The Necessity of Nietzsche: An Apocalyptic Philosophy for an Apocalyptic Theology

One’s philosophical orientation and preferences are reflected in their theology and vice versa but it may be that a particular theology inevitably requires or depends upon its philosophical expression, apart from which the theology would not exist. Whether one is Platonic or Aristotelian (in Nietzschean terms they are both fallen post-Socratics) may make a slight theological difference but the presumption is that “ordinary avenues of philosophic reason” are adequate for Augustinian, Thomistic, or certain Protestant theological leanings. One may need to tweak his Plato or Aristotle but the presumption is that the philosophy and theology are more or less interconnected if not exactly interchangeable. There is no questioning of reason, language, or human psychology, at least not enough to bring the enterprise to a halt. Thus, the Augustinian shift is guided by Neo-Platonism (Augustine equates Plato to Moses) in the same way Thomism is Aristotelian (for Thomas, Aristotle is “the philosopher”). Anselm of Canterbury, in both his philosophic arguments and his atonement theory, is the proper father of scholasticism in his pure distillation of a theology guided by Platonic philosophy. Modern philosophy and theology, in its Cartesian presumptions, will follow a predictable, interlocked pattern (Platonic and Anselmian). So too, Nominalism might as well name both a theology and philosophy as the theology is determined by the philosophy.

It is only in recognizing that theology and philosophy became inextricably interwoven in shared presumptions and foundations (summed up in the term “ontotheology”) that Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God can be taken as both theological and philosophical. For Nietzsche Christianity was “Platonism for the masses,” so his pronouncement is prophetic (the spirit in which his Zarathustra makes it) of the coming collapse of Western thought and religion. The demise of the God of the philosophers is implied in the demise of the Christian God, but the death of God is not simply a metaphor for Nietzsche. This death simultaneously points to the role of Platonism and Platonic Christianity in its denial or obscuring of the role of death.

The death of God in Christ on the Cross was, for Luther, the point for challenging scholasticism (the fusion of Greek and Christian thought) and what Luther called “the theologians of glory.” Hegel will take up the Lutheran refrain, not simply as a challenge to the Aristotelian God of pure thought, but also as a new founding moment in the understanding of how God and those created in his image must take up death in the founding of an authentic subjectivity. Hegel’s tarrying with the negative is a zeroing in on the Lutheran challenge to the God of the philosophers but it is also a challenge to modern (Cartesian) notions of an ego-based reason and subjectivity. Nietzsche takes the refrain one step further to declare God and the philosophy and morality attached to him as dead. As with Hegel, his is a call for a new form of radical subjectivity.

There is a shared recognition of the orientation to death that is thematic in Hegel and his heirs. Though Nietzsche is often pitted against Hegel – Hegel is philosopher of the system and Nietzsche is anti-system – yet they share reaction to Kant and the uncovering of a new form of subjectivity centered on the exposure of mortality and death. In the end, Hegel and his disciples (Marx, Freud, Lacan, and Žižek) are the arch-conservatives who brilliantly recognize the darkness of nihilism and imagine its mechanisms can only be manipulated (death drive – the real can be toyed with but must ultimately be submitted to) so as to provide a less painful outcome. Nietzsche names the nihilism and calls for a new religious order – a new myth. Where Hegel and his followers will privilege philosophy and presume it takes precedence over religion, Nietzsche shares with Kierkegaardian existentialism and theological apocalypticism the recognition of the need for the breaking in of a new world order.

His depiction of himself as the singular Antichrist, the marker of a new age on the order of B.C. and A.D., may not be accurate in his sense that he was alone but the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, (the French postmodern turn) but also of Martin Heidegger, all take their inspiration, if not their existence, from Nietzsche. He considered himself (as depicted in his autobiographical work Ecce Homo) philosophical dynamite:

I know my lot. One day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous—to a crisis like none there has been on earth, to the most profound collision of conscience, to a verdict invoked against everything that until then had been believed, demanded, held sacred. I am no man, I am dynamite.

Whether or not he was the match, the fuse, or the beginning of the explosion, (or is he only, as Bertrand Russell portrayed him, a literary figure) there is no question that the modern world begins to come undone in his wake. It is not just his appropriation by the Nazis, but he is linked with a new form of thought – apocalyptic in its import – (an ironic characterization as he sees religious apocalypticism as the problem). It is this apocalyptic element (the world unchained from its Sun and the need for a new religious myth) that distinguishes him from the mainstream of post-Kantian thinkers.  

