Nietzsche is becoming more and more obscure in modern Christian conversations and for this, the Church has paid – and will continue to pay – dearly. Nietzsche taught that there is no such thing as truth that there are only interpretations, and that God is dead. He attacked Christian beliefs as nothing more than attempts to garnish power. More revealing, however, is that there is a philosophic lineage that traces its way from Nietzsche, through the deconstructionists, and into the Emergent movement. Though there are problems with Nietzsche’s thought process, many in the movement have ignored these problems while those outside of the movement have been too apathetic to deal with his impact. Before one can understand and refute the modern day impacts of Nietzsche, however, one must understand what Nietzsche taught.
Nietzsche on truth, knowledge, and God
Nietzsche’s primary view of truth was that truth did not exist, but was merely a construct that developed out of each separate culture. Nietzsche stated, “Philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages…will in all probability look ‘into the world’ differently and be found on different paths from the Indo-Germans and Moslems…” What Nietzsche meant by this was that a person’s language and cultural upbringing would decide how a person viewed a certain matter. For instance, if an ancient Greek and modern American were to discuss love, there would be an extreme misunderstanding according to Nietzsche. The Greek had not experienced the experience of love that Christianity brought while the Christian did not understand the pagan ideal of love. Furthermore, the languages would reflect these differences, with the Greek having multiples words at his disposal to describe love while the American would only have one. According to Nietzsche, this sort of socio-linguistic problem applies across the board for all ideas.
Since culture and language causes a problem in obtaining true knowledge, Nietzsche believed that there was no such thing as truth, only interpretations. In applying this way of thinking to morality, Nietzsche said, “There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena…” There is no morality, only interpretations of morality. The reason for this, as previously noted, is that language causes too great a barrier to pass. Even when one speaks about a concept there is already a loaded idea of what a term means. It is therefore impossible for anyone to have a true meaningful conversation because everyone will have differing ideas on what terms mean. This means that one can only interpret what is seen and cannot make it a fact – to be a fact, one would have to describe what is seen (or understood) in a coherent fashion vis-à-vis language.
Finally, one cannot know the truth or ever come to a proper understanding of the truth because one harbors a purposeful bias in one’s arguments. If a philosopher argues for something, Nietzsche believes that philosopher is only arguing for what he wishes were true, not what is actually true.Under this view, the only thing humans can know is that they are driven by their passions, as Nietzsche points out by saying, “Granted that nothing is ‘given’ as real except our world of desires and passions, that we can rise or sink to no other ‘reality’ than the reality of our drives…” It is human passion, not rationality, that drives human ‘knowledge,’ and such ‘knowledge’ is subject to the changing tastes of culture. Since biased passion is all humans can hope for, no belief is ever absolute and all beliefs – especially in the realm of morals – are subject to change. Monday’s taboo might be Friday’s indulgence. The reason for a constant flux in knowledge is because passions, being irrational, are constantly changing with every situation. A society will determine morality based upon what it feels is right at that moment and will be biased in doing so.
Nietzsche’s entire view rests upon the idea that God is truly dead – ontologically speaking, not epistemologically speaking – for if God is not dead then there is a foundation. If God is able to reveal Himself and what He desires then there truly are basic beliefs, i.e. beliefs that transcend all cultures and languages that apply to every situation regardless of the whims of man. This, therefore, explains why Nietzsche spends so much time attacking God.
Nietzsche first argues that if God does exist, He is simply too weak or unable to reveal Himself in a proper manner. Nietzsche voices his opinion by saying, “The worst thing is: he [God] seems incapable of making himself clearly understood: is he himself vague about what he means?” He is arguing that there is little to no evidence of God’s existence. “If God truly existed,” Nietzsche would ask in the modern day, “why did He allow cultures to deviate from the truth and create their own truth?” To Nietzsche, this would be the greatest sin – and argument against – of God. If God exists then He is took weak or too apathetic to reveal Himself.
Nietzsche removes himself from his hypothetical and moves on to say that God – or at least the word ‘God’ – is a concept created by Christians. In The Antichrist he states, “The concept ‘the Son of Man’ is not a concrete person belonging to history, anything at all individual or unique, but an ‘eternal’ fact, a psychological symbol freed from the time concept.” He even goes on to say that the kingdom of God rests in Christians as something that is everywhere and that is nowhere. When he says such things, he is saying that Christianity is nothing more than what Christians wish were true, or at best Christianity is their interpretation of reality. He even says that if one wants to know oneself, then all one has to do is define one’s god. Christianity fails to hold any substance in his view and becomes completely subjective, an interpretation of a wish.
