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    an illustration of Nietzsche

    Was Nietzsche Right about Christianity?

    Eberhard Arnold says the philosopher who famously proclaimed that "God is dead" recognized false Christians but too quickly gave up the search for true ones.


    May 11, 2023

    Early in November 1909 Eberhard Arnold submitted his application for a doctorate from Erlangen University in Germany. His seventy-nine-page dissertation, Early-Christian and Antichristian Elements in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Development was praised by Professor Fuchs, the Dean of Philosophy, for its “broad outlook, and spiritual maturity.” Eberhard Arnold’s interest in Nietzsche is explained further in this excerpt from the biography Against the Wind.

    At this point in the story, something must be said about Eberhard’s connection with Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s philosophy, language, and thinking continued to concern Eberhard even after he completed his doctorate. In the following years, traces of the great impression made on him by this eccentric and extraordinary thinker surfaced in his thought, speech, and action.

    It is true that Eberhard’s doctoral thesis reveals a great deal about Friedrich Nietzsche’s religious thought. But it reveals equally as much about Eberhard’s inner viewpoint in 1909. In his report Professor Falckenberg had recognized Eberhard’s “keen but not unrestrained appreciation of Nietzsche’s objections and accusations against Christianity.” What was it that Eberhard appreciated in Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism? That can be summarized as follows:

    Eberhard agreed with Nietzsche that “the church’s foundation is built upon the very opposite of the Gospels”; that the church is “a terrible hodgepodge of Greek philosophy and Judaism, of asceticism, of hierarchical order, etc.” Further, he shared Nietzsche’s view that originally Christianity “tolerated no connection with politics and state policies; it cannot in any way be a religion of the masses.”

    an illustration of Nietzsche

    Edvard Munch, Friedrich Nietzsche, chalk stick on cardboard, 1906.

    At times Eberhard’s trenchant analysis of the established churches goes even further than Nietzsche’s criticisms. In the everyday life of the churches of his day Eberhard was hard-pressed to discover any argument to weaken Nietzsche’s objective criticisms of Christianity. To do this he had to go back to “early Christianity, as described in the Acts of the Apostles and in the New Testament epistles.”

    In other words, Eberhard could not and would not in any way defend the “Christianity” that Nietzsche had in mind when he made his sometimes accurate observations and sometimes grossly abusive attacks. Eberhard painted a picture of New Testament Christianity that exposed Nietzsche’s accusations – “decadent,” “life-negating,” “feeble,” “religion of pity,” etc. – as crass and arbitrary misinterpretations. Eberhard’s criticism of this philosopher so well-versed in the Bible was basically as follows: Nietzsche had made it too easy for himself; he recognized false Christians but had too quickly given up the search for true ones. Against his better judgment, Nietzsche had often asserted sheer nonsense, and had finally lost his way completely.

    At times Eberhard’s trenchant analysis of the established churches goes even further than Nietzsche’s criticisms.

    The point of Eberhard’s dissertation is obvious: he had usurped – “pirated” – Nietzsche’s language and thoughts and used them to express spiritual realities. Then, Eberhard had gone on to refute Nietzsche in Nietzsche’s own idiom, using Nietzsche’s own arguments. For Eberhard, Jesus is the “Übermensch,” the “overman” for whom Nietzsche had sought. Jesus is “the redeeming man of great and overcoming love, the creative spirit, the noonday bell that calls for a great decision, the one who sets people’s will free again, who brings the earth back to its true purpose and restores hope to humanity.” Eberhard believed that a life in discipleship of Jesus Christ affirms life in a comprehensive sense – more all-encompassing and complete than Nietzsche had ever dared to consider. For Eberhard, belief in Jesus meant affirmation of life, not at all the yearning for death, as Nietzsche had asserted; affirmation of the body, not self-chastisement or contempt of sexuality; and affirmation of nature and its gifts, not false asceticism.

    For Eberhard, the Gemeinde – the church-community of Jesus’ disciples – is the “extraordinary, new aristocracy,” the “higher type of humanity” that Nietzsche had invoked. Eberhard identified the true Christians as Nietzsche’s “future masters of the earth” because, according to Revelation 20:4–6 and 22:5, at the end of time they will live and reign with Jesus.

    Confronting Nietzsche

    In more ways than one, Friedrich Nietzsche and Eberhard Arnold share strikingly similar characteristics. Both were precocious in the positive sense of the word. Nietzsche was a professor at the age of twenty-four, before he had even completed his studies. Eberhard, at eighteen, was already much sought after as an evangelist and pastoral worker. Each in his own way lived decisively and constantly tried to make clear distinctions and decisions. Their linguistic styles show how close their two temperaments were. Both formulated their thoughts precisely and provocatively and drove every argument to the heart of the matter. Both made frequent use of superlatives: most decisive, totally, utterly, without reservation, superabundance, most outstanding, gigantic. When an inconvenient idea arose, both pursued it to its final consequences. (Nietzsche, however, lost all sense of proportion in doing so.) Both dug deep for the truth. But the resemblance certainly goes no further. Eberhard believed in a divine, all-embracing truth that people cannot attain on their own, a truth that is revealed by God – by the God whom Nietzsche denied and fought against to the point of insanity. Nietzsche can claim the honor of being a unique philosopher and a linguistic genius, as well as a self-proclaimed prophet. Eberhard had only one purpose: to understand and obey Jesus Christ.

    By the conclusion of his university studies, Eberhard’s thinking had taken on a new quality. In his dissertation he had grappled with the great thinkers of his time, whether their positions were good or evil. He set out to prove that faith in Jesus Christ brought convincing answers to the questions of modern humanity. Nietzsche had provoked such questions, as had Rudolf Steiner, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Stefan George, Peter Kropotkin, and in later years the propagators of National Socialism. Before all was said and done, Eberhard would face each of them, one after the other.

    But Nietzsche came first. For an entire decade Eberhard used slogans and illustrations from Nietzsche’s works to draw to his lectures both the critics of the church and the “born-again” Christians. These themes included: “The Bankruptcy of the Religious Systems,” “The New Aristocracy,” “Jesus and the Fight against Moralism,” “The Overman,” “The Will to Power and Submission to God,” “The New Humanity,” “The Modern Antichrist and His Defeat,” “Nietzsche in the Present-Day Struggle,” and finally, in 1920, Eberhard’s lecture “The Descendants of Man and the Coming Order.”

    However much these writings and lectures may have differed in detail, the basic theme remained the same: Jesus Christ surpasses Nietzsche in every respect. Jesus fulfills what Nietzsche could at best only long for. Nietzsche’s ideas were not altogether bad, but Jesus far outclasses them. If a person desires “to set the stamp of eternity on his own life,” to use Nietzsche’s expression, there is no need to wait for an “eternal recurrence.” The best course is to hold to Jesus. Eberhard did not shrink from presenting this message loudly and clearly, even in his doctoral thesis.

    Contributed By MarkusBaum Markus Baum

    Markus Baum is a German journalist and author.

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