Journal of Unification Studies Volume VII (2006)
Nietzsche is known for being a major atheist and for his statement that “God is dead.” He is also known as the most religious atheist. In this contradictory tension lies the enigmatic thinker, Nietzsche. He was extremely critical of Christianity (see Antichrist) and developed a power-centered value perspective called “Master Morality,” in contrast to “Slave Morality” which primarily designates the Christian value perspective. On the surface, Nietzsche’s philosophy seems to have nothing to do with a theistic thought such as Unification Thought. It even appears to be hostile to it. If, however, we take a close look at his thought from the perspective of Unification Thought, we will find important insights that could easily be overlooked without the UT perspective.
This essay applies Unificationism as a framework of interpretation to Nietzsche’s texts, and brings Nietzsche’s questions on the Cross into the foreground. Nietzsche posed such questions as: Was Jesus’ crucifixion not a mistake? Didn’t Jesus’ crucifixion end the possibility of realizing the world of happiness on earth? Was the doctrine of salvation by Jesus through the cross an invention of Paul? Did Paul not invent this doctrine in order to justify his own mistake of sending Jesus to the cross? These questions concerning the meaning of the cross have often been overlooked due to the preconceived interpretation of the Cross in mainstream Christianity. Unificationism brings those overlooked questions of Nietzsche, buried in his texts, into the foreground. By doing so, this essay demonstrates the possibilities of Unificationism as a hermeneutical tool.
It is an inherent problem and difficulty of Nietzschean scholarship to accurately interpret his ideas and concepts. Nietzsche often utilizes symbols, images and metaphors in order to convey the feelings, tones, moods, scale, and scope of his ideas and his thought. For Nietzsche, the meaning of ideas and concepts cannot be exhaustibly and fully conveyed by rational explanations. His unique style of presentation, almost unheard of in philosophy, can convey extra conceptual meanings, but at the same time it obscures conceptual clarity and puts a heavy burden on the interpreter of his texts. Nietzsche may have anticipated an ever-expanding affluence of meanings implied by his expressions and their diverse interpretations. Nevertheless, this essay is based upon my extended interpretation of his texts from Unificationist perspective.
Nietzsche brings very different attitudes towards Jesus and towards Christianity. While Nietzsche leveled severe criticism against Christianity, he reserved a deep respect for Jesus. Nietzsche’s words against Christianity were harsh. In Antichrist 62, for example, he writes:
I condemn Christianity; I bring against the Christian church the most terrible of all the accusations that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. It is, to me, the greatest of all imaginable corruptions; it seeks to work the ultimate corruption, the worst possible corruption. The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has turned every value into worthlessness, and every truth into a lie, and every integrity into baseness of soul.
On the other hand, Nietzsche had a high esteem for Jesus Christ. He found Jesus to be the only genuine Christian. In Antichrist 39, Nietzsche writes: “I shall go back a bit, and tell you the authentic history of Christianity -- the very word “Christianity” is a misunderstanding -- at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Nietzsche saw Jesus as the person who lived what he taught and embodied truth and genuine love. For Nietzsche, what one believes does not make someone great. What one does, practices, and embodies determines who one is. Nietzsche found in Jesus a man who lived and practiced what he taught, having no discrepancy between thinking and being, words and deeds, and truth and its embodiment:
The true life, the life eternal has been found -- it is not merely promised, it is here, it is in you; it is the life that lies in love free from all retreats and exclusions, from all keeping of distances. Every one is the child of God -- Jesus claims nothing for himself alone -- as the child of God each man is the equal of every other man.[i]
Nietzsche found in Jesus the full realization of love, or the embodiment of truth, or the real practice of love. From Nietzsche’s perspective, the essence of a genuine Christian is not what one “believes” but how one acts and lives: “It is not a "belief" that marks off the Christian; he is distinguished by a different mode of action; he acts differently.[ii]
Nietzsche could not accept the Christian doctrine that took “faith” as the basis of justification and the defining characteristic of Christianity. In the shift from Jesus to Christianity, Nietzsche found a twist in the essential teachings. Nietzsche was extremely critical of the Christianity’s subjectivist orientation, other-worldliness, and neglect of the life on earth; these were, in Nietzsche’s eyes, tied to the Christian interpretation of the Cross and the original mission of Jesus.
Nietzsche poses a very important question: what was lost by the crucifixion of Jesus? His answer is that what had been lost was the real possibility to “establish happiness on the earth.”
