Appropriating Westphal Appropriating NietzscheMerold Westphal as a Theological Resource - Fordham Scholarship Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Gazing Through a Prism DarklyReflections on Merold Westphal's Hermeneutical Epistemology$

B. Keith Putt

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780823230457

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: March 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823230457.001.0001

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Appropriating Westphal Appropriating Nietzsche

Appropriating Westphal Appropriating Nietzsche

Merold Westphal as a Theological Resource

(p.61) Appropriating Westphal Appropriating Nietzsche
Gazing Through a Prism Darkly

Bruce Ellis Benson

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Merold Westphal's analysis of the views of Friedrich Nietzsche about faith and theology (through Nietzsche's Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism). It discusses how these views are appropriated, and how Christians and other religious people could learn from them. Other topics that are discussed in the chapter include ressentiment (resentment, hostility), and perversions of pity and love.

Keywords:   Merold Westphal, Friedrich Nietzsche, ressentiment, pity, love, faith, theology, resentment, hostility

In pointing out that Friedrich Nietzsche can be rightly read as a “theological resource,”1 Merold Westphal has done people of faith a great service: that is, he has read Nietzsche carefully and helped them truly hear Nietzsche's critique. The result is that Westphal has shown how useful Nietzsche can be for believers (Christians, of course, but not them alone) in thinking about their faith and theology.2 Although not uncritical of Nietzsche, Westphal has teased out the implications of Nietzsche's criticism of Christianity and made a forceful case for Nietzsche being all too often right. It is Nietzsche's conception of suspicion that Westphal puts to such useful work. Citing Nietzsche's claim that “it is [the philosopher's] duty to be suspicious these days, to squint as maliciously as possible out of every abyss of mistrust,”3 Westphal makes the crucial distinction between suspicion as directed at one's interests in holding a belief rather than directed at the belief's truth value. With that distinction in mind, I want to examine the interests of religious believers of which we should be suspicious. Since Westphal gives us his most sustained analysis of Nietzsche in Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism,4 I will focus primarily on that text, using others to supplement it.

While there are many things in Christianity of which Nietzsche is suspicious, three seem particularly important to his account: ressentiment, love, and pity.5 As will become apparent, I argue that true love of the other is the way to avoid both ressentiment and the false sort of pity that is itself a manifestation of ressentiment. Following Westphal's lead, I will consider (p.62) examples of how ressentiment and perversions of pity and love are manifest in scripture and in the present age. As such, I want to expand upon and deepen Westphal's analysis. But I want to go beyond Westphal's analysis by considering what would count as appropriate manifestations of pity and love and, even more important, if and how ressentiment might be overcome. To that end, I will also be appropriating the thought of Jean-Luc Marion, who well supplements Westphal's thought. While it is impossible to put Nietzsche's worries to rest, I do think it possible to argue that alternative interpretations of seemingly loving acts, for example, are equally as plausible as Nietzsche's suspicious interpretations. That is not to say that suspicion is neither necessary nor undesirable. Rather, it is to say that suspicion is only a hermeneutical moment, one we desperately need but must eventually pass beyond.

Yet, before simply diving into the labor of appropriation, a word concerning how it works and its propriety is in order. For appropriation is exactly the appropriate word for a significant portion of the philosophical work that Westphal has done. Quite simply, if Nietzsche can be rightly termed a “master of suspicion,” then I think we can safely say that West-phal is a “master of appropriation.” Given that the logic of appropriation is neither simple nor necessarily benign, it is worth considering exactly how Westphal appropriates and toward what end.


