Nietzsche isn’t exactly the kind of guy you expect to show up in a papal encyclical. All the more so does it seem odd to refer to him as a prophet. Nonetheless, recent popes have referred to him somewhat often, using him as a referent for our current social and philosophical situation. In one of his few audiences, John Paul I referred to Nietzsche’s lack of sympathy for the Christian ideal:
Not everyone shares this sympathy of mine for hope. Nietzsche, for example, calls it “the virtue of the weak.” According to him, it makes the Christian a useless, separated, resigned person, extraneous to the progress of the world (Sept. 20, 1978).
It was quite an audience, also referring to Dante, St. Francis de Sales, Augustine and Aquinas on hilaritas, and Andrew Carnegie.
Pope Benedict referred to Nietzsche somewhat frequently, including in his important address to the Curia on Dec. 22, 2008, while commenting on World Youth Day: “This is what makes life joyful and free, uniting people with one another in a joy that cannot be compared to the ecstasy of a rock festival. Friedrich Nietzsche once said: ‘The important thing is not to be able to organize a party but to find people who can enjoy it.’ According to Scripture, joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22).” In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, he situates his treatment of eros in relation to Nietzsche’s rejection of the supposed Christian negation of eros:
According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice. Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely held perception: doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine? (3).
Finally, we see Nietzsche setting up Pope Francis’s first encyclical in similar fashion (though presumably through the influence of Benedict):
The young Nietzsche encouraged his sister Elisabeth to take risks, to tread “new paths… with all the uncertainty of one who must find his own way,” adding that “this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek.” Belief would be incompatible with seeking. From this starting point Nietzsche was to develop his critique of Christianity for diminishing the full meaning of human existence and stripping life of novelty and adventure. Faith would thus be the illusion of light, an illusion which blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.
In these cases, we see Nietzsche acting as an important foil for the popes. He represents a key figure in the modern recasting of Christianity as a force that destroys the greatness of humanity, by succumbing to a false hope, love, and belief.
After this treatment by the magisterium doesn’t it seem all the more odd to refer to Nietzsche as a prophet? Nonetheless, Joe Tremblay has recently pointed toward Nietzsche’s pseudo-prophetic power in speaking of the demise of Christianity. Nietzsche, “prophetic in his own sinister way,” noted that:
Christianity has thus crossed over into a gentle moralism: it is not so much “God, freedom and immortality” that have remained, as benevolence and decency of disposition…. And [when] the belief that in the whole universe benevolence and decency of disposition [should] prevail: it is the euthanasia of Christianity.
Nietzsche’s sinister prophetic power is so powerful precisely because he does not simply forward the routine criticisms of the Church, but rather presciently sees into the own internal weakness of Christians.
Henri Cardinal de Lubac, in The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, notes that Nietzsche saw himself as a prophet, but one centered on tearing down the Christian ideal of man. De Lubac notes that unfortunately “the facts testify that he has succeeded all too well” in his prophetic mission of placing man in the position of the divine. However, de Lubac also points out how Nietzsche genuinely challenges Christians today when he says: “If they want me to believe in their Savior, they’ll have to sing me better hymns! His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!” De Lubac asks if we can really be indignant at this. Maybe we should be indignant toward ourselves for the decline of Christianity!
To these reflections on the prophecy of Nietzsche, I would like to add my own thoughts. “God is dead” and “we have killed him.” Is this a prophetic statement? To evaluate this, let’s first read what Nietzsche wrote in context. The Parable of the Madman comes from Nietzsche’s collections of aphorisms in The Gay Science (beginning at par. 125):
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: 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? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”
First of all, we can recognize the truth of the statement that we killed not, not metaphysically, but morally in our society. Do we live as if God does not exist? Have we created a vacuum within our culture once occupied by God? If God is absent from our decision making, priorities, politics, education, entertainment, etc., it is only because we ourselves have done it. And yet, like Nietzsche’s madman, this reality is only received with a shrug of the shoulders. Nietzsche recognized that those who have killed God are not even worthy of the deed by their own apathy. The killers of God resemble Nietzsche’s last men more than his superman.
What do we do in this spiritual vacuum? The death of God in society can only be resolved by the actual death of God. Nietzsche’s statement is prophetic in a way in which he did not even realize. Having just passed through the holiest days of the year, we recognize that we genuinely have killed God, killed the Incarnate God by our sins. This deed must not be more distant than the stars, as the madman says, but must come home to us. We must own it and accept responsibility for it, in order to overcome the breath of empty space between us and God. Indeed, our society would do well to listen to Nietzsche the prophet that “God is dead” and “we have killed him”!
However, this is not the final word. Nietzsche is dead wrong on the stench of God. We may have killed God, but He has triumphed over death and now lives! We can answer Nietzsche’s madman as well: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk 24:5).
But, however, if Christ is not risen then Nietzsche’s criticisms of the Christian ideal are correct!
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:14).
The Resurrection makes all the difference for us! This is how we need to answer Nietzsche: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mk 12:27); and “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11). Let us live in Christ’s Resurrection as the greatest sign that God is alive in our world, which is also the best prophetic response to Nietzsche’s sinister prophecy about God’s death.