As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Michael Bacal looks at Daniel Pellerin’s “Nietzsche’s Affirming Negation of Christianity,” from Telos 124 (Summer 2002).
Could there really be such a thing as a “Christian” Nietzsche? Superficially, of course, there couldn’t be a thinker less Christian than Nietzsche. His savage critiques and well-known aphorisms about the servile, masochistic, and ugly character of Christian life have had a decisive influence on contemporary Western thought. His proclamations of God’s “death” and his analyses of ressentiment have even managed to lodge themselves firmly into popular culture. Nietzsche’s brutal hostility toward everything Christianity stands for is, for better or worse, one of the best-known aspects of his philosophy. It is, thus, rather fascinating that, in spite of this (or perhaps because of it), many theologians and philosophers have tried to answer this seemingly paradoxical question about a Christian Nietzsche in the affirmative. To this end, they have grappled with the contradictions, elusive meanings, and deeper nature of his writings, and in doing so have suggested a strong underlying kinship between his thought and Christian theology. Over the last twenty years in particular, accompanying the wider resurgence of interest in religion by philosophy and critical theory, there has been a notable return of interest in developing the foundations of this link. Several compelling accounts of Nietzsche have emerged from this milieu, offering readers novel reassessments of his relationship to Christianity, especially in light of the wider philosophical questions and the host of social-political ills afflicting us today: consider, for example, John Caputo’s notion of “weak theology” and Julian Young’s Nietzsche and the Philosophy of Religion, among others. For the most part, taking larger questions about nihilism, postmodernity, and ethics as starting points, these rearticulations of Nietzschean thought in relation to Christianity have yielded a number of surprising new insights. Daniel Pellerin’s “Nietzsche’s Affirming Negation of Christianity,” from Telos 124, contributes to this much larger project and helps to elucidate what many now identify as the core Christian dimensions at work in Nietzschean philosophy.
Interestingly, Nietzsche himself was raised in a devout Christian household and grew up to be a pious young man. Although this was obviously not a relationship to be kept up on the best of terms, it is nevertheless worth noting that, from his childhood to his ultimate descent into madness, Christianity constantly informed his life. One of the questions currently being asked, in a practical sense, is what an understanding of this abiding presence of Christianity, even during his most visceral opposition to it, can mean for a renewed understanding of his work today. Pellerin, whose article engages with this question, refrains from making any reductive judgments and cautiously preserves the obvious tensions that arise from Nietzsche’s many critiques and idiosyncrasies. Pellerin does not, for instance, make the crude suggestion that to consider Nietzsche in light of Christianity’s influence is either to deny his eagerness for the demise of “the greatest misfortune of humanity so far” or to defuse the explosive power of his critiques of the domination and meaninglessness at the heart of Christian life. Instead, Pellerin offers a dialectical approach to Nietzsche’s thought that foregrounds the dynamic relations of negation and affirmation at work in essentially all of his writings.
Pellerin begins with the tantalizing and rather Nietzschean invitation that “to think with Nietzsche is to think against him,” and he continues by exploring precisely how, contra Nietzsche, the many critiques that the latter made throughout his life, simultaneously preserved and affirmed much of the very things they so vigorously set out to deny:
In Nietzsche’s eyes, the spiritual turn always remains a disease, but one “pregnant” with the future, both terrible and sublime. While declaring himself to be an irreconcilable opponent of Christianity, Nietzsche does not wish to be understood as crudely as he sometimes speaks: even as “the calamity of millennia,” the phenomenon of Christianity represents a “tremendous question mark” replete with meaning that raises much deeper questions than those of blame. What lies beyond good and evil would look very different if approached from another vantage point, and even the redeeming creators of value Nietzsche envisages bear not only the hopes of mankind, but also the unmistakable marks of their ancestry.
To negate, after all, is in the first place to affirm, and it should follow that any critique that is so keenly set on destroying its object must, in some fundamental way, remain indelibly formed by and tied down to it. Pellerin elaborates not only how Nietzsche’s attacks against Christianity have, in this way, been largely shaped by it. More importantly, he draws attention to how Nietzsche’s thoughts concerning the ultimate revaluation of morals and the emergence of a post-Christian consciousness—one that affirms a “sacred Yes!” to life—carry strong and undeniable traces of Christianity flashing through them.
For Nietzsche, there is a sense in which even the “new philosophers and free spirits”—those invigorated by news of God’s death—remain pious. . . . Despising and destroying are expressions of reverence and an affirmative spirit; negation is meant to be a dimension of Nietzsche’s “great” and “sacred Yes to life.” . . . If there is any hope of real neighborly love in the world, it will have to be grounded in just such strength, on a compassion that celebrates life, rather than a pity that diminishes man.
By discerning the presence of Christian thinking in Nietzsche’s vision of what will follow its “self-overcoming,” Pellerin correctly notes that, as an imagined state of redemption, it “could hardly be more Christian”—regardless of how radical it may first appear to be. His article goes on to plumb some of the consequences this view opens up, illuminating in particular the similarities between a life that has transcended Christian ressentiment and one of compassionate Christian life, full of charity and love. In this way, Pellerin shows us, for example, that the generous “nobility” and playful spirit that emerge in the Übermensch‘s embrace of life may reveal an uncanny proximity to what it was supposed to do away with altogether.
Pellerin’s article is a contribution to these new ways of approaching Nietzsche’s thought, which reaffirm that his stance toward Christianity is not at all incompatible with certain Christian views. More than this, it also asserts that Nietzsche cannot be properly thought about apart from these views and that this relationship still remains to be fruitfully explored. The recognition of this fact alone is one of the major achievements of recent Nietzsche scholarship and is currently one of its most promising new directions, which Pellerin’s article helps to explore.
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