The Death of the Father

In my ongoing interrogation of the Nietzschean criticism of Christianity, I can’t help but go into Nietzsche’s own personal life. His criticism is framed in a very personal manner, both his criticisms generally of those captured by a slave morality, and those of the priestly class in particular. “Why so personal?” is an important question. It is also a personal question, and the answer may more holistically frame the entirety of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity, and may provide an introduction to my eventual, complete answer to The Antichrist, which I have summarized and written about elsewhere.

I accosted a Catholic priest in a McDonalds a few months ago, offering to pay for his meal if he would answer a question I had. He refused the money, but happily asked what was troubling me.

I told him that I had been having difficulty with hatred and theology (which was true; the morality is much simpler than the theology), and asked what the Catholic doctrine was on the subject. I gave him the normal verses that for me, threw some ambiguity on the subject: Psalm 139 and Ecclesiastes 3.

What followed was a wonderful 10 minute conversation. Needless to say, the priest had a different interpretation on the morality of the emotion than I did, but for the sake of listening, I kept my mouth shut and merely asked follow up questions to tried to dig deeper theologically, rather than argue with the old man.

One of the points he made, in defense of his claim that hatred is never justified towards another person, is that when we hate someone, what we are really hating is the weakness that the other is exposing in ourselves. It was, curiously, a sort of Nietzschean position of sorts.

He elaborated further, arguing that in this way, many people – lacking the abstract comprehension necessary to ascertain the nature of God – project their own father’s nature and personality onto God the Father. Much atheism, in his view, comes about from disillusionment with the power and wisdom of their own father, which gets displaced , or blurred in the conceptual translation, onto God.

It is a well-known fact that Nietzsche’s father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a Lutheran minister, whom the young Friederich loved very much. Carl died when Friederich was only four or five years old, and most accounts claim that the young philosopher spent years mourning his father’s death.

Might it be possible that the philosopher famous not for the line “there is no God,” but that “God is dead,” is anthropomorphizing and projecting? Intrinsic in the ability to claim “God is dead” is the notion of the kind of God that is capable of dying, one that is both metaphorical, (a preview of Campbellian or Jungian notions of the divine), and yet mortal, human. In Nietzsche’s case, all too human. A meta-categorical identification of God, as we can see from Campbell, Jung, and even a little bit from Aquinas, transcends the possibility of cessation, because it transcends categorization by time. To fall away from this kind of God would mean a rejection of the usefulness, or meaningfulness, of the idea. By definition, it could not mean that God had “died.”

For Nietzsche, God was cultural in nature. Like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, God died only when people stopped believing in him, and living by him. If new philosophical understandings dug the foundations out from underneath the intellectual edifice of Christianity, than it was only a matter of time before the cultural acceptance of God would collapse. Like Tinkerbell, God would spark, sputter, and fade away.

Yet the intellectually-grounded God – the God of Jesus, of Augustine, and Aquinas – is not the sort of God that is dependent upon massive cultural acceptance. Jesus began with 12 disciples only, and told his followers to expect persecution and rejection by the world, which was fundamentally of the devil. The sort of God that Christians have always believed in was not dependent upon the cultural hegemony it happened to maintain throughout the Middle Ages.

It seems far more likely that Nietzsche’s claim, that “God is dead,” and the sorrowful manner in which he tells that story in The Gay Science, comes from his own personal life. That Nietzsche’s father is dead, and that God had killed him.

The merciless anger directed upon the weakness of the priestly class, and upon Christianity, reads more aptly as a generalized condemnation of the weakness that killed his father. It would have been a far more attractive idea to the young Friederich that the religion his father had devoted his life to had somehow infected him with weakness, and that that weakness might somehow be cured by escape from Christianity. Tragically, for Nietzsche, this seems not to be the case. Carl died at age 36 from a brain ailment of some sort; Nietzsche, despite all of his praise for the virtue of strength, also died of a brain ailment, at age 55.

As Augustine argued in City of God, devotion to God may not save you from marauding Goths, or the ravages of unfortunate genetics, but hunting for the old Gods won’t save you either. Fending off foreigners, and fending off ailments, are the prerogatives of military and medical science, respectively. They are not questions of the relative strengths and weaknesses of one’s faith.

Historically speaking, the only civilization that can remotely compare to European Christian civilization is that of the Chinese. The Greeks don’t compare, powerful as they were for their time, and even the Pagan Romans don’t compare to their Christian Byzantine brothers, in cultural strength and sustainability. The Romans may have had their moment in the sun, but their thirst for conquest made them flare like a firework before crumbling away, under the strain of an over-extended, multi-ethnic empire. Under Christianity, men have become stronger, smarter, safer, and more successful than under virtually any other rule of governance. One can speak of the “pagan spirit” still lying beneath a Christian veneer in the days of Beowulf, and even (though perhaps less believably) in the early crusaders. But one can hardly make this claim of the Prussian military orders and the Polish winged-hussar, or of the hard-working industrialists, the scientists, and the explorers, that dominated the medieval ages, the enlightenment, and the Renaissance.

Whether this came about because of Christianity is irrelevant. It happened under Christianity, and was performed predominantly by Christians. The hypothesis that Christianity erodes the will and culls the Thumos from man is historically unlikely.

That the hypothesis stems from a refusal to accept the death of the father seems comparatively more so.

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