Another great interpreter of Nietzsche, because he takes him seriously, is David B. Hart. Hart is still considered by many to be America’s best living theologian. From this essay I have quoted, in length, where he turns to Nietzsche in the fuller discussion of the New Atheism:
“The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.
Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.
Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?
For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).
Perhaps; perhaps not. Where Nietzsche was almost certainly correct, however, was in recognizing that mere formal atheism was not yet the same thing as true unbelief. As he writes in The Gay Science, “Once the Buddha was dead, people displayed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense and dreadful shadow. God is dead: —but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millennia yet where people will display his shadow. And we—we have yet to overcome his shadow!” It may appear that Nietzsche is here referring to “persons of faith”—those poor souls who continue to make their placid, bovine trek to church every week to worship a God who passed away long ago—but that is not his meaning.
[Aside: This is where we live now, still in the shadow of the Christian narrative. Thus, when someone today says, “But I forgive, I’m compassionate, I’m progressive, and I don’t believe in God,” they are merely confirming they still live in that shadow. Since there isn’t a present day example, where a culture lived for centuries believing in no God, spirit, or transcendence, and they are a result of that, they certainly can’t attribute the ethical behavior to their current minority belief whereas the ethical behavior just happens to coincide and match perfectly what they were taught in Sunday School and in the greater culture as a whole—thus they tell us nothing by such arguments. Zero. The point is that such behavior, any behavior, becomes nothing more that events, movement, matter-in-motion, physiological changes put into action, and nothing more without an objective referent. Thus all talk of “better” “progressive” “good” “bad” “evil” “flourish” becomes a zero sum language game that masks power or movement only.]
He is referring principally to those who think they have eluded God simply by ceasing to believe in his existence. For Nietzsche, “scientism”—the belief that the modern scientific method is the only avenue of truth, one capable of providing moral truth or moral meaning—is the worst dogmatism yet, and the most pathetic of all metaphysical nostalgias. And it is, in his view, precisely men like the New Atheists, clinging as they do to those tenuous vestiges of Christian morality that they have absurdly denominated “humanism,” who shelter themselves in caves and venerate shadows. As they do not understand the past, or the nature of the spiritual revolution that has come and now gone for Western humanity, so they cannot begin to understand the peril of the future.
If I were to choose from among the New Atheists a single figure who to my mind epitomizes the spiritual chasm that separates Nietzsche’s unbelief from theirs, I think it would be the philosopher and essayist A. C. Grayling. For a short time I entertained the misguided hope that he might produce an atheist manifesto somewhat richer than the others currently on offer. Unfortunately, all his efforts in that direction suffer from the same defects as those of his fellows: the historical errors, the sententious moralism, the glib sophistry. Their great virtue, however, is that they are mercifully short. One essay of his in particular, called “Religion and Reason,” can be read in a matter of minutes and provides an almost perfect distillation of the whole New Atheist project.
The essay is even, at least momentarily, interesting. Couched at one juncture among its various arguments (all of which are pretty poor), there is something resembling a cogent point. Among the defenses of Christianity an apologist might adduce, says Grayling, would be a purely aesthetic cultural argument: But for Christianity, there would be no Renaissance art—no Annunciations or Madonnas—and would we not all be much the poorer if that were so? But, in fact, no, counters Grayling; we might rather profit from a far greater number of canvasses devoted to the lovely mythical themes of classical antiquity, and only a macabre sensibility could fail to see that “an Aphrodite emerging from the Paphian foam is an infinitely more life-enhancing image than a Deposition from the Cross.” Here Grayling almost achieves a Nietzschean moment of moral clarity.
Ignoring that leaden and almost perfectly ductile phrase “life-enhancing,” I, too—red of blood and rude of health—would have to say I generally prefer the sight of nubile beauty to that of a murdered man’s shattered corpse. The question of whether Grayling might be accused of a certain deficiency of tragic sense can be deferred here. But perhaps he would have done well, in choosing this comparison, to have reflected on the sheer strangeness, and the significance, of the historical and cultural changes that made it possible in the first place for the death of a common man at the hands of a duly appointed legal authority to become the captivating center of an entire civilization’s moral and aesthetic contemplations—and for the deaths of all common men and women perhaps to be invested thereby with a gravity that the ancient order would never have accorded them.
Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.”
The great majority of today’s atheists/agnostics seem to forget that their beliefs have never built anything culturally of any significance, ever, regardless of what they think its done for them as individuals here and there. They certainly have no idea what cataclysmic changes, what truly revolutionary seismic shifts took place when a Jewish wanderer with no money, title, education, family history, or political power was put to death by the powers of that time. In that death all the powers of pagan antiquity, along with their understanding of gods, honor, power, and ethics died instead. Jesus didn’t really die that day—the ancient world did. We now live in the world made possible by that life. But to think that what we now recognize as compassion, forgiveness, flourishing, and love, to be “normal” or “just is” regardless of one’s belief in God is to imagine one’s life entirely apart from culture and history. In other words, it is to do the impossible. It just reveals the thoughts of the unreflective and ignorant—nothing more. It would be like the spoiled rich kid sitting in the family palatial mansion and not caring (or knowing) who paid for it all and thinking everyone lived in such places and had such lives—what’s the big deal.
At least Nietzsche knew what he was walking away from and what that meant.