Of all the challenges posed to Christianity in the modern age, I think the ones raised by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are among the most serious. While many debates center around the notion of the existence of God or of the historical Jesus, Nietzsche cuts to the very core of Christianity, to the very logic of the story itself, and attempts to show why the logic not only doesn’t work but is in fact, on his view, evil. Now Nietzsche is a double-edged sword. He makes very similar attacks on the philosophy and science of his day, and probably for that reason he has been relegated to the sidelines of philosophy, someone you talk about in the context of the existentialist movement but not someone you take seriously if you are doing philosophy or theology (especially not in an “analytic” context).
Yet, for all of this, I think Nietzsche deserves to have a more active place in our theological discussions. Nietzsche’s attacks on both religion and philosophy are motivated in part by his concerns about objectivity, which is a popular theme in my own thinking. Nietzsche is also concerned with what he sees as a hostile taking over of ethics by those who wish to confine humanity to live within certain docile “norms.” Nietzsche in some respects might be said to want to “unleash the beast within,” and this is partly what happened with his thought when it was co-opted by Nazi Germany as philosophical justification for the atrocities of the holocaust. While we must be careful to avoid such errors ourselves, perhaps a more favorable interpretation of Nietzsche might be this: Nietzsche believes that we are most human when we are most free to express ourselves in our unique, individuality. Nietzsche wants us to be pure individuals not constrained by any other. In this sense he actually has great respect for Jesus, it is more Jesus’ followers Nietzsche is upset with because he feels they have hoisted constraints onto humanity which have prevented true individuals from coming into existence.
Now with this overarching interpretation in mind, we can consider Nietzsche’s distinction between the Nobles and the Plebes in society. The Nobles are those who are strong, successful, powerful and therefore free from constraints which might make them incapable of being a true individual. They can shape their identity in whatever way they would like, they are not dominated by someone else. The Plebes, on the other hand, are forced to see themselves in relation to the Nobles. They can only exist at the pleasure of those higher up the food chain than they are. They depend on them for their support, and they therefore resent them. This distinction gives rise to two types of morality, in Nietzsche’s estimation. The first type, associated with the Nobles, celebrates all that is strong and inherently good in itself. It finds virtuous those who are able to enact their will without relying on others. The second type, associated with the Plebes, is rooted in the notion of “revenge.” Dominated as they are by others, the Plebes dream up an eschatological system of morality, one based on a “final judgment” which will bring down the “evil” Nobles (from the Plebes’ point of view) and exalt the humble Plebes. It is easy to see from this description how Nietzsche goes about critiquing Christian morality and theology.
One other detail of Nietzsche’s thought will be useful to note here before launching into my own response to Nietzsche. That is Nietzsche’s conception of how the two systems of morality he has sketched would make sense of an “enemy.” On the common, Plebian notion of morality the enemy is one to be detested and hated and most importantly viewed as “evil.” Not so with the Nobles. When two Nobles view one another as enemies, they have a core of deep respect for the other’s individuality and strength. Whatever rivalry they feel towards one other, whatever opposition, they still acknowledge one another as equals (at least in worth and dignity). To use Nietzsche’s own words, “He tolerates no other enemy than one in whom nothing is to be despised and a great deal is worthy of respect!” (First Essay, On the Genealogy of Morals).
There are several different ways of responding to Nietzsche, many of which I think miss the point of his arguments. My own response to Nietzsche is not an attempt to rebuff his critiques of Christian ethics or theology (even if I do not agree with all of his characterizations of either) but instead to note a problem with his notion of individuality as it might exist in the real world. Something later existentialist writers (such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir) will emphasize which Nietzsche does not is that we are always existing in relation with other people. As such, we are always subject to the influence of others, always defining ourselves at least to a certain extent in respect to others, etc. Given the expansiveness of human relationships it seems as though it is impossible for “true individuals” in the sense meant by Nietzsche to exist in this world. It is important to note that this move does not negate the force of Nietzsche’s arguments, but it may have the effect of saying that in some respect all of us are Plebes and there are no true Nobles.
This analysis opens up a very interesting possibility to me. The truly unique individual is one who is entirely free of the constraints of other people, not in any way dependent on them for its own life and self-understanding. We have suggested that such an individual cannot exist in this world because of the expansive and inter-connected nature of human relationships. I want to go a step farther and suggest that such a description of “Nobility” could be applied to the notion of God. Now I recognize that Nietzsche just turned over in his grave at my writing this, but I also think that such a notion of God would be radically different from the traditional conceptions of God that Nietzsche was reacting against. God as the wholly unique, self-defining individual is not the eschatological God of much traditional Christian rhetoric. This is not the God who can be coaxed by human ritual and action into bringing about the kingdom of bliss for the underdogs. This is not the God who can be made in our image to justify our own endeavors. This is a fiercely unpredictable God, the God of Job who brings calamity on the faithful without explanation, the God of Noah who can destroy humanity if it is so pleases him.
As frightening as this image of God is, I think Nietzsche also provides a very intriguing way of conceptualizing what happens at the cross. Remember that in Nietzsche’s conception of the Noble morality, an “enemy” is one who must command complete respect. A true Noble will not look on the Plebes as his enemy because they are unworthy of the same respect as he has for himself or another Noble. Seemingly this means that Nietzsche cannot conceive of the Christian notion of redemption because it implies a higher being condescending to care about lower beings. Yet I think that endowed with the notion of “incarnation” the cross can take on a new and profound meaning in Nietzsche’s system. The cross can be seen as a moment exemplifying the concept of an “enemy” in the Noble system of morality. At the cross God the Father is put in opposition with God the Son, who because of his own divine nature can embody a being whom the Father must fully respect and see as a worthy equal, something which could never be accomplished by a human “plebe.” In other words, at the heart of the Christian story is a moment in which God has become God’s own enemy on behalf of humanity.
Now I fully recognize that Nietzsche would be intensely dissatisfied with this interpretation of his own philosophy. I’m also going to openly admit that I’m not certain I believe the theological interpretation I have just given (though I think this “Nietzschean theology” is a perspective that could be valuable to theological discussions). I do think, however, that this is a very interesting way of thinking about both God and the cross drawn from within Nietzsche’s thought (even as he attempted to derail both the notion of God and the cross). It is food for thought if nothing else, a way of conceptualizing Christian theology which also wrestles with some of the greatest challenges to Christian theology.