Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
It's tempting to leave Nietzsche out of any summary of thought relating to religion and in particular to Christianity. So extreme are his views and so lacking in argument are they (his chief work Thus Spake Zarathustra in 1883 consisted entirely of aphorisms) that it might be said that they are close to worthless. His way of writing as though what he said is self-evident doesn't much commend itself to the modern mind.

But the fact of the matter is that Nietzsche's work has had an enormous effect on Western thought, and indeed also on Christian thinking. The latter has tended to demonise him, presenting him as a dedicated atheist and enemy of faith. Whatever his shortcomings, he was one of the few of his time who perceived, however confusedly, that a new religious era had arrived in the West.

Nietzsche proved brilliant at classics while at school. He was also clever philology student - so outstanding that he was offered a professorship at Basel University before he had completed his degree. He was awarded the latter without examination. But his health was poor, a distressing prelude to his terminal insanity in 1888 (perhaps brought on by syphilis).

His view of humanity is, to our Western perceptions in the 21st century, unpleasant. He thought that ordinary people are the "bungled and botched". They are worth little or nothing in the scheme of things - except insofar as they are tools for the advancement of the few true humans, for whom they are merely a means by which these "supermen" (Ubermensch) can achieve their potential. Nietzsche admired Wagner, and Bertrand Russell points out that his Ubermensch resembles Wagner's Siegfried

The Nazi concept of a European "master race" in the 20th century was no doubt based partly on Nietzsche's Ubermensch idea. It was his projection of what pure human will might, as it were, create in place of God.

Once you said "God" when you gazed upon distant seas: but now I have taught you to say Ubermensch ... you could transform yourselves into forefathers and ancestors of the Ubermensch ... (Thus Spake Zarathustra)

He admired strength of will above all, showing a consequent contempt for compassion. He probably derived this from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) whose work provided a platform for his later development. Schopenhauer thought that the true foundation of metaphysics is Will (while others proposed that it was Mind or Matter), which was best reflected in the human will. Only by relinquishing Will is it possible to attain happiness. 

Napoleon was Nietzsche's greatest hero, the supreme warrior, whom he thought of as having been cheated of his true destiny by petty opponents. Thus women exist, he wrote, for the "recreation of the warrior � You go to a woman? Do not forget your whip." As Bertrand Russell remarks, however, 

� nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women � [1]

Lloyd Geering suggests that his hatred of domineering women may have derived from his upbringing with extreme Lutheran piety in a female household (his father had died when he was a child). That might also account for Nietzsche's dislike of piety, the limited horizons of the provincial mind, and nationalism.

He ceased to be a committed Christian after having begun to study for the Lutheran ministry. When his mother objected, he retorted that the search for truth was more important. He wrote to her that ...

Here the ways of men divide. If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire. [2]

Nietzsche is best known today for his assertion that "God is dead". Geering points out that G W F Hegel was the first of the time to have spoken of the death of God. Like others, however, he thought that the traditional values of Christianity would survive and continue to nurture society. Geering continues:

... they had not properly appreciated the stark and frightening significance [of entering into a post-theistic age] ... They had not reckoned with the fact that the death of God also meant an end to the absoluteness of all values, and all truths ... [2]

Nietzsche put it firmly and unambiguously:

Christianity is a system, a consistently thought-out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea - the belief in God - one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one's hands. [3]

Nietzsche was not correct in suggesting that Christian doctrine is "consistently thought-out and complete". In fact, it is full of inconsistencies and contradictions, having evolved through many phases over the centuries. "God" in the fourth century is not the same as "God" in the fifteenth.

Because of the nature of Nietzsche's writing it's not easy (and perhaps impossible) to know exactly what he meant by "God is dead". It therefore becomes important to work through some possible meanings to arrive at some idea of what his term might mean for us today.

  • Traditional atheism is the assertion that there is no God. In one sense Nietzsche did mean this - though his reaction indicated that, even though God might not exist objectively, the idea of "God" nevertheless has great power over humans. Perhaps it is the word "God" which is no longer useful.