No doubt, the first question of any believer skeptical of the very project of appropriating from what many would consider the archrival of religion in general and of Christianity in particular would be the following one: what could a Christian possibly learn from Nietzsche? Let me provide an example of exactly that sort of question. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a blog on postmodernity and Christianity. My post (titled “What Is Postmodernism?”) was the first of eight, and the very first response to it was: “If the philosophers you quoted were all either agnostic or in some cases virulently atheistic, what makes you think you can start with their presuppositions and produce a different result?” That I was merely using such philosophers to supplement rather than ground Christian thought was something the respondent completely overlooked. But it was the idea that borrowing from agnostic or atheistic philosophers was somehow inappropriate that was really central to his question. For that very reason, I replied: “Adapting/adopting from non-Christians/pagan/atheistic philosophers is something that Christians have been doing since the early days of Christianity.”6 In one important sense, Westphal is doing (p.63) what Christians have done since the inception of Christianity. Indeed, it was Augustine who famously commended “plundering the Egyptians” (as the phrase is commonly put today).7 Where would Christian theology be today if it hadn't appropriated so much from Plato or Aristotle, not to mention so many other philosophers (many of whom were either pagan or atheistic or simply had questionable theological views)? In any case, there would be neither Augustine nor Aquinas, at least as we know them. Christianity has always been about taking into itself anything that it deemed useful. As the Gambian-born missiologist and historian Lamin Sanneh notes, we are all “syncretists,” though that is a term we usually reserve “for the religion of those we don't like.”8

Westphal specifically addresses this objection in “Nietzsche as a Theological Resource” by arguing that Nietzsche provides us with something particularly useful. After posing the hypothetical question of why one should in effect waste time studying someone like Nietzsche when one could study a theologian like Kierkegaard, Westphal replies that, even though he himself devotes more energy to Kierkegaard than to Nietzsche, studying Nietzsche is particularly helpful because Nietzsche's thought, by virtue of its being atheistic, “has built in a special protection against the fallacy of misplaced transubstantiation.”9 For Westphal, “transubstantiation” occurs when an intentional act takes on the characteristics of the object it intends. For example, in theology the temptation is to assume that, since God is absolute, the act that intends God likewise is absolute. Given Nietzsche's insistence on perspectivism—that is, that all perspectives are just perspectives—it is much harder to make the move of turning any particular perspective into an absolute one.

Of course, Nietzsche's perspectivism immediately raises certain problems.10 One is that any believing theologian will want to insist that the gospel is not just one perspective among many and, therefore, not just another opinion. To anyone who wants to make absolute claims about God, Westphal points out that it is Paul himself who “insists that our knowledge is partial, that we see as in a riddle.”11 So Nietzsche actually helps Christians—particularly those inclined toward a conservative dogmatism—to remember that all claims regarding the gospel are ones made in light of a (as Westphal puts it) “cognitive finitude.” Westphal, though, is quick to point out that our not knowing from an absolute perspective in no way implies there is not such a perspective. That we do not see from a God's-eye view hardly means that God doesn't. And that brings up a second possible “objection.”12 Perhaps those of the “Christian Coalition” need such a reminder, but those in the AAR hardly do.13 If anything, they have a very loosely held and highly truncated “gospel.” To this concern, (p.64) Westphal (quite rightly) responds that “there are fundamentalisms of the left as well as of the right” and that AAR members often simply have different dogmatisms, no less dogmatically held.14 Properly applied, then, Nietzsche can be useful to both the left and the right, for his critique is against dogmatism in any form.15

But, even if adapting from pagan ritual, religion, and philosophy has been a standard and acceptable Christian practice and even if taking some cues from someone like Nietzsche can be appropriate, a different question then arises: is there something vicious or violent in the very act of appropriation (a question that was actually put to Westphal in an interview and certainly implied by the very notion of “plundering the Egyptians”)? In effect, Westphal gives two answers to that question. First, while admitting that “there is an inescapable aspect of what could be called violence in rejection and reappropriation,”16 Westphal contends that there is still a fundamental point of agreement. Although Nietzsche undoubtedly puts his insights to use in a very different sort of project, Westphal has no problem agreeing with Nietzsche on certain important respects. As he puts it (speaking hypothetically to Nietzsche): “Look, I agree with you about these insights insofar as they have real force.” Indeed, that force is so strong that Westphal sees it as part of his job to let that force be felt.

