Nietzsche—Christians’ Friend or Foe?

“Sometimes our worst enemies are our best friends.” This was the response of one of my Christian colleagues to Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that the doctrine of the crucified God is the most despicable teaching and Christianity  is the greatest misfortune in human history. Before explaining the basis for my colleague’s claim, let’s take a look at what Nietzsche actually wrote:

The Christian movement, as a European movement, has been from the start a collective movement of the dross and refuse elements of every kind (these want to get power through Christianity). It does not express the decline of a race, it is an aggregate of forms of decadence of locking together and seeking each other out from everywhere. It is not, as is supposed, the corruption of antiquity itself, of noble antiquity, that made Christianity possible. The scholarly idiocy which upholds such ideas even today cannot be contradicted harshly enough. At the very time when the sick, corrupt chandala strata in the whole imperium adopted Christianity, the opposite type, nobility, was present in its most beautiful and most mature form. The great number became master; the democratism of the Christian instinct triumphed. Christianity was not “national,” not a function of a race—it turned to every kind of man who was disinherited by life, it had its allies everywhere. At the bottom of Christianity is the rancor of the sick, instinct directed against the healthy, against health itself. Everything that has turned out well, everything that is proud and prankish, beauty above all, hurts its ears and eyes. Once more I recall the inestimable words of Paul: “The weak things of the world, the foolish things of the world, the base and despised things of the world hath God chosen.” This was the formula: in hoc signo decadence triumphed.

God on the cross—are the horrible secret thoughts behind this symbol not understood yet? All that suffers, all that is nailed to the cross, is divine. All of us are nailed to the cross, consequently we are divine. We alone are divine. Christianity was a victory, a nobler outlook perished of it—Christianity has been the greatest misfortune of mankind so far (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann {New York: The Viking Press, 1968}, pp. 633-644).

So, why would my Christian colleague find Nietzsche to be a friend? Because Nietzsche’s feverish reaction to Christianity addressed core issues of Christian identity. Nietzsche’s brutal honesty more readily awakens the bourgeois of churchianity from their dogmatic slumber.

Karl Barth wrote that Nietzsche went to the heart of Christianity with his attack, even though his critique included the element of caricature. At its core, Christianity is the ethic of the Crucified God. For Nietzsche, this God—the neighbor elevated to deity status—wages war against the ethical framework epitomized by Nietzsche’s Dionysius: humanity apart from one’s fellow human; the superhuman individual who dwells in azure isolation like Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra (See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III/2, The Doctrine of Creation, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance {Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960}, pp. 231-242).

Nietzsche’s caricature critique of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1 does more than challenge Paul; Nietzsche challenges us. In fact, it is not so much Nietzsche who challenges Paul, but Paul who challenges Nietzsche’s Greco-Roman heritage. Jesus and Paul got in the first word of critique:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:27-31).

Nietzsche is afraid that the ethic of the Crucified God will prove to be the last word. And so, Nietzsche launches a counter-attack of extreme rhetorical proportions. I love Nietzsche for how he challenges us Christians who all too often fail to account for Paul’s claims. Sometimes Christianity’s worst enemies like Nietzsche function as our best friends. Nietzsche helps us come to terms with what the Christian faith espouses and embodies at its best (which Nietzsche takes to be the worst): it is the ethic of the Crucified God whereby we care for our neighbor, the weak, the lowly, becoming lowly, too; after all, God elevates the lowly and shuns the lofty. Nietzsche understood and rejected what we Christians often do not understand but claim to accept.  Nietzsche helps us to deal honestly with our faith. Anyone like that is more than an enemy; he is a friend.

 

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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