Nietzsche Against the Crucified
Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd, 1999
226 pp., 45.00
Stephen N. Williams
How Nietzsche Found Jesus
As his authorship drew to its close, shortly before his sanity gave out, Nietzsche concluded that Christianity was "the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity," and "the one immortal blemish of mankind." Because these sentiments were not untypical of him; because they were couched in literature of such distinctive quality; because his ideas have had such an enormous impact; because one can report them to people in any sphere of life who have neither read nor even heard of Nietzsche and find them instantly recognized as a summary of attitudes they encounter, embrace, or fear, their author has been widely regarded as the foremost anti-Christian writer Europe has produced. In the early days of a new millennium, we may recall that, with a joyful sobriety too disciplined to cross the border into sheer abandoned intoxication, this self-styled antichrist wrote in his greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, of the bliss of pressing one's hand "upon millennia as upon wax" and writing "upon the will of millennia as upon metal."
What if we need to correct our account of Nietzsche? What if the literature has avoided or missed important and positive things he has to say about religion, even about Christianity? What if Nietzsche found a friend in Jesus? Alistair Kee, of the University of Edinburgh, strikes out in the direction of answering these questions in his provocative book, Nietzsche Against the Crucified.
Seven chapters conduct us quickly through some of the major Nietzschean themes. God is dead and, with God, Truth. Morality is gone and aesthetics is applied physiology. Christianity offers the ultimate in decadent resistance to a proper will-to-power. Then comes a hinge chapter, dealing with Nietzsche's thought on eternal recurrence. Here, Kee's thesis that Nietzsche is a fundamentally religious thinker, comes into its own, as he interprets this notoriously controverted teaching as a sign that the numinous mantle of mystical religious experience had settled on his subject.
The way is opened for some reassessments. Nietzsche was a man of faith, a philosophical faith akin to religious faith. He even passes the christological test. For Nietzsche not only called Jesus the noblest human being—he meant it. He not only said that, from the earliest times, Jesus' followers had corrupted his message—he meant that, too, but, more significant still, he thought it important actually to say it. Why bother to do so unless you want to make a point of rehabilitating Jesus?
Nor does Nietzsche embrace a free and independent human Jesus in the context of sheer godlessness. There is a concept of deity worth entertaining, the holy storm-God Jehovah, wreathed not in the holiness of moral goodness or of aesthetic beauty, but in a dreadful uncanniness. Believe in him or not, at least he would be a worthwhile character, president of an order that is neither benign nor moral, an order adequately represented in religion only by the God beyond good and evil that Nietzsche discerns in parts of the Old Testament. Cut it as you will, you will therefore find a religious thinker, if you take Nietzsche at his word. Indeed, Nietzsche is re-opening the question of religion for us—and on terms that are counter to the postmodernism foisted on him by familiar contemporary description. The bottom line is that Nietzsche experienced some kind of revelation that led him to perceive the natural order as religiously colored at its very roots. His is a knowing form of natural, pagan religion.
My account is cryptic, but it just summarizes where the author more or less leaves his readers, with swirling waters surrounding Nietzsche's own position. Kee bequeaths to us the task of ordering our religious life and constructing our religious thought with the aid of Nietzsche's insights. This book is an example of those projects that seek both to separate the inspiration of Jesus from what later Christianity has made of him and to requisition the thoughts of a putative opponent of religious faith for the service of religion.
We can see the point of trying to do this with Nietzsche. Surely few honest Christians can read the psychological observations of Nietzsche, to give one example, without acknowledging that he penetrates rather deep into human realities, including religious ones. When, in his earlier years, he adhered to Schopenhauer and to Wagner in a campaign to vitalize German culture, there is plenty there to stir the conscientious Christian to some enthusiasm. When, in his later years, he undertook the demolition of Christian morality, there is plenty there to cause the conscientious, by now uneasy, Christian observer to suspect that there is something we need to learn. If there are unexpected and unexplored religious possibilities here, we should be glad to hear of them.
But has Alistair Kee persuaded us? The book is well-written, a pleasure to read, more interested in getting to the inside of his subject's thought than parading learning. There are other works around which emphasize Nietzsche as a religious thinker, but usually written for fellow-members of the guild of Nietzsche scholars. This one certainly contains resources to make us think again, particularly by returning to the work of Karl Jaspers, whose interpretation of Nietzsche has so influenced the author. Nevertheless, the argument does not persuade.
The more thorough scholars will complain that you need to tackle the work of Michael Allen Gillespie if you want to be persuasive on nihilism in connection with the noble deity; that you need to know the Greeks as well as did Nietzsche and those like Patrick Moroney who have produced monographs delving into the classical sources, before taking Nietzsche at his word on the originality of his doctrine of eternal recurrence. They might worry that Kee implicitly dates the waning of Schopenhauer's influence too early, and explicitly dates the break with Wagner too late. However, as one who does not belong to their number, I pass over such things.
