Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher and die-hard critic of religiosity in the secular age had much to say regarding St. Paul, the apostle who is often considered by theologians and scholars of political theory alike, a proliferator of thoughts and ideas proceeding modern Christianity. Nietzsche rejected the belief that people ought to be concerned with a life after death; he thought people should instead embrace the world as it is, suffering and all, without looking forward to the prospect of some better afterlife. This stood in opposition to the world-renouncing (ascetic) type of person St. Paul wrote about in his epistles; for St. Paul, the concern for a life after death was just as—if not more important than—being a part of the material world because the life a person lives on earth relates to the life the person will have after death.
Do Nietzsche’s sentiments about St. Paul and the Christian faith render his assessment of both biased and insignificant, or does his stance offer an effective conception that does justice to both St. Paul and Christianity? If his philosophy misses the mark, what does this philosopher overlook in his criticisms of St. Paul and Christianity? A dissection of Friedrich Nietzsche’s hallmark texts, The Antichrist, the Gay Science, The Day of Dawn, and the Genealogy of Morals coupled with the rhetoric and teachings of St. Paul, and the insightful contributions of Jacob Taubes should shed light on these inquiries.
Through his bold and provocative writing during the nineteenth-century, Nietzsche expressed his own perspective; by often challenging the status-quo, he became one of the most influential post-modern philosophers as well as one of St. Paul’s greatest adversaries. Even if people don’t know him by name, many are familiar with the claim, “G-d is dead.” This secular mantra originates from one of Nietzsche’s parables about the status of religion in a state of suspension or anticipation: the parable of the Madman which is symbolic of humankind’s terrified reaction to the state of lawlessness following the death of G-d and its desire for order demonstrated by its need to establish new organised religious rituals to replace old ones. Why is this claim important? It exhibits where Nietzsche stands with respect to religion from a section of one of his more recognisable works, The Gay Science.
Another idea Nietzsche is often associated with is nihilism which can be easily misinterpreted when used as a standalone term referring to the mere belief in nothing. While this is usage is not a totally incorrect one, far more can be said about this term and Nietzsche’s discussion of it. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a growing problem during his time; he argued that because Christianity encouraged one to think more in terms of an immaterial existence (i.e. heaven; entering the Kingdom of G-d) more than one’s material existence (life on earth), Christianity was itself a kind of nihilism:
“Under Christianity neither morality nor religion has any point of contact with actuality. It offers purely imaginary causes (‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘ego,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘free will’ or even ‘unfree’), and purely imaginary effects (‘sin,’ ‘salvation,’ ‘grace,’ ‘punishment,’ ‘forgiveness of sins’).” – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist
Because it is so radically world-renouncing, Nietzsche further stated that Christianity in its entirety contradicted the instincts and impulses of humankind because it suppressed human nature. In addition to this departure from the here and now to strive for a life beyond this world, Nietzsche protested Christianity when he classified it as a slave morality:
“It was the Jews who… ventured, … to bring about a reversal… of the most unfathomable hatred… saying: ‘Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, … salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful… are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless… wretched, cursed and damned!’ … We know who became heir to this Jewish revaluation…” Friedrich Nietzsche, First Essay: Good and Evil, Good and Bad in On The Genealogy of Morals
The master morality originated from aristocracy and nobility in society and it valued the best, the harmless, and the useful; the slave morality, which originated from the priesthood and priestly people, developed in contrast to the master morality as an “opposite force.” The dissonance (i.e. the disdain and hatred of the master morality felt by the slave morality) between the two produced the radical world-renouncing tendencies that made the slave morality value what it valued i.e. the weak, the poor, the powerless. Simply put: the slave morality reserved the highest value for things the master morality didn’t value. St. Paul of Tarsus fits the mould of Nietzsche’s ideas about the “priesthood,” and so much of the philosopher’s claims about Christianity could be extended to the apostle as well. Nietzsche’s hatred for St. Paul came out of the way that St. Paul was a walking contradiction, that is, he was a weak man who was powerful in the spiritual sense—he had the qualities of an authoritative figurehead, yet he was just a meek sinner like any other.
