Today’s reading continues Nietzsche’s observations on the development of modern thought relative to the nature and usefulness of religion for mankind (specifically the Christian religion).
Before getting into the substance of Nietzsche’s comments, we should note that on at least one level, his observations are based on a very superficial kind of Christianity. This may be reflective of the Higher Criticism and theological liberalism that was sweeping Europe at the time, but his points about religion largely ignore substantive doctrinal questions and complex ethical arguments. Christianity is not, in Nietzsche’s view, wrong because of its teachings on the Trinity, penal substitution, salvation by grace alone, the inerrancy of scripture, or any of the other numerous beliefs that Christians hold and have held. Instead, he focuses on a decaying cultural Christianity rather than a vibrant and thoughtful one—as if one were to argue against Christian doctrine today based on what one had read in the latest prosperity-gospel preachers or the emergent church writers of two decades ago, rather than on what one finds in the writings of thoughtful and careful pastors. (Of course, this is not to say that Nietzsche’s other ideas aren’t relevant in responding to Christianity.)
To say that religious belief is increasingly untenable in the modern world is not to say that religion is utterly without value. In fact, we must not become those scholars who dismiss religion because it is “beneath” them or to be held at arm’s length. Such an action is as naive as the faith of those the scholar looks down on (58).
In fact, religion plays a very significant role in the government of the world and the life of man. Including, but not limited to:
1) Filling the need we have for meaning in life that keeps us from thinking about the abyss of existence:
Anyone who has looked deeply into the world may guess how much wisdom lies in the superficiality of men… let nobody doubt that whoever stands in that much need of the cult of surfaces must at some time have reached beneath them with disastrous results. (59)
This fear that there might be nothing beneath the surface, and so the surface must be preserved at all costs, is the source of an important-but-desperate kind of beauty produced by any number of artists.
2) Providing an external impetus for the love of other men—namely, the love of God (60). While Nietzsche clearly intends some of this to be tongue-in-cheek, the point remains that the experience and the activity alike contribute something to the elevation of human life.
3) Religion is a civilizing force for the philosopher or the great man; it is a tool by which he can shape and mold society.
The philosopher as we understand him, we free spirits—as the man of the most comprehensive responsibility who has the conscience for the over-all development of man—this philosopher will make use of religions for his project of cultivation and education, just as he will make use of whatever political and economic states are at hand. (61)
Which suggests that on some level Nietzsche’s polemics against religion are not intended to be carried out to their immediate practical implications. We are not to dismantle religion instantly and completely just because we cannot believe it any more. Rather, the philosopher is to use the religion (and the politics) that exists as a tool to shape the world as he sees fit, even if that shaping is into something antithetical to the religion being used to do the shaping.
4) Religion is a civilizing force for the common people; it provides a means of learning restraint and contentment with their lot in life. That of course is the generous way to put it—Nietzsche goes full Marxist and says that it’s the opiate of the masses, but then adds that religious opium is a good thing:
To ordinary human beings, finally—the vast majority who exist for service and the general advantage, and who may exist only for that—religion gives an inestimable contentment with their situation and type, manifold peace of the heart, an ennobling of obedience, one further happiness and sorrow with their peers and something transfiguring and beautifying, something of a justification for the whole everyday character, the whole lowliness, the whole half-brutish poverty of their souls. (61)
Again, these illusions of meaning are essential if we don’t want society to utterly collapse on itself.
The problem is, despite the advantages of religion, it very often insists on rising above its proper role and seizing the reins. The tool demands that it also be allowed to serve as the craftsman. As a result, the worst aspects of religion tend to be what shapes the people, rather than the best. For example, Christianity’s valuation of the weak over the strong and the sick over the healthy and the ugly over the beautiful has finally led to a Europe full of weak, sickly, and ugly Europeans who value all the wrong things.
Christianity has been the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet. (62)
And that is what it comes down to. Nietzsche would have us glorify man as man. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that man in himself is inherently unglorious. It is only with reference to Him in whose image we are made that man has worth—we have a derived value, not an inherent one. Nietzsche argues that we ought to seize command of ourselves and our culture and shape it so that it glorifies us; Christianity argues that we tried that once and it took the death of the Son of God to redeem those who believe from that particular shipwreck. Here, more than any superficial observations about Christianity, is where the true point of contrast lies between Nietzsche and the faith.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.