I discovered in the very early days of my teaching after graduate school that in Marx and Nietzsche … there were insights that were compelling and that illuminated my own personal life and the social life of which I was a part. I found myself saying, Hey, my job isn't to refute these insights, but to recognize their force. Gradually, it dawned on me that what these thinkers were doing was reflecting on the fallenness of human nature, though they didn't use that vocabulary.17

Even though Marx/Nietzsche and Westphal wouldn't agree on the name of the condition they are describing, the description remains the same. In effect, Nietzsche is a good phenomenologist. Thus, Westphal suggests that “anyone interested in doing phenomenology of religion in the Husserlian tradition should take Nietzsche seriously.” Or, put otherwise, the Husserlian phenomenologist can “supplement his methodological theism with a methodological atheism.”18 Second, Westphal insists that “borrowing” insights from Nietzsche and others in no way deprives them of using those insights for very different purposes: “I leave them in possession of their insights, while I put them to work for my own purposes.”19 Whereas the Egyptians really lost their gold, Nietzsche's gold is still his. Fortunately, ideas can be shared in a way that gold cannot.

(p.65) Yet there is another way in which Westphal could defuse the charge of “violence” in appropriation, for his appropriation in many cases—at least that of Nietzsche—is a rather unusual sort. “Plundering the Egyptians” is a way of speaking about Christians taking all the “good stuff” they can from the pagan philosophers. Yet Westphal's appropriation might be better construed as taking all the “bad stuff” from people like Nietzsche. In other words, it is precisely the nasty charges that Nietzsche hurls at Christianity that Westphal so willingly accepts. The insights Nietzsche provides are exactly the kind that Christians would rather not hear, not because they are false, but because they are true. Of course, Westphal is not merely interested in compiling a list of Christian failings. He instead calls upon the Christian community (1) “to take seriously the critique of religion generated by suspicion and (2) to lead the way in using it as an aid to personal and self-examination.”20 If that is the kind of appropriation that Westphal is about, it is hard to find that type of appropriation either truly violent or inappropriate. For Westphal is in effect saying: “We take your critique seriously and we want to change in such a way that the critique is no longer true.” It's hard to imagine Nietzsche finding that kind of appropriation offensive, for it both admits that Nietzsche is right and seeks to do something about it. Of course, Nietzsche would hardly admit that one could do anything about it, precisely because he thinks that the motive of revenge or at least some kind of personal gain is behind all action.


Having considered the logic of appropriation, let us now turn to the first of the aspects that Westphal appropriates from Nietzsche: the logic of ressentiment that Nietzsche thinks is actually behind both the rise of Christianity and all of Christian action. Assuming Nietzsche is right that “the birth of Christianity” arises “out of the spirit of ressentiment [resentment],”21 then the question must be asked: just what is it that Christians resent? The short answer would be: (1) their lack of privilege and (2) the fact that they—like everyone else—suffer. On one hand, Nietzsche describes Christian morality as a “slave morality,” which turns out to be exactly the sort of morality one would expect of slaves. Whereas “the noble type of person feels that he determines value, he does not need anyone's approval … he creates values,” the slave has no such confidence.22 Indeed, the very values of the noble—such as pride in oneself—or even the unwavering belief that whatever he judges to be good is good cannot be shared by the slaves, for the slave is seemingly in no position to value (p.66) the “good.” On the other hand, the suffering of slaves is surely greater than those of nobles. Whereas the ancient Greek nobles (at least according to Nietzsche) could simply accept suffering as part of the tragedy of the human condition, the slaves were in much greater need of at least some kind of explanation.

Given this lack of privilege and the reality of suffering, Christians find themselves deeply embittered by resentment, and resentment normally breeds the desire for revenge. Yet, not only does their status prove to be what they resent, it likewise proves to be what keeps them from taking that revenge. So the desire for revenge smolders. Yet eventually they find a way to take revenge by moralizing. Whereas the distinction between good and bad had been parallel to that of noble and base, on Nietzsche's account, the slaves “invent” the category “evil.” In effect, then, the pair “good/bad” is supplanted with a quite different value system: “good/evil.” As Nietzsche puts it, “the slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values.”23 Once the notion of “evil” is invented, the virtues of the noble become the evil vices of the slaves, which means that in the slaves' value system “pity, the obliging, helpful hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, and friendliness receive full honors.”24 Although Nietzsche claims that the “slave revolt in morality begins with the Jews,”25 Christianity continues that revolt by intensifying these virtues.

