Nietzsche & Christianity
September 12, 2004

While looking at some of the keyword searches that brought people to various articles here, I came upon a rather interesting book review for Bruce Ellis Benson's Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern Idolatry It sounds quite interesting and directly related to an old LDS-Phil discussion from the spring. Basically Benson cautions readers that the Christianity that Nietzsche rejected was "actually the anemic rational religion of Kant and the divination of humanity's finest attributes by Feuerbach. What Nietzsche rejected was a false understanding of Christianity. Therefore, contemporary Christians may find his critique useful in countering misrepresentations of the good news that are really disguised forms of bad news." Of course that's exactly the critique that many Mormon intellectuals have made for years in defending Nietzsche for their fellow Mormons.

I think that sometimes his defenders go more than a little overboard. Certainly there are plenty of things in Nietzsche that are understandably problematic for Mormons. But the old rejoinder that Nietzsche is what a Mormon would be were they atheist is hard to attack too much. One can't, however, overlook that key provision. Nietzsche is an atheist.

Benson's view of Derrida is quite interesting as well. He appears to adopt the view that Derrida actually is a realist. Thus Derrida with deconstruction points out that our descriptions or understandings of a thing are always different from the thing themselves. They logically reach an aporia to which the only response is to create new texts or recognize that the thing we reference is transcendent in some sense. Clearly, relative to God, this is an old approach found in the various manifestations of negative theology. Marion, in contrast, considers that there is much positive one can say about God. I don't dispute that, of course. If Derrida does, as Benson apparently suggests, it probably is due to what Derrida considers God. More the essentially hidden En-Sof of Kabbalism rather than the hyper-ousia of traditional neoPlatonic Christianity. For a Mormon, of course, the problem is much less pronounced given our materialism. But one must recognize that Derrida is highly indebted to Levinas. (Indeed many see Levinas becoming more pronounced with time) Levinas takes the traditional discourse of God as Other and applies it to what one might term the entire problem of other minds. In other words, not only is God other, but all other people are others. (This can, of course, be seen as a manifestation of Heidegger's views on Daesin) Such an approach is always interesting to Mormons given our view of both an anthropomorphic God and a potentially deified man.

The key issue, however, is the realism. To what degree is the adherence to particular forms of discourse about God over a direct approach to God a form of idolatry. I think that Derrida and Nietzsche force us to reconsider the entire history of discourse about God. At what point does new discourse lose sight of what it is about and begin to rest not on God but on an edifice of texts who's origins have been misplaced?

Note that the publishers of Benson's book have put online two excerpts from the book. The first is its Preface. The last is the first part of the second chapter. (I should also add the caveat that I've not read Benson's book)


Posted by: Jim F. | September 17, 2004 10:44 PM

Clark, this looks like a very interesting book. Thanks for mentioning it.

Posted by: Clark | September 21, 2004 10:48 PM

I was reading through some old LDS-Phil discussions from last year that related to the above book and comments. Keith Lane said something rather insightful I thought I'd mention here. (I don't think he'll mind me quoting him)

We must recall that in speaking of Christianity Nietzsche said, "Christianity can be understood only by referring to the soil out of which it grew" - it is not a conter-movement against the Jewish instinct, it is actually its logical conclusion." (The Anti-Christ, 24)" In saying this Nietzsche clearly is bringing to play a tension between the Christianity of the philosophers and the historic Judaism of its source." Yet if Nietzsche's own pronouncement of "God is dead" is to be thought as the logical consequence of western thought, it must have a relationship to Christianity that Christianity had to Judaism." And thereby we can not isolate out Christianity and Judaism of the "real" sort from Nietzsche's thought." It lays there, perhaps in secret, subversively undercutting the very atheistic movements which Nietzsche pronounces.

To return to the original point." Is enlisting Nietzsche for Christianity really applying him against his will?" Against his intents?" Or is it simply manifesting what was present in Nietzsche the whole time?

Posted by: Keith | October 06, 2004 02:40 PM


I don't mind being quoted at all, except I don't think I said the above. It looks and sounds like Jim Faulconer. I did say, in speaking about religious uses of athiesm (and I'll post part of it hear because it's relevant) the following:

At the same time, I do think that Nietzsche's suspicion is a kind of religious suspicion by the fact that it is irreligious in nature and not simply non-religious as I think Cartesian doubt is. In other words, his is genuine religious atheism and not agnosticism nor is it conceptual atheism (what D.Z. Phillips describes as being the kind of thing one doesn't believe or disbelieve because he wouldn't know what it would mean to believe or disbelieve). Nietzsche's atheism seems to be an atheism that fights religion not simply because it does not get the point, but because it sees the point and is religiously or morally repulsed by it. (One might argue, of course, that he never saw the point of true Christianity, but that's not the point here.) When Nietzsche responds to Christianity, his atheism and his attack go clear to the bottom. When Westphal or Ricoeur take up atheism, it doesn't go clear to the bottom when it comes to religion (Christianity in this case). For them, it is part of a larger approach. For Nietzsche it is not simply part of the overall response to religious suspicion is the response (though I suppose one could see this as part of an overall plan, if you see Nietzsche as having a plan). We might say that both Nietzsche and the believing philosophers take up suspicion religiously, the difference being that the latter take suspicion up while responding in faith (faith is the attitude toward religion), whereas Nietzsche takes up something else(what?) while responding in suspicion (suspicion is the attitude toward religion). These are not simply differences of opinion, but bedrock differences - the kind of differences that make one a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, etc., and which aren't arguable because they aren't established or appropriated because of argument (which isn't to say one can't persuade or be persuaded in these matters).

Posted by: Clark | October 09, 2004 02:36 PM

Whoops. That was actually me, not you, I quoted. I found it in an email but it was one of those where you quoted the whole message. I read it and thought you had written it. Since I wrote it, it is no wonder I thought it insightful. Although I suspect that merely exposes a certain sense of hubris and vanity on my part. Or that I simply am very agreeable with myself.

While tracking down the quote, however, I did find a comment by Kenneth West (sure about that attribution) which I really did like a great deal and seemed applicable to this thread. It was in reference to the question, "is there an obligation in Nietzsche to love anyone? Let alone any obligation at all?" It is, I think, a rather common sort of question about Nietzsche, and an obvious one for a Christian, somewhat distressed by Nietzsche, to ask. The response was very thought provoking.

I think Nietzsche has some of the most beautiful and interesting things to say about love and its relation to good and evil. In the first essay of the Genealogy, Nietzsche argues for a mode of love that is beyond ressentiment and the slave revolt in morality. As he says in Beyond Good and Evil, section 153: "Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil." A lot of what Nietzsche has to say about love can be fruitfully compared to the penultimate chapter of Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity. Nietzsche's feelings about the problem of 'faith' and 'love' can be tracked in Feuerbach too.

As for obligation, there is some discussion in Zarathustra and a lot in Beyond Good and Evil and in the second essay of the Genealogy (Nietzsche's discussion of the nature of promises is principally what I have in mind). See Zarathustra's Prologue, section 4; Beyond Good and Evil, section 260; and Genealogy, II, sections 2, 24.

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