If God must exist, if one must believe in God, then, Nietzsche argues, it is best to believe in a weak God or to have a religion without God. He lauds Buddhism when he says, ““Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity – it has the heritage of a cool and objective posing or problems in its composition, it arrives after a philosophical movement lasting hundreds of years; the concept ‘God’ is already abolished by the time it arrives.” In Buddhism there is ultimately no god, in fact, there is ultimately nothing. For Nietzsche, the lesser the god in a religion the better the religion was. The reason for this is the less a god interacted with his creation, the less influence there was on human epistemology; Nietzsche got to keep his system of thinking with little to no God. This is why he praises Buddhism’s atheistic spirituality – Buddhism presents a weak force that allows for subjectivity and cultural arguments.
Nietzsche’s teaching on cultural bias was adopted and enhanced by the French postmodern thinker Jean-Francois Lyotard. Lyotard sums up his entire position by stating, ““Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.” What does Lyotard mean by a metanarrative? A grand narrative (metanarrative) is a ‘story’ that sums up the whole of human existence by placing one story that is applicable to all cultures in all times. Lyotard rejected the notion that such a grand narrative exists and basis this on the idea that different cultures hold different views concerning truth. This belief that Lyotard supports – that the amount of diversity in truth claims nullifies a grand narrative – comes from Nietzsche’s views of truth, previously cited.
Another thinker that was influenced by Nietzsche’s thinking was Jacques Derrida and his teaching of deconstruction. Deconstructionism, in short, is constantly deconstructing a person’s view of the world and seeking to rebuild that view and reinvent it based upon new experiences. In fact, John Caputo defines deconstruction as, “our lives, our beliefs, and our practices are not destroyed but forced to reform and reconfigure – which is risky business.”In light of this, Derrida believed that, “Deconstruction is a blessing for religion, its positive salvation, keeping it open to constant reinvention, encouraging religion to reread ancient texts in new ways, to reinvent ancient traditions in new contexts.” Deconstruction allows religious beliefs to fall out of practice, be reinvented, add new styles, add new truths, and in the end still be satisfying to the followers. This idea of constantly evolving and rebuilding one’s views, in Derrida’s opinion, runs back to Nietzsche.
The final postmodern thinker to be discussed, Gianni Vattimo, actually attempts to synthesize Nietzsche’s Nihilism with Christianity and does so by accepting almost all of Nietzsche’s claims about Christianity. For one, Vattimo argues, “Nietzsche’s reasoning is well known: humanity needed the God of metaphysics in order to organize a social existence that was ordered, secure and not continually exposed to the threats of nature – conquered by the construction of a social hierarchy – and of internal drives, tamed by a religiously sanctioned morality.” In other words, Vattimo is teaching that the metaphysical God – the God who knows all, did all, and is sovereign over all – is nothing more than a construct of the human mind, that man invented this idea of God because man desired this type of a God. He is accepting Nietzsche’s view of God as a construct of the human mind.
Vattimo also accepts some of Derrida’s deconstructionism (which is natural, considering the two corresponded with each other), but with a foundation built upon Nietzsche. Vattimo declares, ““…the nihilistic ‘drift’ that hermeneutics reads in the ‘myth’ of the incarnation and crucifixion does not cease with the conclusion of Jesus’ time on earth, but continues with the descent of the Holy Spirit and with the interpretation of this revelation by the community of believers.” Aside from calling the incarnation a myth, Vattimo is arguing that the community determines the truth of such events/myths. This is built on Nietzsche’s idea that society structures truth for individuals and enhanced by Derrida’s view that Christianity must constantly reform its beliefs and doctrines.
Ultimately, Vattimo’s belief is structured entirely on Nietzsche’s view of truth as subjective. Vattimo argues that the world – the concepts, religions, morals, etc – are nothing more than interpretations of what people see. In his Nitzschean way he believes that, “…knowledge of truth is an interpretation, which means that truth is never neutral, but always distinguished in relation to a historical moment, a personality or a particular individual history.” Thus, he takes the final leap into Nietzsche’s camp – though he is a supposed Christian – and says that truth simply relies on the individual.
