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Pious Nietzsche! An Interview with Bruce Ellis Benson

Pious Nietzsche! An Interview with Bruce Ellis Benson September 13, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 8.13.31 AMBy David Moore:

Pious Nietzsche?!

David George Moore conducted this interview.  Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

Bruce Ellis Benson is professor of philosophy at Wheaton College.  His endlessly fascinating book, Pious Nietzsche, framed the following conversation.

Moore: Though Pious Nietzsche is an “academic” book, I really appreciated your lucid style which makes it very accessible.

The other thing that made this book a significant read for me is how you gently dismantled my stereotype of Nietzsche.  My notions of Nietzsche were all negative.  Like you, I certainly do not hold to his philosophy of life, but you made me see him in a much more humane way.  In my estimation you did for Nietzsche what your colleague Roger Lundin has done for Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and others.  So thank you Bruce for your considerable efforts in writing this very important work!

What were the motivating factors which led you to write Pious Nietzsche?

Benson: I remember reading a few pages of Nietzsche when I was an undergraduate at Wheaton. I really didn’t understand much of anything. I went off to the University of Leuven and never encountered Nietzsche in any of my classes there (but a lot of other good stuff). But then a spent a year as a visiting professor back at Wheaton. I was assigned to teach a course on Existentialism. Not wanting to take the “we’ll read fifteen authors, but only a few pages of each” route, I decided to teach Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. My eyes were opened: Nietzsche clearly had a lot of important things to say. I still didn’t understand everything, but it was a lot clearer. Over the years, I continued to teach Nietzsche and, the more I taught, the more I realized that Nietzsche was not nearly as wrong about things as I had suspected. At a certain point, I realized I needed to do some really serious scholarship on Nietzsche and write a book. My goal was to show that much of what people think about Nietzsche is simply wrong and that Nietzsche is much closer to Christian faith than generally thought. When I published the book, I thought: “This book is really going to annoy the people who treat Nietzsche as whipping boy for atheism, relativism, and all the things your mother warned you against.” But I also knew that the people who glamorized Nietzsche for precisely these things (atheism, relativism, etc.) weren’t going to like the book either.

Moore: Would you summarize the general thrust of your book?

Benson: Simply put: I argue that Nietzsche does abandon the Christian Pietism of his youth, but that he embraces what I call his “Dionysian Pietism.” In much of their substance, they are nearly the same. Early in the book, I cite a very pious poem that Nietzsche writes at age thirteen. Later in the book, I show how Nietzsche can right the exact same poem (just substituting the name “Dionysus” for “God”). In the same way that German Pietism is really about how one lives life here, so Dionysian Pietism is likewise a “this-worldly” philosophy. Nietzsche makes it clear that he thinks the God of Christianity (note that I am deliberately not writing “the God of the Bible” because what he thinks of the God of the Bible is more complicated) an “other-worldly” God. Jean-Luc Marion has written in very explicit terms that Nietzsche repudiates what is commonly termed “the God of the Philosophers,” which Marion (quite rightly) labels an idol. I think Marion has this spot on and my own reading of Nietzsche has been greatly influenced by Marion.

But I also argue that Nietzsche is really not a nihilist, at least not in the sense of “promoting” nihilism. In fact, Nietzsche thinks that the demise of Christianity in the Germany of his time (the 1880s) means that something needs to be put in place of Christianity to stave off what he sees as the coming of nihilism. For Nietzsche, this is in no way a good thing. Moreover, it’s hard not to see that Nietzsche was remarkably prescient: the subsequent history of Germany (and Europe in general) has only borne out exactly what Nietzsche predicts. This, by the way, is what Nietzsche actually means by the phrase “God is dead”: namely, as a force in European civilization, the God of Christianity can no longer be invoked to enforce moral or other sorts of values. In this regard, one simply has to say: Nietzsche got it right and time has only shown how right he was. One only needs to visit the empty churches across Europe to see just how right he was.

It is often thought that Nietzsche, then, has no values. But this couldn’t be further from the truth! Nietzsche above all else values honesty and truthfulness. Yet he also values courage, temperance, justice, generosity, and friendship. To be sure, Nietzsche makes some wild comments about his own sense of morality, calling himself the “immoralist” for instance. But it needs to be made very clear that Nietzsche is really at odds with what he thinks are the distinctive values of Christianity, most notably that we should love our enemies. Nietzsche thinks (and rightly so) that this is simply not natural (that is, love of enemies does not come to instinctively). He believes that the only way one can take this seriously is if one truly believes in the God of Christianity. Without that belief, he thinks it simply makes no sense. As to the kinds of values/rules espoused by the ten commandments, Nietzsche just thinks these are simply obviously true: he would hardly endorse lying or murder or stealing.

