If you define religion as humanity’s response to the events of existence, then there could easily be as many different religions as there are people, as each individual’s response to life can differ significantly from one another’s, even in cultures that are predominantly governed by the tenets of one religious doctrine. Consider the large spectrum that simply exists under the banner of the word “Baptist.” On one end there is the extremely social conservative Westboro Baptist Church out of Kansas, which sends organized protests to military funerals and other occasions blaming most of the evils in the world on homosexuality. On the other end are the more liberal Baptists who take the very word out of their name, remaining in Baptist conventions but calling themselves innocuous names such as “Celebration Church” because the word “Baptist” keeps potential visitors away, in their opinion. Small wonder, then, that within the larger Christian spectrum there would be thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who offered detailed critiques of the practices of the Christian church while remaining part of that church. Outside the church’s official walls, there were thinkers who found themselves fascinated by its teachings but unable to accept them because of the actions of church members and the contradictions of doctrine. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most well-known philosophers of the 19th century who studied Christianity but from the outside, as an adversary. While Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer lived, for the most part, in different centuries, their thoughts resemble two sides of the same coin in their critiques of the faith.
Nietzsche grew up as the son of a Lutheran minister in Prussia, and his initial university education was to be in classical philology and theology. However, at the age of 21, he gave up theological studies and went on to study philosophy under Schopenhauer (Emden). Throughout his academic career, he focused on his critique of traditional religion and morality. Nietzsche based his own ethic on the concepts of intellectual integrity and fulfillment of the self. There are some who view this as relativism dressed up to look like a fancy intellectual system, but the fact that Nietzsche spent a lot of time criticizing other morality systems for their own shortcomings shows that he was not as much of a relativist as people would suggest; the fact that he uses specific criteria to judge different moralities suggests that he is anything but a relativist.
Indeed, Nietzsche’s definitions of morality are quite specific, as he divides the idea into two parts. “Master” morality has to do with differentiating between the “good” and the “bad.” However, “slave” morality involves the distinguishing between good and evil. It goes without saying that the two uses of “good” necessarily differ, depending on its opposite number. With master morality, “good” has to do with excellence, or success. This includes the traits of competence, power and strength. To lack these traits is “bad.” It is the weak on the planet who fail to measure up: Whoever “really does practice requital by being grateful and vengeful, is called “'good'” (Nietzsche). Slave morality, in Nietzsche’s view, is the construct of the powerless and weak. Instead of defining objects or abstractions as good or evil, this system instead defines anything different from oneself as “evil”: “in the souls of the oppressed, powerless men, every other man is taken for hostile, inconsiderate, exploitative, cruel, sly, whether he be noble or base” (Nietzsche). In other words, evil becomes anything that is different from the individual – which is the most relativistic sort of system out there.
In a sense, Nietzsche expresses sympathy by terming this “slave” morality. After all, people who blame others for their own plight are generally in a position of some adversity. This does not mean, though, that “slave” morality is a valid way of operation for society in general. Once slave morality takes hold and gains dominance over a master morality system, it then turns into a spiritual sort of revenge that the weak take over the strong (Emden). When the overtly pious use their legalistic system of morality to dominate a situation that the ethics of master morality would have had turn out a different way, then the excesses of organized religion too often take hold.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the few mainstream theologians who took Nietzsche’s concerns about Christian practice and morality and attempted to deal with them. For the vast majority of Christian theologians, it was simple enough to dismiss the writings of Nietzsche as the ravings of an atheist. It took some courage to look at the writings of Nietzsche as a legitimate critique of the flaws of Christianity. Many of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, such as the notions of living without God, the anonymous Christian, and cheap grace (Bonhoeffer), all come from his encounters with Nietzsche (Thistleton). The questions that Nietzsche, and others outside the church, raised about the faith served as motivation to redefine the notion of the Christian life. Bonhoeffer argued that those who used the Christian faith or its rites to establish their own positions were not authentically serving or worshipping God; instead, they were practicing a form of idolatry (Emden). As Bonhoeffer wrote, “If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me[b]ut if it is God who says where He will bethat place is the cross of Christ” (Bonhoeffer).
The issue with slave morality, accord ing to Nietzsche, is that it is inconsistent. If the only criterion for classification as “evil” is to be different, or to think differently, than those around one, then that is certainly a weak system. The inherent problem, for Nietzsche, is that the Christian notion of God does not enhance life, because it sees the other as evil. Since it does not enhance life, it follows that it contradicts life. If everything that has to do with God and with good is not of this world, then the implication follows that the entire world is evil. The next step is that everything that God created is evil; however, that contradicts the portions of the Book of Genesis that show God finding his creation to be good, and all of the portions in the Bible that cover the inherent goodness of creation. For Nietzsche, this contradiction leads to a flawed view of existence itself: “The more a person tends to reinterpret and justify, the less will he confront the causes of the misfortune and eliminate them” (Nietzsche). From Nietzsche’s viewpoint, people insulate themselves from life with their religious beliefs. Instead of focusing on the real problems that they face as individuals and as a society, they focus on straw men that are easy to tear down. If Nietzsche were around today, for example, he would likely focus on evangelical Christianity’s campaigns against gay marriage and legal abortion when there are such problems as socioeconomic disparity, cultural violence and a lack of peace throughout the world.
Bonhoeffer’s response to Nietzsche’s critique basically takes the church to task, insisting that if the adherents to the Christian faith were doing a better job living as disciples, the people in Nietzsche’s camp would not have such an easy time picking apart the morality of the church. In the New Testament, Jesus taught that, before trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye, it was important to remove the log from your own eye; the implication was that correcting others is problematic because we ourselves are sinners and thus have an improper perspective on what that sort of change should entail. The willingness of Bonhoeffer to look honestly within the Christian church and find the legitimate aspects of Nietzsche’s critique may not have been as overt a deed as his return to Germany to fight against the rise of the Nazi regime, but for generations of believers and agnostics alike, this willingness is a beacon that will shine forth just as brightly, and for just as long.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Meditating on the Word. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, c1986.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, c1995.
Emden, Christian. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All too Human. R. J. Hollingdale, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Thistleton, Anthony. Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995.