I first read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality as an undergrad. I return to that book every few years, as it remains for me the biggest challenge to my Christian faith. In this work, Nietzsche tells a story of how morality as we know it today came into being, and it is a story that is antithetical to Christianity.
Nietzsche’s understanding of morality is centred around power; those with it and those without. The story begins with those in power, the “masters,” who were noble pagan warriors that exercised their will as they saw fit. Nietzsche calls the other group the “slaves,” made up notably of Jews and, later, the Christians, who are forced to follow the will of the masters. At this point, the “good” was what the masters valued (strength, nobility), and the “bad” was what the slaves had (weakness, humility). This was not a moral judgment, but a description of what was. There was no appeal in this judgment to some greater truth, only the reality of what existed and was observable.
In Nietzsche’s story, there was a moral rebellion of the slaves against the masters. The slaves could not defeat the masters through physical strength so they did so through cunning. They worked to invert the morality and introduce new concepts into it by introducing the idea of god and eternal punishment for going against divine desires. The slaves spread the idea that God desired their “bad” qualities. Weakness and humility were raised to be moral qualities that one should strive for, while the concept of evil was also introduced. Evil was different than bad; it was a religious judgment, that, when made against the moral quality of a person, bought with it divine displeasure. Into this category of evil went the qualities that the masters had.
This story is mapped by Nietzsche onto Roman pagans and Christians: the Romans being the masters with their noble pagan virtues and the Christians being the slaves who overthrew that system of thought with their new understanding of religious morality. Perhaps a crude understanding of history, but one that isn’t in itself antithetical to Christianity… yet. What Nietzsche does next, however, is assign motives to this slave rebellion: hatred and the desire for power. In his story, it is not love that drives the spread of Christianity, but hatred of the masters and the desire to be in control. The slaves are tired of being powerless; they want what the masters have and will take it, not by force, but by changing how the world thinks. Once the slaves have convinced the nobles through fear of God to embrace the new understanding of morality, they gain the power. They seek vengeance and achieve it by laying out decrees against the nobles and in support of themselves. This is antithetical to the Christian story as it puts the pursuit of power and vengeance as the starting point of moral thought. It is no longer out of love that we follow Christ’s teachings, but so that we can use those teachings to bring those who would have power over us into submission.
It is hard to argue with stories as they are less often about the individual facts and more about the overall impression they leave on the hearer. One can challenge particular aspects of Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality – is his understanding of pagan Roman morality accurate? Is there as much difference between pagan and Christian morality as he makes there out to be? Is there any evidence to justify the motives he assigns? – but the impression of the story remains. There are really two effective ways to challenge a story: one can compare the story to what they see around them in the world to deduce if the story matches their experience, or one can pit it against a competing story and see which one is more persuasive. We shall briefly do both here.
Does Christianity have its own story that explains our experiences of power and vengeance? Can we agree with that these things occur, but disagree with Nietzsche that they are the root of the experience? We have two stories: the Fall to explain why we see what we do, and the Resurrection to begin the story of how God is fixing the world so power and vengeance do not need to be at the centre of our actions. The story of the Fall starts off with good humans, created by God in love, being tempted and then giving into temptation. It admits that there is power and vengeance, and all other kinds of immoral behaviours. But, unlike Nietzsche, it insists that it is not the natural order of things, and with the Resurrection holds out hope that a return to the natural pre-Fall order can occur. Furthermore, the story of the Fall places the conflict of morality not between two groups of people, but within oneself. Temptations, although they can take the form of outward objects, are inward thoughts.
Which of these stories fit better the world around us? It is difficult to look at the world as it is today and not see power playing out in a way similar to that of Nietzsche’s story. The rise of Trump and the counter movements lend themselves to analyzing the enacting of one’s will on the opponent in a vengeful zero-sum game. In this climate, morality is once again taking centre stage, but the concern, particularly through the unfiltered viral of the internet, is less about what is good, true, and beautiful, and more about “how can I use this to silence my opponent and bring them to submission?” The Church itself has a history of amassing power and enforcing its understanding of the truth on those outside of it through moralizing. At the same time, there are spectacular examples of people not giving into power and vengeance where we would expect them to if that was at the root of our actions.
Which story matches experience best must be left to each person to decide. There is no doubt for me that I would rather the Christian story be true. A world where love came before hatred, and where God works through love to bring about the end of hatred and power games, is more appealing than the brutality of Nietzsche’s story. On most days I embrace those stories, but there are days, and they are growing in number, where all I can see are the stories of conflicts of power and despair that that may be all there truly is.
Bryan Neufeld has his Master of Arts in Theology from the University of Winnipeg. He currently worships at saint benedict’s table, where he will discuss theology, philosophy, and other pedantic topics with anyone willing.