Friday, May 29, 2009

St. Nietzsche Part Two: Nietzsche and Paul on the Law's Futility

[Note to Readers: Before beginning this post I thought I'd share some self-criticism related to this blog and why my conclusion is that I should continue. There are plenty of people as bright, as informed about the Bible, philosophy, and theology, as able to form their thoughts in apt language, etc., as am I. In short, if eminence is the justification for continuing to blog, I should not. (It is a different matter that I get a lot out of the process: I could simply journal.) So why wouldn't I leave my kind readers in those many more eminent hands? The answer comes down to approach. I believe that I am modeling something that deserves--in fact needs--to catch on with religious intellectual leaders: faith that demonstrates its relevance and importance by taking on its greatest challenges. For too long a choice between conservative Christianity's anti-intellectualism and liberal Christianity's capitulation to Modernism/Post-Modernism/Whatever-Comes-Next has gutted faith of its integrity, its relevance, and its power. To those of us who see faith as the most important aspect of life--and there are different ways of framing why--that is a travesty. Anti-intellectualism or capitulation--either way Christians feed the view that faith lacks relevance, integrity and power. So what's special about my approach? It moves against the "avoid or capitulate" dynamic, because it engages the toughest questions it can find. And oddly enough, there are answers, even for a less-than-eminent thinker such as I. That's precisely what needs to be modeled, and though I'm certainly not unique in this. That's why I will continue to blog, despite the fact that I have very little time to devote to it. And who better than Nietzsche to be our friend in this important project of engaging the tough questions?]

Apparently Nietzsche thought so little--I speak literally here, though the same is certainly true figuratively--of Christian morality that he failed to see the powerful argument against it embedded in his anti-Christian stance: favoring the weak empowers them, thereby unnaturally frustrating the strong. His "overman" would see through this and have nothing to do with the herd that follows its unnatural, even sick, point of view. We looked at the argument embedded in this perspective in the last post. The argument is implicit in the quote, "When the great man screams, the small man comes running with his tongue hanging out form lasciviousness." (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Kaufmann, Third Part.)

From the Christian point of view Nietzsche's comment is potentially devastating. In essence he is saying, "By envying the strong, the herd shows that its claim to equality under the law is just a way of turning the tables on the natural order without changing it for the better: The law empowers the weak without changing the fact that it is the will to power--the desire to be the one wielding power--that is in play. He called this "...the self-deception of the moral concepts..." (The Anti-Christ, tr. Kaufmann, section 20.)

Let's frame the argument Nietzsche might have made--provisionally and informally for now:

Christians want to do good. We define "good" morally, and claim that biblical law prescribes it, at least more-or-less. But the de facto good for all people is what they in fact want, and all people want power, even if that want comes in the form of a purported desire for moral good to prevail. Therefore, the moral good is not a species apart from the will to power. Moreover, if particular goods always inform the content regulated by the moral law, the moral law does not change the nature of goodness in the sense of changing what is wanted, but only adds a regulative dimension which--when enforced--prevents the stronger individual from taking advantage of the weaker by taking a proportionately greater amount of the good. But one measure of justice and goodness is that people get what they deserve. If we then define "deserve" as a product of what a person can do, we derive the conclusion that the stronger should get the lion's share of the goods that people seek: the domination of the weak by the strong is natural. The moral law does not change the fact that the strong can get more goods by dint of their strength. Hence, it does not change the fact that it is better to be strong. But if it's better to be strong, then the moral law stultifies the good by preventing the stronger individual from taking advantage of the weaker by taking a larger proportion--even the lion's portion--of the good. From the standpoint of nature, the moral law is a self-inflicted sham, a self-deception, perpetrated on society by which the weaker individual (or nation or culture, etc.) overthrows the natural order without offering a good of its own to justify the overthrowing of the natural order, in which the strong dominate the weak.

For now it is enough to note that this argument depends on the strong and the weak both wanting the same thing--the goods of nature. And if human nature cannot be--has not been--transcended, Nietzsche's point of view, which I hope to have used fairly to construct this "argument," prevails. But a critique from a meta-Nietzschian Christian point of view will wait for another post. Today, it is the congruence of the Apostle Paul's point of view with Nietzsche's that we will observe.

For Paul, the moral law was/is "our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (Gal. 3:24, KJV) or "the law was like a strict governess in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ..." (Phillips) or "...the law was a kind of tutor..." (NEB).

