Saint Nietzsche: The Last True Atheist

There have been few men as great as the late Friedrich Nietzsche, and the longer he is gone, the more that I miss him. He was great in the same way a hurricane is great, or the Cambodian Genocide was great; he is great in that he lashed out viciously and consistently. No man, method, or morality was spared his worldview.

For that, Christianity owes this pillar of Atheism a great debt—perhaps one that cannot truly be repaid. For in a world of lukewarm ideals and smarmy podcasts built around cute little quips, Friedrich Nietzsche glows like a white-hot iron—and should that iron be heated by the very fires of Hell, at least it glows. When placed before God, there will be no question where Nietzsche stood, and that is more than can be said for many folks. Nietzsche may have descended into the very gut of the Inferno, but he never descended as low as modern intellectualism. At the Judgment Seat, there will be at least one man that God need not worry about being lukewarm.

Many have died dull deaths with dull ideas—whether because they are easy, or fashionable, or simple. Nietzsche was not one of them.

Nietzsche brings to the philosophical table a rare consistent idea (and it is wonderful that this atheist/academic is willing to approach the table at all). His argument is as smooth as glass and as round as a perfect sphere. This is notable for two reasons: (1) he is willing to talk about Truth as something that actually exists and (2) he is unswerving in applying his ideas to the cosmos around him. You can take Nietzsche worldview and philosophical ideas and spin them, flip them on their head, twist and kick and roll them, and they will always be the same, with the same logical application. It would do every Christian a favor (and every person who holds even the slightest concept of a Higher Power) to familiarize themselves with some of Nietzsche more well-known works. It will either destroy your faith or make it unshakeable, but either way, it will allow you to hear an honest man speaking honestly.

When Nietzsche said that religion is a means of the weak enslaving the strong to stop their own torment, he really meant it. Therefore, if you were strong, you should not allow the weak to enslave you with their petty morality. When Nietzsche said that there is no God watching over our lives, and that the best thing that humanity could do for itself was to have every creature be as strong and vibrant and powerful as it could be (which is the basis for Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), he really meant that man should be overpowering other men; after all, it would make humanity better. There was no room for limp-wristed justifications of “love your neighbor as yourself” after God was dead. Why should there be? It would make as much sense for an anarchist to say that all government is evil, but that we should keep an active military and police force; either the anarchist isn’t really an anarchist, or he is a coward, afraid of what his ideals will bring. If God is dead, there is no reason to keep the world dressed in His clothes.

Furthermore, Nietzsche ideas have been more or less applied in certain circumstances throughout history. When a rabid, National Socialist Germany held up the banner of the Übermensch[1] in the days preceding World War II, they were adopting Nietzsche’s idea’s, although they were grossly misapplied; after all, every man can be a Superman—he only need to be stronger than his neighbor. And why not? There is no God, there is no Judgment. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we disappear.

Of course, man does not do this. Even Nietzsche himself expressed repeated frustration with his inability to shed the shackles of his socially and religiously imposed conscience. But where Nietzsche was unique is that he did not stop trying. Modern atheism condemns religion for being a vehicle for men to do evil to other men (a claim that is not without credibility), but they allow evil, which means there is some good, which means there is some ideal that humanity is subject to, and has always been subject to, which means something established that ideal—at the very least, it exists outside of men and culture. It is always amusing to hear Christianity condemned for being so unlike Christ—as this is the silver bullet that will slay the concept of a divine Being. Look at all these people who believe in God—they don’t act like there’s a God, there must not be a God. Anger with God is understandable, but trying to keep the Second Commandment (“love your neighbor”) while discarding the First (“love your God”) is trying to hold up the roof without the walls.

