If we have learned one thing from Girard, it should have been how the human race is capable of hiding things from ourselves, and we do it like Poe’s purloined letter—we hide things in plain sight, and then obstinately refuse to look at it, not matter what.
When we are occasionally given a seer who does what his title implies—that is, he sees—we honor and praise him into the middle of next week, but we stare stupidly at what he is trying to articulate. According to Girard, one of the great seers of the last several centuries was Nietzsche. This does not make him a good man—he was quite the opposite, but he saw what he was doing. This does not make him a great man across the board either—he was something of a pencil neck. But he was a mousy little man who saw, and who tried to embrace the ramifications of what he saw. The end result wasn’t pretty. As Girard put it, “Genius and insanity lend each other a hand until the last instant, giving the lie to the orthodox thesis that disconnects the two” (Reader, p. 246).
What did Nietzsche see? He saw the uniqueness of the Christian faith, and he saw all forms of paganism arrayed against that Christian faith. In Nietzsche’s words, “Dionysius versus the ‘Crucified’: there you have the antithesis” (Reader, p. 247). That is right; there is the antithesis. Nietzsche saw the two teams, and picked the wrong one, but he correctly identified the color of the uniforms, and (for the most part) the nature of the two teams. This is absolutely correct—and once you have antithesis, you choose up sides. Ya pays your money, and ya takes yer choice.
A number of times we have pointed to the tendency of mythologizers to draw a veil over what they have done, and to pretend, quite primly, that they haven’t done it. Nietzsche doesn’t do this at all.
“Nietzsche did not turn the Dionysian into something idyllic and inconsequential. He was too honest to dissimulate the disturbing sides, the ugly sides of the Dionysian . . . Nietzsche clearly saw that pagan mythology, like pagan ritual, centers on the killing of victims or on their expulsion” (Reader, p. 247).
In short, the biblical faith consistently takes the side of victim, and Nietzsche knew that paganism required victims. It was a requirement he embraced. In doing this, he was rejected the urbane and oh so educated approach which lumped the Christian faith in with all other forms of religion and myth.
“This point was made in almost all great works of religious anthropology between 1850 and World War. Even today, it remains the hidden basis and principal argument, at least potentially, for what has become a popular cliché regarding the many religions of mankind. All of them are ‘more or less alike’” (Reader, pp. 248-249).
In his great work Orthodoxy, Chesterton identifies this same error and has a great deal of fun with it. The thing that makes the Christian faith distinct is that which makes all the difference.
Nietzsche rejected the “for public consumption” forms of paganism. He was not a PR guy for violence (like Heidegger). Heidegger gave us a kinder, gentler Nietzsche (Reader, p. 255), but Nietzsche did not sugar coat it. He knew what he was embracing.
“Every time Dionysius appears, a victim is dismembered and often devoured by his or her many murderers. The god can be the victim and he can also be the chief murderer. He can be victimized and he can be a victimizer . . . It is inconceivable that Jesus could become the instigator of some ‘holy lynching.’” (Reader, p. 249).
And so Nietzsche has no use for the lying dismissals of modernity.
“At the very height of the great syncretic mishmash of modernity, Nietzsche drew attention to the irreconcilable opposition between a mythological vision grounded in the perspective of the victimizers and a biblical inspiration that from the beginning tends to side with the victims” (p. 251).
Now there is one place where Nietzsche (necessarily) misses it. Like Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters he cannot get his mind around the Christian sympathy for the victim. He sees (as few others do) the stark and undeniable fact of it, but he then tries to reduce it to a craven and servile thing. This is the meaning of ressentiment, the “interiorization of weakened vengeance” (Reader, p. 252). Nietzsche assumes that the only way to take the side of the victim is to adopt a slave mentality, one that strikes back but only when it is safe to do so, which it rarely is. In short, Nietzsche knows nothing of the grace of God; he does not know the meaning of faith, hope, and love. But he does know that they are unalterably opposed to everything that he desires.
Nietzsche is no halfway atheist. He does not come around with any patronizing nonsense about the human race “out-growing” a need for religion. Nietzsche wrote, not of the passive death of God, but of the murder of God (Reader, p. 255). Girard makes much of this, rightly. Many, with pretended detachment, speak of the “death of God.”
“Since the late eighteenth century, from Jean Paul to Victor Hugo and beyond, pronouncements regarding the death of God have multiplied with each passing year, and belated prophets are now forming what is probably the largest crowd ever gathered in our intellectual history. What everybody has been announcing, of course, is that the biblical god is dying of old age. It is a more or less natural death in other words” (Reader, p. 256).
Like a group of detestable relatives gathering for the reading of a despised but wealthy aunt, they are cheering inwardly, but have solemn and grave faces in order to keep up appearances. This is where Nietzsche is so bracing. His contempt is open.
“Instead of that gradual fading away of God, with no particular violence or drama, Nietzsche see the disappearance of God as a horrible murder in which every man is involved: ‘We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers’” (Reader, p. 256).
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him . . . Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” (Reader, p. 257).
Girard points out the unmistakable reference here to the founding murder, the need for atonement, followed by the immediate need to pretend that atonement was unnecessary.
“The references to the blood, and to the knife, and to the wiping of the blood, forcefully take us back to the first announcement of the madmen. God did not die a natural death; he was collectively killed” (Reader, p. 257).
Nietzsche is aware of the murder that mythological minds insist on hiding from themselves. “This deed is still more distant from them that the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves” (Reader, p. 258).
“When Nietzsche shifted from the death of God to his murder, he must have felt, as we all feel, the sudden enormous increase in the symbolical power at his disposal” (Reader, p. 259).
It is undeniably there. Nietzsche, unlike many philosophers, reads like a prophet. He is a crazed prophet, as many prophets have been, and he was an awful man. We as Christians can benefit from reading from him, but only in the sense that Wellington benefited from studying Napoleon.
One last comment—Nietzsche is rightly credited as the father of the postmodern turn, but the postmodernists don’t understand him any more than the early modernists did. Allow me to reapply an observation of Girard’s.
“Perfectly respectable scholars, men who would not touch my own collective murder with a ten-foot pole, quote Nietzsche’s text in preference to any other, but their comments betray no awareness of the murder theme. They never seem to notice the strange little twist that makes this text different from all others, even though it is this difference that determines their preference” (Reader, p. 258; emphasis Girard’s).
Those who appeal to Nietzsche, whether they know it or not (and they almost never do), are appealing to the gods of blood. It is Dionysus or the Crucified. And Dionysus is not just the god of the endless party—sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He is also the god of random dismemberment. In the sixties, we were urged many times (in a Dionysian vein) to “make love, not war.” It turns out that the slogan actually means “make love and war.” The most notable example of this unholy marriage is the carnage of abortion, a carnage that is peculiarly Dionysian. Lust and blood lust are not separable. But what can be separated is the venting of the blood lust and the willingness of the spattered participants to see what they have done, and are doing. But Nietzsche saw, and Nietzsche approved of what he saw.