Editor’s Note: In anticipation of our upcoming October 13th webinar with David Galston on Friedrich Nietzsche, Bill Lehto posed the questions below to Dr. Galston in order to give us a glimpse into the philosopher and his views on Christianity and theology.
Could you briefly contextualize Nietzsche’s thought within the philosophic tradition? Who were his influencers, and what has his influence been?
Nietzsche lived from 1844 to 1900. It is possible, on YouTube, to see some video from the last days of his life. He was a classical philologist but became interested in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche’s thought depended on several breakthroughs of the nineteenth century. Particularly, the rise of critical history and Darwinian evolution turned Nietzsche away from Christianity and toward a natural philosophy. Nietzsche knew about David Friedrich Strauss and the historical Jesus. In fact, Nietzsche imaged the historical Jesus, opposed to Christianity, as the bringer of good tidings.
Nietzsche was amazing and brilliant, but he still belongs to the context of nineteenth century critical history re-examining the traditional narratives about Europe, Christianity, and the moral order of things. He is sometimes troubling, as we will discuss, because while his rejection of “morality” and the Platonic transcendental world is liberating, he can consequently give permission to libertarian notions of a self who rejects social reality.
Nietzsche was one of Christianity’s greatest critics, but do you think his work and thought also create opportunities for Christianity and theology?
It took a while, I would say, for theology to warm up to Nietzsche. This is due in no small part to Nietzsche being associated with right-wing militarism before the First World War and then with Naziism during the Second World War. Meanwhile, in France, Nietzsche was associated with the left. The ambiguities made it difficult for theology, in the broad sense, to pick up on the importance of Nietzsche.
However, Nietzsche became widely known after the Second World War through the work of Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. The big thing, of course, was the death of God. The death of God is the death of the big metaphysical sky-god who justifies the (selectively) moral order of the universe.
The death of God makes humans fully responsible for creating the order of reality in which they live. For theology, this influenced a radical incarnational development where the natural world is fully the divine reality. God had fallen from the sky to become nature (including human nature). Christian atheism, ecological theologies, and theologies of relativity all owe something to Nietzsche.
How has Nietzsche influenced your own work and thought?
The big impact Nietzsche made upon me, when I first encountered his writing in my first years as a philosophy student, was his way of deconstructing assumptions about the world. When I read the Genealogy of Morals, which was the first thing I ever read of Nietzsche, I was struck and then convinced that human beings create their own moral order and that, as such, religion is a human creation. Unfortunately, I never encountered Don Cupitt until later, but Cupitt has to be read with Nietzsche.
I let go of Nietzsche when I started to study theology, and I became a Tillich fan for a while. Then, when I began PhD studies, I got into Michel Foucault. It’s not really possible to understand Foucault without understanding Nietzsche. So, I returned to Nietzsche again.
The big influence of Nietzsche on my thought is the emphasis I put on human beings being responsible for the religions, or forms of religion (and politics) that they create. Unlike Nietzsche’s supreme (and idealized) individual, though, I hold a socialist understanding of the common good. Embracing the Human Jesus is about taking the historical Jesus to church, but it is also about being responsible for the forms of religion that we create.
For those new to Nietzsche, which of his books would you recommend starting with? Are there any books about Nietzsche’s life and thought that you would recommend?
I think that the Genealogy of Morals is the standard way to get into Nietzsche because the essays are consistent and somewhat systematic. After that, to experience the radical, poetic, aphoristic, and sometimes troubling Nietzsche, one must read The Antichrist and Beyond Good and Evil. However, no one can feel that they have encountered Nietzsche well without reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Two biographies of Nietzsche that might interest readers are the famous account of Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, and Anarchist. A more detailed and well written biography, also well known, is Curtis Cate’s Friedrich Nietzsche.
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