Nietzsche understood this—if anything, he praised those who would abuse religion for being scheming and cunning. Where the chic intellectualism of our day would damn the Church for their abuse of power, Nietzsche would praise it, if only because it was clever enough to impose itself on the rest of the weak little lambs seeking shelter from the hawks. Nietzsche viewed religious authority as one hawk would view another—with the respect that comes from competition. After all, if he was anything, he was consistent. Honest, vicious, possibly insane, almost certainly evil (if not extremely misguided), and consistent. Why does it matter if people are “evil”? It doesn’t. If there is no Truth, than any social or religious institution that would restrict a man from being a Superman should be ignored.

The only problem with Nietzsche is that he is wrong. When he made his worldview, he shaped it into his image, with his knowledge, and while it is consistent, as with any created thing that is perfectly consistent, it is small-minded. Nietzsche was a man so focused on his crystal ball he couldn’t see the crystal sky above him or the crystal sea around him. He committed intellectual blasphemy, and should be regarded as such.

But the next time you get wrapped up in a debate where you are challenged that your faith in Christ is a vehicle for weakness and evil, think back upon Saint Nietzsche—the last true Atheist—and realize that there may have been bad Christians, but there is little more terrifying than a good Atheist.

[1] Over-man, or Superman

Let’s Club ‘Em Into Heaven: Fighting with Grace

Rich Mullins tells a story about an argument he got into with a friend who happened to be an atheist. He explains how he attacked and attacked, constantly on the offensive, swatting away rejections and counterpoints, until he at last had his adversary logically cornered. He thought to himself, “Surely now he will see the validity of the Christian faith.” Instead, backed into that corner and with no remaining defense, his friend spat back at him, “I don’t want your God.”

And so it goes. Humankind is wont to argue, as certainly as sparks fly upward, and even more so amongst topics that are fundamental to a person’s self-conception. If people will come to blows over a sports team or a political party, imagine how abrasive an argument can get amongst those issues with which we define ourselves. We kick and fight and scratch over petty trifles and disagreements—we go to war over the big things. And why not? After all, we are logical human beings, ingratiated with that peculiar power of reason. All one has to do is talk clear enough, loud enough, and long enough, and the opposing party will come to realize their ignorance, and immediately repent of their foolish ways.

Unfortunately, men will often wield this power like a club, when it should be used like a scalpel. Instead of thinking about other’s viewpoints as a cancer—or if nothing else, unhealthy and unbecoming—we often do the exact opposite: we view the other person as an embodiment of their views. We do not think of them as sick people, but as sickness itself. Instead of prodding in with a razor’s edge out of a love of the individual, we go swinging in with our blunt cudgel and try to wail the other person into submission.

The best teachers in history went back even a step farther; instead of straightaway cutting in with a razor, they performed assessments to discern what was causing the symptoms. They were thoughtful, and deliberate and asked questions—as opposed to those foolish and dangerous debaters that ranted and raved in the town square. Plato, Aristotle, and Jesus would prod and nudge and question until the individual came to realize the truth for itself; they were agents of truth, sent to direct man’s gaze upward. Meanwhile, modern man seeks to bludgeon his neighbor into near unconsciousness, and when he is dazed and subdued, grab his head and force him to look into the sun.

Friedrich Nietzsche was this sort of man, as are a good number of Creationists, atheists, politicians, and others who are in the business of argumentation and debate; it is a fallen human trait that runs through all of us and manifests itself amongst the more significant controversies. This isn’t a judgment on any individual, for all man falls prey to this at least once in a while. Even the most deliberate thinker can lose his temper and reach for the dull club of argumentative reason. However, when resorting to this tactic, one is missing the heart of the whole issue. They use a Louisville Slugger when the illness calls for a CAT scan and the kind steel of a surgeon’s tools.

There is no clearer manifestation of this than in issues of faith. There are certain men who have taken upon themselves a crusade to disband and tear at organized religion. It transcends mere disagreement and dialogue; instead, it borders on jihadism, targeting even vague conceptions of God. In response to this, the modern religious community—for this example, the Christian church—has raised up a small army of warriors and given them the title of “apologist.” They instructed them in the ancient art of healing and persuasion, in the manner of Socrates and Yeshua, and they set them forth to exhort and strengthen the Body of Christ. In some manner, this call is extended to every member of the church. We are called by Peter to have a defense for our faith; so we turn to our sergeants-in-arms—Lewis, Descartes, Augustine—and we march out to meet the endless hordes assembled outside the walls of the church.

