The Varieties of Nihilistic Experience, Part 4: Nietzsche and the Problem of Secularized Christianity
I“The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke ZarathustraWe are Nietzsche’s Last Men, those who make everything small. This should be evident to anyone paying attention to contemporary social, cultural, and intellectual developments. That the depth of our banalities reflects our unconscious response to the crisis of nihilism will not surprise careful readers of Nietzsche’s investigations into the moral and psychological possibilities available to those living after his announcement of the death and burial of God. While Nietzsche was wrong in his assessment of the causes of and solutions to the advent of modern nihilism, his expectation of the likely fate of those left standing marks him as one of nihilism’s greatest prophets.
Far from celebrating nihilism as granting us absolution from any social and moral responsibility, as some who have not read him carefully often think, Nietzsche dreaded nihilism with its arrival of the Last Man. Dissatisfied with half-measures where authentic living was at stake and convinced that any appeal to transcendence was imaginatively futile, Nietzsche could envision only the Overman, the one who unlocks and courageously actualizes our human potential, as an alternative to the insipid “lifestyle” of the Last Men. (Übermensch is the term rendered as “Superman” or “Overman”; while it is common for critics to believe that Nietzsche hoped this amoral figure would sweep destructively through history, it is more likely a preliminary concept he struggled to articulate in the context of the crisis of nihilism.) And he was clear regarding whom he thought would be a more popular choice: “Give us this Last Man, O Zarathustra,” the crowd clamors to Nietzsche’s prophet in Nietzsche’s best-known work. “Make us into the Last Man! You can have the Overman!”
We have been granted our wish. Christians often miss how insightful Nietzsche was about our spiritual condition, as well as the direction we were headed as the traditional means of keeping nihilism at bay were being dismantled in modern European society. He may have been shortsighted in his rigid dismissal of the possibility of transcendence, but in our rush to ignore or repudiate his analyses because of his sins, real or imagined, we often fall into the very traps he tried to warn against.
Many Catholic thinkers have been impressed by the depth of Nietzsche’s discernment of the times and have pursued a serious engagement with his writings. Hans Urs von Balthasar acknowledged that while Nietzsche missed much of the bigger picture he nonetheless can’t be reduced to an anti-Christian shill we can ignore:
“On the surface, Nietzsche’s ethics is clearly based on anti-Christian ideas; indeed, its entire positive strength appears to come from the denial of a transcendent meaning to the world. However, the deeper we penetrate through the surface of these theses, the more questionable their superficial appearance becomes. We then discover that in his struggle against a secularized Christianity of a bourgeois stamp, Nietzsche unwittingly rediscovered some of the most genuine and frequently disregarded Christian values, and he portrayed them as the fundamental demands of human ethics. Regrettably. . . hardly anyone has been daring enough to address these deeper dimensions of Nietzsche and to bring out their positive Christian meaning. The reason may be in part that Nietzsche himself consistently lent the expression of his insights an emphatically anti-Christian coloring, and that he never pressed forward to the ultimate liberating truths of Christianity, but always lingered in penultimate regions. In this respect, the selections will be and remain a disappointment to all those who wish to take home only black and white theories, rather than to confront the matter itself, no matter how darkly it may be veiled. But the decisive reason why Nietzsche’s ethical ideas have not yet brought themselves to bear on Christian ethics lies elsewhere—namely, in the fact that the values that Nietzsche praised most have been forgotten.”
If this is true, then Nietzsche may serve as a flawed prophet recalling Christians to values and virtues we have neglected. The “secularized Christianity of a bourgeois stamp” is a more dangerous foe than any atheist critic of the faith, for not only does it subvert the dramatic power of the gospel, it soothes and ultimately tranquilizes us by using the language and imagery of the gospel in counterfeit fashion. In the following post, the conclusion to the series on nihilism by Andrew Ellison and myself, I will draw from Nietzsche’s reflections on the Last Man to highlight those features of American society that betray signs of this secularized Christianity. I will also consider how he falls into the very trap he hopes to avoid, and how C.S. Lewis’s reflections on the distinction between primary and secondary goods help to fill out his analysis.
In his essay “Souls without Longing” Robert C. Bartlett recalls Nietzsche as he reflects upon the consequences of nihilism on the college students he teaches. Bartlett finds them increasingly defined by their boredom, their lack of purpose beyond living a pleasant life, and not much inclined or able to notice or care. His essay is not merely a piece of angry polemics directed at lazy students, as my own students confirm when they read it and admit that they see themselves. It is instead an attempt by a concerned teacher to assess the changes he has observed over the course of his career. Though he prescinds from direct theological engagement, it is hard not to see in the background considerations which apply to a broader argument. The spiritual restlessness of genuine eros, the realization that we are incomplete and the longing for completion that has always marked the pursuit and achievement of greatness, including a life of sanctity, has become bizarre to us for the reasons Bartlett notes. Nietzsche adopts a more apocalyptic tone in addressing a world on the brink of dystopian nightmares:
“It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer will a high tree be able to grow from it. Alas! The time is coming when man will no more shoot the arrow of his longing out over mankind, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang! I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in you. Alas! The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars. Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I shall show you the last man. ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the Last Man and blinks." The earth has become small, & upon it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His race is as inexterminable as the flea; the Last Man lives longer. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men and blink.”