St. Paul’s epistles expanded on the concept of original sin, the idea that sin is something built-in to human nature rather than something separate from it that could be alleviated altogether by performing the appropriate sacrificial rituals (as could the Jewish of notion of sin). By expanding on original sin, St. Paul revitalised an understanding of the divine-human relationship (which was first outlined as the covenant with the Hebrew people).
“St. Paul became at once the fanatic defender and guard-of-honour of… God and His Law. Ceaselessly battling against and lying in wait for all transgressors of this Law and those who presumed to doubt it, he was pitiless and cruel towards all evil doers, whom he would fain have punished in the most rigorous fashion possible.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day
To Nietzsche, St. Paul’s fixation with the divine-human relationship and Jewish Law had to do with his own shortcomings as a human being when it came to upholding it; he called Jewish Law into question, suspended it by offering a different interpretation of sin, and set out on a mission to inform others of the Law’s suspension.
The revolutionary picture painted by Nietzsche was an accurate portrayal of St. Paul insofar as it accentuated the degree of impact he had as a historical figure and rhetorician on Western civilisation in taking up a mission which undeniably shifted religious worldviews and the political.
Paul certainly had an affinity for Jewish Law by virtue of being of the Law himself as a Jew, yet he was also of the new order through his apostleship which he declared a divine prerogative in Galatians (1:11–12).
As a member of the priestly type of people to which Nietzsche refers, Paul incorporated a new kind of idea which aligned with world-renouncing tendencies asking one to rejoice not so much in the here and now, but in the Kingdom of G-d. Speaking of the ascetic and spiritual type is not enough to warrant such a negative criticism as Nietzsche charges Paul — that of a nihilistic, slave mentality of which humankind must free itself if it wishes to find peace within itself by coming to terms with reality. His claims, bold as they may be, only illuminate the religious context and political life of the early Christian in terms of suffering and how humankind chose to deal with it. Consequently, Nietzsche’s assessment of the historical moment, the significance of key concepts: Law, sin, salvation, heaven, God, and the relationships shared between them all is restricted to an overarching domain of suffering: turning away and withdrawing entirely from rather than embracing and celebrating. What could there be to celebrate? Does St. Paul’s thought encourage one to embrace parts of life more than it requires one to renounce them?
For Paul, the primary goal was not to suspend the law, rather the foundation of a community with a different interpretation of scripture which just so happened to conflict with acceptable interpretations of Mosaic Law. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expressed the main objective to unify and extend to all humankind the original covenant between God and the people of Israel: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus (3:28). This universality is achieved by revising the exclusivity of the original law and in light of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah, and introducing a common factor binding all humankind to that event, that being the introduction of sin as an inescapable quality of the human condition ameliorated only through the teachings and practises Christ bestowed upon humankind as the Word made flesh (John 1:14). As he explained the structure of the Church, he wrote according to the collective using an analogy of the body: how each part was created for a specific purpose yet has unity and commonality among other parts of the body which make up the whole (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Law is the other issue at hand. So far, there is Nietzsche’s suggestion that St. Paul’s inability to conform to Jewish Law himself was reasoning behind his own determination to modify it. This becomes more likely when considering St. Paul’s intentions of creating a new type of community in which all its members were bound together through one commonality. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which was arguably as provocative a work as Nietzsche’s, delved into what Law was for Paul, what it became, and why it changed. “Circumcision… has value if you observe the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision… One is not a Jew outwardly. True circumcision is not outward in the flesh” (Romans 2:25–28).