One now begins to see just what it was that came to an end with the death on the cross: a new and thoroughly original effort to found a Buddhistic peace movement, and so establish happiness on earth – real, not merely promised.[iii]
What does Nietzsche mean by “Buddhistic”? Contrary to a popular perception of Buddhism, he means the concern for life on the earth. Nietzsche saw Christianity as that which “promises everything, but fulfills nothing,” whereas Buddhism “promises nothing, but actually fulfills.”[iv] Among various contrasts he makes between Christianity and Buddhism, one is their attitude to earthly life. Nietzsche thinks that Christianity shifted the center of gravity from life on the earth to another world, or from the bodily to the mental: “When the centre of gravity of life is placed, not in life itself, but in “the beyond” -- in nothingness -- then one has taken away its centre of gravity altogether.”[v]
Take suffering for an example. From Nietzsche’s perspective, Christianity does not have sufficient understanding of and sensitivity to suffering. It resolves one’s suffering through the schema of a set of ideas: sin as the cause of suffering; Jesus as the redeemer; and faith in Jesus as the condition of redemption. Suffering can be, in a sense, overcome by “believing” in Jesus. From Nietzsche’s perspective, believing or a psychological state does not eliminate suffering, particularly that which is experienced during earthly life. While Christianity teaches how to resolve or eliminate suffering by “believing,” Buddhism teaches individuals to face the suffering. Nietzsche’s characterization of both religions is quite simplistic and inaccurate, but Nietzsche’s point is that Christian salvation is imperfect. Nietzsche found both religions nihilistic, but he perceived the Buddhist attitude toward the suffering reality of human life to be more honest and realistic.
Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. It no longer has to justify its pains, its susceptibility to suffering, by interpreting these things in terms of sin -- it simply says, as it simply thinks, “I suffer.”[vi]
Nietzsche does not assign much value to Buddhism either, but he uses Buddhism in order to sharpen his criticism against Christianity.
Nietzsche’s concern for the earthly life is also exemplified in his concept of “Overman” or “Superman.” Nietzsche presents it as the “lord of the earth” that gives meaning to the earth, as opposed to the world of the afterlife. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche expresses his serious concern for earthly life:
Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes![vii]
From Nietzsche’s perspective, Christianity speaks of otherworldly hopes and neglects life on the earth. His “overman” is his idea of the “lord” of the earth. His concern for life on the earth and disappointment with Christianity is quite evident.
Regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, Nietzsche criticizes and accuses Paul. From Nietzsche’s perspective, Paul sent Jesus to the cross and then invented the doctrine of the cross in order to justify or conceal his mistake. The doctrine of the redemption by the cross -- that if you “believe” in Jesus who died on the cross and resurrected you will be saved -- was the invention of Paul who was the main figure in sending Jesus to the cross.
Above all, the Savior: he (Paul) nailed him to his own cross. The life, the example, the teaching, the death of Christ, the meaning and the law of the whole gospel -- nothing was left of all this after that counterfeiter in hatred had reduced it to his uses. Surely not reality; surely not historical truth![viii]
Nietzsche condemned Paul’s doctrine because it shifted the center of gravity from Jesus’ life on the earth to his death, as the “same old master crime against history.” From Nietzsche’s perspective, the consequence of Jesus’ death is a great loss -- that of the possibility of establishing real “happiness on earth” and “peace.” For Paul, Jesus’ death was a destiny. Nietzsche accuses Paul, saying that he “invented his own history of Christian beginnings.”[ix]
The figure of the Savior, his teaching, his way of life, his death, the meaning of his death, even the consequences of his death--nothing remained untouched, nothing remained in even remote contact with reality. Paul simply shifted the center of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence--in the lie of the "risen" Jesus. At bottom, he had no use for the life of the Savior--what he needed was the death on the cross, and something more.[x]
From the perspective of Unificationism, Jesus came to the world to establish genuine happiness on earth. In other words, Jesus was not supposed to die. The death of Jesus was the consequence of the people’s failure to accept Jesus. The cross was the only choice left for Jesus after all other alternatives were closed. Nietzsche’s insights on the meaning of the cross and the mission of Jesus come to be seen under a new light when we place them within the context of Unificationism. Nietzsche’s accusation of sending Jesus to the Cross echoes his description of God’s death.
Nietzsche does not simply state that God does not exist.[xi] He tells the story of how we killed God. Nietzsche describes the magnitude of our “murdering” God and serious consequences of this murder. His depiction generates a peculiar mood. In Gay Science 125, Nietzsche introduces the story of God’s death through the mouth of a madman:
The Madman - Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”[xii]
The madman was ridiculed with laughter by those who did not believe in God. The madman replied that we had killed God:
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Wither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers.[xiii]
After Nietzsche describes the magnitude of the consequences of God’s death, he writes the well-known phrase “God is dead”:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?[xiv] For Nietzsche, the loss of God is the loss of all values and it leads to a world of nihilism. Nihilism is the state where no value, purpose, meaning, or even happiness can be found. It is an absolutely valueless world.