The Last Man is so satisfied with his vacuousness that he can imagine no goal beyond greater comfort and pleasure, and the capacity to continue enjoying them. “They have their little pleasure for the day and their little pleasure for the night: but they respect health. ‘We have discovered health,’ say the Last Men and blink.” When we exert ourselves today our goal is often little more than a shallow physical and psychological self-improvement. We seem committed most of all to Happiness and develop multiple therapies to help us achieve it. The self-criticism and awareness necessary for genuine growth is too tiresome and frightening for us to pursue, in part due to our insistence that all values, and the choices we make to actualize them, are matters of personal choice and creativity. “Our values are good,” we think, “because they are ours.” And who is to judge anyone’s values deficient? Genuine repentance of any kind and the growth it helps to foster become impossible, as our complacency is pampered by the pursuit of a self-esteem that trumps all else. Even if we suspect that another’s values or lifestyle are problematic, the most we are willing to say is something like, “As long as it makes you happy. . . .” Here is the gospel of the Last Man, American-style.
Who among us can recognize this spiritual blandness or show any lasting concern for it? As Nietzsche complained, even Christians often speak the language of self-congratulatory spiritual therapies that promise the ability to juggle adeptly busy schedules so that we can be more at peace with ourselves. How else to explain the almost total lack of concern among believers for the inherent gnosticism of the iLives we are so willing to pursue? The immediate practical benefits of our technologies of convenience must be too comforting for us to raise serious questions about how our sensibilities, not to mention attention spans, are transformed by our growing dependency upon them. Pascal’s words about our inability to sit alone in a quiet room come to mind when observing intelligent adults flit back and forth between the persons across the table and their cell phone or iPad, with seemingly little concern for the message their lack of focus communicates. I wonder how well their children are learning these lessons of inattentiveness, and how long it will take them to demonstrate their erudition to their parents.
If we moderns, Christians and secularists alike, do rise in the inevitable dissatisfaction produced by our mediocrity, it is often with an angry finger pointed in the direction of someone else. We delight in the Grand Cause, as the search for adversaries responsible for our plight is one of the few things able to drive us to activity. For the Last Men, as for all generations of men, the scapegoat is a necessity, as its misdeeds, flawed ideologies, or sheer difference from ourselves provide a welcome target for the spiritual energies latent within us, energies that should be more fruitfully directed toward the mysteries of holiness. But we often prefer the more leisurely path, and scapegoating provides an effective means of pounding our fist and making a lot of noise without needing to get up from the table. Consider how enthusiastically we throw ourselves into our remnant ecclesiologies, our rallies, our screeds against liberal or traditionalist Catholics, Democrats or Republicans, Catholics who wear shorts to Mass and receive the host in their cupped hands or those who insist the Latin Mass is the only legitimate form. Molehills often become mountainous wastes upon which the unschooled or obstinate among us wander aimlessly, tempting more faithful members to perdition. If this sounds unnecessarily dire, spend some time on Catholic blogs, but wear a helmet, as someone somewhere is likely to hurl invective your way, often anonymously. It requires less spiritual effort to glare at external enemies and attribute to them infernal intent than it does to look within ourselves and to admit that the true enemy, the only one who can cripple us in our approach to God, is ourselves.
The Last Men, however, are too preoccupied with growing comfortable with their spiritual pathologies to recognize this. The spoiled fruit we bear belies the nobility of our calling to loving neighbor and enemy alike. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say:
“It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer will a high tree be able grow from it.”
Change the identity and metaphysics of the speaker and this can become a call to the holiness that should be our “highest hope.”
IIThis points to what for a Christian is the irony of Nietzsche’s perceptive evaluation of our predicament. The Last Men, he claims, aim too low, making it easier to achieve what they consider satisfaction and contentment. They lower the ceiling of their expectations and thus make everything small. But Nietzsche, in chasing away every sign of and hope for genuine transcendence, has only a healthier psyche to aim for in response to the crisis he hopes to overcome. He may be a psychologist of the first order, but the options he allows for escaping the prison the Last Men are said to inhabit are, in the end, too limited. Astute socio-historical analyses aside, Nietzsche is unwilling to see that the historical process is moved by more than the will to power. The Overman is, as mentioned above, his hope in overcoming the coming apathy and insipidity of the Last Men, but it remains a rather vague one, a work in progress that raises more questions than it answers. The attempt to conceive a new world made possible by the death of God requires some standard bearer that can both elude the shifting sensibilities of critics, philosophers, and statesmen, and also receive some specificity from its creator. The prophetic tone Nietzsche adopts in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the principal text in which he explores the concept, is partly to blame here, if we are looking for details and platforms. It is natural to wonder, then, how Nietzsche can hope to escape the dilemma he has framed his complaints within. He achieves precisely what the Last Men are said to; he makes the world small.
