Nietzsche, Christianity and Weakness

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is best known for having said that God is dead. Our literalist minds would take him as meaning that God had been a living being and had ceased to live. Did he not mean that the idea of God was dead in the minds of people living in the nineteenth century? The point could be debated, and I have not gone into any real study of Nietzsche’s writings.

Nietzsche found a world that was very much like our own. The industrial revolution brought secularism and wealth despite the various revivals of reactionary Christianity. For Nietzsche, it was no longer possible to believe in God. Therefore in a way, God died. But, what Nietzsche was most known for was his influence on the Nazi ideology with his idea of the Ubermensch – the super man or Hitler’s Aryan “master race”. This ideology is very deeply rooted in our culture and we are not even aware of it. We admire strength and hyper-masculinity, achievements and conquest. Our culture is built on admiration on the great heroes of history, the great sportsmen of our day and celebrities. It all falls in with Darwin’s survival of the fittest and the notion of evolution. Yet, this worship of strength reveals a lack of compassion. Christianity is a religion of a man who failed, and died by being executed at the behest of his own people by the occupying Roman military dictatorship. Since those far off days, Christ has been made into a King, who through the Church conquers and succeeds in the world.

Dostoyevsky found in compassion and pity the bedrock of Christianity, but Nietzsche could not abide the notion of pity because it depressed him. I read somewhere that Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf words to the effect of saying that pity for the weak makes us weak ourselves, and this is bad. Strength is right, and there can be no pity. The SS followed these words to the letter as they gassed, shot and worked to death millions of European men, women and children. Only one thing mattered for Nietzsche, the will to power. The will is everything, as we would also find in Nazism. Empathy was to be despised as weakness.

Jesus preached disinterested and altruistic love, compassion and pity, sympathy for the weak and self-sacrifice for those who need help. Nietzsche refused this notion. Instead of serving the weak, we have to cultivate our strength through will power.

There is a Christian theology of strength, recapitulatio as it was called by some of the Church Fathers. Redemption in Christ is the recapitulation or restoration of the weak in this world. The victory of Christ over death is the key to Christianity. The ultimate empathy of Christ is the source of life and new creation.

Nietzsche was not all wrong or diabolical. He was sensitive to the incoherence of “church” Christianity. The Gospel speaks of good news, whilst Christians are preoccupied with judgement and hell. The faces of Christians did not have the appearance of the Redeemed. This man was hailed as a forerunner of postmodernism in his saying “there is no truth, only interpretation”, and I notice many reactionary Christians following this same thought. Christianity cannot be weak but strong to fight against its enemies and hostile ideologies. Round up the heretics and burn the lot of them! Many comments in the blogs reveal this fundamental attitude.

Now seems to be the time of the kenosis of Christianity, its humiliation and humbling, so that we can begin to empathise with the weak and the “screwed-up” of this life – as a priest who sometimes contributes comments here would say. Perhaps I go through a phase of life not unlike European Christians in the wake of World War II and Vatican II, seeking to express our faith in weakness and poverty. I have criticised “modernism” and “progressivism”, and indeed much of it is a dissimulated form of reactionary ideologies – itself using and worshipping strength. There were some wonderful intuitions in the 1960’s that got crushed out by new forms of the superman ideology!

Let us think about these things carefully. We are not going to eradicate atheism or heresy or immorality. Perhaps we can fight against crime by joining the police or becoming judges or public prosecutors. If you are American, you can apply for the job of the man who kills people by pushing a button to send a deadly current of electricity or doses of poisonous drugs! Those are the people public authorities put into place to put checks and balances in the way of the more anti-social abuses of human freedom. The Church no longer has the support of the secular arm to repress atheism and heresy in the same way as thieves and murderers. So therefore, the Church shares the human weakness and self-emptying of Christ. And so, the Church suffers its passion.