Paul's point is that we should have learned from our tutor and graduated to something better: "Christ set us free, to be free men. Stand firm, then, and refuse to be tied to the yoke of slavery again." (Gal. 5:1, NEB) We, as Christians, should live for something higher. In that we agree with Nietzsche and his call for the "ubermensch": " something that must be overcome." (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Kaufmann, Fourth Part.) In fact, Paul is every bit as emphatic--and that is a euphemism--as Nietzsche: "You stupid Galations!" (Gal. 3:1, NEB) Why? They were returning to the law, which could not provide authentic "life" or produce "righteousness." (Gal. 3:31)

On this level of abstraction, Paul and Nietzsche are in complete agreement. Humanity needs a higher kind of life than that made possible by the law. In fact, we would have to be stupid--Paul's words--not to see it. And it is my contention that by taking Nietzsche seriously, we get a better view of Christianity and the good that it proposes.

[A second note to Readers: I have come to see that a second monograph length essay derived from Nietzsche's criticism of Christianity is in order. The first was, for those who did not read it, "Into the World," an answer to Nietzsche's view that Pilate's famous question is the annihilation of faith. This summer I will examine facets of this challenge and prepare for a more considered response in the fall, when I have more time...]

Friday, May 22, 2009

St. Nietzsche Part One: On "the most corrupt kind of corruption"

Our conclusion from last week, that the resurrection turns the tables on the tables that keep turning in human history answers Nietzsche's uber-complaint against Christianity, that it engenders "the most corrupt kind of corruption." (The Antichrist, tr. Kaufmann, section 58.)

A fuller statement is found earlier in The Antichrist (section 18): "The Christian concept of God--God as god of the one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of the divine types. God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live." I contend that Nietzsche's point, when unpacked, does not threaten the Christian position, but rather makes it clear why it is needed.

Speaking entirely in the abstract, if a weaker, aggrieved party uses legal or moral sanction to overthrow a stronger, aggrieving party, though justice will presumably be served, but is it necessarily the case that good has been served in addition? Nietzsche helps us see that the presumption is false.

He, of course, opposed moral and legal sanction against the stronger party on behalf of the weaker on the grounds that it is natural for the strong to dominate the weak. That is what nature sanctions, he would say, so we should too.

But there is a much more interesting aspect of this charge that he brings against Christianity: that its transvaluation (its unnatural love of weakness instead of strength: cf "the beatitudes") is born out of envy: "'When the great man screams, the small man comes running with his tongue hanging from lasciviousness.'" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Kaufmann, Third Part.) If Nietzsche is correct here, it is the end of a moral justification of justice: we may support justice out of social necessity, but the idea that it serves good has been burlesqued. From this perspective the Apostle Paul and Nietzsche agree: Humanity is "a slave to the law of sin." (Romans 7:25--of course Nietzsche would not call it "sin.")

The tablative justice that we considered last week, then, turns on the power that the law gives to the aggrieved. But the power of the aggrieved is just another form of power, and a form that Nietzsche hates because it overturns the natural order and that Christianity critiques--or at least ought to--as spinning the wheels of justice without making any progress toward good. Nature will not be transcended in Nietzsche's view: So justice is a sham. He was correct in this, at least, a justice that does nothing more than turn the tables on the natural order without implementing a clear good in its place is, in fact, the most corrupt kind of corruption." And that is not possible without a change of heart that redefines the human nature. We ought to thank him for that crucial point and take it to heart.

To make progress toward good, it is necessary that the one who takes power does so with the intent of benefiting others with that power. That is the ostensible goal of the Christian view of Agape love. The question, of course, is whether Christianity really turns the tables on the turning of the tables. More on that next time, as we examine a related and further critique of Nietzsche's, for which we should be grateful.

As relief to the abstract point of view given here, it's worth noting that as Talk of the Nation ended yesterday (5/21/09, NPR) the parting comment following a discussion of the ongoing debate between our President and the former Vice president was that--and I paraphrase--projecting strength (Cheney) or projecting values (Obama) is a classic dilemma. If this post is on target, it is only by using strength to promote the welfare of others that the dilemma can be resolved.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Christianity Overturns the Thaumaturgical Urge

I think that my dad dreaded long drives alone with me, which happened from time to time, since he was a rancher who sold registered cattle to commercial ranchers and would offer to deliver the cattle as a means to close the sale. I'd go along at my mother's urging (which might be telling about me in some way, especially since my brother and sisters didn't). Why the dread on my dad's part? My endless string of musings about whether cows or horses, trucks to tractors, bears or lions, and so on ad nauseum, would win in a fight. I might think that I was a strange little boy, if Pokemon, X-Men, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, etc., hadn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that little boys are typically oriented toward such questions. In the days before commercial exploitation of this fighting fixation, my special reverie was imagining one variety of dinosaur pitted against another, which is now played out on the Discovery Channel in the name of science. Life is good.