Nietzsche’s instincts about the post-Christian world are, however, poetically and theologically compelling, though a more convincing explanation requires a surer grasp of metaphysics. Consider the following passage from C.S. Lewis’s sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Lewis exploits the same trope as Nietzsche, but invests it with greater psychological depth. Our hearts are indeed restless, and while Nietzsche could agree with this as a general statement, he could not follow Lewis in his Augustinianism. The Christian will insist that metaphysics belongs at the center of every discussion about authentic life; otherwise, all talk about restless hearts, giving birth to dancing stars, or fixing goals is idle rhetoric. The distinction between primary and secondary goods which Lewis returns to throughout his writings with such great effect is underwritten by a hierarchical understanding of reality rooted in a vision of God’s creative work, the loss of which is, for Lewis and other Christian writers, a primary cause of the world being made small.
Because of his metaphysical commitments Lewis was able to offer a clearer, less convoluted evaluation of the crisis of modernity. The problem he addressed was not principally the elimination of heaven by atheistic philosophers, as so many apologists remain fixed on, but its transformation into an earthly goal attainable by education and social engineering. The elimination of religious belief is far more difficult than its usurpation, and the churches have often been complicit in using religious language and imagery for secular ends. Our primary good is “here below,” so we are taught in myriad ways. This is how we are made small, and how the Last Men are formed. Speaking to how we come to confuse the priority of goods and fall into the danger of missing the true object of our longings, Lewis appeals to modern education in fairy tale terms:
“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”
The effects of the “secularized Christianity of a bourgeois stamp” that disgusted Nietzsche are in view here, though Lewis recognized that a prudent strategy in the struggle against it is to carefully distinguish among the hierarchy of goods established by our Creator. This has always been a necessary part of the spiritual life, for what Lewis called the evil enchantments of worldliness have been on display since Genesis 3. They differ from age to age, however, which requires we pay attention to the temper of our times, and that means we have to consider the inducements to apathy present in our contemporary society. In one of his earlier essays, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis states:
“One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the greed and pride of men, but at certain periods in history this is greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy. Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.”
This is a topic Lewis returned to throughout his career, and in multiple genres. His most prescient work, The Abolition of Man, consists of three essays that explore the consequences of subjectivism, which is a denial of he calls the Tao, “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” This is the chief ethical error of modern philosophy, one that is rooted in a false vision of reality and that threatens to weaken our ability to acknowledge, much less perform, the good. In a passage that rivals Nietzsche’s rhetorical bursts Lewis addresses the ironic outcome of a society in which subjectivism has had time to grow, ending his first lecture in Abolition with the following words:
“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
To repeat Nietzsche’s words one more time: “His soil is still rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer will a high tree be able to grow from it. Alas! The time is coming when man will no more shoot the arrow of his longing out over mankind, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang!” Both writers are concerned with the same problem, the weakening of human resolve in the face of threats to human nature. Lewis, borrowing from Plato, uses the phrase “men without chests” to refer to what Nietzsche deems the Last Men. Lewis stresses their starved sensibilities and need to be awakened from “the slumber of cold vulgarity.” Both new species suffer from the same lack of virtue and vitality, but for different reasons. What for Nietzsche is the poison coursing through the veins of the Last Man is for Lewis an antidote. The centuries-long hold that Christianity, with its insistence on universally-valid moral judgments, has had on the western psyche has emasculated us, according to Nietzsche, makes us timid, and threatens to leave us at the mercy of every new cultural trend that promises soft comforts. Lewis believes, on the other hand, that a deepened conversion, one which presupposes a commitment to the doctrine of objective value, is needed. Only such a commitment will enable us to distinguish between what he calls “the sweet poison of the false infinite,” secondary goods that we elevate to primary status, and the primary goods that deserve our greater allegiance. Psychological health for Lewis will follow from renewed spiritual and moral commitment, but unlike Nietzsche’s similar claim, for Lewis our commitment is to Another.
Which means that any further discussion of what separates the Christian analysis of the problems facing modern and postmodern (perhaps “hypermodern” is more on point) society from Nietzsche’s will involve, as Max Scheler understood in his Ressentiment, a consideration of love, and the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. The dismissal of love as weakness or a mercenary survival strategy has been a common feature of modern arguments against Christianity, and Nietzsche fails to grasp the possibilities of genuine self-giving rooted in joyful gratitude to God. His attempt to provide a proper diagnosis of the crisis of nihilism must therefore fail, or, ironically, be usurped by the secularized Christianity he railed against. When psychology will not be informed by theology and sets itself up as the queen of the sciences, there is little chance this won’t happen. Secularized Christianity may be part of what Nietzsche is attacking in his protest against the Last Men, but in his refusal to allow the possibility of help from a source other than ourselves, he guarantees that his trenchant diagnoses will fall short of their aim.