Mugged by Nietzsche
Religion | A college student of the 1960s looks back—embarrassingly—at his fascination with the philosopher
by John R. Erickson
Posted 10/24/15, 09:01 am
I was raised in a small farming community in the Texas Panhandle during the 1950s. At the age of 17, I had seen Paris, Texas, and had read about Paris, France, but I had never heard of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Ours was a devout, church-going, King James Bible Southern Baptist home, and I followed the course that good Baptist children were expected to follow. But I had a curious mind, and during my senior year in high school I began reading about Darwin, Freud, French poets, and segregation in the South.
When I inquired about evolution and racial injustice, the answer seemed to be that good Baptists didn’t ask those questions. That didn’t satisfy me. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States should have prepared an intelligent rebuttal to Darwinism, and should have arrived at a clear position on segregation, but they hadn’t done it. Or so it seemed to me in my wisdom at the age of 17.
Actually, the Baptists and other conservative denominations had done battle with the evolutionists in the 1920s, and their response had been to separate from “modernism” and to defend the fundamentals of the faith against radical changes, giving rise to the term “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalists turned inward, looked for guidance in the Scriptures, focused on personal salvation, and made few attempts to engage the wider culture.
That might have solved the problem for pastors and church leaders, but it didn’t solve mine. To me and a number of other young people who were coming of age in the early 1960s, it appeared that Christians were talking only to themselves, and were sending their children off to college poorly prepared to defend their faith against students and professors who considered the Bible a book of fairy tales.
Off we went, like rabbits hopping toward a canyon bristling with hungry coyotes. I attended the University of Texas and took a degree in liberal arts. At UT, the liberal arts were very liberal. Today, parents of college students have to pay $20,000 to $50,000 a year to get their kids hosed down with secular ideologies. In the ’60s, UT offered the same service for only $50 a semester, plus a student activities fee if you wanted to attend Longhorn football games.
The Texas legislature might have thought the faculty were presenting a balanced view of human knowledge, but most of my professors didn’t bother to hide their scorn for anyone who “needed the crutch of religion.” Neither of my parents attended college, so they didn’t feel qualified to question the motives or judgment of anyone with a doctorate. Neither did I.
I seldom went to church while I was at UT, but I remained a “seeker.” When given the opportunity to attend a prominent divinity school (Harvard) on a fellowship from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, I moved to Cambridge, Mass., and gave serious thought to going into the ministry.
Actually, giving “serious thought” to anything but the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam was almost impossible at that time. The campus had been swept up in the rebellion of the ’60s, and for many of us in the divinity school, social issues became the only moral absolutes in a world turned upside down.
In the spring of 1968, I took a course in theology under a respected member of the faculty. At the end of the semester, he asked us to choose a theologian or philosopher and write a critical essay on his view of Christianity. I chose Friedrich Nietzsche because I admired his writing style. He wrote beautiful, lucid prose.
My scuffles with other German thinkers had not turned out well. Some of the darkest hours of my university experience had come when I was hunched over a tome by Hegel, Kant, or Schleiermacher, twisting a strand of hair, grinding my teeth, and muttering, “What are you talking about?”
I was not well suited to the discipline of philosophy. I had an artistic temperament and so did Nietzsche, and somehow this allowed me to ignore that much of what he wrote was loathsome. Oh, I knew he was a vociferous atheist and an enemy of the Christian faith, but I rather enjoyed watching him throw jabs in the face of flabby bourgeois Christianity. I figured it might be fun to spar a few rounds with him in my term paper.
I didn’t expect to get mugged, but that’s how it turned out. I submitted my essay and made an appointment with the professor to discuss it. I told the professor, “Nietzsche won. I couldn’t answer his arguments.”
When you make such a statement to a prominent theologian, in an institution that claims to be Christian, you should expect thunderous response. I had come to the meeting prepared to receive a verbal lashing.
There was no lashing, no thunder or lightning, no outrage, no suggestion that I had missed the whole point of the assignment. Instead, the professor gave me a reading list and sent me on my way with an A-minus. Apparently he admired my skill at covering intellectual emptiness with clever prose.
