A Lenten reflection on Nietzsche and Jesus
As we enter the Lenten season of contemplation about Jesus’ journey to the cross, we believe it might prove instructive to reintroduce a real atheist, someone who had the intelligence and steely will to swim atheism to the bottom, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Sometimes honest atheism can awaken us to the hope of the Christian gospel.
The son of a Lutheran pastor, Friedrich Nietzsche hated Christianity with a passion that could only come from understanding what it really demanded. The problem with Christianity is that it posited a God Who, instead of lording it over humanity in august tyranny, became a man in utter obscurity. The incarnate God did not radiate power like a despot, but embraced humility like a slave. This God chose to reveal His love, not His power, and hence to manifest goodness, not greatness. When Jesus bid his followers to take up their crosses, it was likewise so that they become good not great.
Nietzsche desired greatness more than anything. Indeed, greatness was so much better than goodness, that the truly great should never hesitate to go “beyond” notions of good and evil. Beyond Good and Evil was, in fact, the title of one of his most famous books.
To go far beyond and above the crowd; to squeeze the life from oneself and others for the sake of producing a great political state, great art, great literature; to be as pitiless as Pharaoh in using human slaves to build one’s glorious tomb—that was life. If this demanded cruelty, then let it be magnificent cruelty. “Almost everything we call ‘higher culture'” declared Nietzsche, “is based on the spiritualization of cruelty, on its becoming more profound: this is my proposition.”
For Nietzsche, putting a premium on greatness was the naturally aristocratic thing to do. The Christian focus on goodness undermined the necessary brutality entailed in greatness. Christian charity toward the weak bent society to the demands of the weak. By contrast, the aristocratic rule of the strong for the sake of the strong lifted culture ever higher, and this rule entails a kind of brutal indifference and contempt toward the weak. Thus, true human cultural greatness demands that we return to the beast, a lesson Nietzsche claims that we learn from history.
Let us admit to ourselves…how every higher culture on earth so far has begun. Human beings whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey who were still in possession of unbroken strength of will and lust for power, hurled themselves upon weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races.…In the beginning [therefore], the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: their predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength but in strength of the soul—they were more whole human beings (which also means, at every level, “more whole beasts”).
To be a “whole beast” is, for Nietzsche a return to nature. It is an expression of a natural inner drive to live and dominate called the “will-to-power,” the will to be great no matter what the cost to others. The will-to-power over others is life. “A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power,” so that “life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…”
It is perhaps in witnessing Nietzsche’s celebration of greatness at all costs, that we can see most clearly what it means to contrast greatness with goodness.
For Nietzsche, Christianity was a slave religion precisely because Christ demanded that we choose goodness over greatness, even to the point of choosing goodness over life itself. But since life is will-to-power, then Christianity amounted to self-destruction.
For Christians, Nietzsche’s call to cast away goodness for great power is the essence of the Satanic rebellion. This is an important point. In God, as contrasted with mere creatures, goodness and greatness of power cannot be distinguished. They are one in God because God is one. He chose to reveal his goodness fully in Christ, not his power. No doubt Nietzsche would have respected a divine display of raw destructive power as a self-revelation, but God chose instead goodness without power, the form of an infant, a child who would grow to be a man and who would mount the cross rather than a throne. In Christ, God’s power was fully hidden, only to be revealed in the resurrection, the lesson from God being that, if we chose goodness even unto death, we will receive eternal greatness. Christianity does indeed, as Nietzsche feared, lead to self-destruction, but only so that the self may be recreated.
But where did Nietzsche lead? By the time he was forty years old, he started signing his letters “The Anti-Christ,” soon thereafter penning a book by the same name. Within a year after writing The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche started losing his powerful mind. The last decade of his life was spent in the darkest corners of madness, deteriorating in every way, at one stretch keeping everyone in the house awake repeating like a hideous drum, “I am dead because I am stupid…I am stupid because I am dead.” This is greatness?