Whether one agrees with Nietzsche's account of either the birth of morality or the birth of Christianity is irrelevant for our purposes here.26 For the question that concerns us is really whether one can find evidence of revenge and resentment in Christians. Without doubt, there is good evidence to think Nietzsche is right, though working out exactly how revenge or selfishness is to be found in Christian faith and practice requires some care. Since I fully agree with Westphal's account of Nietzsche, my goal here will be to elaborate and build upon that account.

Clearly, the most important element is the basic move that the slaves make—simply reversing the values of the nobles—for it provides a logical pattern that continually recurs. Westphal calls this move the “Fonda Fallacy,” after Jane Fonda's conclusion in the 1970s that, since the governments of the United States and South Vietnam were evil, then clearly Ho Chi Minh must be “good.” It's not too hard to see what is fallacious about such reasoning: the possibility that they are all evil (to some degree or another) is simply ignored. Yet this logic that we might summarize as “the one who oppresses me is evil, therefore, I must be good” is not simply at the heart of the slave revolt but of a great deal of religious thinking. Indeed, if anything is the problem, it is that the ability to see evil in others (p.67) and to think somehow that such evil either absolves or mitigates the evil in oneself that makes even writing on this phenomenon a little dangerous. Now, Westphal is clearly aware of this problem and goes out of his way to avoid falling into self-righteousness. That he suggests the meditations on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud he provides in Suspicion and Faith be used “as a Lenten penance” for oneself is a powerful guardrail against falling into any kind of Fonda Fallacy.27 In that respect, his text is truly exemplary. Yet the ease of slipping into the Fonda Fallacy is all too real, even when that very fallacy is being exposed. Westphal tells a story (which one would at least like to hope is not true) about a Sunday-school teacher who presents the parable of the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like the wicked tax collector. The teacher closes the lesson by having the children bow their heads and thank God that they are not like the Pharisee!

Let me make Westphal's point even more strongly. If Westphal is right that there is a kind of revenge that “consists of branding one's enemy as evil,” then branding anyone as evil could always become an act of revenge.28 As it turns out, it is all too easy to cite examples of modern day Pharisees. But this opens one up to a certain kind of danger precisely because of the logic of exposing evil. For example, consider the following quotation from Pat Robertson: “Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It's no different. It is the same thing…. More terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history.”29 My guess is that almost anyone reading this will immediately identify it as so wrongheaded that it is difficult even to know where to begin one's reply. Certainly, it sounds very much like Robertson is guilty of the logic in which “the one who oppresses me is evil, therefore, I must be good.” Perhaps Robertson would protest to the contrary, but few would likely take his protestations seriously. Yet the moment that concerns me here has less to with Robertson than it has to do with me in citing it or you, gentle reader, in reading it. For it is hard not to cite such a thing without the accompanying moment—recognized or unrecognized—of thanking God that one is not like Pat Robertson. That, of course, is precisely the point that Westphal wants us to recognize. The story of the Sunday-school teacher appears in his concluding chapter of Suspicion and Faith, in which he considers the “dangers of suspicion” and notes how easy it is “to become a Pharisee in the process of unmasking Pharisaic hypocrisy.”30

So what keeps any such act from becoming an act of revenge? I think the answer—if there is anything like “the answer”—would have to go something like this: one would have to follow Paul's dictum of “speaking (p.68) the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). In one sense, I hesitate to make this suggestion precisely because this passage is sometimes rather cavalierly uttered by Christians—and sometimes in a cynical way. Yet it strikes me that, if we take Paul seriously, we do actually have the formula for avoiding revenge. Of course, while this might seem simple enough, actually loving someone else is no easy task (as we will later see). Given that, it is appropriate at this point to turn to Nietzsche's critique of love and pity, which provides an opening for considering what true love might look like.

Love and Pity

Nietzsche opens On the Genealogy of Morals with the declaration that morality—and particularly Christian morality—must be completely reevaluated. As he puts it: “we need a critique of moral values, for once the value of these values must itself be called into question.”31 Putting the values themselves into question is a remarkable act, for it is usually they that allow one to question the morality of other acts. Although the section from which this quotation is taken specifically singles out “pity” or “compassion” (Mitleid, which can be translated by either term), Nietzsche is equally suspicious of any kind of love that is altruistic in nature. As he puts it elsewhere: “Actions are never what they appear to us to be!”32 While that may be far too sweeping a claim (as I will argue later), there can be no question that they often are motivated by something other than their ostensible motives. In the same way that he argues that the slaves' revaluation of values is an act of revenge and so done out of self-interest, so he argues that any seemingly altruistic act is, in reality, one motivated by self-love. Yet, since Nietzsche has both specific and general critiques for altruistic love and pity, we need to consider them both separately and together.

