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Nietzsche, Who Helps Christian Orthodoxy

Thanks to the reader who sent in this illuminating and provocative essay from the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in Commonweal, discussing Nietzsche. Excerpts:

Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested. You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand. The death of God, he argues in The Gay Science, is the most momentous event of human history, yet men and women are behaving as though it were no more than a minor readjustment. Of the various artificial respirators on which God has been kept alive, one of the most effective is morality. “It does not follow,” Feuerbach anxiously insists, “that goodness, justice and wisdom are chimeras because the existence of God is a chimera.” Perhaps not; but in Nietzsche’s view it does not follow either that we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in the chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience, and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience, or obligation in the first place.

Nietzsche speaks scornfully of French freethinkers from Voltaire to Comte as trying to “out-Christian” Christianity with a craven cult of altruism and philanthropy, virtues that are as distasteful to him as pity, compassion, benevolence, and suchlike humanitarian claptrap. He can find nothing in such values but weakness cunningly tricked out as power. These, too, are ways of disavowing God’s disappearance. God is indeed dead, and it is we who are his assassins, yet our true crime is less deicide than hypocrisy. Having murdered the Creator in the most spectacular of all Oedipal revolts, we have hidden the body, repressed all memory of the traumatic event, tidied up the scene of the crime and, like Norman Bates in Psycho,behave as though we are innocent of the act. Modern secular societies, in other words, have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient—even imperative—to behave as though they have not. They do not actually believe in him, but it is still necessary for them to imagine that they do. God is too vital a piece of ideology to be written off, even if it is one that their own profane activities render less and less plausible. To look at the beliefs embodied in their behavior, rather than at what they piously profess, is to recognize that they have no faith in God at all, but it is as though the fact has not yet been brought to their attention. One of Nietzsche’s self-appointed tasks is to do precisely that.


That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine, a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware. The Incarnation is the place where both God and Man undergo a kind of kenosis or self-humbling, symbolized by the self-dispossession of Christ. Only through this tragic self-emptying can a new humanity hope to emerge. In its solidarity with the outcast and afflicted, the Crucifixion is a critique of all hubristic humanism. Only through a confession of loss and failure can the very meaning of power be transfigured in the miracle of resurrection. The death of God is the life of the iconoclast Jesus, who shatters the idolatrous view of Yahweh as irascible despot and shows him up instead as vulnerable flesh and blood.

The absence of God may be occluded by the fetish of Man, but the God who has been disposed of would seem little more than a fetish in the first place. As with William Blake’s Urizen or Nobodaddy, he was a convenient way of shielding a humanity eager to be chastised from the intolerable truth that the God of Christianity is friend, lover, and fellow accused, not judge, patriarch, and superego. He is counsel for the defense, not for the prosecution. Moreover, his apparent absence is part of his meaning. The superstitious would see a sign, but the sign of the Father that counts is a crucified body. For Christian faith, the death of God is not a question of his disappearance. On the contrary, it is one of the places where he is most fully present. Jesus is not Man standing in for God. He is a sign that God is incarnate in human frailty and futility.

Eagleton goes on to say that in postmodernism, we may have finally put God down for good. The Modernist may not believe in God, or may not believe in an orthodox Christian deity, but the god in which he doesn’t believe is the God of the Bible. As Eagleton points out, Nietzsche’s critique of the Modernists was not that they were wrong about God’s death, but that they could not or would not recognize and accept the full implications of that belief. They held on to an ersatz, humanized form of Christianity, one that was moralistic without having a meaningful source of those morals. Eagleton says that now, in the postmodern era, “God” doesn’t make much sense to people, because they’ve become suspicious of all forms of commitment. Nietzsche may have been a roaring lion, and the postmodern man a meek lamb, but their conclusions are the same: there is no meaning to be discovered, only meaning to be imposed as we will it.

This is a terrifying thing, as Nietzsche understood, and as Damon Linker recalled a while back in a controversial column tweaking the New Atheists as shallow and dishonest. Excerpt:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

Honest atheists understand this. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, but he called it an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for humanity, which now faced the monumental task of avoiding a descent into nihilism. Essayist Albert Camus likewise recognized that when the longing for a satisfying answer to the question of “why?” confronts the “unreasonable silence of the world,” the goodness of human life appears to dissolve and must be reconstructed from the ground up.

Nietzsche hated Christianity, of course, but he also hated post-Christian sentimentality. The corrosive power of his critique, says Eagleton, is not necessarily a bad thing for Christianity. In fact, by forcing people to face the implications of what they already believe (or, more precisely, what they fail to believe), this has the effect of shearing away the last vestiges of Christianity as a religious ideology for the bourgeois social order. In so doing, says Eagleton, it may reveal the orthodox Christian faith in its true radicalism:

If religious faith were to be released from the burden of furnishing social orders with a set of rationales for their existence, it might be free to rediscover its true purpose as a critique of all such politics. In this sense, its superfluity might prove its salvation. The New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a “civilized” document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus.

Read the whole thing.  The Western world after orthodox Christianity is not going to be the paradise so many on the cultural left, including liberal religionists, think it will be. And Christianity will likely be rather different than what orthodox believers living in the fading afterglow experience today.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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