The more I go on in life, the more I realise that the Church will not be rebuilt by Popes, Crusades, Inquisitions, right-wing political juntas or the like – but by the invisible prayers of the poor, the sick, the screwed-up, the marginalised, the bereaved and so many more of that suffering humanity that goes to Jesus, “Let me see”, Let me walk”, “Let me be rid of that demon that torments me day and night”. And he says to each of us “Go and sin no more, your faith has healed you”. Then our healing only brings us to greater humility and an inner strength we have not sought for ourselves…

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5 Responses to Nietzsche, Christianity and Weakness

  1. ed pacht says:

    Thank you, Fr. Anthony, for a wonderful post. Please pardon me if this sounds like a little sermon, but the words are being torn out of me.

    “Take up your cross and follow me”. What image could be further removed from a theology of strength and domination? To labor, to stumble, to fall under a weight of oppression, yes, to die; to know the opposition of the world we inhabit; to see our words, so often, fall to the earth unheeded; to appear to have failed: to follow Jesus, to follow Jesus – is this not the call that He has given to Christians? Has He called us to rule? That belongs to Caesar, to whom is entrusted the power of the sword, and “he that lives by the sword will die by the sword”. Has He called us to strength? “When I am weak, I am strong.”

    I pray often that our Lord will preserve His people from attaining earthly power, for, as Lord Acton truly said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are His little flock, a remnant in a fallen world, sinners always in need of repentance, and yet His hands and His voice in this world. Ours is not a message of judgment, for He has reserved that to Himself, but a message of reconciliation, a call not to good works, but to repentance and to transformation of hearts. We are misfits, out of place in the world, yet so tempted to conform to the methods and attitudes of the world that religiosity without deep humility seems always to have its fruit in hypocrisy.

    I am a sinner, saved by grace. By God’s mercy I can stand before Him as His own child, but only when I realize that I am no better than the foulest sinner on this earth, for I have offended, and he that offends against one point of the Law has offended against it all. I cry for mercy, and receive it. I cry for mercy for the murderer, the rapist, the denier of God, for every sinner that may come into my view, with the knowledge that God loves them as much as he loves me, and with the hope that they too may hear and receive that love.

    It is redemption, not exclusion, that we are appointed to preach. Even when St. Paul advised excommunication (in 1st Corinthians) it was with no other purpose but that the sinner be reconciled, a result we observe as having happened (in 2nd Corinthians).

  2. Amen, and Amen!

    “It is when I am weak that I am strong,” writes St. Paul.

    The strength of Christ, which is nothing other than that self-emptying which is grounded in the primordial, eternal infinitely kenotic act of the Father in generating the Son and breathing forth the Spirit, is indeed made perfect in weakness. This is the weakness of the Divine Love which is stronger than death, which conquers death by submitting to it.

    “Dying you destroy our death. Rising you restore our life.”

    “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”

  3. I am going to post this here because the blog’s author, Fr. Jonathan Tobias, an American priest of a small Orthodox jurisdiction under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarch, often discusses such matters and his blog, I think, will be of interest to the readers of this blog. Because he does so, he is often at odds with the prevailing “traditional” Christian culture here in the United States, a culture that is grounded in the social darwinism of Rand and the economic notions of the Austrians. Virtually everything Fr. Jonathan writes is worthy of note, but the following, I think, speaks especially to the above. A quote:

    “…nihilism is everywhere the Word is preached outside the Apostolic Rule. Where salvation is reduced to self-improvement. Where men and women are not venerated as icons of Christ. Where the poor are left hungry and the rich are left ignorant of James. Where Christ is not understood as the victim of every sin. Where Tradition does not produce the meekness of peace.”

  4. Great article indeed. The longer I live in a world of devided Anglicans and Roman Catholics I have come to the same conclusion as in your last paragraph of your blog.
    With every good wish in Christ,
    Father Ed Bakker

  5. Reblogged this on Anchor Community Church and commented:
    Some solid thoughts on the believers weapon of choice; humility and empathy for those that are marginalized and made weak by an oppressive culture.

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