Friedrich Nietzsche’s been on the receiving end of some rather unfair accusations: That he was a Proto-Nazi; That he was a crude nationalist; Or a militarist: Or a nihilist.
And some very fair ones: That he was misogynistic; That his disorganized, aphoristic writing style was infantile and self-indulgent; That his mustache looked stupid.
But he’s an important figure. Not only for modern Christians, but for everyone. Much of what dominates contemporary discourse has its roots in Nietzschean thought. Derrida, especially, clung to threads previously oft-ignored by Nietzsche’s readers, which made up, perhaps, the better part of his philosophy: That there are no individuals, not really, but only subjects; We are all, always, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of arbitrary cultural constructs that we had no part in forming, which to a large extent determine our attitudes and prejudices; That our thoughts are not our own, not really. They are the thoughts of those men (always men) from ages past who managed to impose their perspectives on the populace, both in their own day and ours; That we do not “acknowledge” reality, we “constitute” it. We “construct” reality; That there is no “shared reality” that we can all acknowledge together. Or, if there is, we’ll never see it clearly. Especially not together, because there is no “we.” There is only a multitude of you’s and I’s, never us’es. There is simply a plurality of individuals who interpret the world according to somebody else’s constructs, which has co-opted our bodies and minds, somehow, and now compels us to see things through eyes that are not our own; That we do not see the world as it is, but as we were “conditioned” to see it.
One may be surprised to find that such ideas are older than they had thought. And these did not originate with Nietzsche either, but he has certainly been a contact point through which we have retrieved them. None of this, of course makes him a particularly good Christian apologist. But it is important groundwork to understand why he is, in fact, a one of the best.
As Nietzsche recounts (primarily throughout Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, human creatures are, irreducibly, a “pack of savages,” a “race of conquerors.” There is no such thing as “cooperation,” not really. There is only “conquest.”
There are only “interest groups,” some “powerful,” and others “powerless.” (In summarizing, I am sometimes using language that he did not employ). No one becomes “powerful” without taking power from others. It’s a zero-sum game. There are no truly “mutually beneficial” agreements or “cooperations” to be made. There is only the combined power of certain “interest groups” submerging the interests of other disparate and powerless “interest groups.”
Naturally, certain interest groups hold certain “values” and others hold other “values.” The “contest” between interest groups is a “contest” between irreconcilable “value sets.” Ultimately, the combined power of the victorious interest groups crystallizes into the “dominant culture.” Meanwhile, the “value sets” that dominant interest groups hold become “normative” over all others. Those who belonged to the disparate, powerless, “conquered” interest groups are “subjected” to the values held by the powerful, “conquering,” dominant interest groups.
When such a thing happens, however, the conquered and powerless groups grow to resent their “disenfranchisement,” holding their “conquerors” in contempt – simply by virtue of their having been conquered. They come to envision themselves as “victims” rather than simply as “vanquished contestants.” As such, they come to envision their conquerors as “villains,” simply for having “won” the “contest.” The conquered learn to see themselves as “morally upright underdogs” who deserve “liberation” from their conquerors and the values that their conquerors have imposed onto them.
The “dominant group” is reframed by the “dominated groups” as being the source of the their suffering, at which point what Nietzsche dubs the “slave morality” is born. As Nietzsche frames it, Christianity is the epitome of “slave morality.”
Plenty of groups are conquered, He says. Plenty of groups are victimized, sure. Plenty of groups are “submerged.” But this is simply the result of the inevitable “contest” between the irreconcilable “value sets” of competing “interest groups.” One of the groups will dominate, and the other will be dominated. That’s simply how it goes, always.
But Christianity, which during Nietzsche’s lifetime was generally believed to have began as a movement among the poor that only later spread out to the bourgeois, had, from its inception a distinct “egalitarian spirit.” It was riddled with “contemptible ideas,” as Nietzsche saw it, including the notion that the all-powerful Creator of the universe had, for some unconscionable reason, taken on human flesh and become a peasant – a “slave,” to use more Nietzschean language – in solidarity with what Christians called the “least of these.”
When Christianity became the unlikely religion of the Empire, it overthrew the Greco-Roman “will to power” – the “master morality” – and translated these unprecedented “egalitarian values” into the structure of the Western mind. Heretofore nonexistent concepts, like the “absolute value of the human person,” wholly regardless of their usefulness, strength, honor, or “virility” were thus “inscribed” into the “moral framework” of the West; Slowly, of course, in fits and starts, but inevitably.
