The Love of One’s Fate by Walker Storz

The philologist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps one of the most well-known and fiercest enemies of Christianity. However, even in his opposition to Christianity, Nietzsche’s work contains lessons for Christians. In staring into the abyssal machine of Protestantism as European nihilism, Nietzsche may have implanted in his own troubled dreams some very Christian questions about redemption, suffering, and pain.

Throughout his career, Nietzsche derided Christianity as a faith that put emphasis on the afterlife and the transcendental over the immanent life of the body and the earth. His study of classicism and a period of long convalescence led him to a moral worldview based on sickness and health. While reading Nietzsche’s scathing and vitriolic criticism of Christianity can be harsh for a Christian, his reckoning with the problems of secularism—and the roots of secularism in Christianity itself—is useful to Christians wishing to address the waning influence of the church and other problems of a secular age.

In the third essay of his book On the Genealogy of Morals, “On the Ascetic Ideal,” Nietzsche reveals how supposed natural enemies, such as a Christian ascetic and an atheist scientist, share a common root. The ascetic elevates a single austere ideal over the life of the body. In Christianity, this “ideal” is God, or the Logos. For the scientist, the ideal is replaced by a search for the truth.

Nietzsche wasn’t opposed to religious or ritual practice as a whole; in fact, he praised the Greek cult of Dionysus. He also wasn’t opposed to scientific practice or other aspects of emergent modernity; he was fascinated by physiology, evolution, and even speculative ideas in the realm of physics. What he was opposed to was the idea of singular, objective truth. He identified Christianity and a certain strain of modern “skeptic,” rationalist philosophy as essentially nihilistic, or life denying. For Nietzsche, the austere devotion to the realm of the ideal—in Christianity, to heaven; in rationalism, to “reason”—comes from physiological sickness and psychological overseriousness.

Nietzsche’s idea of the “eternal return” was a phantasm that seemed to trouble him late in his life. He suffered serious illness which caused him pain throughout his career and eventually disabled him. He may have speculated about the eternal return as a thought experiment, a religious doctrine, or a metaphysical or real physical occurrence. He delineates the idea in his work The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? . . . Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The eternal return threatens to dissolve the subject entirely. If one is “doomed” to repeat oneself forever, one lacks agency; in addition, if one repeats one’s life forever, one lacks the differentiation that creates a subject. Put simply, one lacks the “I.” Nietzsche proposed amor fati, the love of one’s fate, as a solution to the problem of the eternal return. One should live one’s life in a way that he or she will will for it to occur again and again. Thus the eternal return serves as religious parable that forces one to consider and redeem one’s own life. It is Christian in that it is a doctrine that forces one to redeem one’s suffering.

This idea of eternal recurrence was not birthed with Nietzsche, although his interpretation of it is novel. As Mircea Eliade notes in his book The Sacred and the Profane, premodern ideas of “sacred time” were based on eternal recurrence: the form of the circle is more prevalent in Nature than that of the straight line or arrow.

I like to imagine the integration of this cyclical premodern doctrine with the doctrine of Christianity in terms of iconography. Specifically, I imagine the cross, the symbol of Christ’s perpendicularity to the world, overlaid with a circle, the ancient symbol of rebirth. And there already is such a symbol—the Celtic cross. The fact that Nietzsche’s work drives me to contemplate this cross shows there are inherent Christian ideas in his thinking—even if they are revealed in a kind of “religious delirium” that challenges our notions of morality.

Walker Storz is a musician, artist, and writer living in Vermont. His work covers the themes of faith, suffering, and illness.

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