At first glance, it might seem strange that Nietzsche claims the following: “Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one's power over them—that is all one wants in such cases!”33 While “hurting” might seem an obvious way of exerting power, “benefiting” is considerably less obvious. Yet Nietzsche is clear that we only benefit those who are dependent upon us in some way and that “we want to increase their power because we thus increase our own.”34 So any benefit given to others is always designed to benefit us. In response to any who might claim that there are truly altruistic actions, Nietzsche would simply respond, “No Altruism!”—indeed, “the ‘neighbour’ praises selflessness because it brings him advantages.”35 Nietzsche is convinced that the praise given to (p.69) “selflessness, self-denial, self-sacrifice, or sympathy (Mitgefühl) and compassion (Mitleiden)” is done so “naively,” that is, by people who simply do not understand what is really at work in such actions.36

Perhaps no better example of the true selfishness at work in love is what is widely held up as the pinnacle of love: romantic love. For Nietzsche, “sexual love … is what most clearly reveals itself as a craving for new property.”37 As much as one might be tempted to disagree with Nietzsche—“oh no, it's nothing like that”—one must admit that Nietzsche has a whole tradition of love poetry and ballads that affirm his contention. Or, to make the point even stronger, it is precisely in the very declaration of love that real motivation of “owning” the other is likewise declared. The title of one of Elvis Presley's hits makes that point as well as any: “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” In fact, it is particularly telling that the declaration of love is preceded by the wanting and needing. The logic would seem to be clear: I want you; I need you; therefore, I love you! Yet simply considering the repertoire of love songs in virtually any genre (whether in opera, jazz, rock, etc.) makes clear that this is not merely an incidental part of declared love but a central, perhaps even the central, aspect of such love. As Nietzsche puts it: “the lover wants unconditional and sole possession of the longed-for person,” which leads him to marvel at the fact “that this love has furnished the concept of love as the opposite of egoism when it may be in fact the most candid expression of egoism.”38

Nietzsche's indictment of love is all the more significant in light of his claim that Christianity is “the immortal chandala vengeance as a religion of love.”39 In that one phrase, we have the whole sordid mess that Nietzsche takes Christianity to be: a philosophy of hatred and revenge that masks itself in altruistic love. Indeed, the vengeance that is brought about by the “chandala” (the Hindu term for the untouchable—that is, the slaves) is eternal. To prove his point, Nietzsche quotes both Tertullian and St. Thomas, who speak of the heavenly “bliss” (as Thomas puts it) of watching the damned suffer in torment.40 With such splendid ready-made examples, Nietzsche's case seems rather easy. Thus, the “love” of which Christians so lovingly speak turns out to be something rather different. But Nietzsche has not quite exhausted the motive of Christian love by claiming it is a kind of revenge. He also thinks it is motivated by reward. As Nietzsche puts it, “The principle of ‘Christian love’: in the end it wants to be paid well.”41 The verse that Nietzsche quotes before this comment is Matthew 5:46: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” The implication, at least as far as Nietzsche is concerned, is that the reward is the true (p.70) reason for love. In the end, then, altruistic love is reduced to vengeance and reward—exactly the opposite of what such love is supposed to be.

