Some thoughts on Nietzsche’s das Religiose Wesen

I picked up my volume of Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman, hoping to finish it soon.  I hadn’t touched it since Christmas 2011.   I was immediately reminded of the man’s sheer, if demented, genius.  I was halfway through the volume, which placed me about mid-point through Beyond Good and Evil.  “Das Religiose Wesen” (What is Religion?) is his specific critique of Christianity.  Since this critique formed much of the basis for modern nihilism and the 20th century, it is not as “new” as one might expect.  We deal with it everyday.  Still, it is instructive even if in a negative sense.

Nietzsche is immediately clear that the target of his critique is not giants like Cromwell or Luther.  They are “Northern.”  They retain the barbarian spirit of old Europe.  His enemy, to be sure, is southern Catholicism (this is not a Protestant jab; Nietzsche equally scorns the German bourgeois).  It’s another way of saying that Protestants are not Christian (granted, Nietzsche radically redefines the word).

At the risk of painful oversimplification, Nietzsche critiques Christianity for its slave-morality and hindering the triumph of European man.   What was particularly interesting was the last paragraph:  If we assume the standpoint of an Epicurean god (or better yet, Dionysian!), we can only moan that Christianity kept Europe from being great.  Yet this is an historically odd critique.   Europe at Nietzsche’s time, which he well knew, was very beautiful artistically, culturally, if perhaps a shade decadent.  It has to be said that the Christian foundations, if not Christianity itself, made this possible.  One notes a touch of irony here:  is not Nietzsche unconsciously using a “Feurbachian” projection of pagan mythos onto modern Europe?

Historical hindsight has shown us that the Northern European tribes had a different kind of barbarism.  It wasn’t pretty.  One Icelandic film, “The White Viking,” does a great job showing the “dirtiness”  of norther Europe. (Though it should be said that the film was in many ways attacking Christianity.  I really can’t recommend the film.   Nonetheless, it does illustrate the point nicely).