Not that we can rise above the former years and ignore the scholarly habits of two millennia. For less thorough scholars, there is yet plenty to make them worry about careless treatment of Nietzsche's texts. 1886 is given as the publication date of Human, All Too Human, but what happened in that year was that Nietzsche turned it into the first of a two-volume work and wrote a new preface. Kee tells us that Nietzsche asked in his earliest book the question: "What kind of figure does ethics cut once we decide to view it in biological perspective?" Not so: this was a question added to a new preface to the book, 14 years later. Check the first essay in The Genealogy of Morals, where we are told that we shall find the saying that "the true Redeemer will come," and you do not find it; actually, the saying comes at the end of the second essay in that work. Nietzsche supposedly styles himself as this "defiant prodigal," the phrase cited as found in Kaufmann and Hollingdale's translation of The Will to Power. But what Nietzsche actually says here is that there is an "imperiled kind of man" who is "stronger, more evil, covetous, defiant, prodigal." Kee has excised a comma and converted an adjective into a noun in his zeal to convert a prodigal Nietzsche into a son who, however conventionally irreligious, still really cares about religion.
We draw attention to these things not in the cause of merry pedantry, but because the author uses the texts to make a case. And its main substance is seriously affected by careless handling. But we can formulate the main point of our present difficulty thus: Kee does not attend to Dostoevsky. And this makes a lot of difference.
Standard accounts of Nietzsche's descent into insanity record his collapse in the Piazza Carlo Alberto, Turin, sobbing as he embraced a poor working horse being flogged. Kee reminds us of a scene in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment which features the public beating of a horse by a drunken man, followed by a little boy going in anguish to embrace and then kiss the blood-stained head of the horse. He then notes that Dostoevsky's works greatly impressed Nietzsche. But nowhere do we need to bear this in mind more than in the area of Nietzsche's christology. In The Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche refers to Dostoevsky as "the only psychologist … from whom I had anything to learn," a "profound human being, who was ten times justified in despising the superficial Germans." The context is a discussion of the criminal, and Nietzsche indeed has Crime and Punishment in mind here.
The Twilight of the Idols was produced in the last year of its author's sane life, 1888, quickly followed by The Antichrist, which latter work is understandably Kee's special quarry for finding out Nietzsche's thoughts on Jesus. This is where things begin to go wrong with his case that Nietzsche admired Jesus.
In The Antichrist, Dostoevsky comes up again, this time specifically in the discussion of Jesus. Nietzsche is investigating what he describes as "the psychological type of the redeemer" and lambasts the Frenchman, Ernst Renan, for a contribution to the discussion of the historical Jesus that depicts his subject as genius and as hero. This, Nietzsche fulminates, is as wide of the mark as can be. Renan is a failure as a psychologist, and one wishes that a Dostoevsky had been on hand to offer psychological observations on Jesus.
Now Dostoevsky furnishes Nietzsche with a categorical alternative to the genius and the hero in order to understand Jesus. The relevant category is that of "the idiot." This is a word that may come as a shock to some of us, but both Dostoevsky in his novel of that title, and Nietzsche, ascribe a different content to it from the one that immediately springs to the mind of most English readers. At one stage, it was dangerous to assume that Nietzsche took his actual conception from Dostoevsky, and we must still be careful in describing what use he may have made of him. But the extent of Nietzsche's reading of Dostoevsky has become clearer over the years, and we can now proceed with a little more confidence.1
To characterize things in an inexcusably bald and flat-footed way, it is surely Dostoevsky's great achievement in this novel to portray with such remarkable coherence the figure of the idiot, Prince Myshkin, who is transparently as he appears, self-consistent, morally flawless on one plausible reckoning of character. The idiot has no pride of the common kind, no guile of any familiar kind, no desire to hurt. With unpretentious, even undeclared, passion, he apparently wishes to see and to bring out the best in people, and if any should harbor a contrary ambition, it can only bring him pain and a measure of bewilderment. If the reader feels contempt for the idiot—and only an idiot or a saint will be free of an occasional impulse towards an exasperation which borders on contempt—the question of why that is so is uncomfortably searching. It is not obvious how idiocy is linked with intelligence; any connection or lack thereof is probably for the reader to ponder, if so desired. The Prince has a kind of purity, a kind of innocence of character. The Welsh word gwirion usually means "foolish" but can also mean "innocent." Keeping those two meanings in mind helps in the reading of Dostoevsky's novel.
