On Religion

In this paper I will briefly describe Nietzsche’s critique of religion. I will argue that Nietzsche’s critique is warranted, but that resources to answer it are already present both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, to an even greater extent, in Mormonism. Nietzsche’s critique should impel us to recover those resources and resonances within our traditions, not to abandon our traditions.

Nietzsche is well-known for his scorching critique of religion, particularly of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Eminently quotable jeremiads against religion abound in his writings. He accuses the Judeo-Christian tradition of being life-denying, of promoting blind faith and mindless acceptance of conformity, of stamping out diversity and pluralism and forcing all of humanity into a stultifying moral straitjacket. Christianity denigrates human embodiment and the passions associated with that embodiment. It defers happiness and hope to an afterlife in a static, disembodied heaven, rather than affirming life and flourishing in the present. And it is obsessed with human depravity and brokenness. As Nietzsche puts it, “Sin, as it is now experienced wherever Christianity holds sway or has held sway, is a Jewish feeling and a Jewish invention….The Christian presupposes a powerful, overpowering being who enjoys revenge. His power is so great that nobody could possibly harm him, except for his honor. Every sin is a slight to his honor, a crimen laesae majestitatis divinae–and no more” (187). Furthermore, “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad” (Nietzsche 185).

Interestingly, Nietzsche has favorable words for the religion of the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek religion avoided some of the errors of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, ostensibly the “unmoved mover,” an ineffable being beyond space, time, and flux, the Greek gods were subject to passions and attachments. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190).  The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that Christianity, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance.

The upshot is that Christianity has inflicted a dessicated, hollow form of life on humanity. The dichotomies of Christianity–temporal and spiritual, human and divine, mind and body, saved and sinner–are to blame. Moving to a different vantage point will bring into focus magnificent new vistas veiled to Christian eyes. Therefore, the death of God is reason for celebration:“Indeed we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea. Our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea.’–”

Nietzsche’s critique of religion is surely not without merit. His foils are present among the pious at every turn both on the pages of religion history and within the walls of our churches. But is the Christianity Nietzsche has in his crosshairs the only possible interpretation of Christianity? After all, Christians worship a God who did not hesitate to call his material creation good. Biblical man is a material being who nonetheless bears the divine image, the mammalian child of a God who entered the mud and blood of history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian hope, properly understood, is not to escape the world but to be co-workers with God in the work of redeeming it, not to put off sinful flesh and gain entry to some disembodied heaven but to rise again in a physical body continuous with one’s present body, yet transformed and perfected. The Christian can be no friend of the comfortable status quo, for she has received the Holy Spirit that like the wind blows wherever it pleases and taken up her cross to follow that foe of unjust principalities and powers, Jesus of Nazareth, in her own inimitable way.

If anything, Mormonism contains theological ideas and inclinations even more amenable to Nietzsche’s thought. Mormonism undercuts some of the more intolerable frameworks of traditional Christian theology and collapses many of its unhelpful dichotomies. Viewed from a certain angle, Joseph Smith was a perfectly Nietzschean prophet, proclaiming that there is no such thing as immaterial matter, that man is that he might have joy, that mortal life is an ascent, not a fall, a hero’s journey in which both the iron rod and the liahona have a part to play. Moreover, that same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there, only coupled with eternal glory. The Zion to come, the resurrected body to come, the sanctified community to come, the godly activity to come, are already present in us, in our pursuits, and in our relationships with one another, if only in embryo and if only glimpsed through a glass darkly. Most arresting of all, we are under the tutelage of an embodied God, an exalted man, a passible being of parts and passions who weeps over his children and whose mode of existence consists of creative compassion, of eternal becoming, of unceasing increase in light and knowledge–a mode of existence into which he invites us.

It follows that Christianity and, especially, Mormon Christianity, needn’t be the opiate of the masses. On the contrary, at its best it is precisely the red pill we stand in need of, the urim and thummim that gives us eyes to see that the boundaries between heaven and earth, the divine and the human are blurrier than we have been led to believe. We must live in anticipation of the Kingdom, but live as if we were already in it, for in some sense we are. If justice will rush down like waters and there will be no poor among them in that good Kingdom, then there can be no truce between us and the injustice and poverty present in our world. And if the divine life is one of unending experience, growth, and creation, then we ought to prize the experiences, opportunities, and creative activities that present themselves to us in the here and now. Ironically, it may be that recognizing the force of Nietzsche’s critique should push us to be more religious rather than less, to return to the scriptures with new eyes rather than consign them to the flames, to renew our commitments to our religious communities rather than remove ourselves from them.

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