Friedrich Nietzsche, an influential philosopher who lived in the 19th century, has critiqued the whole western philosophical thought; his philosophy could be summed up in 2 famous proclamations. They are the decadence of reason and death of God. Here I will focus on the powerful (quite famous and infamous) proclamation regarding God. I am not an expert on Nietzsche to speak authoritatively on him. But from my own understanding of his critique, I would consider Pope Francis as one of the Catholic responses to his critique (there have been many authentic responses to that critique in the likes of Pope John 23rd, Tielhard de Chardin, Tony D’Mello, liberation theology and many others).
Jesus came to give life and life in its fullness. Jesus invited his disciples to know the truth, a truth which will set you free. He fought against oppressive structures of Pharisaic society. The church which was founded by Jesus was the institutionalization of the charism of Jesus. It was born from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Sociology would speak of the danger of the institutionalization of any vision. We are giving a form and structure to a dynamic vision. Although it is required for the survival of the vision, there is a danger of vision loosing its freshness and becoming dry. There is a constant need of renewal so that institution doesn’t lose the root called the vision. Different people in the life of the church were instruments in bringing the renewal or atleast reminding the church of the renewal. When some of the great saints could be included in that category, I include two of the greatest critiques Martin Luther and Nietzsche too. (As a Christian, I may not agree to all the challenges, but we don’t need to throw the baby with the bath tub). I see Nietzsche challenging the church (he doesn’t say exactly like this) in following areas.
The attempts to reduce God to our concepts or dogmas. (Concepts are important). But understanding of God has to be evolving, dynamic as God is still a mystery for us.
Images of God which was promoted by many were not life-giving. (Some of the prominent images are police-man, judge, watchman, shopkeeper)
The attempts to put morality as black/white. Every situation is not so-easy to be judged.
The glorification of heaven in the cost of earth. The dualism of mind and body is another area. (Today’s theology has changed much from here. Theology of the body of Pope John Paul II is a response)
Jesus was spontaneous and childlike. Many a time, the church and all of us act in the opposite fashion.
Exclusive and Privileged position of Christians and looking down on others. (It has changed a lot with Vatican II)
I may not be exactly perfect in all my judgements, but I think you can make some sense of it. When I look at the life and actions of Pope Francis, I found him responding to many of those prophetic criticisms.
His style of interaction with the people, his spontaneity in hugging people, talking to people on phone. It is very human. He is connected very much to the time and space. (Pope John Paul II was similar in many aspects)
When 5 cardinals asked for some clarification regarding Amoris laetitia, he kept a silence. When those cardinals wanted a black and white answer, Pope wanted the local congregations to make contextual judgements.
Francis wanted all to understand that God was a merciful father. Although it existed in the theology, it was forgotten many a times.
His responses to ecological and refugee crises shows his flexibility and willingness to be with the suffering humanity.
When I read and reflect on Nietzsche and his famous proclamation , I see it as an invitation for Christians not to forget the God of Jesus. Pope Francis is one of the many responses throughout the history to help us understand the God of Jesus a little more closely.
I have written on ‘God is dead’ elsewhere, which is available here