Most fulfill their obligations well. They reach in with their tools and prod and poke and “demolish every argument and pretension that sets itself against the knowledge of God.”[1] They deal with their brothers and sisters with gentleness and respect, fighting with grace. As a result, they never make the news, never become famous, and through all things, seek to love their neighbor, because Christ first loved them. They are the kind souls that lay down their arms and their pride in lieu of peace and compassion.

However, like any human being, many others fall prey to the sin of wielding the club too readily. Instead of viewing their opponents as patients, or even misguided foes, they personify them as their intellectual views, and in doing so, beat men to death under the guise of trying to save their lives. They attempt to drag their opposition, gnashing and wailing, through the Pearly Gates. Failing that, they resort to throwing mud and trash; if they can’t win, neither can their opponents.

This should not be; never should a Christian enter an argument for the sole purpose of winning— what good will this do? How will Christ be glorified if we attack our enemies with the same viciousness and neglect that they attack us? Was any man ever reasoned or argued into Heaven? Was the Cross lifted up over Jerusalem so that men could come and debate with the blood-stained Christ?

We argue where we should love. We fight where we should extend an olive branch. This doesn’t give a license for weakness, for it requires a special kind of strength to restrain oneself when besieged on all sides; passive aggressive statement such as, “I’m not going to respond to that” have no place in the Christian’s dialogue with those outside the faith. But always remember the foundation of our faith—Jesus Christ. I was not saved because I was logically dragged into the temple courts and thrown before the Messiah; I was saved because the Messiah loved me. This love is the only thing that can save anyone.

[1] 2 Corinthians 10:5

In Defense Of The Pope

I am a Protestant.  Not only a Protestant, but an evangelical.  And not only an evangelical, but a Calvinist.  In short, I have no love for the Papacy.  I do not believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nor is he in any meaningful sense the successor of the Apostle Peter.  When it comes to Christian doctrine, especially the gospel, the Papacy obscures rather than illuminating the truth of Scripture.

Having established my Reformation bona fides, however, I do believe the Pope serves a different kind of role in modern Western culture, an important role that he is uniquely suited for.

Due to all the papal fervor in the news after Benedict XVI’s resignation I started reading one of his many books, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.  In it, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully lays out a cultural and philosophical critique of the Enlightenment and her children, modernity and secularism.  He makes a persuasive case for Christianity as both a philosophical grounding for science and ethics and a cultural powerhouse, enabling creativity and promoting a freedom that is not self-destructive.

This is the sort of apologetics that many Christians, especially evangelicals, are becoming accustomed to.  Events and programs geared toward “defending the faith” are on the rise, spearheaded by institutions such as Biola.  The difficulty that such programs are encountering today is that fewer people are listening.  Increasingly people inhabit niche entertainment bubbles that are difficult to break through.  Between Netflix and RSS feeds, daily media consumption is made to order.  Major news outlets such as the New York Times or NBC, which still have some residual power to cut into these bubbles, are not likely to cover the latest William Lane Craig debate.  And yet one thing these same outlets cannot seem to get enough of is the Roman Catholic church.  This isn’t surprising.  Left leaning news organizations love to hate Christianity, and Catholics provide the easiest target.  The Catholic church is the largest and most visible single organization that claims to represent Christianity.  Moreover they are monolithic, such that a reporter can reasonably expect to get “the Catholic answer” to some question.  In contrast, you can speak to 100 different Protestant pastors and reasonably expect 100 different answers.

In short, the unique standing of Roman Catholicism on the world stage provides its leader, the Pope, with a unique platform;  the true bully pulpit.