So my title Pious Nietzsche is designed to capture both the sense that I believe that Nietzsche is not an atheist and instead is a Dionysian Pietist (in a way that is uncannily close to the German Pietism of his youth) and also turns out to be remarkably conventional (I would even use the term “conservative”) in regard to morality. Like many Nietzsche interpreters, I believe that Nietzsche is a classic virtue ethicist in the Aristotelian tradition.

Moore: It will come as a surprise to many to find that Nietzsche seemed to have a genuine Christian piety early on in life.  Why did he abandon it later on?

Benson: You would be hard pressed to find a more genuine Christian than the young Nietzsche. He was called “the little pastor” for his tendency to spontaneously sing Christian hymns and quote large chunks of Scripture. Whatever we conclude about Nietzsche, there is no way we can say that he didn’t understand the Bible and was ignorant of Christian theology.

In my book, I argue that Nietzsche moves away from Christianity in his late teens. One might think that Nietzsche was negatively reacting to some kind of fundamentalist upbringing, but there is absolutely no evidence for such an interpretation. True, both of his parents (his father died when he was five) were evangelical in the same way that we would use that term today. But none of this seems to have been shoved down his throat.

What happens is somewhat simpler. Nietzsche lived at a time in which German scholarship was calling Jesus’ divine nature into question. Already in 1862 (Nietzsche was born in 1844), he writes a little essay in which he says that historical criticism was making Christianity unbelievable. Nietzsche later writes a book titled The Antichrist (which could just as accurately be translated as The Antichrist(ian)), but this can be read simply as part of the series of “lives of Jesus” starting with David Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835) and ending with Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). Nietzsche had read Strauss’s book (which argues that Jesus was not really God and that he did not really perform miracles) and Nietzsche was deeply influenced by him. He also read Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, which argues that God is simply the product of wish projection (a view which is now standard among many atheists and agnostics but at the time was startlingly new). In 1866, he writes to his sister: “If you prefer peace of mind and happiness, then believe. If you would like to be a disciple of truth, do research.” So Nietzsche comes to the place where he thinks that Christian faith is simply untenable. If you read the poetry from his late teens and early twenties, it becomes clear that getting to this place was extremely painful for Nietzsche. He really wanted to believe, but then found out that it was no longer possible for himBy the time he gets to texts like The Anti-Christ(ian) (1888, his last year of sanity), then it becomes clear that Nietzsche has come to the place where he deeply despises Christianity, since he thinks that it has done great harm throughout history. Of course, Nietzsche has some remarkably positive (though not exclusively positive) words about Jesus. There is no question that Jesus is a kind of hero for him. One should also remember that, remarkably late in life, Nietzsche refers to Christianity as “the best example of the ideal life I have really come to know.” As you can see, all of this is rather complicated. In my book, I try to explain how to make sense of all this.

Moore: On pages 42-44 I put a marginal note that Nietzsche’s disdain for what we would call “liberal” Christians reminded me of J. Gresham Machen and Christopher Hitchens who also mocked those who wanted to hold onto Christianity, but who had largely abandoned true, Christian faith.  Why was Nietzsche so critical of certain Christians while retaining respect for more earnest Christians?

Benson: Nietzsche refers to George Eliot as one of the “English dimwits.” Nietzsche had no patience for people who had abandoned the metaphysics of Christianity (e.g., that there is a God who has a son named Jesus, etc.) but still wanted to uphold Christian morality. As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche thinks this simply makes no sense. There is nothing “natural” about loving our enemies or turning the other cheek or any of the other remarkable things that Jesus calls us to do. I actually think that, for instance, turning the other cheek can be interpreted as a wise strategy, but Nietzsche doesn’t see it that way. So Eliot is a dimwit because not only has she translated Strauss’s Life of Jesus and Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity but has also abandoned her evangelical upbringing and yet still wants to hold on to Christianity morality. Similarly, David Strauss writes a book titled The Old Faith and the New (1872), in which he indicates that he no longer believes in Christianity as traditionally conceived but still wants to hold on to Christian morality. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche writes an essay titled “David Strauss: Writer and Confessor” in which he accuses of Strauss of actually “confessing” nothing (in that he no longer believes in Christianity) and then accuses him of being a bad writer (even attacking his grammar!). Nietzsche also believed that the majority of people who attended church in the Germany of his day no longer believed and were just following conventions. If you know anything about Kierkegaard, you know that he had a rather similar criticism of his fellow Danes.

