Redeeming Nietzsche

On the piety of unbelief

Giles Fraser


Redeeming Nietzsche
ISBN 0-203-42787-4 Master e-book ISBN

Best known for having declared the death of God, Nietzsche was a thinker thoroughly absorbed in the Christian tradition in which he was born and raised. Yet while the atheist Nietzsche is well known, the pious Nietzsche is seldom recognized and rarely understood. Redeeming Nietzsche examines the residual theologian in the most vociferous of atheists.
Giles Fraser demonstrates that although Nietzsche rejected God, he remained obsessed with the question of human salvation. Examining his accounts of art, truth, morality and eternity






1 Holy Nietzsche
In search of God?
Early appropriations of Nietzschean ‘religiosity’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Karl Barth
Death of God theology
Eberhard Jüngel
The post-modern Nietzsche
2 The orientation of Nietzsche’s question of God
On style and seduction
The Christianity of Nietzsche’s youth
Nietzsche and Luther
Nietzsche and Pietism
3 Facing the truth, outfacing the horror
Identifying a basic soteriological model
The influence of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of salvation upon
The Birth of Tragedy
Dionysus and redemption
Facing the truth
The Egyptianism of salvation
Salvation as art
4 Redeeming redemption
The nihilism of salvation
Internal and external transcendence
Nietzsche’s story of Judeo-Christianity
Suffering and the ascetic ideal
Avoiding pain
Genealogy, sickness and health
5 Parables of innocence and judgement
Born again
Redeeming the past
The present tense of eternity 3
6 Salvation, kitsch and the denial of shit
‘Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit’
Wagnerian decadence
Kitsch soteriology and the final solution
Nietzsche’s aristocratic kitsch
Christianity and shit
7 Sacrifice and the logic of exclusion
Salvation and sacrifice
Jesus contra Dionysus
Nietzsche’s appeal to Stoicism
8 Fear of the other
Stanley Cavell and ‘skepticism’
Ecce Homo
Reciprocity, intimacy and marriage
vi Contents


I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most
terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered. To me it is the extremest
thinkable form of corruption . . . Wherever there are walls I shall inscribe
this eternal accusation against Christianity upon them – I can write in
letters which make even the blind see . . . I call Christianity the one great
curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for
which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty – I
call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.
The Anti-Christ
, p. 62

1 Holy Nietzsche

In search of God?
In the last few months before his final mental breakdown Nietzsche wrote of
his fear that some day he would be pronounced ‘holy’. One could be forgiven
for thinking this a strange fear from one who is remembered most of all for
having broken the news of God’s death and then for proceeding to dance at
His wake. Nonetheless, there have been a considerable number of thinkers
who have seen in this dance patterns of movement that remind them of the
religion whose demise is being celebrated. Heidegger called Nietzsche ‘that
passionate seeker after God and the last German philosopher’
1 – a reference,
no doubt, to the fact that the madman who proclaims God’s death enters the
market place crying out ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ Julian Young has gone
as far as to suggest that Nietzsche’s intellectual quest can be characterised as
‘proving that God, after all, exists’. And yet, of course, Nietzsche was one
of the most emphatic and militant of all ‘atheists’. His condemnations of
Christianity are, arguably, unrivalled in their ferocity and vitriol. One of the
challenges facing those who seek to come to grips with Nietzsche’s work is
finding a way of making sense of these seemingly conflicting drives. Erich
Heller, for instance, suggests the following:
He is, by the very texture of his soul and mind, one of the most radically
religious natures that the nineteenth century brought forth, but is endowed with an intellect which guards, with the aggressive jealousy of a
watchdog, all approaches to the temple.

2 Holy Nietzsche
In what follows I will be proposing an answer to why it is that Nietzsche
manages to come across simultaneously as both atheistic and pious. My basic
argument will be this. Nietzsche is obsessed with the question of human
salvation. It is an obsession that is formed in his childhood through the
Pietistic upbringing given to him by family and teachers. And despite the
fact that he becomes an atheist, he continues passionately to explore different ways in which the same basic instinct for redemption can be expressed
in a world without God. He could well have had himself in mind when
he wrote of European culture in general: ‘it seems to me that the religious
instinct is indeed in vigorous growth – but that it rejects the theistic answer
with profound mistrust.’
3 Nietzsche’s work, as I understand it, is a series of
experiments in redemption. That is, Nietzsche’s work is primarily soteriology:
experiments to design a form of redemption that would work for a posttheistic age.