What he calls “Socratism” is the refusal to deal with human finitude and his return to mythology, his uber man, his will to power, and especially his myth of eternal recurrence are his attempt to recreate the pre-Socratic dynamism. He recognizes that the success of human artifice – the Apollinarian (culture, art, literature, science) is in direct proportion to its direction and control of the Dionysian (passion, tragedy, emotion, revelry). The rise of the Over Men must freely move “beyond good and evil” with its notion of an objective or divine standard. Violence may be a necessity but the goal is that these new heroes, by whatever means, must lead humankind into accepting they are free spirits who can, of themselves, create a new order.

In his return to Dionysus, obscured by Plato, Nietzsche presumes the Platonic project to control the passions through reason is squelching the power of creativity. The Greek tragedian’s full acknowledgement of the Dionysian was an art form that gave inspiration to the shining light of Apollo. Plato’s reason repressed the tragic Dionysian truth (that we live to die) and simultaneously dismantled the Apollonarian manner of dealing with it in human culture.

Plato pictures passion as a black horse, which the charioteer or reason is to subdue by teaming with the white horse (spirit), the very imagery Freud will deploy in his depiction of the tripartite psyche:

…in its [the ego’s] relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who hast to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces (e.g., the superego). The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.

 Freudian psychoanalysis is founded upon the notion that the ego, as the center of reason, can gain control over the passions of the id. Though Freud grows less confident in his belief that his “new science” can control the unreasonable idic forces, nonetheless his enterprise of psychoanalysis is dedicated to the prospect that the drives can be manipulated if not subdued. Lacan and Žižek, in this sense, are the true arch-conservative Hegelian-Freudian thinkers as the real of death drive is the final power of good and evil. The emptying out of the Cartesian subject in Marx and Freud takes on a laborious technical odor of politics and the clinic, while Nietzsche represents the call for an apocalyptic break beyond good and evil.

In this he represents the break that inspired the last great metaphysician, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger too presumes authentic existence has to confront the negating power of nothingness and death with a new power of freedom.

Anticipation…unlike inauthentic Being-towards-death, does not evade the fact that death is not to be outstripped; instead, anticipation frees itself for accepting this. When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped. Anticipation discloses to existence that its uttermost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence one has reached.

Facing the fact of death is transformed by Heidegger into its own metaphysical freedom, which in his taking up of National Socialism demonstrates the bloody aspect of the Nietzschean enterprise he saw Hitler achieving. The Dionysian forces require sacrifice – and as Freud, Lacan and Žižek recognize and Heidegger did not, the rider of the black horse ultimately takes his orders from his mount. I would prefer, if these were the only choices, the more or less self-conscious nihilism of the latter thinkers to Heidegger’s enacted naïve nihilism, which brings us back to Nietzsche’s perception of his project as a resolution to nihilism.

Ironically, Nietzsche located the heart of this nihilism in what he perceived as the apocalyptic approach in Western religion, which set its hope on an ideal world to come or on the otherworldly heavens. For Nietzsche, apocalyptic Christianity was Platonic and he did not know of a Christianity focused on the redemption of this world. But as I have described it (here) this is the very definition of what is now called apocalyptic theology. With its inaugurated this-worldly eschatology, its deceived law of sin and death, and its recognition of God breaking into the world so as to give his own person, in Christ, as the subject of knowledge, apocalyptic theology is now anti-Platonic. Part of this apocalyptic understanding is the recognition that death denied is definitive of sin, and this is the power Christ has come to defeat. The point of this revelation is the realization of freedom from slavery to the controlling principles of the human order. God has invaded the world, not to eventually abandon it, but to reclaim it.

In other words, Nietzsche in his recognition of the pervasive nihilism inherent in Platonic and modern thought, in his focus on the Platonic/Christian obscuring of death, and in his recognition of the need for an apocalyptic break from the prevailing orientation, represents the shift that would give rise to a return to the original New Testament notion of apocalyptic salvation.  

If you would like to learn more register for our upcoming class (June 28th through August 20th), Philosophy for Theology, which will use my book, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, as the text.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.