Whatever else Christian theology is, it is an exercise in literary criticism. That is, to be a theologian is to take revelation seriously and taking revelation seriously means understanding that God has revealed himself in the Scriptures. To understand those Scriptures, then, one needs to pay attention to form, to genre, to plot, to figures of speech, and all the rest. And of course knowledge of history and philosophy and archeology among a host of relevant disciplines can and should be brought to bear on interpreting those Scriptures.
This is all a roundabout way of introducing two excellent literary critics: Terry Eagleton and Friedrich Nietzsche. If you haven’t read Eagleton’s article in the most recent Commonweal, go and do that now. What I write here is intended to be a codicil to Eagleton’s piece. * I’ve just finished teaching Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, and as usual, the students were in turn angered, surprised, and bewildered. And that anger, surprise, and bewilderment came from Nietzsche’s interpretations of the Gospels, from, we might say, his literary criticism.
As Eagleton makes clear, Nietzsche is the first real atheist, but it’s worth noting that while Nietzsche hates Christianity, he has a particular fondness for Jesus. Nietzsche’s Jesus is not the Son of God or the Word made flesh. Nietzsche’s Jesus is a dim-witted man who spoke in metaphors that no one ever understood. Yes, Jesus brings glad tidings, but the “‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children; the faith which here finds utterance is not a faith which has been won by struggle – it is there, from the beginning, it is as it were a return to childishness in the spiritual domain.” Jesus is an overgrown child. Like a child, he tells stories to tell how he feels. It’s just that everyone has misunderstood the stories.
The metaphors Jesus used expressed his feelings of oneness and peace. As Nietzsche writes, “If I understand anything of this great symbolist it is that he took for realities, for ‘truths,’ only inner realities – that he understand the rest, everything pertaining to nature, time, space, history, only as signs, as occasions for metaphor.” Jesus lived single-mindedly. He practiced what he preached, but he always preached in metaphors. From the very beginning, Jesus’s “followers” took those metaphors and made them literal. “But it is patently obvious what is alluded to in the symbols ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ – not patently obvious to everyone, I grant: in the word ‘Son’ is expressed the entry into the collective feeling of the transfiguration of all things (blessedness), in the word ‘Father’ this feeling itself, the feeling of perfection and eternity.” Ever the philologist, Nietzsche sees it as his job to disentangle the metaphorical from the literal. When someone asks you or me how we are doing, if we are feeling at peace with the world we might say, “I’m doing well” or “Today is a great day.” When asked the same question, Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” “The ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’” Nietzsche tells us, “is a condition of the heart – not something that ‘comes upon the earth’ or ‘after death.’”
Now, to be clear, I find Nietzsche’s interpretation tendentious in the extreme. But his tendentiousness is the point. And that’s also why I find his reading oddly compelling. My students continued to be bewildered until I pointed them to what Nietzsche says about Christ’s actions. Too often people think of Christianity in terms of holding certain theological propositions and behaving according to a particular moral code. Christian belief, especially among my students, often amounts to a divine 401(k) plan. So long as you contribute enough, a few dips in the market won’t jeopardize your chances of heaven. But for Nietzsche (like Holden Caulfield, whom my students invoked), such a view is an example of bad faith or being a phoney. For Nietzsche, “To reduce being a Christian, Christianness to a holding something to be true, to a mere phenomenality of consciousness, means to negate Christianness. In fact there have been no Christians at all.”
Jesus, according to Nietzsche, wasn’t concerned primarily with the truth. Jesus was concerned about living life in a particular way. “Only Christian practice, a life such as he who died on the Cross lived, is Christian.… Even today such a life is possible, for certain men even necessary: genuine, primitive Christianity will be possible at all times…. Not a belief but a doing, above all a not-doing of many things, a different being.” I told my students about a friend from college who is now a primitive Franciscan in Boston. He and one of his Franciscan brothers went to World Youth Day in Rio. They got there by hitchhiking. I think his life scandalized them more than the idea that God didn’t exist. As I mentioned to my students, too often Christians say they believe in Jesus, not often enough do Christians seem to believe Jesus, to believe that the Kingdom of God is here, to believe in the glad tidings.
When Christians do things for the sake of the afterlife, when they allow suffering because everything will be reconciled in heaven, when they concern themselves more with theological argument than with living in peace with their neighbors, Nietzsche tells us, they are simply not doing what Jesus did. What children do any of those things? They are misunderstanding Jesus’s metaphors, and they are misunderstanding their own motivations.
I look forward to reading Eagleton’s forthcoming book. But in the meantime, I hope some dotCom readers might pick up Nietzsche, if only to find someone who takes Jesus so seriously. Nietzsche’s answer is idiosyncratic. It’s, as I said, tendentious. It ought épater la bourgeoisie. But Nietzsche takes seriously a question that is worth taking seriously: “Who do you say that I am?”
* In writing about Nietzsche, I recognize that I’m going where angels fear to tread. It was Mike Tyson, after all, who told us that in order to understand Nietzsche you need an IQ of 300. And I certainly don’t have that.