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Nietzsche and Christ – Terry Eagleton

So stimulating.  Read in full here.

Nietzsche claims, humanism won’t plug the gap [left by the "death of God"]. All humanism does is substitute one useless form of transcendence (Man) for another (God). The death of God therefore has to herald the death of Man as well. You can’t just swap one fetish for another. This is why the Übermensch signifies the kind of transformed humanity which would flow from genuinely accepting the death of God. It’s the reckless, exuberant, self-delighting existence of those who are able to celebrate a life without foundations – the cavalier insouciance of those spiritual aristocrats who have the courage to risk a life without guarantees. The Overman or Meta-Man is the one who can peer into the fathomless pit of the nothingness of God without being turned to stone.  He (never a she, for Nietzsche) is the ecstatic creature who sings and dances at the very thought that his existence is every bit as mortal, fragile, ungrounded, arbitrary and contingent as a modernist work of art.

The only problem is that all this sounds rather like Christianity, which isn’t quite what Nietzsche had in mind. For the New Testament, as for Also sprach Zarathustra, the only good God is a dead one. For Christianity as for Nietzsche, the death of God in the figure of a tortured political criminal known as Jesus means not replacing God with humanity, but the advent of a transfigured humanity. For Christianity too, God is an abyss of sheer nothingness, absolutely no kind of entity at all, a groundless ground; and to say that we are created is to say that our existence is absolutely non-essential, that we might perfectly well have never been. Such existence is pure gift, sheer gratuity and contingency, a radical end in itself, a supreme acte gratuite – self-founding, self-grounding and self-delighting. Just as God exists for absolutely no purpose beyond himself, so human beings are fashioned to live in this way too, to be at their best when they are as gloriously pointless as a work of art. A just social order is one which would allow men and women to be in this sense ends in themselves, not means to another’s power or profit. God, as Aquinas sees, is the power that allows us to be autonomous. Thinking that faith in God puts firm foundations beneath your feet, rather than shattering them, is the delusion of fundamentalists...

So Nietzsche and Christianity, those supposedly sworn antagonists, actually agree on an embarrassing amount. (Embarrassing for Nietzsche, anyway). Nietzsche believes that we can’t be free unless we can get out from under the patriarchal Nobodaddy (as William Blake calls him) known as God. But of course the New Testament believes just the same. Seeing God as judge, patriarch and accuser is what is meant in scripture by Satan – the Satanic image of God, the God who will beat the shit out of us. And since we’re all inveterate masochists, cravenly in thrall to the Law, or to what Freud knows as the death drive, this is exactly what we secretly hanker for. We’ll gladly tear ourselves apart as long as there’s enough gratification in it for us. This is the terrible, lethal nexus of law and desire – which is also, as it happens, the chief subjectmatter of psychoanalysis. Those who are eternally trapped in this closed circuit, in which law and desire feed endlessly, fruitlessly off one another, are traditionally said to be in hell. The figure of the tortured and executed Jesus is the overthrowing of the Satanic image of God, for God as friend, lover, victim, counsel for the defence, fellow accused and flayed flesh and blood. It replaces the Satanic God not with humanity at its most triumphant, as rationalist humanism does, but with humanity at its most torn and vulnerable.

And this is what Nietzsche can’t stomach. It’s here, not over the death of God, that he and the Gospel part company most decisively. Because weakness, suffering and mortality for him are simply part of a ghoulish, morbid religious conspiracy to bring low the noble, heroic and life-affirming. He forgets that Jesus never once counsels the sick to reconcile themselves to their afflictions. On the contrary, he seems to regard such suffering as evil, and is out to abolish it. Nietzsche forgets, too, that any power which is not rooted in a solidarity with human creatureliness and fragility, with the raw fact of our bodily finitude, will never prove durable or effective enough. That this is so is one of the lessons of tragedy, an art-form which fascinated Nietzsche himself for quite different reasons.

And so in the end Nietzsche is less revolutionary than the New Testament. Like some demented health-club proprietor, he can’t stop worshipping vigour, robustness and virility, or seeing failure as sickly and shameful. Like those Americans who hate a loser, he doesn’t see that what matters is failure, not success – that Jesus is a sick joke of a Saviour, that in every human sense his mission is an embarrassing, abysmal failure, that the notion of a crucified Messiah would have been a horrendous, unspeakable scandal and blasphemy to the pious Jews of his day. In the end, Nietzsche disowns the deepest insight of tragedy – that, as W.B. Yeats puts it, ‘nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent’.