But Nietzsche likewise realized that there were something like genuine Christians (more on this later) and was loath to disturb their faith (at least in earlier years—this changes over time). When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain at the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he encounters a religious believer—but does nothing to disabuse him of his faith (simply remarking to himself something like “how does he not already know that God is dead?”) Nietzsche takes serious religious believers seriously. In fact, I think it is fair to say that Nietzsche is not writing to those folks. He is writing to people who no longer believe. After all, when the madman announces that “God is dead” in the market square, the people standing around are actually unbelievers. Even in a late piece of writing that he composed at the end of The Anti-Christian (which, because of its inflammatory nature, is usually not included with the text) he says that one should be hardest on liberal Christians and softer on those who truly believe.

To sum all of this up: Nietzsche is generally respectful toward those who hold their Christian faith earnestly and has no patience for those who simply masquerade as believers. If we look at his later works, we can see that his respect for serious Christians diminishes, but it does not simply disappear.

Moore: Later in the book you mention a German satirist who said, “Tell me what you need, and I’ll supply you with the right Nietzsche quotation.”  Having read a number of scholars on Alexis de Tocqueville, it reminded me of how every political persuasion uses Tocqueville to advance their agendas.  How does one have confidence that one has properly understood Nietzsche?

Benson: I address this question at the very beginning of my book, in the preface (which is largely devoted to this very issue). There I admit that Levinas has made us all more worried about doing what we could call “conceptual violence” to any person or book that we interpret. A friend of mine mentioned that he had received a paper from an undergraduate in which the student had claimed to believe in a “divinely inspired inerrant interpretation of Scripture”—I think that’s how it was worded). I don’t make any such claims about my Nietzsche interpretation! Here one could mention that Nietzsche was a perspectavist, which means he thought we can only interpret things from a certain perspective (defined by one’s nationality, historical time period, etc.). This in no way means that Nietzsche does not believe in truth. He is quite convinced that some perspectives are more true than others and that others are simply false. But he thinks that no person can claim that he or she does not “see” from a particular context. To say this would be simply to misunderstand the way human knowing works. Incidentally, the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl thought the exact same thing and no one calls him a relativist. But, in writing about Nietzsche, one must always be aware that one brings a certain perspective. So I can hardly make the claim that my book—finally!—gives us the one true interpretation of Nietzsche (any more than someone writing a commentary on the Gospel of Mark can tell us that, at least, we have the definitive interpretation of Mark and that no one will ever need to write another commentary).

But I think I’ve worked really hard to take seriously what Nietzsche says, including things that many commentators don’t address because these comments complicate things so much. I am delighted that many of the Nietzsche scholars I most admire think my book is basically right. I have seen one really negative review, but it is clear why it is negative: I have disturbed the view of Nietzsche as atheist and relativist that atheists and relativists so cherish! In effect, I have said: if your looking for a poster boy for atheism and relativism, then you’ll have to find someone else. But, as I said before, I already predicted that.

Moore: The idea of having to be redeemed made Nietzsche bristle and recoil against such a notion.  Unpack that some for us.

Benson: Perhaps we could put it this way: Nietzsche sees most philosophies and religions as holding forth the view that, in some way or another, there is something wrong with this world and it needs to be fixed in some way. Plato thinks it is that our souls are imprisoned in our bodies (which is why death for Socrates isn’t such a bad thing); Christians think that there is this thing called “sin” that needs forgiving; Marx thinks that we need to be freed from capitalism.

In short, one would be hard pressed to find many views of the world in which it is believed that the world as it is doesn’t need to be redeemed in some way. But that, in a nutshell, is exactly what Nietzsche thinks. He comes up with the idea of “the eternal return,” which some Nietzsche commentators have thought was some kind of theory about the universe. Instead, it’s a thought experiment: can you will—in the deepest and most genuine sense—that the world as it exists is just fine and doesn’t need to be redeemed in some shape or form (either now or in some time to come)? This is really the central question for Nietzsche.