Pity, as it turns out, is equally bad for Nietzsche. Once again, this has a particular effect upon Christianity, for Nietzsche terms it “the religion of pity.”42 There are at least two problems with pity for Nietzsche. The first is that, like love, it is not really what it seems to be. Pity would seem to be about the other person, just as altruistic love pretends to be. Yet, Nietzsche contends that, even if we are “not consciously thinking about ourselves,” we are “doing so very strongly unconsciously.” For Nietzsche, this becomes clear when we realize that, if we can avoid seeing someone suffer, we normally look away. But there are cases in which we realize “we can present ourselves as the more powerful and as a helper” or “we are certain of applause” or “we want to feel how fortunate we are in contrast.”43 In all three of these examples, it is clearly we, and not the other, who are the true focus of the action. It is not hard to see how this kind of motivation could be the case in many instances of pity. For pity can easily become the opportunity to demonstrate power, win accolades, or simply recognize one's own good fortune. The illustration of the Pharisee thanking God that he is not a tax collector could be used here just as well. Or we could point to the way in which organizations ministering to the poor often play on a sense of the superiority of their donors and make them feel both powerful and worthy of honor.44 Those lists at the end of opera and symphony programs of the various levels of givers are successful on all three counts. Even the phrase “those less fortunate” makes it clear who is fortunate. And, even if we insist that “being fortunate” has nothing to do with what we “deserve,” it is hard to shake off that sense of superiority, honor, and power.

Perhaps, one might ask, we ought to think of pity in other terms, as “compassion.” To be sure, the term Nietzsche uses (Mitleiden or Mitleid ) is more literally translated as “suffering with” or “compassion.” Yet, Nietzsche has a ready response to this, and here we come to the second problem concerning pity (or compassion). “Pity (Mitleiden), insofar as it really causes suffering (Leiden)... increases the amount of suffering in the world.”45 The point couldn't be simpler: why multiply suffering? If I suffer alongside you, there are now two people suffering instead of one. The numbers simply don't make any sense. While I will address this problem later, it is clear that Nietzsche advocates what is, in effect, a Stoic sort of approach. In order to minimize pain, I don't truly suffer alongside the other (even if I might pretend to do so as a way of being gracious).

(p.71) True Love

What should be clear at this point is that Nietzsche's criticism of Christianity can be summed up by the claim that the “religion of love” is really the religion of selfishness and revenge. Sometimes those motives are cleverly concealed, and sometimes they are fully apparent. Rather than argue against Nietzsche's charge, Westphal shows in Suspicion and Faith just how right Nietzsche is. And that admission—along with its correlate of considering one's own motives—is appropriate not merely for Lent. Of course, once one admits that Nietzsche is right, a new question arises: what would true love look like? Now Nietzsche is certainly not going to admit that such a thing either exists or could exist. Indeed, even the very expression “true love”—the title of multiple films, songs, and books—conjures up precisely the egoistic “romantic love” that Nietzsche so vehemently criticizes. It would be tempting, then, to declare true love simply impossible. In one sense, it certainly is. If “love” means a wholly pure regard for the other in which there is absolutely no regard for the self, then it would seem that there can be no such love. Thus, I fully agree with Jacques Derrida when he remarks: “There is not narcissism and nonnarcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended…. Love is narcissistic.”46 It would be far too much to expect that there could be any kind of love that wholly excluded the self. Yet, having freely admitted that, I am not inclined—as is Derrida—to say, therefore, that love (like justice or the gift) is “the impossible,” since I have a more modest conception of love that does not exclude all possible love of self.47 On my account, love of self is not necessarily incompatible with true love of the other. But, of course, that love of the other must be true or genuine.

Still, what exactly is a genuine love for the other? A typical definition of altruistic love is that one has a true or genuine concern for the other's well being that is not simply a disguised form of concern for one's own being. I say “simply” here because, again, I don't see the mixture of love of self and love of the other as some kind of “contaminated” love. It is when love of self is either the exclusive or dominant moment in the love of the other that there is a problem. So altruistic love can have a range of possibilities in which the self plays a greater or lesser role. Obviously, the more the emphasis is on the other, the higher the form of altruism. But this logic need not lead us to conclude that pure love of the other is necessarily the pinnacle of altruistic love. It does, however, lead us to move from thinking of love in terms of reciprocity. That is not to say that there (p.72) cannot be something like reciprocity that results from altruistic love. For the one loved may also become a lover. Yet reciprocity can never be the focus.48 For, once it becomes the focus of love, altruism is simply impossible.