Thus, Christianity had embedded, seemingly irrevocably, a “slave morality” into the Western consciousness (in fairly radical contradistinction to the cosmic frat party that was the pre-Christian Roman Empire).
This won’t be particularly impressive to those with revolutionary proclivities. For those post-modern and post-post-modern folks who haven’t collapsed into a kind of formless and void nihilism (the sort that Nietzsche predicted would be our undoing), the fact that the “Christian revolution” didn’t eliminate all sexism, racism, xenophobia and otherwise during the lifetime of the Apostles (or at least their Patristic proteges) renders the whole thing null and void, more or less.
Which is fine. Christianity has always been anti-revolutionary, and therefore never palatable to that particular demographic. Even Barabbas, the revolutionary who was set free by Pilate instead of Jesus (who is traditionally believed to have become a Christian after being released) supposedly put away his revolutionary mindset once he “took up his cross.”
But for those willing to accept it, it’s entirely worth noting: Western progressivism, all of its forms, both good and bad, are ultimately tributaries that run off from a great river that flows back to the incarnate Christ and the Apostles whom he trained. This ought to embarrass, for example, the “religious right,” whose mission, it seems, has long dwindled into painting up progressives as enemies of the Almighty. But it also ought to remind us that whatever “egalitarian impulses” we might have we owe chiefly to the “Christian revolution.”
It did not purge the world of injustice overnight. Some people will never forgive it for not having done so. Fair enough, I suppose. But if Nietzsche is correct, we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that what massive strides we have made, even over the last century, are due to our having liberated ourselves from Christianity. And more: If Nietzsche is correct, even those philosophies that often challenge and sometimes reject Christaity out of hand – whether it’s the Women’s Liberation movement, or LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups – ultimately “live and move and have their being” within the “moral vocabulary” – the “slave morality,” as Nietzsche would have it – bestowed upon us by the “Christian revolution.”
Yes, the West was (and is) an imperialist monolith who has subjected hordes of colonized provinces to a multitude of horrific wrongs. Yes, the West carried out these atrocities both before and after the so-called “Christian revolution.” And yes, the West has yet to fully own the blame and make due reparations to many of the wronged parties. All of these things are positively true. But only within the strange, egalitarian moral imagination that Christianity literally pioneered.
That is, if you believe that imperialism is wrong, or sexism, xenophobia, or racism, you’re already at least half-Christian. These very sentiments are what Cornelius Van Til calls “borrowed capital,” inherited from the Christian imagination. What wrongs the Christian world has inflicted – and they are many – are only actually wrong within a Christian moral framework.
Which is to say that if Nietzsche is correct, then Christianity’s most elucidating critics – feminist critics, for example – amount largely to groups who have applied their Christianized moral imagination more acutely to particular social ills (such as misogyny and “the patriarchy”) than the rest of the Christian or post-Christian world has bothered to as of yet.
I have, I assume, thoroughly upset both Christians who object on principle to feminism, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, critical race Theory, et cetera and non-christians who identify strongly with these particular advocacy groups, who feel that I am appropriating their interests to make a cheap case for Christianity. That much can’t be avoided, I guess. As I mentioned before, it’s only natural to be unsatisfied with whatever pretenses of moral authority the Christian religion still has after not having prevented the following two thousand years of rampant misogyny, brutality, and more.
But your liberative aspirations – what Nietzsche calls your “slave morality” – came from somewhere, and Christianity is that somewhere. And as “deconstructive” models of interpreting culture become increasingly mainstream – as normal folks, rather than simply professional academians, adopt previously avant-garde notions about the “arbitrariness of meaning,” and the “inherent violence of ideas” themselves, warming, as it were, to the notion that all of culture really boils down to the imposed power of certain interest groups over the conquered powerlessness of other interest groups – it’s entirely possible that it’s not wise to cut at the roots of the “slave morality” that has (at an admittedly glacial pace) brought us this far.
A disenchanted West, drunk on extreme relativism, probably will not blossom into a bastion of progressive values. However regressive one believes the Christian religion itself to be, it remains the “bank” from which our favorite liberation ideologies continue to make withdrawals – at least, if Nietzsche is correct. I’d rather we didn’t close the account.