Again, I would not actively promote Catholic dogma, but when the Pope is addressing the entire world, especially non-Christians, he tends to speak more broadly and philosophically, and not dogmatically.  In Crisis of Cultures, Ratzinger does not address at length the bodily assumption of Mary, as that would be counter productive.  He instead focuses on the common heritage of the West against modern secularism and Islam, which includes some ancient Greek and Roman thought as well as “Judeo-Christianity.”

And this is what I have in mind for the Pope’s unique role.  Rather than the actual head of the Christian church, which he is not, I view the Pope as a kind of figurehead of Western civilization.  The bar for this position is set decidedly lower than for the head of the church.  Just as I don’t worry too much about the specific doctrinal beliefs of the US President, It doesn’t matter much whether the “Head of Western Civilization” is a Calvinist or Arminian, Paedobaptist or Credobaptist.  Basically, he only needs to be a Trinitarian and a Platonist (to some extent) in the vein of Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis.  Even the Trinity is not strictly necessary, since the broader Western tradition includes Jews and some of the ancients as well as Christians, but I would argue that it was Christianity specifically that produced the art, science and political thought of the modern Western world.  Popes also tend to have the benefits of first rate intellects and educations, else they aren’t likely to be elevated to such high positions.

All of this, then, gives us a man who has a solid grounding in the best philosophical aspects of the Western heritage, combined with social and moral teachings that all traditional Christians and Jews agree with, and he has the largest and most visible platform of any public figure in the world.  There are obvious drawbacks to a monolithic organization like the Catholic church, as the recent sex abuse scandals make clear.  Such problems can be overcome, however, and the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope does not rest on any supposed claim to perfection.  Instead, this authority rests upon the power and persuasiveness of the ideas to which the Pope appeals and seeks to defend.  The ideas of the West.

Thus, when we consider the cultural battle lines being drawn between the heritage of the West and the forces of postmodern secularism, atheism, radical feminism, etc, I think evangelicals can recognize the important role of the Pope on a cultural and sometimes political level without giving into the error of trying to erase all doctrinal distinctinves (or pretending that they do not matter), undoing the important work of the Reformation.  We can join hapily in the public square with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion, just as we would with Orthodox Jews or Muslims, without pretending that we are all one church with an identical gospel.  And we do so recognizing that the Pope provides us all with a powerful voice;  one that Western culture desperately needs.

“Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy

On Tuesday, Dennis Prager made a comment on his radio program that without dogma (specifically religious dogma) there can be no rational argument against selfishness and cruelty.

A young man called into the program, describing himself as a Libertarian and an agnostic, to say that you don’t need dogma to be moral.  “I never said that”, responded Prager.  He then asked the young man a simple question, “What would you say to a rich slave owner?”  The young man answered that it causes him intense discomfort to see other human beings suffering.  Prager responded that it doesn’t cause the slaver owner any discomfort.  Continue reading “Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy

Atheist Bible Studies

First, a particularly helpful post from Doug Wilson, wherein he explains why most Christians don’t read their Bibles, even though they think they do, and why they really need to:

Proper Bible study must always be preceded by thorough reading. Most mistakes in interpretation are caused because the context of the passage is neglected. In most cases, the context is neglected because it is not read.  Often new Christians are introduced to certain “narrow” types of Bible study (memorization, Bible study guides, etc) without having any idea of what the Bible as a whole is all about. This causes several problems. First, someone could “study” the Bible for years in this fashion without ever really learning. Secondly, this ignorance is seldom dealt with because it is hidden behind an impressive array of Bible quotes. When a Christian quotes a passage out of Hosea from memory, it rarely occurs to others to wonder if he has ever read Hosea. If he hasn’t (as is frequently the case), he cannot know the context of the passage he quotes. This is because he learned it off a little white card and the card has no context. Continue reading Atheist Bible Studies