St. Paul compared the difference between inward and outward qualities in terms of circumcision, the physical mark of the covenant which sufficed as the commonality between the chosen people of God, Israel. This physical, outwardly ritual of circumcision which bound Abraham, the first to partake in the covenantal relationship with God, and all his descendants henceforth wouldn’t suffice because of the persistent disobedience to G-d’s commandments. Because of this, an additional inward, spiritual element with comparable power to the Jewish Law became necessary. True circumcision was inside the self, not outside the self; any means of atonement would therefore need to account not only for the physical actions performed or neglected outside the self, but for the inward desires and impulses experienced inside the self as well.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was decorated with a myriad of references to the Hebrew scriptures; each parallel drawn by him served as a literary device underscoring the differences and similarities between events as they occurred before and after the death of the messiah revealing both the role and significance of the messiah. The anointed one, Christ, takes on a likeness to humankind to amend the divine-human relationship initially severed by Adam through his disobedience in the Garden of Eden; from Adam’s actions onward, humankind suffers a sinful status. The messiah serves a complimentary role as someone theologians and followers of the faith might refer to as the new Adam for, “just as the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
The opposites at play are crucial: through Adam, death and sin become possible whereas through Christ, life and righteousness. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, blood symbolises life just like the animal sacrifices made by priests during communal rituals of atonement, however, because the properties of sin were deeper, it follows that the sacrifice be valid if and only if it could atone for original sin. An animal was no longer enough because other animals lacked the capacity to sin in the same way humankind could, therefore the sacrifice would have to be human, sharing similar vulnerabilities and limitations as humankind.
The life in Christ made possible through the messiah’s death on the cross was a pivotal moment in history for Nietzsche; to him, it was an irrational act of suffering meant to deter humankind from its natural preferences for the world and worldly things. Through this gruesome death sentence, Nietzsche thought humankind was not liberated, rather it was enslaved and forced to carry eternal guilt for sins of the flesh and spirit—for completed actions and conscious thoughts.
This is one of many interpretations, though looking back at St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Nietzsche accusations that: (1) Christianity did more harm than good because it went against human nature and (2) Christianity required people to abandon concerns with the here and now to focus on some other future reality don’t hold up, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who has loved one another has fulfilled the law” (13:8). St. Paul encouraged people to have mutual respect—he never asked them to do anything extreme. Just by sharing a common level of decency and care for one another, humankind could fulfil what G-d asked of it.
Love functions as a constant motivator behind the Passion, death, and resurrection of the messiah, his teachings, and commandments. Considering the scriptural exerts about St. Paul and his mission, Nietzsche’s analyses of the apostle fall short of the accurate and he does not capture Paul in his entirety due to biases surrounding the impact of Christianity in the West. Paul was far more complex than Nietzsche let on. It can’t be denied that there was much to celebrate not only in St. Paul’s religious escapades, but his activity in the political arena as well. Rounding up and spreading the gospel for humankind wasn’t easy, especially in the Roman Empire where various religious practises outside of Roman culture and law were merely tolerated.
A Christian’s primary objective is that of salvation, admission into the Kingdom of God and resting forever in His domain, something that comes at the price of renouncing some worldly desires — resisting temptations to maintain purity in mind, body, and spirit. Simple observation of principles and teachings like those of Christ isn’t requiring the Christian to turn away from the physical world altogether. If anything, because loving one another as G-d instructed can only be done right here and now with other people, being a part of the world is actually a necessity for the Christian. There are no shortcuts; the condition of one’s spirit and flesh depend on the experiences one shares with others in the world.
The arguments provided by St. Paul’s epistles against Nietzsche’s ascetic view of Christianity highlight noteworthy things about of St. Paul and his stake in the history of Western civilisation: his usage of legal terminology, theological rhetoric, and political charisma. Using these leadership skills, St. Paul managed to spread the gospel and form groups of people who shared something in common (original sin). Thinking back to what Nietzsche said about the “priesthood” or the “priestly” type of person, it seems he underestimated St. Paul; instead of being weakened by resentment for some opposing master morality, this apostle used concepts like love, universality, and relationship to spread the gospel message. Nietzsche offered one of many interpretations of St. Paul and Christianity, but this view that Christianity was a type of nihilistic force that swept the Western world didn’t do justice for neither the religion, nor the influential apostle.
References & Further Reading
Friedrich Nietzsche: On the Geneaology of Morals, The Antichrist, The Dawn of Day, The Gay Science
Jacob Taubes: The Political Theology of Paul