So what does this have to do with "Christianity" and "the Thaumaturgical Urge"? Let's begin with "thaumaturgy." It's a contest between wonder workers or miracle workers. A very special sort of fight. And the fight of fights would be between gods.

One need not be a polytheist to have the fun, though a monotheist's version of a divine thaumaturgy will have a very predictable outcome. Obviously the false god can't beat the One True God. (There is something odd in even making these statements as a Christian: To have such a contest God would have to act on the plane where gods act--which is to say, on Olympus or Valhalla--OK they're not exactly planes, let alone plains, but you get the point: God would have to be a non-God, i.e., a creature to be in such a contest directly.) Nevertheless, thaumaturgical contests are played out in the Bible, albeit with the help of God's representatives, to avoid the prohibited representation of God. I suppose the most famous one is where Moses throws down his staff, which turns into a serpent and eats Pharoah's magicians' serpents.

But there is a much more explicit version: ""'How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba'al, then follow him." (I Kings 18:21, RSV) Eli'jah's thaumaturgical challenge follows. Both Ba'al's prophets--450 of them--and the Lord's prophet (Eli'jah was the one remaining faithful prophet of the Lord)were to set out sacrifices on an alter and ask their god/God to send down fire to consume it. Ba'al's 450 prophets "...cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out... And as midday passed, they raved on..." (18:28-9) You get the picture. Lots of drama out of Ba'al's 450 prophets, but no action from Ba'al.

Then it's Eli'jah's turn. He made an alter of twelve large stones; built a trench around it; laid out the sacrifice; doused the alter with water; and filled the trench. Then he douses the alter two more times. "Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench." (18:37-8) Moreover, after God wins, Ba'al's prophets, all 450 of them, are killed. (Ironically, it's in the next chapter that the famous phrase describing God as speaking in "a still small voice" is found.)

If there is something a bit embarrassing here for Christians, you're already getting the point that I am about to make: we haven't really understood the point of Christianity unless we understand that it overturns the thaumaturgical urge--that little-boy preoccupation with "My God can beat up your God!"

For, after all, Caesar was thought of as a god incarnate by the Ancient Romans. And Jesus was thought of as God incarnate by Christians. Jesus walked into Jerusalem to the cheers of a capital city that hoped he would become a king to overthrow Rome, and implicitly to defeat Rome's incarnate god. He declined. Jesus declined to take on Rome. Instead, he accepted the cross (which he spent three years aiming at, as is clear from the narrative structure of Mark, but that's for another post). And in doing so he should have made it clear to us that the little boy's view of life must be left behind. Whose god can beat up whose god, whose culture can beat up whose culture--even whose team can beat whose team,oops, that's just for fun!--are all questions that bespeak spiritual immaturity.

I'm not sure why you haven't read this elsewhere. It's the gestalt narrative that can only be seen against the backdrop of the 1st Century Jewish peoples subjugation to Rome and its imperial claim to incarnate divinity at the helm. Tablative justice would have the Lord God turn the tables on Rome's puny human "god." Jesus did not enter that contest. Instead he turned the tables on the thaumaturgical urge to have one's god defeat one's enemies. He offered a better way: Love your enemies.

The narrative goes on to say, after the crucifixion, that Jesus rose from the grave. Now doubt is a good thing, if you understand what you doubt. Hume made a good point when he noted that nature's laws are know as laws precisely because they tell us what always happens. Hence, no resurrection. But it precisely the contention of Christianity that it describes something completely unique: God showing us a better way that we can accept by faith.

Reality makes us we accept what we cannot change. That makes might the ultimate right, and it means that little boys understand the real game when they play at their imaginary thaumaturges. Wolf and bear cubs play at their appropriate life and death contests. For little boys the imaginations stand in, as the human mind is the battleground where victory is gained or not with our species. (I don't want to leave out little girls, it's just that I can speak for little boys much more confidently...)

In asking us to mature beyond a little boys' view of the world, Christianity also asks us to move beyond a cynical view of the world in which might is right. In doubting the resurrection one doubts the reality of the view that that tables have been turned on the tables that keep turning in human history. It asks us to believe that something outside history has offered us an answer to the trouble with human history--something that really counters the might is right view of reality.

If you want to doubt that that was ever vouched to us through the token of the resurrection, I join you. But then you can't understand faith unless you begin with doubt. It's the backdrop of doubt that tells us the content of faith. And as much as I doubt, I can't help but believe that Jesus showed us a better way... And that's faith. A faith that's only meaningful because I doubt.

Next week we'll look at "The Principle of Futility" as a backdrop for faith.