Creationism and Church Attendance

It turns out that Young Earth Creationists are still around, at least according to some Christianity Today figures. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, really, since many churches still teach Young Earth theories over and against the multitude of scientists who would say such beliefs are utter nonsense. Continue reading Creationism and Church Attendance

Against All Gods: An Open Invitation to ‘The New Atheism’

Anyone seeking a witticized slam of ‘The New Atheism’ should stay away from Against All Gods.  The new release by Dr. Phillip Johnson and Dr. John Mark Reynolds refuses to wade into mind-numbingly circular surface arguments with writers of the new atheism. Instead, Johnson and Reynolds focus on “breaking down…communication barriers” between the new atheists and those of religious faith, particularly within the university.

Johnson and Reynolds are not setting out to grind new atheism into dust, but to establish space for rigorous, candid conversation. Johnson writes:

We will make certain critical points about what the atheists are writing. However, our desire is not to shut down the discussion with a resounding rebuttal but rather to encourage careful examination of the issues both inside the university classroom and outside. We believe that the truth can only benefit from…uninhibited discussion… For this reason we welcome the surge that the new atheism represents…

Both Reynolds and Johnson are clear that they ‘welcome’ the new atheism for one main reason: they ask the right questions. Despite “ill-founded” conclusions, declarations such as ‘God does not exist’ or “humans are primates, [and their] mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes” necessarily raise important questions. Does God exist? Are humans more than animals with physiological capacities? The 21st century Western world, chock full of superficial distractions, can only benefit from reminders that these questions exist and should be taken seriously.

The new atheism, which depends upon ‘scientific naturalism’, asserts that science—Darwinism in particular—is both absolutely indubitable and absolutely atheistic. Because of the sharp division between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’, the new atheists conclude that religion is an anti-scholastic delusion, and religious studies don’t belong in general education curricula.

In the first half of Against All Gods, Johnson focuses on responding to this dichotomy of faith and reason. New atheists like Steven Pinker define faith as a “euphemism for religious belief and as meaning believing something (such as that God exists) without good reasons to do so.” Johnson rejects this equating of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ and offers his own definition of faith as “retaining confidence in what you have good reason to believe when you are in danger of being confused and losing your bearings.” Faith is the grounding for reason, Johnson writes, not the lack of it.

Johnson’s next point naturally rises from his re-definition: every individual has a faith. New atheists’ faith in science is as much faith as religious faith. What’s more, Johnson presses, faith in science is less reasonable than religious faith, as it cannot satisfy certain physical phenomena (e.g. ‘Where did the first cell come from?’) as adequately as religious, metaphysical hypotheses.

Perhaps Johnson presses the topic a little too far in this section when he equates ‘religion’ with ‘metaphysics’. There are intelligent Christian philosophers, such as non-reductive physicalists, who avoid being metaphysical reductionists. Still, the meat of Johnson’s point remains: religious alternatives are as-or-more reasonable than Darwinism, especially Darwinism as interpreted by scientific naturalism. The case is not closed, Johnson says to the atheists, so stop trying to shut the door.

The finals chapters, written by Dr. John Mark Reynolds, are largely a response to the new atheists’ conclusion that religious studies, particularly in the university, are delusional and anti-scholastic. Reynolds begins at the source—traditional texts. He does not object to the new atheists disliking, or even loathing the Bible, but Reynolds does take issue with poor reading of Biblical texts, especially because the resulting misunderstandings destroy open communication.

In his chapter “The Obstacle of Old Books,” Reynolds connects how new atheists are reading Scripture to their hasty conclusions about Christianity. After outlining what I would term a useful and enlightening ‘idiot’s guide to hermeneutics’, Reynolds contends that new atheists refuse—or don’t know how—to employ the basic guidelines of charitable reading. For example, when atheist scholars (Dawkins in particular) ignore historical information like early Israel’s tribal and warlike world, it leads to unfair judgments about the brutality seen in the Old Testament.

