Enoch Powell's Nietzschean Christianity

I’m hungering to hear, to be told, and to receive, things which I don’t know where to find elsewhere, and which I feel I shall be the poorer if I don’t hear and receive, and which I feel in some sense I shall die if I don’t have.[1]

Enoch Powell delivered the above as a response to the question, “Do you consider yourself a religious man?” It is an answer that surely resonates with the Western man of the 21st century. For we live in age of irreligion, of absence—be it of nation, identity, the sacred, or numberless other treasured things.

Powell spent the first 20 years of his adult life as a convinced Nietzschean atheist. In his early 20s, he “read all Nietzsche—not just the main works but the minor works as well, all of them, and every scrap of published correspondence.”[2] His postwar conversion to Christianity did not put an end to his Nietzscheanism. One might ask how such a thing is possible. How does one reconcile the thought of Christianity’s most vociferous critic with the very same faith against which Nietzsche’s launched his invectives? And should we care?

The distinguishing feature of the contemporary Identiarian movements is a refusal to be bogged down in the petty minutiae of economic micro-management that passes for modern politics. The coming battles will need to be fought on a higher, meta-political level. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to examine—or even experience—the beliefs that drove a man who was so thoroughly correct on so many issues so early on.

Returning then to the initial question of the very possibility of a “Nietzschean Christianity.” The question itself betrays something about our own thinking: the demand that a statement “makes sense.” Now, before I am criticized for naïve postmodernism, consider the following: what do we mean by “making sense”? We mean conforming to the laws of logic that characterize scientific discourse. To we moderns, “making sense” means “replicable in a (Newtonian) physics lab.” Science—and physics in particular—has a monopoly on truth. However, as Nietzsche himself said:

It is dawning now on perhaps five or six minds that physics, too, is only a world interpretation and arrangement (by us! If I may say so) and not a world explanation.”[3]

Physics is a language. There are no such things as the mini solar systems of hydrogen nuclei surrounded by electron planets, as are so often depicted in those Common Core physics textbooks. We treat light as a wave or as particles depending on which one fits the circumstances better. These are just representations that allow humans to make sense of phenomena. Many will argue that physics’s truth is amply proven by the space shuttle or the jet engine. Nietzsche would reply that such things merely testify to the power of language, not its truth. The liberals who re-post those “I Fucking Love Science” memes on Facebook are, as in so many other things, simply enamored with a discourse of power. This naïve thinking has infected all the institutions of modern Western civilization. It is against this that Powell set his face like flint.

Onetime Labour MP Bryan Magee, in a dialogue with Powell, offers an excellent example of this modern epistemological naïveté, stating

And it seems to me that if individual Christians and the Christian churches were really serious about what they say they believe, they would be committed to what one can only call the politics of welfare.

Powel replies: “To make the stones bread.”

Magee is ecstatic at what he thinks to be the beginnings of acquiescence from Powell, defeated by the very words of the Savior. However, Powell goes on to say:

I metaphorically described the sort of programmes to which you are referring and in which you expected the Church, because it is the Church, to engage as turning the stones into bread—not a bad metaphor. But you remember the context is the invitation of the Devil to Christ at the beginning of his mission (Matt 4:3; Luke 4:3). It was a temptation he rejected.[4]

The human subject is not a physics problem (indeed, physics pre-supposes a human subject). A strictly dialectical approach better represents this reality. For Powell, Christianity was initially negated by Nietzscheanism, which, in turn, was itself negated—the infamous Hegelian “double negation” (Aufhebung)—through the deployment of a new synthesis that delivers something genuinely new, while preserving both the original elements.

Thinking on his prior reading of Nietzsche making a “reinen Tisch” or clean sweep of religion, Powell stated

My earlier conclusions had been true, broadly speaking—there was no going back on that. But had they in fact, as I imagined, disposed of the Church and of Christianity? Was there “a clean sweep,” after all? It seemed not.[5]

Further clarity can be gained by considering a talk Powell gave on on the Athanasian Creed. The creed is rarely spoken of now, as it raises the thorny issue of the exclusivity of salvation: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.”

Powell provides his own loose translation and at the same time defines his faith:

The thoughts we hold about ourselves and our fellows and about our relation to the universe are overwhelmingly important, so important as to make the whole difference between true success in life and failure, between utter happiness and utter misery. Just any thoughts at our own option will not do; they must be thoughts of a particular nature, if they are to have this result. Being each of us unique and bound in by time, our failure, if we fail, cannot be made good, the tape cannot be run back, erased or ‘edited’. Once for all, it makes our eternity.

Powell is unequivocal later in the same talk, stating: “Christianity is about the content of a human mind.”[6] It was this radical vision of Christianity, free from the idols of our liberal age, that Powell embraced.

For it is human thought that is primal. Powell took Nietzsche’s fundamental critique of Western thought seriously. While not repudiating science, he realized it was not enough, that man’s flourishing, his very survival as man, would require a transcendence of the physical thinking so characteristic of our liberal age. In other words, he attempted to transcended modern Christianity and Nietzsche himself. In doing so he obeyed Nietzsche’s exhortation in the “Fifth Gospel”:

You say that you believe in Zarathustra? But what matters Zarathustra? And what matter all believers? You had not yet sought yourselves; and you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all faith amounts to so little.”[7]

Physical, scientific thinking can only prosper by appealing to a timeless, ideal realm, the messy realities of human, temporal life and death are dismissed as somehow “less real.” No wonder then the modern tendency to sink towards a managerial, technocratic civilization, where these messy realities are efficiently, mechanically dealt with. In short, The End of History, evidenced perfectly by the timeless civilizations of China and the East. It was from these “timeless” civilizations that what was to become European civilization began to extract itself over three millennia ago.

Powell and Nietzsche’s thought was most fundamentally historical. We find ourselves deep in that 200-year purgatory of which Nietzsche prophesied, facing the collapse of all that we hold dear. We cast around looking for “solutions” of varying degrees of fantasy but which all derive from the same physical thinking that is a product of the liberal age we so despise.

Powell, the aspiring Viceroy of India, saw the empire he loved since the age of six collapse in the space of a decade. For him, a very Western commitment to truth, and not a retreat into a realm of fantasy, defined the faith held by the West for almost two millennia. Maurice Cowling described Powell’s faith as “post-Christian,”[8] a term I doubt Powell would have liked. He would and did, however, often point to the very individual nature of faith.

Powell took the tradition of his fathers, which appeared to have arrived at its terminus, dived into it, fought with it, applied it to his very modern circumstances and arrived at something so new that it defied the very structure of thought that continues to define our time. He was radically traditional.

As we progress across these two centuries of nihilism, we would do well to read Powell and realize that by embracing—but not being limited to—our Christian heritage, we, too, might arrive at something new, and we might create history as our fathers did. We might find our very Salvation.

  1. J. Enoch Powell, No Easy Answers (London: Sheldon Press, 1973), 34.
  2. Simon Heffer, Like the Roman, the life of Enoch Powell (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), 22.
  3. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, I §14.
  4. Powell, Wrestling with the Angel (London: Sheldon Press, 1977), 31.
  5. Powell, No Easy Answers, 2.
  6. Ibid., 7-12.
  7. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 22, §3.
  8. Heffer, 136.