The Emergent Connection
One ‘Christian’ philosopher that has tried to combine Christianity with Nietzsche, Derrida, Lyotard, and Vattimo is John Caputo. Caputo admits in his book Weakness of God that he is drawing from these philosophers in an attempt to enrich Christianity. His first step, as those before him, is to accept the claim by Nietzsche and Vattimo that the Christian belief in a supreme God is nothing more than a socio-linguistic construct attempting to make a power grab. Caputo even goes so far as to ask “Is not God the dream of power aplenty, of omnitude and plentitude and plenipotentiarity, of exnihilatory and anhiliatory power…Is not the sovereign Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the very model of every earthly patriarchy?” For Caputo, Nietzsche is correct in saying that the idea of a ‘powerful God’ is nothing more than an illusion created and perpetuated by man.
Caputo also goes on to question how Christians can properly understand Scripture. He argues that language and culture obstruct a proper view of the text, much like Nietzsche and Derrida argued. Much like Nietzsche, he teaches that people use loaded terms and preconceived ideas, therefore no one can properly come to truth or to a ‘clean’ understanding of Scripture. The text, therefore, is always open to new interpretations that fit within the society the text finds itself in.
The ultimate conclusion of Caputo’s logic is that God is weak, He is not omnipotent or omnipresent, but extremely limited in His power. He says, “Suppose we say there is at least this much to the death of God: that the God of metaphysical theology is a God well lost and that the task of thinking about God radically otherwise has been inescapably imposed upon us?” Caputo admits that there is no defense of the infallible, all-knowing, all-powerful God, thus it is time for Christian culture to rethink what God is like. For Caputo, this new god (the lower cased ‘g’ is intentional) is so weak that he cannot even influence the physical happenings of the world. The end result of Nietzsche’s application to Christianity – if Christianity is to be kept after accepting Nietzsche – is falling into his desire of having a weak god.
Caputo is not the only Emergent leader accepting this type of theology; across the Atlantic in Ireland Peter Rollins is likewise teaching similar doctrine. He goes down the typical line of saying that everything is just an interpretation; there is no truth. Rollins states that Christians should seek out different interpretations of Christianity and embrace the differences. He goes further and says that all religions are likewise just interpretations, so all religions should embrace their differences instead of trying to convince each other that there is only one proper interpretation.
The final Emergent leader to be discussed is also one of the most well known; Brian McLaren has become a big proponent of both Caputo and Rollins. In the foreword to Caputo’s book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, McLaren admits that he agrees with Caputo that the idea of God should be deconstructed. Likewise, in his foreword to Rollins’ book How (Not) to Speak of God, McLaren says, “I am a raving fan of the book you are holding. I loved reading it. I have already begun widely recommending it.” By offering his support, one of the most prolific writers of the Emergent movement has aligned himself with two thinkers who openly and willingly adopt Nietzschean ideas into their theology.
McLaren, however, does not stop at merely voicing support for such thinking he also embraces it. When talking about how to come to a better understanding of Scripture within the community, McLaren states, “If you are privileged, find people who are not, and listen to their readings of Scripture. Value where their readings differ from yours and from each other, and expect new insight to spring from those differences.” In other words, if a person is rich and wants to understand the Bible he needs to find poorer people to gain from their understanding. McLaren does not advocate looking at the historical background, what the authorial intent, or anything of that nature in order to discover the truth – such an action is considered boring to McLaren – instead, it is best to have the community interpret the passage for the individual.
“The Truth Shall Set You Free”
The biggest flaw in Nietzsche’s argument is that if something is true, it is eternal. Proponents of Nietzsche argue that there might be truth, but if truth does exist mere mortals cannot comprehend it and thus the view of truth changes. This, however, simply is not true when applied to other areas outside of religion and morality. For instance, a water molecule will always be two parts water and one part oxygen, regardless of when it exists or where it exists. Likewise, gravity – though not scientifically deduced and only know through its effects, not what it is in itself – is a universal truth in all cultures. Would Nietzsche or Lyotard argue that in some cultures people could walk off buildings without falling because they deny the idea of gravity in their narrative? Thus, if truth exists in the conceptual world of religion and morality, it is eternal and transcends time and culture.
