Alasdair McIntyre said that the works of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have greatly influenced western culture (NG, 1). Therefore, if the church is to respond to western culture, then the church “must understand Nietzsche” (NG, 1). Nietzsche, who was brought up in the Christian church and later became an atheist, has criticized the church, calling Christianity a “slave morality” (NG, 1). Though the church does not deal well with such criticism, a wise church should listen to Nietzsche’s commentary rather than disregard it, and try to understand what the criticism means in order to reevaluate its efforts. In this paper, I will evaluate Nietzsche’s work “Madman,” discuss how his life experiences deeply affected his view of God and the church, and explore how Christians can approach those who think like Nietzsche.
In his work “Madman,” Nietzsche wrote: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! (Pojman, 186). “What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?” the Madman cried (Pojman, 186). “Nietzsche's thesis was that striving, self-centered man had killed God …” (Time). Nietzsche held that God played “no vital role in … culture—except as a protector of the slave morality, including the idea of equal worth of all persons … Nietzsche believed that the world was void of intrinsic value or meaning … In place of God and intrinsic value, we must create our own value” (Pojman, 186). Recently, I heard a pastor say that most of what the church does has very little to do with God; in this respect, what Nietzsche said about God is true. The church kills God whenever Christians fail to seek God’s wisdom concerning its plans. God is dead to the church and to others whenever we are more concerned about the lost souls around the world than we are about the people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding our buildings.
What Nietzsche fails to do in “Madman,” is to explore how humanity might revive God once more. For some reason, he assumes without question that God is dead. Nietzsche reminds me of many people that I have spoken with who have been seriously hurt by Christians or who blame God for tragedy. After reading about his life in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I believe that hurt and misplaced blame were a strong possibility for Nietzsche’s views. Nietzsche came from a strong Christian background and studied theology and philology (a discipline that analyzed classical and biblical texts) at the University of Bonn. At the University, he became an atheist. During his childhood, Nietzsche experienced the death of his father and of a younger brother when he was only four years old. Because his father was a minister, Nietzsche and his family had to move from the parsonage to another house. These types of experiences, while stressful for adults, are even more so on a child who is unable to articulate his or her feelings. Devastating events like these can affect a child in ways that are not realized until much later. Nietzsche also experienced poor health as a result of service in the Army and from a possible syphilitic infection, which later led to a complete mental breakdown about ten years before his death (Wicks). All of these life experiences caused Nietzsche to wonder how a good God can allow such terrible tragedy. Nietzsche did not receive the answers he needed from the church and then became disillusioned. Influenced by the Enlightenment and advances in science, such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Nietzsche felt “’the loosing of the world from religious and quasi-religious understandings of itself, the dispelling of all closed world views, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.’ Slowly but surely, it dawned on men that they did not need God to explain, govern or justify certain areas of life” (Time). The disillusionment Nietzsche may have felt toward the church caused him to feel that he was being treated as a “slave.” As a result, he began to believe that humans could not experience true freedom unless God or the “myth” of God was dead.
Can men and women experience true freedom if God is dead? This depends on our view of God. Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, said that “God is a ‘wholly other’ being, whom man can only know by God's self-revelation in the person of Christ, as witnessed by Scripture. Any search for God that starts with human experience, is a vain quest that will discover only an idol, not the true God at all” (Time). In other words, if we base our perception of God on our experiences, whether positive or negative, we will not have a true picture of God. For example, if I, like Nietzsche, have had negative experiences, my view of God might be that God is cruel, sadistic and condemning. If I have had an easy life in which I have everything I want, I might view God as a “cosmic Santa Claus.” If my understanding of God comes from Scripture, I will believe bad things happen not because God is out to get us, but because we live in world cursed by sin. This curse was brought on by humanity’s decision to follow after the self. What humans should be freed from is not God, but their negative perceptions of God.
A world view based on Scripture, and belief in God, will affect one’s view of morality, truth and human nature. Because he was an atheist, Nietzsche viewed “Good” as “all that enhances the feeling of power, the Will to Power, and the power itself in man.” The “Bad” stemmed from all that was weak (Pojman, 188). He believed that “the weak and the failures shall perish. They ought even to be helped to perish” (Pojman, 189). Nietzsche despised Christianity because Christians had “practical sympathy and pity for all the failures and the weak,” which is more “harmful than any vice” (Pojman, 189). His view of morality was that there was no right or wrong since “life itself is violent, rapacious, exploitative and destructive” (Pojman, 188). This is certainly a dismal view of life.
To speak to those who share Nietzsche’s view of life, Christians must offer hope. In John 10: 10, Jesus said that he had come so that men and women could have abundant life. Our joy and hope in a real and personal God can be a witness to those who feel that their lives have no aim because of the accidental nature of life’s origin (Pojman, 188). We can offer this hope in how we live our lives, how we deal with crisis, through one on one communication and through prayer. As we speak with people on an individual level, we will avoid “pat” answers, as we genuinely search with them for answers.
In conclusion, though Nietzsche’s views have influenced Western culture, it is not beyond the church’s ability to offer hope. Depending on a Scriptural understanding of God, rather than upon an experiential understanding skewed by human nature, will help us reach people who believe that life has no purpose and that God is cruel and unloving. Through his writings, Nietzsche offers the church help in understanding what nonbelievers think so that we might reach them with the message of the gospel.
Matthew 5: 45, New International Version, (http://bible.cc/matthew/5-45.htm) accessed October 2008.
Naturalistic Genealogy: Slave Morality versus the Morality of Power,http://online.nnu.edu (accessed September, 2008).
Pojman, Louis P., Who Are We? Theories of Human Nature, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.) 2006.
Toward a Hidden God, Time Magazine, April 8, 1966, http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,835309,00.html, accessed, October 2008.
Wicks, Robert, "Friedrich Nietzsche", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/nietzsche/.