Back in March of this year (2014) James Faulconer posted a blog article entitled ‘Two Kinds of Religion’ where he mentions that Nietzsche, “… may have been right in his arguments about one kind of religion, but his criticisms don’t apply to the second.” The specific argument he mentions comes from a passage from Nietzsche’s first book ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ that amounts to an accusation that Christianity is so oriented towards the world-to-come that they devalue the present world we actually inhabit. Thus the two kinds of religion mentioned in the title, those kinds that Nietzsche’s critique finds merit and those kinds where it does not. Faulconer naturally finds himself participating in the latter kind and explains why this is so but one of his last remarks struck me as interesting:
Broadened, ritually pure religion demands covenant life with God and my sisters and brothers. That is not life spent waiting for something else. It is life with them here and now, a life of work creating, maintaining, and expanding the bonds of that covenant and its obligations.
My understanding of Nietzsche is that his greatest and most interesting criticisms apply directly to the sentiment held here by Faulconer and not the one explained above. This got me wondering; just what would a Nietzschean critique of Mormonism look like?
I won’t simply launch into a Nietzschean critique from the start; I’m not convinced that would be helpful reading. What I want to do is lay the ground work so those readers who know next to nothing about Nietzsche can come to appreciate the man’s insights into the human condition, even if they reject his project outright. You can’t divorce the life of the creator from his creation and any attempt to do so always results in something that is sterile at best and trite at worst. Nietzsche lived as most Mormons today do not and he thought in a way that most Mormons do not; to really bring his ideas into interaction with Mormon beliefs will require some work.
Nietzsche is probably one of the most popular and recognizable names in the Western tradition of Philosophy. Probably most famous for the quip “God is dead” that makes its appearance in numerous works of his, but the most sinister blow to his legacy comes from his own sister who labored hard to ensure he will always be (erroneously) linked to German National Socialism and its attendant Anti-Semitism. Nietzsche’s sex life (or lack thereof) is another popular topic and while it is well known he was a lifelong bachelor who made at least one trip to a brothel; it seems we can say with some confidence that he did not die of tertiary syphilis as is commonly thought.
Once you get past his reputations concerning Atheism, Nazis, and prostitutes, you’ll find a philosopher who doesn’t fit any of the popular conceptions of what it is to be a philosopher. He was trained as a philologist (after abandoning theology) in Leipzig who even studied under Constantin von Tischendorf (of Codex Sinaiticus fame) for a time. Incredibly he obtained a position at the University of Basel in Switzerland before finishing his doctorate or receiving a teaching certificate, the book Faulconer mentions in his blog post was Nietzsche’s first publication and was intended to be his scholarly debut that justified his getting such a position so soon.
Turns out that the philologists of Nietzsche’s day didn’t care much for ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ but Nietzsche’s time at Basel was spent teaching and profitably interacting with the (anti) theologian Franz Overbeck, the influential art historian Jacob Bruckhardt, and he even developed an absolutely strange and almost unnerving relationship with the German composer Richard Wagner and his infamous mistress turned wife Cosima Liszt. Nietzsche eventually had to resign from his position due to health concerns, but even early on at the institution his interests turned from classical philology to philosophy and once he was free from his academic obligations he sort of became an itinerant philosopher who traveled across Europe on a shoe string budget.
Like any good Victorian era genius Nietzsche abused opium when insomnia set in and spent time seeking climates conducive to his good health (Sils Maria in Switzerland, Genoa, Nice) before his eventual break down in Turin. The apocryphal story is that one day in early January 1889 Nietzsche came out into the street to see a horse being flogged, in reaction Nietzsche cried out and flung himself around the horse’s neck to shield it and kicked at the purported flogger, shortly thereafter it is said he collapsed on the street. Within a few days of this he sent the infamous “Madness” letters which really are a treat to read, here is just a few lines he sent to Bruckhardt:
Dear Herr Professor, When it comes down to it I’d much rather have been a Basel professor than God; but I didn’t dare be selfish enough to forgo the creation of the world. You see, one must make sacrifices, no matter how and where one lives.
In more than one of those letters he commands that all the anti-Semites in Europe to be executed, and signs many of these missives as Dionysus. After Overbeck and Bruckhardt received these letters and discussed the issue, Overbeck went to Turin to fetch Nietzsche and with Nietzsche’s mother had him committed to a psychiatric institution. The last decade of Nietzsche’s life was spent either in an institution or under care at home until he eventually passed away in August of 1900, during that time his career was effectively at an end and he produced no more work.
Nietzsche was a complex person who happened to be a brilliant linguist and was thoroughly familiar with Christianity. His devotion and appreciation of the Greco-Roman arts did not fade when he turned his attention to philosophy and the book which Faulconer draws Nietzsche’s critique from is early in his career when his ideas were not fully mature. Consider the passage Faulconer quotes and compare it to this quote from an older Nietzsche in the 1st essay in ‘On The Genealogy Of Morals’ section 15:
In the faith in what? In the love for what? In the hope of what? These weaklings! They also, forsooth, wish to be strong sometime; there is no doubt about it, sometime their kingdom also must come—“the kingdom of God” is their name for it, as has been mentioned: they are so meek in everything! Yet in order to experience that kingdom it is necessary to live long, to live beyond death—yes, eternal life is necessary so that one can make up forever for that earthly life “in faith,” “in love,” “in hope.” Make up for what? Make up by what? Dante, as it seems to me, made a crass mistake when with awe-inspiring ingenuity he placed that inscription over the gate of his hell, “Me too made eternal love”: at any rate the following inscription would have a much better right to stand over the gate of the Christian Paradise and its “eternal blessedness”—“Me too made eternal hate”—granted of course that a truth may rightly stand over the gate to a lie! (Translation by Horace B. Samuel)
This passage contains the same sentiment as Faulconer’s but in a much fuller framework imbedded in a context of a critique that, if true, would be rather devastating to a Mormon’s beliefs about the nature of morality and a person’s agency. My next installment will seek to build that framework up and reveal just what is at stake for Mormons when their beliefs are subjected to the kind of a Nietzschean critique I have in mind. In the mean time…