To describe how true love of the other actually works, it is helpful to consider Jean-Luc Marion's phenomenological reflections in The Erotic Phenomenon. As Marion forcefully demonstrates, we cannot arrive at a genuine love of the other if we begin with the question, “Does anyone out there love me?” Not only can we never be assured that someone loves us, but even beginning with such a concern simply cannot lead us to loving the other. Marion considers various reasons why such a move will not work, but here I wish to focus on the following one: that such a starting concern reflects an interest for reciprocity that simply cancels out the possibility of true love. If I begin with such a question, then

I will only love in return, after the fact, only if someone loves me first and only as much as someone first loves me. I will play the game of love, certainly, but I will risk the least amount possible, and on condition that the other go first. Love thus is definitely put into operation for such an ego, but always out of panic, in a situation of lack and under the yoke of reciprocity … thus love does not really come into play.49

Any sort of “love” that is generated out of the desire to be loved can really be no more than self-love, for whatever love comes into play is limited to—and measured by—whatever love is directed toward me.

Instead of beginning with that question, then, Marion insists that one must begin with a radically different question: “Can I love first?” That is, can my love must be “an advance?” If so, then I simply love the other and, consequently, make the first advance. And I do so without expecting that the other will make the first move or even subsequently love me. As Marion puts it: “The lover appears when one of the actors in the exchange no longer poses prior conditions, and loves without requiring to be loved, and thus, in the figure of the gift, abolishes economy.”50 Such love is not motivated by “reason” indeed, reason is quite insufficient to establish such love, which is why Marion speaks of the “principle of insufficient reason” when it comes to love. It is not that love goes against reason or that they are at odds; rather, reason simply can provide no support for love. One is reminded of the famous French saying (which, interestingly, Marion does not cite): “L'amour de Dieu est folie” (the love of God is folly). From the perspective of reason, love makes no sense, and the love (p.73) of God all the less so. Moreover, it is important to be clear as to the motivation at work in love: I simply love the other. There is no further justification. Thus, instead of loving the other because the other is lovable, it is the very loving of the other that makes the other lovable. Although Marion says that the lover still hopes the beloved will love the lover, those hopes are never certain, and even what the lover hopes for, “does not belong to the order of that which one possesses.”51 Why? Because neither the other nor the love of the other can be possessed, precisely because one can at most only “touch” the other.

In such love, there is no revenge or disguised self-love. There is also no pity that wins me applause or makes me feel superior. But there certainly is compassion in that I may suffer alongside the other. Here Nietzsche truly has a point: such compassion really does multiply suffering. Yet, if compassion truly leads to more suffering, then that compassion must be motivated by genuine love. For why would I actually suffer alongside someone if I did not truly care for that person? True, I could find the suffering of someone else discomforting because it reminds me that I could—or, perhaps, someday may—suffer too. But, if that were the focus of my discomfort, then I would not be experiencing true compassion. If one really suffers alongside the other, it is because of the love of the other, not because of some reference to self. Again, should such suffering alongside be accompanied by a reference to self, it is not, thereby, negated as true compassion. Rather, true compassion exists when one truly loves the other.

Could I ever hope that Nietzsche might accept such an account? Perhaps we could say that such a hope is like that of the lover who loves without reason and without knowing if the beloved will love the lover. Of course, he would have to move from the mode of suspicion to the mode of love, in which suspicion is simply a nonstarter. But, as I have suggested, suspicion should only be a moment. As useful as it may be, when it takes center stage, it should become suspicious of itself. Only when suspicion goes to its final stage—achieving suspicion of suspicion—could there be any room for love to find a place.


(1.) Merold Westphal, “Nietzsche as a Theological Resource,” Modern Theology 13 (1997): 213–226; reprinted in Nietzsche and the Divine, ed. John Lippitt and Jim Urpeth (Manchester: Clinamen, 2000), 14–29, and in Merold West-phal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 285–301.

(2.) Nietzsche's critique, although most frequently directed against Christianity, would be an excellent theological resource for other religions, as would West-phal's appropriation of that critique.

(3.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 34.

(4.) Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

(5.) The first two of these, ressentiment and pity, are treated at length in Suspicion and Faith, while love of is only treated by implication. However, since the theme of love is central to Nietzsche's critique of Christianity and since it is so closely related to ressentiment and pity, I will consider it here in more detail.

(6.) The posts and the conversation that ensued have appeared in book form. For the question and my response, see Myron Bradley Penner and Hunter Barnes, A New Kind of Conversation: Blogging Toward a Postmodern Faith (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2007), 11.

