By George Sumner
Who is the thinker most responsible for the cultural/political moment we find ourselves in? The answer is, I believe, Friedrich Nietzsche, a scholar of ancient language and philosophy: son of a German pastor, orderly in a war, a man constantly moving and sickly, finally a victim of a mental breakdown.
His life, spanning the second half of the 19th century, hardly seems like one to sway our time. Why would I claim this?
Early in his life he became an atheist, believing that humans had created the idea of God for their purposes. He thought Christianity was a hidden means for the weak and the poor to exert power over the strong. In fact, Nietzsche came to believe that there was no such thing as truth as we usually refer to it. It is only a veiled exertion of power. He was not, however, an advocate of the masses like Karl Marx. An elitist, Nietzsche loathed what he called the horde, and included in this any kind of conformity or unthinking prejudice, especially the anti-Semitism of his time (ironic since after his death his ideas were marshaled in favor of fascism).
Nietzsche thought he was offering an alternative to a shallow, unthinking nihilism, but in fact he proffered only a more sophisticated version: the view that there is no truth or moral purpose in the universe other than what we humans make up. He saved his praise for what he called the “Superman” (Ubermensch), one who would invent custom values and myth to live by. In all this he had in mind the great artists or writers who invented their own world to inhabit.
“God is dead and we have killed him,” he said. Unlike a number of atheists today, he did not see this as some liberating thing to celebrate, but rather as a cause for horror. He thought that, with the loss of belief, Western culture would decline into a nightmare, as there would be nothing to live for, and humans would conjure up dreadful alternatives.
I suspect that the extent to which contemporary leaders are aware of Nietzsche’s influence is uneven. Yet this bundle of ideas — nihilism, atheism, the need to create our values, the reduction of everything to power — lies behind much that is deeply problematic in our time. Philosophers can get into the airducts, can influence the world well after people have ceased to read their works, by shaping the assumptions people make. Let me give four examples.
A prominent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism on the contemporary political scene is a devotee of the writer Ayn Rand, who was in turn a close reader of Nietzsche. The idea that community is an illusion, that we are only individual wills, that only the material is real, that the strong need to prevail over the weak: in these notions you can hear the echo of Nietzsche. Such economic thought has its roots in nihilism. And for Christians, it ignores the truth that we are indeed our brother’s keeper.
In today’s university, the leftist advocates of social justice have studied their Nietzsche too, often filtered through another nihilist named Michel Foucault. Though they live in the supposed world of ideas, they reduce everything to the power interests of groups lying behind words. They dominate many humanities departments. Against them a figure like Jordan Peterson has raised a protest. As for Christians, we cannot agree with their abandonment of the liberal university tradition’s commitment to the free debate over ideas, since “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
In those same universities, professors tell 18-year-olds that they are to pursue their own truth, to create their own meaning, and to choose their own values. But they are hardly little Goethes or Beethovens. Neither they nor we can see how the notion of choosing your own values has the tinge of nihilism in it as well, as if truth were something determined by our wills. And today we are anything but supermen and superwomen, since we are quickly manipulated by advertising, technology, or worse.
Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind said that only Americans could take the deep Nietzschean pessimism and nihilism of creating values and make it sound fun! But fun its cultural effects are not, especially the feeling of ennui, lost purpose, and drifting, that haunts the young. As for Christians, we have the countercultural message, quite different from Nietzsche’s polemics, that we humans were made for a lasting purpose not of our choosing.
Finally, there are politicians who surely know nothing of the German philosophical giant. But the cynical notion that everything comes down to profit or partisanship has his bloodlines too. Likewise the willingness to damage the sense of the rule of law, or to invent realities for one’s advantage, carry the whiff of nihilism. The baleful uses of racism for political gain remind us of the corrupt ends to which Nietszche’s ideas could be put. But Christians have an obligation to defend the rule of law, a fruit as it is of the Western Christian tradition and its idea of God as the defender of mishpat, of justice.
I am not saying that laissez-faire capitalists, or leftist professors, or partisan political advocates, can’t be devout Christians. They can, as well as members of the opposing groups! But I am saying that Nietzschean thought is sand and not fit for building a house. All must submit these thoughts to the critique of the gospel, which has the last word.
The claims of human solidarity, of souls made for eternity with God, of free speech and thought in universities, and of honoring the rule of law and decency in political discourse — these are the Christians’ true birthright, however much some may today shout otherwise. Recognize the influence of Nietszche, and then flee! That is the pressing word churches need to offer to the secular realm.