What about the idiocy of Nietzsche's Jesus? The initial cluster of ideas offered as Nietzsche explores this theme include "a condition of morbid susceptibility of the sense of touch which makes it shrink back in horror from every contact, every grasping of a firm object"; "instinctive hatred of reality: consequence of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which no longer wants to be 'touched' at all because it feels every contact too deeply. Instinctive exclusion of all aversion, all enmity, all feeling for limitation and distancing." Nietzsche adds that "the fear of pain, even of the infinitely small in pain—cannot end otherwise than in a religion of love." Jesus "demonstrated how one ought to live" in his behavior "before the judges, before the guards, before the accusers and every kind of calumny and mockery. … He does not resist, he does not defend his rights. … He entreats, he suffers, he loves with those, in those who are doing evil to him."
One has to be very careful with Nietzsche here. Strictly, perhaps, we should say that he bids us approach the world in which Jesus lived and the question of the psychology of the redeemer by reference to the concept of the idiot; it is safer to put it like this than to say that there is a straightforward identification of the characteristics of Jesus and idiot. But Nietzsche's description of Jesus' pacific, nonresisting, and suffering conduct needs to be linked very closely to Dostoevsky's idea of the idiot in any attempt to understand Nietzsche on Jesus. Although one might not be able to get Dostoevsky's idiot and Nietzsche's Jesus to fit each other precisely, and the differences may be significant, the reader of The Idiot will recognize some striking kinship with the portrayal of Jesus in Nietzsche's Antichrist.
Kee leaves all this out. Practically the only remark he makes about Jesus as "idiot" is to say that Nietzsche is probably guided by etymology in this designation: "In classical Greek idios meant 'private' as opposed to 'public.' Jesus would therefore appeal to him as a man who goes his own way, by his actions and demeanour exposing and thereby judging unworthy judges." Kee attains this conclusion by inadmissible selection of data. Comments on Jesus from Human, All Too Human to The Gay Science are ignored. So is a crucial comment made in Beyond Good and Evil about Jesus' knowledge of love.2
It would doubtless be wise to eschew a dogmatic interpretation of Nietzsche's thinking about Jesus; to this extent, a criticism of Kee must be guarded. But the persistent endeavor to couch Nietzsche's relation to Jesus in terms of maximal affinity ignores a crucial strand in the literature. For Nietzsche, there is pathos in Jesus, whatever else is there too. Any attempt at a positive reclamation from his authorship of some of the things of God falters if we don't get that.
Indeed, let him who gets all Nietzsche and all the Nietzschean nuances right cast the first review. And certainly we must beware of injustice toward the author of this study, as though he were aiming to write something more comprehensive than he is. It must be acknowledged that certain aspects of the whole business are deucedly difficult to be sure about anyway, among them the cardinal question of Nietzsche and the numinous, the whole matter of his religious experience. Whether or not it matters whether or not we call Nietzsche a religious thinker, I am not sure. But, in any case, what are we homines religiosi to make of him?
In his remarkable will and testament, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche talked of himself in what turned out to be his last sane days as "uninterruptedly creating nothing but things of the first rank which no man will be able to do again or has done before, bearing a responsibility for all the coming millennia." He who unmasks Christian morality, which is what Nietzsche is finally up to, "breaks the history of mankind into two parts." And so, he says:
I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful—of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man; I am dynamite.
We can make one of two mistakes with this kind of talk. We can get intensely excited, and reckon, indeed, that Nietzsche is a world-historical phenomenon of practically unbounded significance. Or we can dismiss it all as arrant tripe, the extreme case of what eventually befalls an egomaniacal victim of tertiary syphilis. On the first reaction: it will ever be the tendency of intellectuals to overestimate the import of one of their own. On the second: the sober student of current days and of Nietzsche will scarcely fail to identify his influence as something of great importance.
There may be consolations for religion in Nietzsche's works, and Kee is right to keep the relevant discussions going. Perhaps the best effect of Nietzsche's authorship is to shake and to challenge us into resolution. The resolution must be to give an account of the hope that is in us in the light of his writings. We know that the man on the cross did not write, but that he did act, his unphilosophical solitude placed in the service of scum in order to transfuse us with the blood of kings. He will reign when Nietzsche's words have perished. But Nietzsche's words have not perished yet, and while it is a case of word against word, we obey the word of Jesus aright when we attend aright to the words of others like Nietzsche, who are human, all too human.
Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author of Revelation and Reconciliation: A Window on Modernity (Cambridge Univ. Press).
1. A useful study has recently been published by P.Travis Kroeker and Bruce K.Ward, Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity (Westview Press, 2001). While I beg to differ a little from these authors on relevant points of emphasis, see the remarks on Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in the concluding chapter on "Christ in the 'Grand Inquisitor.' "
2. "It is possible that within the holy disguise and fable of Jesus' life there lies concealed one of the most painful cases of the martyrdom of knowledge about love." ("What Is Noble?", section 269).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.