Deism, Enlightenment thought, the influence of the industrial revolution, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx…with a little bit of Darwin thrown in—with all this going on in the 19th century, onto the world stage stepped Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was to 19th century European thought what the atomic bomb was to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the thing one must realize about Nietzsche was that he was the only thinker in 19th century Europe who had the guts to push the “Christianitzed-Enlightenment-Deistic Worldview” to its logical conclusions. Or more properly, Nietzsche took the watered-down brand of 19th century liberal-theology Christianity that was more akin to deism than it was to historical Christianity, and he crucified it, completely.
Now, I’ve already written a number of posts on Nietzsche, so allow me to reference them here, and invite you to read a little more of the details and nuances about Nietzsche’s philosophy, particularly how it relates to biblical Christianity.
- NIETZSCHE: The Enlightenment, Christianity, and the Philosopher of the Hammer
- NIETZSCHE: On the Sea of Galilee
- NIETZSCHE: Master Morality, Slave Morality…and Jesus
- NIETZSCHE: God is Dead…and We Have Killed Him!
- NIETZSCHE: The Ubermensch vs. Jesus Christ
- WHY NIETZSCHE IS GOOD FOR MODERN DAY CHRISTIANITY
19th Century Liberal Theology: Keep the Morality, Lose the History
By the mid-to-late 19th century, the European outlook regarding religion was this: “Well, if there’s one thing the French Revolution taught us, it’s this—we can’t completely do away with religion! If we do so, we’ll end up with the guillotine and the Reign of Terror.”
Enter modern 19th century liberal theology. It basically said, “Let’s all agree that hardly anything in the Bible—at least the miraculous stuff—ever really happened. After all, we’re influenced by deism, and the deistic worldview acknowledges there’s a God, but rejects the idea he interacts with the world—it’s just the laws of nature that guide us, with no help from God. And so, since our presupposition is that God doesn’t interact with the world, and that the world is run by the laws of nature, it goes without saying that miracles do not and cannot happen—for that would entail (a) God intervening into human affairs, and (b) the laws of nature being broken….
“BUT…since we would like to stay living in a moral and stable society, we’ll agree that although the historical claims and the miracle stories in the Bible didn’t really happen (at least in any supernaturally-influenced way), the moral lessons in the Bible are very good and should be followed! It’s the Good Book! We’ll honor its moral teachings, but we’ll agree that science and our advances in philosophical thought has proven that none of that biblical stuff really happened in the way the Bible claims it did!”
And there you have 19th century liberal theology in a nutshell: the Bible is good for its moral teachings (after all, it reflects Enlightenment thinking of natural religion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—sound familiar?), but otherwise, it is pretty useless when it comes to finding out about actual history, or what Jesus really did. A perfect example of this mentality can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. He cut out all the miraculous stories, and was left with just the wisdom and moral teachings of Jesus. For the most of the 19th century, nominal European Christians were all too happy to adopt this view: Jesus, the nice, moral teacher…but miracles? Ehhh….
Nietzsche, the Big, Bad Dionysian Ubermensch
Then along came Friedrich Nietzsche, a man who made it his life’s goal to completely annihilate such a worldview. He called himself “the philosopher of the hammer”—and he proceeded to smash every vestige of 19th century Christianity (or moralistic deistic-thought) he could find. As Andrew Hoeffecker states, “Nietzsche foreshadowed the postmodern tradition that effectively eradicated the easy confidence in human nature and in rationality that was trumpeted by his Enlightenment predecessors” (Revolutions in Worldview, 301).
Simply put, Nietzsche’s message was this: Enlightenment thinkers have essentially killed God by denying he has any interaction with human kind, but they are too weak and scared to actually live out those implications.
And those implications are huge, especially when it comes to morality. For Nietzsche made it clear: if there is no God, then moral law is a fiction; moral absolutes do not exist; morality is completely arbitrary. Or to put it in Platonic/Aristotelian terms: without universals, then the particulars have no inherent, fixed meaning.
Yet most people, Nietzsche said, are simply too afraid to admit this, and therefore, they fall back on unsubstantiated truth claims about morality. Most people simply are too afraid to live out the implications of their worldview. In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche essentially laid out the two fundamentally opposed worldviews in the world: (1) The Logic of Reason, as exemplified in the Greek god Apollo, who wishes to bring order and balance, and (2) The Logic of Life, as exemplified by the Greek god Dionysius, who celebrates life to excess, and damn the consequences.
For Nietzsche, it was Dionysius all the way. He insisted that it was up to human beings to create their own meaning, regardless of what others might say. After all, all truth is relative, so be Dionysius-like, and live out the truth as you see fit. Put yourself and your wants and desires first; refuse to be a slave to anyone; exercise your will to power, and be the Ubermensch (Superman) who makes and lives out his own morality, despite the inherent chaos of life.
Nietzsche’s Hatred of Christianity
Not surprisingly, Nietzsche hated Christianity—at least the 19th century brand of liberal/deistic Christianity. He saw Christianity as slave morality; he saw Christianity emphasizing meekness, humility, and love of neighbor, when people should be living boldly, reaching for their greatness, and loving themselves first and foremost. For Nietzsche, if one was to become great, one had to reject all things Christian, and become a true atheist—not one who claimed not to believe in God, but then clung to some idea of moral absolutes or truth. A true atheist not only rejected the idea of God, but also the idea of absolute truth and morality. And a true atheist had the guts to live such convictions out.
…and as far as Nietzsche could tell, there weren’t too many of those around.
Like I said, I wrote six posts on Nietzsche’s philosophy, and how it (surprisingly) relates to actual Christianity. I invite you to read them. I personally find Nietzsche fascinating—I don’t there has ever been a thinker who has been more right and more wrong at the very same time. But if you want to begin to really understand our society today, you have to get a grasp of Nietzsche. If nothing else, he has some amazing quotes…
Nietzsche ended up going insane. He had contracted syphilis, as a result of his many sexual encounters, suffered a mental breakdown in 1889, and then a number of strokes in 1899. In his insanity, he would just repeat over and over again, “I am dead because I am stupid…I am stupid because I am dead.” And when he died, he was hallucinating that he was Jesus Christ.
As fascinating as Nietzsche is, his deterioration, insanity, and death, I believe, foreshadow much of the madness in our postmodern world today. Indeed, Nietzsche was somewhat of a prophet in that regard. Unlike anyone else at the time, Nietzsche was able to see into the future what ultimate implications for 19th century Enlightenment thinking were going to be.