The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity
Stephen N. Williams
Baker Academic, 2006
312 pp., $30.00
Laura C. Miguélez
The Shadow of the Antichrist
In The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity—a Christianity Today Book Award-winner—Stephen Williams not only dispels some commonly held misconceptions about Friedrich Nietzsche, but does so with a sympathetic consideration of the man and his background. Williams begins with Nietzsche's childhood, noting the many losses he experienced, and takes note of early academic and personal influences, including one of the most important, Richard Wagner. Williams further seeks to establish how, initially, Nietzsche was not simply anti-Christianity but pro-Greek. Unlike Christians, who in Nietzsche's view "simply hate existence and promote a morality that does not belong to it," the Greeks understood "that hardship, cruelty, and unequally distributed power and pain belong to life." Williams explores Nietzsche's first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, pondering why the Greeks were so critical to Nietzsche's tragic sense of life.
As the young Nietzsche matured, three "breaks" were crucial to the formation of identity: "By the time he quit his position in Basel … Nietzsche had broken with Schopenhauer, broken with Wagner, and broken publicly with Christianity." The break Williams focuses upon is Nietzsche's renunciation of Christianity:
Nietzsche regarded Christianity as an intellectual error. In this respect, he was heir to the broadly rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment critique of Christianity and earlier nineteenth-century ideas of religion as projection …. What is distinctive in Nietzsche's thought is his view of what lies behind that error, what constitutes its deeper nature, and what kind of damage issues from it.
With this groundwork established, Williams explores Nietzsche's first major anti-Christian work, Human, All Too Human. Nietzsche is "interested in examining the damage done by [Christianity's] content …. Nietzsche, both here and in subsequent works, will study the Christian religion from historical and psychological angles." Here and throughout this study, Williams does a careful job of exploring various personal and intellectual influences on Nietzsche, noting how these may have affected his at times unconventional views.
In his central two chapters, Williams considers key critiques Nietzsche makes of Christianity in his most important anti-Christian works. In chapter 4, Williams begins by discussing the well-known Madman scene from The Gay Science (section 125): "The end of theism, the death of God, the end of Christianity—Nietzsche does not encourage us to make distinctions in relation to this passage. If there are distinctions, what counts against one really counts against all." Williams suggests that Human, All too Human, Daybreak, and The Gay Science all have "the question of sin and redemption" as a consistent major concern, and he connects this theme with a later work, The Anti-Christ. Additionally, he observes how, "In good nineteenth-century style, Nietzsche makes remarks about the origin as well as the psychology of religion."
Williams' fifth chapter is one of his strongest. He offers an extremely thoughtful consideration of what Nietzsche viewed as his most important work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Williams does an extremely thorough job of exploring each of Zarathustra's key parts especially as they relate to Christianity, concluding that Nietzsche "teaches us, we must love or hate. The world must be taken as a whole, either denied, rejected, hated as a whole or accepted, affirmed, loved as a whole. Christians, like Platonists, divided the world. One (ideal) world they loved, the other (real) one they hated …. Christianity needs to be totally inverted. Deny God and love the world."
In the sixth chapter, Williams considers Karl Barth's view of Nietzsche, Nietzsche's view of Jesus, and Nietzsche's relationship to Dostoyevsky. More critical is the seventh chapter which explores Nietzsche's understanding of morality. "Nietzsche rejects the notion that there is any moral truth inhering anywhere in the world, generically pertaining to human existence …. [T]here are no such things as moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena." Regarding Daybreak, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morals, "The common thread running through these is a search for roughly genealogical accounts. Where do good and evil come from? Do not moralities derive from customs? How did ascetic morality come about? Where do our notions of punishment originate?" This is a critical chapter, for it is impossible at last to understand Nietzsche's animosity toward Christianity apart from understanding his views of how humans develop and value moral behavior. (Within this discussion Williams exposes the common misconception that Nietzsche was an Anti-Semite—which he vehemently was not.)
In the penultimate chapter, Williams turns to Nietzsche's influence in the 20th century, focusing briefly on Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He then assesses "three notions—good, evil, and morality—from a theological point of view and in light of what Nietzsche says." Here Williams mounts a robust defense of orthodox Christianity in light of Nietzsche's misunderstanding and misrepresentation of it.
Williams' final chapter considers what Christians can learn from Nietzsche. The following statements are representative: "Doubtless, along with an appropriate explanation of how they are using the words, Christians will be ready to agree with Nietzsche that a serious interest in truth and disposition to truthfulness are infrequent enough." Or, again, Nietzsche puts "humans in their place by exposing their vaunted drive to knowledge for what it is. Humans have a propensity to confuse their perspectival self-centeredness with the essence of things." Williams concludes by imagining Nietzsche's response to Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and offering his own response to both men: "[M]y objective here is merely to depict in bold relief how the logic of Christianity looks from within Christianity. A consistently Christian will-to-truth will insist that faith stands or falls on the basis of the testimony to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Christian Scriptures."
By the end of Williams' book, one has a better awareness of and appreciation for one of the 19th century's most formidable opponents to the Christian faith. For those seeking to come to a deeper understanding and appraisal of Friedrich Nietzsche, this is a helpful place to begin.
Laura C. Miguélez is assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College.
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