Did Nietzsche Go Far Enough?
One of Nietzsche’s angriest charges against Christianity is its lack of reality.
In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary causes (“God,” “soul,” “spirit,” “free-will” — for that matter “unfree will”), nothing but imaginary effects (“sin,” “redemption,” pu“grace,” “punishment,” “forgiveness of sins”). Intercourse between imaginary beings (“God,” “spirits,” “souls”); imaginary natural science (anthropocentric; no trace of any concept of natural causes); an imaginary psychology (nothing but self-misunderstandings, interpretations of agreeable and disagreeable feelings — for example, of the states of of the nervus sympaticus — with the aid of the sign language of the religio-moral idiosyncrasy; “repentance,” “pangs of conscience,” “temptation of the devil,” “the presence of God”); an imaginary teleology (“the kingdom of God,” “the Last Judgment,” “eternal life”).
This world of pure fiction is vastly inferior to the world of dreams insofar as the latter mirrors reality, whereas the former falsifies, devalues, and negates reality. Once the concept of “nature” had been invented as the opposite of “God,” “natural” had to become a synonym of “reprehensible”: this whole world of fiction is rooted in hatred of the natural (of reality!); it is the expression of a profound vexation at the sight of reality.
But this explains everything. Who alone has good reason to lie his way out of reality? He who suffers from it. But to suffer from reality is to be a piece of reality that has come to grief. The preponderance of feelings of displeasure over feelings of pleasure is the cause of this fictitious morality; but such a preponderance provides the very formula for decadence.
— The Antichrist, section 15 (Kaufmann’s translation in its entirety)
Does this explain “everything”? No, it doesn’t. Psychology, metaphysics, yes. But, it fails to answer a simple question.
I read somewhere on the Internet about saying out loud as a measure of one’s lack of faith something like “I ask God to strike me dead. I dare God to make me suffer grievously for the rest of my life. Come on, God, you can do it, make it worse for me than it ever was for Job.” Apparently, saying such things out loud makes some professed atheists uneasy. I was curious about what the reality of it would be for me. I grew up in a conservative religious milieu in a thoroughly red state and was enthusiastically religious for a while. After saying it, all I could say was, “meh.”
I occasionally take my evening meals at soup kitchens and food pantries organized and run by the Salvation Army and local churches. I hear a heartfelt prayer almost every day almost everyday, sometimes twice in one day.
With my thoroughly jaundiced eye for Christianity, a simple question needs to be answered. If there’s no reality and substance to all of that jabbering about empty irrealities, then what the hell are believers doing when they make noises and call it theology?
As a philosophy major I received some exposure to the Wittgenstein of The Philosophical Investigations. I don’t remember much. Something about showing the fly the way out of the bottle and meaning as use.
Even though Christian concepts are devoid of content and reality, Christians continued to use their words and concepts consistently, for the most part, even after _______ (fill in your preferred cultural or scientific discovery).
So what are they doing with their God-talk and their strivings for righteousness and holiness? The answer struck me as too simple. Its simplicity made me suspicious and mistrustful of it. Christian language marks who is “in” and who is “out.” The vocabulary and the grammar of its use functions as a badge and marker of who is a Christian. The articles of faith, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s prayer, Ava Maria, Silent Night, The War on Christmas®, all of it, just tokens to mark membership. Life as a Christian as a member of a congregation is dependent on the judgment by others of one’s spirituality. Jesus and the Pharisees holds within it a dim awareness of this fact. If a well-intentioned Christian is too “spiritual” in an inappropriate way, he will be ostracized.
Nietzsche usually so perceptive in peering into the darker nooks and crevices of the human heart missed something in the passage above. He recognizes the lack of reality and substance to Christian noises. It offends his truthfulness. He was working before modern philosophy of language. Language and thought were supposedly described and referred to the world and things within it.
“Meaning as use” a la the later Wittgenstein makes meaning social, as something worked out between people. Neurology has begun to recognize that some ridiculous portion of our brains is devoted to navigating social life.
Nietzsche early on (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense) recognized that evolution meant that our brains were not designed by Nature to be organs of truth, but to aid in persisting a while longer. The necessity of untruth is a recurrent theme in his middle and late periods. So why did he miss the social nature of truth and language?
Nietzsche’s philosophy should be read as a grand exegesis and glorification of a lonely, chronically suffering, philology professor forced to retire early due to ill health. He had to retain and protect his faith in the primacy of the solitary individual lurking about at the fringes of the herd as a necessary condition of his existence. The abyss he felt between himself and the herd precluded recognition that language, even his wonderful prose, premised other people. There is in his writings a glimmering intuition that language is not a neutral conduit of reality and that language is not a mirror of reality that may be safely ignored like we do when grooming ourselves.
If all of Christianity’s so-called realities listed in the passage quoted above are purely signifiers of membership and levels of membership, this means that membership in the Church is not based on shared experiences, or rather the shared Christian experience is one of exclusion. To compensate for the emptiness of specifically Christian concepts, membership in the Church works by excluding somebody. Whether its Pharisees, Pagans, Infidels, Devil Worshipers, Heretics, Witches, the Ungodly, Whores, Jews, etc etc etc etc. In America, Christianity has been especially inventive in finding an unending supply of Enemies. The “War on Christmas” is as a fitting example as any. The yearly hysteria and outrage provides opportunities for Christians to recognize one another and feel like they belong to something greater in their shared outrage that someone should dare to not be one of them, their kind of Christian. Only after they identify the Evil One du jour are they able to recognize themselves as godly. Nietzsche summed all of this up in one word: ressentiment.