8 Fear of the other

What is supposed to be so wrong with pity? For the Stoic tradition that
Nietzsche endorses, pity belittles the one pitied as well as the pitier. The
quality of mercy is not twice blessed but twice cursed. It is patronising
to the person who is pitied and smugly self-congratulatory on the part of
the pitier. It is a cheap and easy response to the suffering other in which
emotionalism becomes the false currency of human care. Pain has to be
endured, conquered and overcome by strength of spirit – pity only weakens
the strength of that spirit and leads the person pitied into mournful selfdisappointment. This simply adds to the sum total of unhappiness in the
Nietzsche’s sympathies for this sort of argument grow out of his sense of
moral honesty. Pity ultimately misrepresents. It substitutes bedside manner
for a clear-eyed encounter with painful reality. Pity stands in the way of
tough-mindedness about the human condition. As we have already seen,
honesty is one of Nietzsche’s core values and in rejecting pity Nietzsche is
seeking a more honest encounter with the world. Rejecting pity is about
rejecting palliatives. Nussbaum argues that Nietzsche’s pseudo-hardness is a
subtle form of otherworldliness – a betrayal of this earth. Nietzsche sees it
the other way round: hardness is honesty.
My argument in this chapter will be that Nietzsche’s sense of honesty is
too narrow in focus and insufficiently aware of the levels of honesty revealed
in the more ordinary and communal activities of everyday life. In one key
respect, as I have already argued, Nietzsche was not a child of the Reformation: he continued to think of vocation as being something extra-ordinary,
something that required one to be set apart from the domestic and the
humdrum. For all his condemnation of religious asceticism, Nietzsche continually sought out the habitat of monks; the empty wilderness or the
solitude of the mountaintop. His whole energy seeks the cultivation of the
individual self (in this, of course, he is supremely a thinker of the Reformation), a cultivation that is premised upon a sense of scrupulous honesty
about his own spiritual journey. The battle conducted by Nietzsche is a

Fear of the other 155
battle conducted on his own, and with himself, in which he employs the
demands of absolute honesty as a way of establishing or generating his true
identity in the full awareness of the horrors of life. It is, as Nietzsche sees it,
these ‘horrors’, the horrors of human suffering, that stand in the way of full
self-realisation, for constantly they tempt one to betray the vocation of
absolute honesty in favour of self-comforting. But there are more ways in
which one can be deceived, or tempted to self-deception, than by the desire
to avoid the full reality of human suffering. This is important, because
Nietzsche is so focused upon this particular source of dishonesty that he fails
fully to recognise the power of any other. Dishonesty has many motives. And
Nietzsche’s preoccupation with himself, with the state of his own spiritual
health, has about it another powerful form of dishonesty which his great
sensitivity to the pathologies of self-comforting does not prepare him to
recognise or combat. For Nietzsche’s struggle to be honest is a struggle to be
honest about himself. He is not really concerned with whether he is honest
about others – hence his shocking misrepresentations. But is it, in the end,
really possible to be fully honest about oneself without being honest about
others and with others? What of the idea that many of us ‘become who we
are’ in and through a relationship with others? What of the idea that relationships make possible (and require) a level of honesty about oneself that is
not possible in isolation? If so, then Nietzsche’s self-focus, for all its intensity, may turn out to be a strange form of dishonesty. A dishonesty which, as
Nussbaum suggests, is motivated by a fear of vulnerability, of dependency,
of not being fully in control

About the author:

Giles Anthony Fraser (born 27 November 1964) is an English Anglican priest, journalist and broadcaster. He is currently the parish priest at St Mary’s, Newington, near the Elephant and Castle, south London, and writes a weekly Friday column for The Guardian, as well as appearing frequently on BBC Radio 4. He is a regular contributor on Thought for the Day and a panellist on The Moral Maze.

He was formerly a visiting professor in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics and was previously Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and director of the St Paul’s Institute from 2009 until his resignation in October 2011. As Canon Chancellor, Fraser was a residentiary canon with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre.

Life and career

Fraser’s father was Jewish and his mother from a Christian background, and Fraser himself was circumcised according to Jewish tradition. He was educated at a prep school, Hollingbury Court in Sussex, where he was beaten several times a week by the headmaster for minor misdemeanors, and Uppingham, a fee-paying Christian school and became a Christian. Fraser attended Newcastle University, the Church of England’s clergy training Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, and the University of Lancaster where he received his PhD in 1999 for his thesis entitled: Holy Nietzsche experiments in redemption. He was ordained as a deacon in 1993 and as a priest in 1994, serving as the curate of All Saints in Streetly in Birmingham from 1993 to 1997.

Fraser has been involved in social and political advocacy and according to The Daily Telegraph “would be the first to admit that he is fond of the sound of his own voice”.

From 2004 to 2013, Fraser had a weekly column in the Church Times. Since 2009, he has been an honorary canon of the Diocese of Sefwi-Wiawso.

From 1997 to 2006, he was a chaplain and then a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. He is the author or co-author of several books and is a specialist on the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Fraser has lectured on moral leadership for the British Army at the Defence Academy at Shrivenham.

From 2000 to 2009, he was the Team Rector of St Mary’s Putney, where he campaigned to raise the profile of the Putney Debates (1647). Fraser was the founder of Inclusive Church and campaigns for lesbian and gay inclusion within the church. He was voted Stonewall Hero of the Year in 2012.

In October 2011, Occupy London based their protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Fraser said that he was happy for people to “exercise their right to protest peacefully” outside the cathedral. Fraser resigned as he could not sanction any policy of the chapter of St Paul’s to use force to remove the protesters. Fraser has said that it was “a huge matter of regret to leave” St Paul’s. “But not for one moment have I thought that I did the wrong thing”.

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