Friday, June 08, 2007

Book Review: In the Shadow of the AntiChrist

[The following review was published in a somewhat different form in The Philosophers Magazine (2nd quarter, 2007). They changed the final sentence, which made it seem to say that there are no good responses to Nietzsche, but from what I have below you can see I did not mean that. I wrote "current" responses. Moreover, they gave it two inappropriate titles: "The Loser's Reply" and "Douglas Groothuis finds the good enemy too strong." No, I don't; I find Williams's response to Nietzsche (the good enemy) too weak. I myself have an essay on Nietzsche's critique of Christianity on my web page:]

Stephen N. Williams, In the Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006. 311 pages with index. Paperback. $24.99. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

Not a few religious people have been shaken by their encounters with Friedrich Nietzsche’s searing attack on Christianity as being anti-life, anti-intellectual, and the religion for losers. A man who writes a book called The Antichrist—and who identifies with the title—is no shrinking violet when it comes to polemics. It is no wonder that many atheists prize Nietzsche as their ace prosecutor against Christianity. Nietzsche himself claimed that a robust soul needs good enemies, and Christians do well to take up Nietzsche’s challenge.

Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity is not easy to explain or to critique. The problem lies in the nature of Nietzsche’s own work, which was neither systematic nor always stated in discursive forms. He had a fondness for epigrams, parables, and one-liners. Perhaps his greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was a novel, a kind of anti-gospel for those who dared to “break the old tablets” and create values anew. But a constant theme in Nietzsche’s work was his criticism of Christianity as the antithesis to his own philosophy. To my knowledge, there is only one recent book-length work by a Christian thinker that rises to Nietzsche’s challenge: A. J. Hoover’s excellent Friedrich Nietzsche: His Life and Thought (Praeger, 1994).

Stephen Williams, professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, offers his own critique of Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity with this well-documented, intellectually serious, but ultimately frustrating work. Williams approaches Nietzsche respectfully and with a good sense of history. He exposits Nietzsche’s ideas in their historical contexts and labors to overcome the obstacles to Nietzschean interpretation by charting the developments in Nietzsche’s thought in light of his autobiography. Williams pays close attention to the rather vast secondary literature about Nietzsche. This is both good and bad for the book. The author knows the lay of the land; he is not charging into the thick of things without guides. But although he does not neglect the (rather daunting) Nietzschean corpus, Williams sometimes bogs down in the details of dueling interpretations. One wishes for a more passionate engagement of Nietzsche himself, not his interpreters.

But what is Williams’s response to Nietzsche’s anti-Christianity? This is where the book ultimately disappoints the reader who expected a strong critique of Nietzsche’s condemnations of Christianity. (And one should expect this of a theologian.) Williams rightly perceives that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward biblical religion was deeply rooted in an entirely different worldview from Christianity, that of the ancient Greeks of the Dionysian strain. Nietzsche celebrated the body in this world, with all its potentials and suffering. He would have nothing of the transcendent, the otherworldly. Instead the “creators” or ubermenchen would exploit the earth for all its glories, free from religious conventions of “good and evil.” Out of this worldview flows Nietzsche’s hostility toward Christianity. But Williams does little to refute this worldview, besides rightly pointing out that Nietzsche’s denunciations of Christianity as world-denying were overstated. Given the recent resurgence in natural theology, Williams could have argued at some length that naturalism (Nietzschean or otherwise) is philosophically defective. But he does not. Instead, he often invokes academic theologians such as Karl Barth (hardly a paradigm of philosophical clarity) as a counterpoise to Nietzsche. This will probably leave the typical secular reader of Nietzsche unmoved and not a few philosophically-minded religious readers dismayed.

Although the book is not part of a series of specialized monographs, Williams works from a high level of theological abstraction (if not obfuscation) in his assessment of Nietzsche. Rather than grappling with Nietzsche’s ideas as philosophical arguments to dissect, he tends to bring other theological interpretations to bear on Nietzsche’s views. Williams thus leans far toward the continental approach to philosophizing (and theologizing) instead of adopting the direct (and, to my mind, rationally superior) method of analytic philosophy. Worse yet, Williams writes in a convoluted, tentative, and annoyingly nuanced style.

Thus we still await a current treatment of Nietzsche that takes him on as the good enemy that he was.

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