In a recent piece at The American Scene, Matt Feenan was one among many trying to make sense of another senseless shooting that left another community reeling in its wake. Canadians haven't been immune from this either, as the recent tragedy in Moncton so sadly attests.
Feenan's point was that the rise of these Nietzschean supermen (ubermenschen) are using social media—and, well, guns—to extend their will-to-power. In a way, the superman or, literally translated, "over man" Nietzsche foretold was meant to be a source of optimism for a world where God was dead. Nietzsche's hope, delivered by his prophetic persona, Zarathustra, was that we could become like so many gods. No God was no reason to despair, it was a cause to rejoice, and embrace the this-ness of life in all its fullness. His vision, as Calvin would have noticed (and Dostoevsky did), might not have properly accounted for the heart's affinity for deceit. Could any man or woman really handle the godlike powers Nietzsche wanted them to grab hold of?
I'm sure there were times when you'd let your mind wander and just try to imagine what you would do with omnipotence. The first time I heard the word and learned what it meant, I remember flippantly telling my mom, "If I was God ..." and before I could even lay out my grand plans for a school-less society, the eradication of the people I didn't like, and (most likely) the giant theme park I'd replace our house with, she stopped me. Such phrases, at least in our household, bordered on blasphemy. I don't think my parents ever articulated it, but it had something to do with realizing how impossible it would be for any fallen man to wield even a fraction of such power.
Yet with the amplification of social media and the ubiquity of weapons, mixed in with the human capacity for evil, it seems that more and more people are trying to wield such destructive, godlike power over others. They are trying to enact justice—or their version of it—through a violent outburst of uncontrolled power. The fact that most of these moments end in self-destruction show how illusory and uncontrolled the "power" really is.
In Paradise Lost, while Satan is rebelling in the Heavens and, in one of the most subtly sarcastic passages of the epic, God the Father and Christ discuss Satan's futile rebellion and just what they're going to do about it, they decide that Christ will drive the rebel angels over the edge of heaven. Really, much before Nietzsche, John Milton's Satan is an early type of the ubermensch: he is his own source of morality and is willing to exercise naked aggression over all those weaker than him in order to establish his way. Yet what's interesting about Satan's will-to-power is how it contrasts with the power of Christ.
When Christ finally enters the battlefield of Heaven and starts to wield his ferocious power over his enemies, Milton writes:
"Yet half his strength he put not forth, but check'd
His Thunder in mid Volie, for he meant
Not to destroy, but root them out of Heav'n ... (6.853-855).
In the aftermath of the Moncton tragedy, an interesting story came out as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and other forces, engaged in a 24-hour manhunt for the suspected perpetrator. After they finally succeeded in surrounding the young man and forcing his surrender, one officer remarked, "Every one of us wanted to kill him deeply." Yet they didn't; they exercised restraint.
We all want to be gods, a truth Nietzsche knew as well as Augustine. And perhaps, in time, we'll all get our wish. However, as C.S. Lewis once said, just as the real God will open the door when we knock, so will the false ones if we go knocking on their door. If one of the promises of Christianity is that we have the chance to participate in the Divine, the implied warning is that we also have the chance to participate in a whole host of things that are much, much less than divine. And if we want to participate in a God originating in the self's will-to-power, perhaps that is just what we'll get. Yet there is also the option that we can participate in the restraining of power so necessary for a life of mercy and true justice to flourish.