14 thoughts on “Nietzsche and Christ – Terry Eagleton

  1. Cal

    Is it right to say that seeing God as Judge is seeing Him as the Accuser? I suppose the idea of Judge is scary if we don't know who that Judge is. If we look at our petty law courts we see vindictiveness and ruthless execution and not the Judge Jesus, who says the world has condemned itself already by hating the Light when it comes and He comes to bring vindication.

  2. Howard

    "Grace operates only by raising the dead. Those who think they can make their own lives the basis for acceptance by God need not apply, but the truth proclaims just as clearly that the judgement finally pronounced will be based on our acceptance or rejection of our resurrection from the dead". Robert Farrar Capon - Parables of Grace.

  3. Glen

    Yes Cal, Accusation and Judgement are definitely different. The Psalmist longs for the LORD to come and judge the earth with justice.

    I suppose you could say, though, that some of the Christians against whom Nietzsche was reacting might have had a more devilish than godly view of judgement. But you're right, I wouldn't have quite put things like Eagleton ;-)

  4. John B

    Eagleton says, "since we’re all inveterate masochists, cravenly in thrall to the Law". I can't think of a more patently false observation. But it's no use to cite scripture on this point, as that would just exhibit a fundamentalist trust in the Word, and as Eagleton has said elsewhere, "Fundamentalists are really necrophiliacs, in love with a dead letter." But it is fun to read Eagleton when he directs his attack against faith of any type towards "Ditchkins".

  5. Howard

    If we depend entirely upon God's grace, then we can see the process of alienation and death to the law Paul describes in Romans 6-8, but the picture which Eagleton defines in this quote is painfully familiar in a plethora of Christian spirituality. The mistake, has Jaques Ellul notes, is we so often deal with issues (because of our nature) on the 'moral and legal plane instead of following Paul, who works deeper to the spiritual issue(s), and thereby get back to the essence of the cardinal revelation of Christ, and from here derives answers consistent with grace and faith. The church does not do this, thus setting itself at the dame level as the world' (Moralism - The Subversion of Christianity). Painful experience on numerous occasions confirms the validity of Eagleton's statement - in much of the 'religion' of the church, law is supreme, and grace is most certainly left outside the gates.

  6. Howard

    If we depend entirely upon God's grace, then we can see the process of alienation and death to the law Paul describes in Romans 6-8, but the picture which Eagleton defines in this quote is painfully familiar in a plethora of Christian spirituality. The mistake, has Jaques Ellul notes, is we so often deal with issues (because of our nature) on the 'moral and legal plane instead of following Paul, who works deeper to the spiritual issue(s), and thereby get(s) back to the essence of the cardinal revelation of Christ, and from here derives answers consistent with grace and faith. The church does not do this, thus setting itself at the same level as the world' (Moralism - The Subversion of Christianity). Personal experience on numerous occasions confirms the validity of Eagleton's statement - in much of the 'religion' of the church, law is supreme, and grace is most certainly left outside the gates. We have to recognize this, and like Paul in his epistle to the Galatians, reject it for the heinous contrivance of the rich work of God that it is.

  7. Glen

    Hi John B,
    Thanks for commenting. I've been very remiss with responses lately, forgive me.

    When Eagleton made the comment you quote, I thought instantly of Proverbs 8: "All who hate me, love death." Obviously those who are besotted by Lady Folly wouldn't necessarily describe themselves as "in love with death" but addicts will often be aware of a real masochism to their desires. A death-wish. A hell-bent-ness. And even if the addict can't see it. Those outside can.

    Obviously if "law" is defined as Torah, then Eagleton's comment is false. But if it's more a power which operates according to "if you do, then you'll be" conditionality, then his statement is less objectionable, no?

    I disagree with his comments on judgement, but I saw some truth to statement which you cite.

  8. Howard

    Cal : Yes Indeed! Capon is also very good on the malady of 'religion' in the church. Anyone who has around in Evangelical circles (reformed & charismatic) for the last three decades knows only too well the pain of what such writers are saying.

  9. Howard

    Cal : Yes Indeed! Capon is also very good on the malady of 'religion' in the church. Anyone who has been around in Evangelical circles (reformed & charismatic) for the last three decades knows only too well the pain of what such writers are saying.

  10. John B

    Thanks Glen. Your comments on this help a lot. I understand it better now and agree with you and Eagleton. (Now, I hope that this isn't just my Freudian "death drive" kicking in!)

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