    Theologians such as Paul Tillich thought it might be replaced by better phrases like "the ground of our being". Others in the 20th century thought that revision of Church practices like the liturgy would solve the problem of a "God" who no longer seemed relevant to society. But for Nietzsche, God was not only irrelevant but also positively noxious.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one who thought - like Nietzsche - that man has come of age and therefore could no longer relate to God in childish dependence.
  • Some theologians assert that the term "God" in our times stands for everything that has positive meaning and purpose in the universe ("that which is ultimate"), since there is no evidence for the supernatural or for revelation of "truth" from "beyond" physical reality. In this sense both the existence of such a God and of meaning and purpose are matters of choice rather than proof. There's little likelihood that Nietzsche would have agreed with this hybrid approach.

He thought of God as ultimately the projection of society's needs and self-interest. God as "father" represents the ultimate parental repression of humanity's vital powers and will therefore be supplanted by Nietzsche's Ubermensch. As a relic of the past, "God" is a concept for  which mankind no longer has any need and which must now be discarded. The Christian search for truth must now submit to the truth of the demise of Christianity itself. Indeed, even the concept of "beyond" implied by the supernatural and life after death serves us ill because it distracts us from often harsh reality of things as they are. It becomes important to be this-worldly - what we today call "secular".

In the light of the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of pre-Enlightenment ages and the ongoing attempts of the churches to maintain these aspects of their power, Nietzsche's rebellion is understandable. It is extreme and emotionally violent, in all probability exacerbated by his personal weakness and fear (for those who don't fear have little or no need for personal power). But in the 1960s and decades following it nevertheless served as a way of expressing a powerful and growing rejection by many of the structures and the nature of the Christian church.

We should note, however, that his views in this respect had little to do with systematic thought aimed at revising Christian metaphysics. Philosophy was not his interest. What mattered to him was not religious thought, but the social effects of religion. Particularly heinous in this respect was the Christian religion.

I condemn Christianity ... To me it is the extremest thinkable form of corruption ... I call Christianity the one great curse ... the one immortal blemish of mankind. [4]

Power (which one might observe he so conspicuously lacked) was his primary point of reference. Power could only be properly used by his Ubermensch, in whose hands the ordinary "botched" human would be a mere pawn. Thus both Christianity and Socialism - generally regarded as at loggerheads with each other during Nietzsche's time - were misguided because they both promoted the equality of individuals. "The New Testament is the gospel of a completely ignoble species of man," he wrote. In his view people choose to co-operate with others only because they lack the will and strength to dominate their fellows.

The following passage renders Nietzsche's views on Christianity

What is it that we combat in Christianity? That it aims at destroying the strong, at breaking their spirit, at exploiting their moments of weariness and debility, at converting their proud assurance into anxiety and troubled conscience; that it knows how to poison the noblest instincts and to infect them with disease, until their strength, their will to power, turns inwards, against themselves - until the strong perish through their excessive self-contempt and self-immolation: that gruesome way of perishing, of which Pascal is the most famous example [5]

His hothouse, denigrating style lends itself to emotional responses. But behind it lies a sound argument. The Church, not so long before the modern era, created and sustained part of its power base in part by emphasising humanity's corrupt nature. Only the Church through its hierarchy could grant relief to the damning results of this corruption (by indulgences and absolution, for example). Nietzsche accuses Christianity of breaking the human spirit, which needs a certain degree of self-belief to survive an uncertain world.

Although he doesn't state it directly, an implication of his position is that Christians are, in effect, denying their own doctrinal position. God created the world, they maintain. If so, humanity's instincts are God-given. What the Church does is to infect these noble instincts with the idea that even the God-given is corrupt. The result is to turn inwards towards a self-negation which can only weaken the strong.

Yet another effect of the Church's teachings has been to create a sense of dependence. Christian morality and therefore choice itself is, pointed out Nietzsche, subordinate to authority. This has created what he called a "slave morality" which smothers human initiative and frustrates human growth and individuality. It is now up to humanity to create morality for itself, to discover for itself what it right and wrong. Only this is the measure of true human maturity.

Nietzsche's assessment of the Church's role has considerable merit, even though expressed in over-heated tones. He correctly saw that the power of the medieval norms over people was crumbling. But, as Nicholas Fearn points out,

Just when our greatest source of self-oppression was crumbling, Nietzsche arrived to erect a new one. In place of surrender to evil and adversity, he gave us collaboration with it. [6]

[1] History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, 1965
[2] Christian Faith At The Crossroads, Polebridge Press, 2001
[3] Twilight of the Idols, quoted by Geering
[4] The Anti-Christ, quoted by Geering
[5] Thus Spake Zarathustra in History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell
[6] Zeno and the Tortoise, Atlantic Books, 2001

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