Secondly, one would almost have to accept Nietzsche’s proposal that biases to exist in thinking, but one would have to prove that the biases are false or that it is a negative to have biases. Just because one is biased in thinking does not mean one cannot ascertain truth. If one is biased against genocide and seeks to prevent genocide, is that person merely acting on a faulty bias and trying to impose his will on others? Before the argument of bias or cultural influence can really matter in discussing truth, one would have to show why such biases are wrong to begin with.
The biggest problem in embracing Nietzsche’s thought and applying it to Christianity is that Nietzsche accepted the same epistemic methodology that the Enlightenment thinkers did, namely that man is the beginning of all knowledge, not God. The postmoderns, just like the moderns, begin with the “I” as the center of thinking. True epistemology, however, must begin with God as the center of all knowledge, meaning epistemology must precede metaphysics, not proceed it. By removing God from the beginning of knowledge, the postmoderns have made man’s fallible reasoning the absolute standard of reasoning, just like the moderns did.
With God as the center of thinking, it is hardly inconceivable – in fact, it is most plausible – that He can transcend all time, language, and culture when speaking with His creation. As D.A. Carson adequately points out, “An omniscient, talking God changes everything. It does not change the fact that I will always be finite and that my knowledge of him and about him will always be partial. But once I know that he exists, that he is the Creator and my Savior and Judge, it is improper, even idolatrous, to try to think of my knowing things without reference to him. All of my knowledge, if it is true knowledge, is necessarily a subset of his” In other words, though man will always be finite, God will always be above that finiteness and bringing man to a point of understanding. If God is all powerful, then it only makes sense that He would in some way communicate this universally to His creation, as Romans 1 claims.
The final problem with adopting Nietzsche into Christianity is that it destroys any idea of hope and the proper purpose of Christianity. If Caputo is right in deconstructing God and accepting Nietzsche’s paradigm for a ‘weak god,’ then there is no longer any purpose in prayer or in trusting in the Lord. Why trust in someone that is weak? Why trust in someone that doesn’t know the future? When humans place their trust in humans they are usually disappointed, mainly because humans do not have the capacity to know the future, thus they can be wrong and mislead people on what they think might happen. Suddenly, with Caputo, God falls into the same category as someone who, ultimately, cannot be trusted because He does not know or even control the future. Where is the hope in such thinking? The short answer is that there is none – Christianity, under Caputo’s synthesis – turns into nothing more than an atheistic faith wishing there was a God.
Nietzsche’s view of truth and God has infiltrated Christianity and thus it is the proper time to begin studying Nietzsche’s thoughts. He taught that truth was subjective to the culture and language it found itself in and that ultimately there was no such thing as truth, only interpretations. He also believed that if God had to exist, He would have to be a weak God, unable to reveal Himself properly. Lyotard, Derrida, and Vattimo ran with Nietzsche’s idea and taught that all cultures created their own versions of truth and were evolving in their understanding of truth. Caputo synthesized this thinking with Christianity, teaching that God is weak and man can know no truth – even Christianity is just a cultural narrative. Finally, McLaren has begun to make this view popular by writing about it and in support of it and distributing such thinking to multitudes of churches. This view is dangerous in its removal of hope from Christianity and must be stopped. There is truth, that truth transcends all cultures, and there a very powerful God who is there and is not silent about His existence.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 50.
 Ibid. 96
 Ibid. 47
 Ibid. 36
 Ibid. 66
 Ibid. 102
 Ibid. 80
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 158.
 Ibid. 159
 Ibid. 170
 Ibid. 141
 Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff and Massumi Benington, Brian (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
 The Bible, with its view of universal fall, sin, and the universal need for forgiveness would fall into the ‘metanarrative’ category.
 John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 27.
 Derrida, Jacques, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, ed. John Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 159.
 Ibid. 159
 Vattimo, Gianni, Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy, trans. David Webb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 7.
 Ibid. 35
 Ibid. 28
 Ibid. 35
 John Caputo, Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 7.
 What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 32
 Weakness of God, 32
 What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 40
 Ibid. 47
 Weakness of God, 23
 Ibid. preface
 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006), 11.
 Ibid. 17
 Weakness of God, 11
 How (Not), vii
 Brian and Campolo McLaren, Tony, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Youth Specialties, 2003), 80.
 Ibid. 71
 D.A Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 94-95.
 Ibid. 122
 Carson, 123