(7.) Augustine writes, “Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them. Like the treasures of the ancient Egyptians … which on leaving Egypt the people of Israel … surreptitiously claimed for themselves.” The reference is to the Israelites asking “the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and clothing” exactly “as Moses had told them” to do (Ex. 12:35). As Ex. 12:36 puts it: “And so they plundered the Egyptians.” See Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 64.

(8.) Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 44.

(9.) Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology, 291.

(10.) The first of the problems Westphal mentions is the self-referential one: when Nietzsche claims that all perspectives are simply perspectives, he would seem to be making an absolute claim and so contradicting himself. Westphal concludes that a more “charitable and plausible” reading of Nietzsche would be that even the truth of perspectivism is perspectival, and so it cannot be an “absolute truth” (Ibid., 292). But here I am less concerned with this particular problem than the two others that Westphal mentions.

(11.) Ibid., 293.

(12.) In “Nietzsche as a Theological Resource,” Westphal uses the classical medieval style of objection and reply.

(13.) The American Academy of Religion is an organization of theologians and teachers of religion not known for being particularly conservative.

(14.) Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology, 295–296.

(15.) Westphal makes what amount to similar points in his essay “Overcoming Onto-Theology,” in Ibid., 22. There he speaks of having in mind two audiences, one Thomistic or Calvinist in orientation and the other secular.

(16.) Merold Westphal with Gary J. Percesepe, “Appropriating the Atheists,” Books & Culture (May–June 1997): 25.

(17.) Ibid., 24.

(18.) Merold Westphal, “Nietzsche and the Phenomenological Ideal,” Monist 60 (1977): 278, 281.

(19.) Westphal and Percesepe, “Appropriating the Atheists,” 25.

(20.) Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 16.

(21.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968).

(22.) Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 260.

(23.) Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), I:10.

(24.) Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 260.

(25.) Ibid., 195.

(26.) While one could dispute this claim that Christianity arises from ressentiment, I will not undertake such a task here precisely because it would be counterproductive to the appropriation process. Of course, it should be pointed out that Nietzsche's account is meant to be more symbolic than literal, a battle that he sums up with the phrase “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome” (The Genealogy of Morality, I:16).

(27.) Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 3.

(28.) Ibid., 236.

(29.) From an interview with Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 14, 1993.

(30.) Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 285.

(31.) Preface to Genealogy of Morality, 6.

(32.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 116.

(33.) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), §13.

(35.) Ibid., §21.

(36.) Ibid., §345.

(37.) Ibid., §14.

(39.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Richard Polt (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), VII:4.

(40.) Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality, I:15.

(41.) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ(ian), in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), §45.

(42.) Ibid., §7.

(43.) Nietzsche, Daybreak, §133. While Nietzsche may be right that in many cases we avert our eyes when we encounter suffering, I am not sure this is always the case. Traffic accidents on highways, for instance, normally cause delays on the other side of the road from those seeking a view. This may be simply an instance of a kind of “pity” in which we thank God we're not the person in the car. But I would suggest that suffering is sometimes greeted by a macabre sense of curiosity.

(44.) Westphal gives the example of a Christian organization that not only was advised by fundraising experts to appeal to potential givers' sense of superiority but also followed that advice. See Suspicion and Faith, 261.

(45.) Nietzsche, Daybreak, §134.

(46.) Jacques Derrida, “There Is No One Narcissism (Autobiophotographies),” in Points … Interviews, 1974–1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995), 199.

(47.) Jacques Derrida, “Sauf le nom,” in On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995), 74. The full sentence reads: (p.219) “But why not recognize there love itself, that is, this infinite renunciation which somehow surrenders to the impossible [se rend à l'impossible]?” Here Derrida gives a somewhat different reason for love being impossible, that of the impossibility of surrendering wholly to the other. Yet, since my conception of love does not demand the “infinite renunciation” of self that is central to Derrida's conception of love, this does not prove problematic either.

(48.) On my account, it may be a motivation, but that motivation should play a relatively small role in the overall motivation of loving another.

(49.) Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 69.

(50.) Ibid., 78.

(51.) Ibid., 88.