What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” has no answer.[xv]
Why did Nietzsche write his atheism as a story of God’s death and even of our “murdering God”? Didn’t he overlap Jesus’ cross on the story of God’s death and vice versa? Are these stories of death, or to be accurate, two murders, Jesus’ and God’s, resonant of each other? Wasn’t he trying to describe the magnitude and seriousness of the consequences of Jesus’ death and the killing of God? Nietzsche did not explain how these two events were tied together. We can sense his remorse and lament rather than joy or indifference over both deaths, and his critical questioning of our own responsibilities. Nietzsche’s questioning is directed neither to Jesus nor God but to ourselves.
Was Nietzsche an apostle of faith or simply an anti-Christ? If by apostle we mean a person who carried the torch of Jesus’ genuine love for humanity, Nietzsche would be an apostle. From Nietzsche’s own perspective, he at least seemed to be trying to be faithful to Jesus. The question is who Jesus was and what his mission was. Nietzsche seemed to have understood Jesus as the one who was supposed to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Cross was, therefore, the consequence of some kind of mistake or failure or loss. It was a symbol of tragedy rather than of triumph and glory.
It is this interpretation of Jesus that sharply distinguishes Nietzsche from Paul. For Paul, as Nietzsche understands him, the cross was a symbol of glory and triumph, and there was nothing left unaccomplished by Jesus at the Crucifixion. For Nietzsche, the truth is the other way around. Nietzsche explicitly states, “what it was that came to an end with the death on the cross” and identified what was lost as the possibility to “establish happiness on earth – real, not merely promised.”
Nietzsche’s narrative of “God’s death,” as a story of our murder of God, indicates by its tragic tone not a triumph but a loss through the Cross. Nietzsche’s persistent concern with “happiness on earth” echoes his concept of “overman” as the “meaning of the earth.”
If a philosopher is an adventurer who tries to open up the path of truth, he or she is often compelled to risk his or her life by traveling a path between sanity and insanity, life and death. Trying to open up a path of truth is dangerous and risky work. In this sense, Nietzsche is truly a philosopher.
Unfortunately, Nietzsche crossed the borderline between sanity and insanity and became insane. He became like a child and lived his last ten years in insanity. He often signed the letters he wrote during this period, “the crucified one” or “crucified Dionysius.” When he wrote his autobiography a year before he became insane, he entitled it “Ecce Homo” (behold the man) an expression that denotes Jesus in the gospel. He also called his major work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the “fifth gospel.” We can see a shadow of Jesus in many places in his life. Jesus might have been inscribed deep in his heart and Nietzsche might have not been able to erase it even in his period of insanity.
If we read Nietzsche’s texts with the preconception that Jesus came to the world to die on the Cross, his questions on the meaning of the Cross and the mission of Jesus can easily slip away from our eyes. When, however, we apply Unificationism as the framework of interpretation, those overlooked passages suddenly begin to shine. A light is more luminous when it burns in darkness. Likewise, Nietzsche’s passages on Jesus are more luminous coming from the lips of such a radical atheist.
While Nietzsche is known as a major atheistic philosopher, his persistent and uncompromising quest for God, truth and love for Jesus can be seen between the lines and behind his harsh and even resentful words against Christianity. His life is certainly tragic, and his philosophy has a tragic tone. It is also regrettable that Nietzsche’s thought misled and confused subsequent philosophers and numerous individuals. Nevertheless, his sincere, uncompromising quest for truth, exemplified in his inquiry into the Cross, still touches the heart of anyone who reads him.
[i] Nietzsche, Antichrist, section 29, translated by H.L. Mencken (1920), http://www.fns.org.uk/ac.htm, accessed Oct. 26, 2005.
[ii] Ibid. section 33.
[iii] Ibid. section 42.
[v] Ibid. section 43
[vi] Ibid. section 23.
[vii] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (First Part, section 3), in The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1968).
[viii] Nietzsche, Antichrist, section 42.
[xi] Nietzsche’s atheism is clearly distinguished form that of prominent atheists such as Feuerbach, Marx, Russell, and Freud. For those atheists, non-existence of God is a factual matter that we have to simply realize. It is a matter of fact we have to see. It is not particularly significant than the absence of fictional figures or imaginative objects. For Nietzsche, however, it is a decisive event. Nietzsche describes its magnitude as a story of how we killed God.
[xii] Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 181.
[xv] Nietzsche, Will to Power (I. Nihilism, 2) translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 8.zxcvb1