Poor readers refuse to imagine the world of a text, and so close themselves off to the mere possibility of its truth. “Imagination,” Reynolds writes, “is a wonderful tool that allows me to consider the possibility that any religious, philosophical or scientific idea might be true.”

According to Reynolds, such critical consideration is based in wonder, not cynical, unrestrained doubt, and as such, it has every place in the university. Whereas unleashed cycnicism paralyzes academic discovery, belief in truth grants motivation and purpose to intellectual study.

Religion, says Reynolds, sustains the university. Learning is a journey that includes discovery of truth and cultivation of virtue via personal and artistic mentors. Without religion, education becomes vacuous intellectual hedonism. Contrary to what new atheists say, education is not “constricted” by exposure to religion; it is fueled by it. Reynolds concludes Against All Gods with a historical defense of orthodoxy in light of this assertion: new atheists claim that, historically, religion has been the oppressor of academic pursuits, but Reynolds argues that it has been the impetus of intellectual progress.

The existence of Johnson and Reynolds’s book demonstrates Reynolds’s final point. It is a piece of well-crafted analysis filled with sound arguments that sticks its foot in the door new atheism is trying to slam shut. This dialogue is far from over, Johnson and Reynolds protest. New atheism and religion have much to discuss, and both sides have every reason to embrace the conversation and see where it leads. ‘

What’s So Great About Christianity?

Atheists have it far too easy.  While Christians usually know what they believe, they don’t always know why they believe it.  This leaves the market wide open for the success of provocative books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith. Books like these sell well when no one challenges them, and then sell ever better when Christians challenge them poorly.

In What’s so Great about Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza tries to answer these and other popular secular works with an accurate and objective description of Christianity, its history, its role in Western culture, and its relevance to modern readers.  His book isn’t perfect – one simply cannot do all this well in only three hundred pages – but it is nonetheless a useful tool for both Christians and secularists.

D’Souza, a former White House domestic policy analyst and author of five New York Times bestsellers, presents a detailed and easy-to-read description of the ways in which Christianity has been and will continue to be integral to the development of the West.  He aims to describe Christianity in a way that is accessible to even the most secular audience, and he largely succeeds.  His descriptions of Christian traditions and beliefs are easily accessible and mostly accurate.  He doesn’t take Christianity for granted, but tries to examine its claims objectively.  If atheists don’t feel like they’ve been treated fairly when they read this book, they can’t blame D’Souza.

D’Souza’s work is useful not only for curious atheists but also for Christians who want to brush up on their apologetics skills.  Of particularly interest are the sections in which he debunks popular historical myths that cast Christianity in a negative light.

D’Souza offers a very hopeful view of the future of Christianity, arguing that secularism is quickly waning, and that Christianity will eventually enjoy a wide-spread societal triumph. The United States, he argues, is at the forefront of modernity, and should thus be the most secular nation in the Western world.  Instead, he says, it is the most religious Western nation, and traditional churches are growing as liberal denominations shrink.  Since Europe generally mimics the US over time, even the most secular European nations will eventually follow our lead.  While not everyone will agree with the details of his optimistic analysis, he is right to assert that the Church will never die out.

The book, as I said, is not perfect.  It is only a little over three hundred pages long, so it is understandably simplistic in parts and all-to-brief in others.  This is inevitable; however, it is regrettable that the author did not take more time to explain certain points of view that differ from his own.  This is particularly true in the science sections of the book, where his own pro-evolution views dominate the discussion more than in any other place in the text.  The Church is a big place, and Christians are a varied lot.  We disagree with each other on many issues, and science is no exception.  D’Souza is entitled to his own views, but in this book there is some danger that readers will mistakenly think his views represent those of the Church at large.

While no one book (besides the Bible!) can adequately bridge the gap between Christians and atheists, D’Souza’s book is a useful starting place for productive dialogue – the sort of dialogue in which neither side has it too easy. ‘