Sunday, April 25, 2010

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Nietzsche and the New Atheists

Here is a review essay by the brilliant Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its fashionable Enemies. As always, his reviews are fun to read, as any highly critical review by an intelligent, witty, scholarly reviewer who actually knows what he is talking about tends to be.

Believe It or Not | First Things

But the last part is of particular interest to me. Nietzsche, after all, was an atheist one cannot but respect. He understood how Christianity revolutionized human sensibility and morality, and he understood that the ethics of love that Christianity inserted into a brutal pagan world would not long survive the faith that animated it. He did not celebrate the "Death of God," but saw how it was also the death of man. Without facing these realities, atheism seems too cheaply bought, a sentimental, sanctimonious appropriation of Christian ethics without its foundation in the death of God on the cross. Nietzsche's madman in The Gay Science who announces the death of God

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 √úbermensch).

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