I've been listening the past couple weeks to a series of lectures called The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is part of The Great Courses Series produced by The Teaching Company, who's motto is The Joy of Lifelong Learning Every Day. This course is taught by Professors Robert Solomon and his wife Kathleen Higgins who are deeply in love, and have been for some time, with Friedrich Nietzsche. The 24 lectures cover all his major works and address his major themes, thus providing listeners with plenty of challenging mental stimulation.
One of the recurring themes of philosophers is origins. It is fascinating to think about the many things in our world, our lives our cultures that at one time did not exist and then came into existence. I think here of the Internet, the automobile, the airplane. Aristotle pondered how the entirety of creation came into existence, postulating the “unmoved mover” who preceded all and set it in motion. Nietzsche, in his book The Genealogy of Morals, wrestled with and analyzed the origins of our contemporary notions of morality. Darwin’s attempted to explain the origins of species.
Christianity has had many critics over the years. Nietzsche was neither the first nor the last. Many of those critics have made valid points, and instead of being defensive about it, Christians might benefit from adopting Churchill’s attitude that criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. Churchill also once said that whenever he hears a criticism, he attempts to find the kernel of truth that might have been behind it.
The idea of Heaven has a great appeal for Christians because life is hard and we live in a broken world. For people outside the faith for whom this world is all that is, heaven is a pie in the sky concept with which the masses delude themselves, believing lies in order to feel better. Marx called religion an opiate. Others have called it worse.
Nietzsche’s criticism, however, was not along these lines. Rather he zeroed in on the manner in which Christians achieved this eternal life. It was prevalent in his day and is no less so today.
A brief backgrounder on where Nietzsche was coming from. In addition to his harsh assessment of the church, he was equally vociferous against the Enlightenment scholars who elevated Reason to godlike stature. Nietzsche drew upon Dionysus for his inspiration, rooting his philosophy in the passions. Embrace life. Become fully human by stretching yourself to become all you were meant to be. Make a difference in the world. It is life affirmation, not stale analysis of it, that gives it meaning.
Turning to Christianity, his primary complaint was that he saw a shriveled representation of what Jesus intended. The message coming out of the church, instead of striving to make a difference in the world, was more focused on not doing anything bad. Goodness was not measured by the good deeds done, as Jesus would indicate in His parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46 but rather by what you did not do. You don’t cuss, don’t dance, don’t lust, don’t drink… and in many minds this adds up to a “good person” who is going to heaven. For Nietzsche this was odious. The focus was all wrong. When prohibitions become the church's most important message, it is no wonder that those outside the faith are not attracted.
According to Profs Solomon and Higgins, Nietzsche was not opposed to morality, only the unhealthy morality that he saw being played out in his day.