One of the reasons why Nietzsche and Richard Wager eventually have a falling out is that Wager writes the opera Parsifal, which is all about need for redemption. But Nietzsche simply didn’t see the need for redemption (and he thought that Wager didn’t really believe it either but had written Parsifal to pander to the audience). Incidentally, Nietzsche’s falling out with Wager was also over anti-semitism: Wager was an anti-semite and Nietzsche was vehemently against anti-semitism (making him, one might say, an “anti-anti-semite”).

In any case, Nietzsche thinks that the world needs no redemption. Ultimately, I think this is simply an untenable belief (whether from a Christian viewpoint or many others). My argument against Nietzsche is that he is unable to live out this way of thinking during his lifetime, though I suggest (right at the end of the book) that he may well have achieved it in his period of insanity, given the letters that writes right after his mental breakdown on January 3, 1889.

Moore: I know these are not always neat and tidy categories, but did Nietzsche articulate more of a philosophy or a religion?

Benson: Nietzsche certainly saw himself as writing philosophy. I think there is no sense in which he saw himself doing theology. But I argue that his Dionysian Pietism is really a kind of revamping of his earlier German Pietism—and not really all that different. In that prayer that Nietzsche writes while thirteen, he says: “But His holy will be done! All He gives I will joyfully accept: happiness and unhappiness, poverty and wealth, and boldly look even death in the face, which shall one day unite us all in eternal joy and bliss.” Nietzsche no longer believes in eternal joy and bliss, but this willingness to accept everything that happens sounds remarkably close to the idea of the eternal return.

To be sure, Nietzsche does speak of a fear of being taken to be some kind of religious figure. In fact, in Ecce homo (his last of nine autobiographies) he writes: “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy.” I don’t think that has happened today. Perhaps it did with that character in Little Miss Sunshine who never talks but keeps reading Nietzsche throughout the whole trip. Of course, it is interesting to note that it was common for German soldiers during WWI to have copies of both the Bible and Thus Spoke Zarathustra in their backpacks.

Moore: One of the saddest things is to hear skeptics (of any variety) discount Christianity due to some perceived, but not valid objection.  One example you underscore from Nietzsche revolves around his misperception that Christianity was opposed to embracing all the enjoyable things of the world.  Your use of an insight from Norman Wirzba followed by your own commentary, literally took my breath away: “Nietzsche is united with Christianity in his quest to affirm life.”  You then add that Nietzsche was “clearly unable to see that connection.”

Did Nietzsche not have any exposure to joyful and “life-affirming” Christians?

Benson: This is a hard question to answer. There may be evidence of Nietzsche coming into contact with joyful and life-affirming Christians. It is hard to imagine that he never met such people. That story from Zarathustra could be evidence of such contact (though these are the words of Zarathustra, not Nietzsche himself, so one has to be careful how one interprets them).

Yet that is really not what is at issue here. And here we come to that complication I mentioned earlier about Nietzsche and Christianity. Nietzsche thought that the Christian life has always been possible and it would not be too much to say that Nietzsche thought of it in positive terms (especially given his comment about it being “the best example of the ideal life I have really come to know”). Yet Nietzsche makes it clear that he thinks Christians don’t actually live the Christian life. (As to what Nietzsche thinks the Christian life is, you’ll need to read the book!) Consider what he says about Jesus: “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” which leads him to go on to say: “In fact, there have been no Christians.

Instead, Nietzsche thinks that Christianity has been used for exercising power over others by way of the taking-over of the notion of sin from Judaism and setting up what he calls “ascetic priests” who lord themselves over their flocks. From the little I’ve said here, it should be fairly clear that Nietzsche’s view of how “Christianity” really operates is substantially different from the way most Christians think it operates. However, a careful study of The Genealogy of Morality and The Anti-Christ(ian) shows that Nietzsche cannot be dismissed as simply “wrong” in how he sees Christianity. Unfortunately, his critique of the church—the way in which Christianity has been lived out—all too often hits close to home. For instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of being full of resentment. One day I asked one of my students if he thought that could be true about evangelicalism. His answer: “It’s all over the place.” (Of course, Nietzsche admits that he’s full of resentment too, so it’s not as if he was any better).

In short, I often say to students “it’s not the things that Nietzsche that are wrong about Christianity that bother me, it’s the things he says that are right. And there are many, many of those things. For more on this, readers might want to take a look at my earlier book Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida & Marion on Modern Idolatry.


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