“It is not a matter of going ahead (-for then one is at best a herdsman, i.e., the herd’s chief requirement) but of being able to go it alone, of being able to be different.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote most of his major works in the 1870’s and 1880’s. He died in 1900.
Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, the only son with several sisters. As Nietzsche grew into his own as a thinker and writer, he struck out in an independent direction as a philosopher. He revolted against both the prevailing philosophy and theology of his day.
At the very center of Nietzsche’s philosophy of life was the rejection of Christian morality. He regarded Christian morality as slave morality, not a morality fit for free, self-determining human beings.
Nietzsche once said: “There was only one true Christian and he died on a cross.”
He called Christianity an unnatural morality born of the resentment of those who were weak in mind and body . . . those who despised life and despised the strong who were able to embrace and celebrate life. Nietzsche thought that at the very bottom Christianity taught a person to think: “I am not worth much,” and then translate that value judgment into a religious/moral judgment: “I am guilty; I am a sinner.” Nietzsche says that human beings then decide they would rather consider themselves guilty than feel bad for no reason at all.
So, for Nietzsche, Christianity creates the miserable condition of the individual and then purports to offer salvation from the darkness through the offer of forgiveness and faith. Christianity is a religion that promotes, even creates guilt in the individual conscience, and then promises relief with the “Gospel.” Nietzsche apparently found that the cure was just as bad as the disease.
A Christian might wonder: “How does this atheistic philosopher know anything about faith?”
But, it is worth remembering that Nietzsche grew up in a Lutheran household (Lutherans are a lot like us Presbyterians except they have Octoberfest – too bad for us!). Nietzsche grew up as a preacher’s kid, and had come to the conclusion from his experience that all Christianity offered him was guilt and the feeling that any effort to embrace and celebrate his strengths was a sin. He felt that to live fully and to be who he felt destined to be he had to renounce the Christian faith.
There is something that I have always liked about Nietzsche since I first read him in college . . . unlike other philosophers who dismiss God and faith or criticize Christianity and then move on to other topics, Nietzsche couldn’t move on. He was, in a sense, obsessed with arguing against Christianity. He has been described by one scholar as an “anti-Christian.” Nietzsche’s work cannot be understood without understanding its relation to Christianity.
Surely, Nietzsche had experienced the teaching and authority of the church. He was a preacher’s son, and at one time, he had probably taken this religious faith very seriously. And, in time, he had found that faith as he experienced it made him feel like he was nothing. And, Nietzsche knew deep down that he was really something, and he was.
So, he looked for something else to base his life on . . and that something else for him was his will to live, his will to think, to claim space for himself in the world. Nietzsche said once: “The real thing is not so much that you move forward, but that you learn to go it alone, that you have the strength to be different.”
I think that Nietzsche could never forget Christianity, because it raised his hopes so much and then disappointed those hopes so badly. Nietzsche is the one who said: “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” He seemed to have a deep respect for Jesus, and no respect for his followers. You might say, ‘the man Jesus, his teachings, the reports about him in Scripture raised Nietzsche’s hope, and the faith of the Church disappointed and crushed his hope.’ At least that’s what I think.
As we look back through history, if we are honest, we see that the Church has broken the faith and hearts of some very special individuals. Galileo was considered a heretic because he spoke the truth that the earth orbited around the sun, not otherwise. Origen, the great theologian of the 2nd century was branded a heretic, because his hope was too great, his mind too high. Charles Darwin was a son of the Church whose desire for truth and his desire to reconcile his scientific studies with his faith was disregarded by the Church of his day. And, Friedrich Nietzsche, who I believed yearned for something much more pure and life-affirming than the gospel being preached in his day, was given nothing but falsehood from a religious culture that was as afraid of Jesus truth as they were of Nietzsche’s criticism.
There are many people in our time who yearn for truth, the truth of God, but have found falsehood in the Church. They have found a church unwilling to deal with scientific truth, a church that can’t deal with evidence from neuroscientific studies about sexual orientation. They have found a church that dismisses those who have a real desire for intellectual honesty.
The doctrine of Biblical Innerancy stands as a cloud over our efforts to deal honestly with each other in faith. The teaching of a type of Creationism in churches that dismisses the great service offered the world by Charles Darwin is also a sad sign for the wider church.
We do not need to continue a tradition of intellectual dishonesty, but let me change that language a little bit. Intellectual dishonesty sounds a little too removed and fancy. What I am talking about is having lazy minds, dishonoring the God who gave us our minds, and lying about the way things are. That’s what I mean about the tradition of intellectual dishonesty in the Church. And, it is continued by people like Rick Santorum who doesn’t like the fact that a good number of us in the Church don’t think we have to check our minds at the door before we come to worship or Bible Study.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a liberal Christian. He studied religion as a man of faith, and he studied it from within the academic tradition as well. He appreciated what he learned about how the Bible was formed. He wasn’t afraid of the truth of science, but found it liberating.
Of course, human science is limited as is inquiry in other areas, and when we think science is going to resolve all our problems, we show that we don’t understand the limits of science. And, human science itself can get arrogant and think that truth is limited to what science can demonstrate empirically. But, in our day, science is much more humble than it was when I was growing up. And, a real dialogue is possible in our time between scientists and theologians.
When we are ready to be honest and ready to really think and discuss openly in our churches – then, maybe people who value real questions, real discussions . . . then maybe people who value real learning and honesty of both the heart and the mind will find their way back into our fellowship in the Church.
We ought to repent during Lent as Christians because of all the good, even brilliant people we have destroyed over time with our dogma, with our lack of imagination and our lack of appreciation of the gifts God has bestowed on many human beings and with our refusal to really investigate and seek the truth no matter what it costs.