Today, when I look back on my fascination with Nietzsche, I’m embarrassed. I would rather not remember that for a while I swooned over the writings of a pagan thinker. But I wasn’t alone. Students of my generation were in a rebellious mood, and prone to listen to anyone who flagged the outrages of Christian armies, tyrants, popes, inquisitors, and executioners.
At the same time, we had gone blind to the riches we had inherited from Christian civilization. A short list would include freedom of the individual, linear history, the value and dignity of human life, romantic love, limited government, the protection of children, and rights for women. Science developed in the Christian West and so did the idea of universal education.
We often invoked the just war doctrine in our protest documents but gave little thought to where it originated: Augustine of Hippo, a church bishop. Before his time, even educated, enlightened human beings accepted the view that a war should be unlimited slaughter and looting, and the enslavement of the able-bodied. The just war doctrine brought an entirely new way of viewing warfare, and it was a Christian idea.
So was the anti-slavery movement, which laid the foundation for the American civil rights movement of the ’60s. Before Christians in England and America raised their voices, slavery had been accepted as good and normal in virtually every country on earth, including those in Africa.
As students, we took all of this for granted, like oxygen in a lecture hall, and heaped harsh judgment on the Christian West, but rarely wondered, “Compared to what?” The “what” was always some form of utopian ideal.
But utopian ideals had not done so well either. In the 20th century, secular utopian idealists presided over the extermination of 100 million people, all killed for “a higher good.” History had never produced a more efficient set of butchers. In my term paper, I missed that detail.
I also overlooked that Nietzsche’s godless worldview did not account for the wonders of creation, the absolute miracles that occur in front of us every minute of every day—that eyes can see, that ears can hear, that birds fly south in the fall, that ugly caterpillars transform themselves into butterflies, that humans composed of trillions of individual cells can walk upright on two legs, read books, fall in love, and write poetry, and that sometime around A.D. 1800, two microscopic, mute, blind, deaf cells converged and became the man who delivered the Gettysburg Address.
Nietzsche’s philosophy couldn’t explain how or why any of this occurred—indeed, why anything has ever occurred. Without a design and a designer, nothing should have happened. The universe should be filled with inert particles that have no reason to move or combine or do anything. We should have nothingness doing nothing.
Nor did Nietzsche give satisfactory answers to the most important questions a human being can ask: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing on this earth? What becomes of me when I die? Nietzsche might have thought those were insipid questions, but human beings continue to ask them, and they continue to yearn for answers. I could have mentioned that in my term paper, but didn’t.
Obviously I was a dilettante, but what about my professor? He had a doctorate from Yale Divinity School and was being paid to guide the unenlightened. If he had an answer to Nietzsche, why didn’t he share it with me?
He gave me a reading list, but it didn’t mention any books by Francis Schaeffer or John Warwick Montgomery, both of whom were writing solid defenses of orthodox Christianity. Any well-read, alert Christian scholar should have known their work.
He should have demanded that I read C.S. Lewis, but Lewis was not on the list either. If Nietzsche was a giant, so was Lewis. After spending his youth in the embrace of the fashionable atheism of his day, Lewis emerged with a clear, resounding defense of the Christian faith.
And he wasn’t a mumbling German. Lewis wrote strong, vivid prose that any dilettante could admire. He even had a sense of humor. Best of all, at the end of his life, Lewis wasn’t insane. Nietzsche most certainly was.
My professor shouldn’t have let me off so easily. He shouldn’t have allowed me walk out of his office thinking that Nietzsche had obliterated 1,900 years of Christian intellectual and moral accomplishment. He should have said something like this:
“Nietzsche was a brilliant, tormented genius who gave us the blueprint for spiritual disintegration and hell on earth. He beat you up because you’re weak, rebellious, and ignorant. Worse, you’re proud of it.
“Take your paper and write it again. You’re not nearly as smart as you think you are—and in case you haven’t figured it out yet, neither was Nietzsche.”