On Nietzsche, Prosperity Gospel, and Suffering

Iconoclast philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (N), in his On the Genealogy of Morals, has it out for religion and religious. As the treatise progresses, he develops several critical concepts that bear the weight of his overall critique. In referring to Judaism and Christianity, in general, and what he calls the “priestly caste,” in particular, he proposes the concept of the priest. To this idea he ascribes a body of descriptions that are reiterated throughout the Genealogy. Priests, N says, reinforce what calls the opposites of “pure” and “impure.” But to be pure, he argues, means simply (and historically) to wash oneself, avoid certain foods said to bring about disease, avoid sleeping with prostitutes and coming into contact with blood. Famously, N classifies priests in terms of dietary prohibitions and prescriptions, sexual abstinence, and flight into the wilderness. Priests are anti-sensual. For them, “everything simply becomes more dangerous.” Everything is a possible contagion; everything is prohibited.

Another element endemic to religious (Judeo-Christian) sensibilities, in N’s mind, is what he calls slave mentality and its resulting ressentiment: Essentially, this is all a turning-inward, a conniving self-introspection, self-denial, and suppression of animal instinct. Through the themes of priestly class, slave mentality, and ressentiment, all of these processes ultimately make the human weak and artificialized. The human rolls in his guilt—in his bad conscience—while he disavows the world and its pleasures. The ascetic priest, like the self-depreciating slave, internalizes one’s own drives and instincts. All of these issues, N argues, are part and parcel to religious sensibilities, and in particular, Jewish and Christian ones.

N published Genealogy in the late nineteenth century (1887), however, and global Christianity has continued to evolve and morph over more than a century and a quarter. Does N’s critique still hold? I study North American evangelicals, and among those evangelicals, am interested in one controversial form of thought and praxis: The Prosperity Gospel. Proponents of this economic- and theological-system are minor celebrities who run veritable media empires whose religio-discursive networks span the globe. One might spot these celebrities in the eclectically filled time-slots of programming owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and other Christian televising programs.

I’m at the early end of my research on televangelism, so I certainly run the risk of essentializing the issues and providing an oversimplistic reading of televangelistic ideologies. But for now, I can say with some certainty that Prosperity authorities invert N’s thesis, that is, they undermine his critique of Christianity-qua-asceticism, Christianity as ressentiment, and Christianity as embodied slave-mentality. Prosperity theologies are material theologies; they are theologies of the here-and-now. Prosperity Gospels underscore economic wealth and apotheosize the possession of material goods; they are quasi-hedonistic gospels that problematize Western Christianity’s widespread adoption of mind-body dualism by reinstating a theological justification of bodily enjoyment and pleasure.

Critics of the Prosperity Gospel, both in the news media and in Protestant theological circles, offer the following quote by itinerant evangelist and healer, Benny Hinn, as an example of excess, an instance of theological aberrancy:

I’m sick and tired about hearing about streets of gold [in heaven]. I don’t need gold in heaven. I got to have it now.

In the minds of the theologically “orthodox” (the term is a matter of perspective) such a statement is construed as bold, vulgar, un-biblical. But not the iconoclastic philosopher who died the opening year of the 1900s—not Friedrich Nietzsche, with his compromised digestion system and brilliant, sometime illegibly existential rants scrawled across the pages of his journals—N approves of Hinn’s gospel. The iconoclast condones such theological iconoclasm. For more on this comparison, see these new essays.

My question, for the curious reader, is: How do Hinn and company fit with N’s terminologies, especially concerning the beasts of prey and the empirically meek, but actually insidious, lambs? Concerning wealth, Hinn is given, and given, and given. (Or, does he take? Is there a difference?) Hinn rejects the ascetic ideal. He is, in Nietzschean parlance, active, moving, attaining. Might there be an aggressiveness to Hinn’s activity? Might there be a will to power?

“Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering,” writes N, “does not negate suffering in itself: he wants it, he even seeks it out.” Thus, I extrapolate: (i) Humans seek out suffering, but do so only if they can (ii) provide meaning for that suffering. (iii) The ascetic ideal offers that meaning. (iv) Prosperity Gospelers reject the ascetic ideal and (v) claim a way out of suffering to material and spiritual well-being. (vi) Suffering, for N, in some sort of (C. S.) Lewisian, “Pain is God’s megaphone” sort of way, is one sure part of human existence in the world of nature.

But it remains to be seen: If (or when?) prosperity fails in everyday life—if (when) promises of wealth and harvest fail to materialize for adherents who have bills to pay now—how will the proponents compensate, and will the masses accept and submit? Will prosperity authorities offer simple, critical explanations (i.e., you are not sowing enough; you have not faith enough)? Will they compromise, slightly, by validating suffering in limited ways (God will use pain to make you a better person), all the while continuing to uphold seed-harvest teachings? What is the future of the Prosperity Gospel in a post-capitalist, globalizing world?

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5 thoughts on “On Nietzsche, Prosperity Gospel, and Suffering

  1. Wonderful post. It’s one thing to write about it, it’s another to live it. One day I asked myself, do I pay my tithe or feed my kids? The pastor was always getting my grocery money. I left a grand megachurch in 1988, and lost everything in the process. But it was me they condemned. Me who became the apostate. These rock stars of religion are so quick to send those who leave their churches to Hell, and yet they can’t seem to get the big sticks out of their own eye. Unfortunately, the prosperity gospel isn’t going away anytime soon. ~ Pamela King Cable, http://www.pamelakingcable.com, author of Televenge, a novel about the dark side of televangelism.

    1. Thanks, Pamela, for reading the post and for the thoughtful comment. Yes, I agree, these are serious, real-world, real-time issues, and I’m sorry for the trouble you’ve experienced. Your book, however, sounds very interesting!

  2. This is really great, Travis. I like the inversion of the Nietzschian critique to held describe the extremities of contemporary revivalism. I think it works overall. But I’d be a lousy former colleague if I didn’t push back a little. I mean, isn’t that what grad school teaches you to do?

    First off, I think that Nietzsche would actually despise Hinn for all of the same reasons he mentioned before. Namely, Hinn’s gospel of prosperity includes a system of morality that serves the purposes of those in power. One of N’s problems with the Church was the way that the idealization of the slave morality actually created a structure in which things such as sufferings and humility were idealized. While Hinn is much more materialistic and, therefore, might sound like he has some resonance with N’s critiques–and certainly an argument could be made about Hinn’s own “will to power”–the Prosperity Gospel still teaches a reliance on God and a certain amount of humility. Where Hinn would find N’s nods of approval, he might also hear N’s critiques ring truest.

    Second, I wonder if this tendency in the Prosperity Gospel isn’t the exception that proves N’s rule. I’m not sure I have an opinion either way, but many of the postmodern/postsecular/poststructuralist theories I have read love to point out that radical fundamentalisms are the direct result of the postmodern shift. Perhaps this intensification is a sign that N was right all along. Or perhaps not. Only time will tell.

    Those are some initial thoughts after one cursory reading. Let me know if I completely misunderstood you. I’ll definitely be back to read through this again with fresher eyes.

    1. Your comments are always invaluable. This is the first time I’ve even considered putting Nietzsche and Prosperity in the same sentence together, so I really appreciate it. You’re right about the problems involved in such a comparison. Pentecostals do teach humility, submission to God, denial of one’s self, and many other ideologies that run contrary to N’s paradigms. But still, there’s this obvious materiality. There’s an implied sensuousness that is both denied by televangelists, verbally, from their pulpits, while in practice they celebrate it. So I think it is an “inversion” of N’s critique even while it proves his point in so many areas.

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