Nietzsche: a pragmatist theologian

At nineteen, I first read Nietzsche’s Antichrist, and read it in one go, excited. I had just decided to switch from sociology to philosophy, so I did not have any tools yet to analyse or interpret what I was reading. Let alone to understand why it excited me. This much I can say from hindsight, though: I was not excited because the book overthrew or hurt my religiosity – I felt rather confirmed in my religious attitude by it, which seemed frightening, though, because of Nietzsche’s reputation. But that was all – and being the type that always aims to understand what I am doing or thinking, I decided to put this book away for later, and not to think about it, until I would be able to know what I was reading.

Now I am at a point that I can explain why Nietzsche’s text attracted me so much: because it contains a profoundly pragmatist theology, written by someone with a deep understanding of Christianity. Let me put this straight from the beginning: Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God is mostly still not understood – when it is read as an attack on religiosity. It is, instead, from a wider reading of his works clear that it is an attack on what European Enlightenment, especially the philosophy of Kant (remember his famous description of Enlightenment’s turn away from life as becoming ‘pale, Königsbergian’), did to religion: transform living religiosity into a philosophical play with concepts – killing God by incarcerating and starving him in terms like ‘substance’, ‘transcendence’ or, worse, ‘transcendentality’. ‘God is dead’ was just his description of what was happening in European culture, and especially (philosophical) theology.

All the same, Nietzsche wrote a Christian theology himself – in his Antichrist -, and it was of course philosophical too, but in a radically different temperament than that of the mainstream philosophy of his days. In fact, his approach was pragmatist avant la lettre – and radically so. Directly after his claim that ‘there has been only one Christian, and he died at the cross’, he gives his reason for dismissing Christianity’s claim to follow Jesus: it’s mistake was to think that belief, like belief in the redemption through Christ, would be Christian: ‘only Christian practice, a life like he who died at the cross lived, is Christian.’ And what is a Christian practice? It is a ‘doing, more appropriate a not-doing […], an alternative way of being.’ What Jesus did, or did not, to his view, was fight the way things went. His ‘Christianity’ was to completely accept what happened. He even calls the aborted movement which Jesus started ‘a new, a completely original initiative towards a buddhist peace movement.’

Here, although Nietzsche sees Jesus’ initiative as part of a cultural decadence (stopping to fight for one’s own cultural ‘truths’) – his Jesus clearly echoes his own ideal of ‘saying yes’ to life. Nietzsche saw clearly that, from a pragmatist standpoint, taking real experience and practice which goes along with it more seriously than theoretical ‘beliefs’, Jesus’ good news was all about a real transformation of life, here and now – a spiritual happiness here and now, instead of a theoretical belief in rewards in heaven. He had discovered, according to Nietzsche, a way to ‘live the unity of God and human being’, among other things by doing away with the concept of ‘debt’ or ‘sin’ – and this was, says Nietzsche, his ‘good news’. We must also remember that to Nietzsche, ‘decadence’ is not ‘bad’ as such, it is just what happens in cultures at a certain point of their existence. Beyond good and bad, we can assess that certain moments in history provide certain opportunities – and the decadent ones provide the opportunity to transcend ‘ego’, as both Buddha and Jesus understood and practiced. To practice peace, and leave the spirit of revenge alone.

From his point of view, Nietzsche interpreted historical Christianity as a movement which took revenge, revenge against life, against ‘those who killed Jesus’, to it’s heart, and therefore could not bring to fruition the discovery of Jesus, whom it ‘killed’  like Enlightenment killed God – by transforming him into a unique godly person, thereby covering up his discovery that we can all find unity with God and be free. As a young boy, Friedrich is said to have been so devout, that he was nicknamed ‘the little Jesus’. It is too easy to see his later work as revenge against his strict pietist protestant upbringing. We understand him better, I think, as someone who just had a very hard time to articulate boldly what he understood from what he took in in childhood, against the mainstream, and therefore had to hammer away to sculpt what he felt into words. Therefore we can understand why he concludes his book mourning bitterly that we count time by the so called beginning of Christianity. If that was Christianity, he felt, we should rather start to count anew from this day, from it’s final day. And make a new start – revaluing practice and experience over theory and belief.

The citations from Nietzsche’s Antichrist. Curse on Christianity are my own translations from the beautiful Dutch translation by Pé Hawinkels.

Friedrich Nietzsche lived from 1844 untill 1900, and published the Antichrist seven years after writing it (1888), in 1895.

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8 comments
  1. Lee said:

    Hi Angela,

    Good article. Thanks! Though Emanuel Swedenborg went in a different direction than Nietzsche in many ways, there are also some parallels, starting with the pietistic Protestant upbringing–which is actually one step away from the hard faith-alone Protestantism that Swedenborg railed against most bitterly in his later theological writings. Swedenborg, too, saw Christianity as something to be lived, not just to be believed. And Swedenborg saw Christianity as having been non-Christianity since a few centuries after Christ. In True Christianity #668, he wrote, “The Christian church in its true essence is now getting underway for the first time. The former church was Christian not in essence or in reality but in name only.” This was published in 1771. By “the former church” he meant the then-existing Christian Church in its various branches. He said that this “Christian” church had reached its end as the reigning spiritual paradigm in the Western world. Given the huge decline in the influence of institutional Christianity in the last few centuries, it appears that he was right.

  2. Thanks, Lee, for your comment – I actually thought you might like this post 🙂

    Yes, many differences and some parallels – is not one of the more important ones the focus on ‘a way of being’, and that being something like what Nietzsche called ‘living the unity of God and human being’?

  3. Albert Sonntag said:

    I think this is one of the best interpretive essays on Nietzsche I have ever read. It highlights what needs to be stated about him, for, as you say, N.’s ‘Antichrist’ (anti-Christianity) is misunderstood. I very much liked your description of N.’s Christianity, which you find by reading in between the lines (as he advised us to read Thucydides), and which he himself described somewhere as a form of Epicureanism. What has always fascinated me is how the young N., still at Schulpforta, turned from his Christianity to Hellenism, perhaps already as antidote, or due to his excellence in the study of the Classics. And he never abandoned that pagan affirmation of life, even as he got older and more exhausted by pain. He never reached the level of ‘degeneration’ that would have allowed him to go back to his childhood Christianity.

  4. Thanks so much for your appreciation, Albert, and for what you added on his relation to classical Greek culture.

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