendency can be seen in the Christian’s expected treatment of his personal enemies. In Nietzsche’s mind, such was wrong-headed on several counts. First, it is self-evidently false, as he implies by asking rhetorically: “To love one’s enemies” (Nietzsche 206)? Secondly, it is a denial of human nature: “It is inhuman to bless when one is being cursed” (Nietzsche 181). And thirdly, it contradicts even its own standard of morality in that, “There is a haughtiness of kindness which has the appearance of wickedness” (Nietzsche 184).
Perhaps Nietzsche’s greatest concern is the role of the incarnation and passion of Jesus Christ himself is sealing this inversion and perpetuating indefinitely into the future. As individuals living in a society literally permeated with Christian values and assumptions, it is almost impossible to imagine things coming into being in any different way. Yet, historically, such an inversion hardly seemed likely, and has required centuries to scratch the surface of its ethical significance. Paul points out the power of the Christ:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php 2:5-8)
While the faithful may point this out in order to instruct, Nietzsche does so in order to condemn. “Modern men . . . have no longer the sense for the terrible superlative conception which was implied to an antique taste by the paradox of the formula, ‘God on the Cross’” (46). Yet, if Nietzsche is wrong, it is precisely this event that is most important in understanding the will of heaven. Just as Judaism discovers itself and its mores in its unique history with God and the Jews’ unique deliverance from bondage, Christianity is defined by the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and thereby commemorates a new and deeper deliverance. What so terrifies Nietzsche is not so much that God might have saved us, but that he did so at complete personal cost to himself, and requiring precious little in return. It is the “boldness” of this inversion, more than any other, that has secured the perpetual progress of that dreadful promise: “a transvaluation of all ancient values” (46).
Here we return briefly to our opening theme: the ubiquitous (and in his eyes, terrifying) union of classic philosophy with orthodox Christianity. While he discusses many past and contemporary thinkers, artists and movements that many would regard as great, he sees in them only despair, all of them “finally shattering and sinking down at the Christian cross” because none “would have been sufficiently profound and sufficiently original for an anti-Christian philosophy” (256). Though faith and reason have long been viewed as compatible (see Isa 1:18, Heb 11:1), to Nietzsche, faith “resembles in a terrible manner a continuous suicide of reason—a tough, long-lived, worm-like reason, which is not to be slain at once and with a single blow” (46).