Saturday, June 27, 2009

True Faith's Paradox

I am going to be talking to a couple of young men in the next few weeks about philosophy and theology. Both are thoughtful, intelligent, youth pastors at conservative churches. When I think about what is essential to faith and what is not I keep coming back to the Tillich quote below. It is helpful to frame it by first considering a point well expressed in a comment, posted on the Templeton Foundation’s Big Question site—one I agree with while being unambiguously Christian. It’s important to get one’s head around this “point” if we are to have a compelling approach to our faith in our multicultural society.

RE: Whole Series
I don't think that science makes belief in God obsolete. We will simply never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God. However, I think science (and history) DO make religion obsolete. It is simply an arrogent and psychological flaw to believe that God endorses a specific group's particular beliefs (and traditions) over others.

That a universal creator would share his divine secret among one group (or actually a select group, which preaches to the rest of the group) and allow the rest of the world to be fooled by "false" or "lesser" religions is utterly ridiculous.

This quote from Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith forms a nice counterpoint to “David’s” comment above.

“[Christian faith] must also apply against itself the criterion which it uses against other forms of faith. Every type of faith has the tendency to elevate its concrete symbols to absolute validity. The criterion of the truth of faith, therefore, is that it implies an element of self-negation. That symbol is most adequate which expresses not only the ultimate but also its own lack of ultimacy. Christianity expresses itself in such a symbol in contrast to all other religions, namely, the cross of Christ. Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ. Any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry.”

It will be fun--and I hope productive and helpful--to talk to Jeremy and Alex about this point of view.

Friday, June 26, 2009

St. Nietzsche VI: Over the Overman's Head

In 1944 a book called "Plowman's Folly" took the United States by storm. Scandal of scandals, the book's author claimed that plowing the ground in preparation to plant crops was a bad idea. A blurb on the dust jacket, taken from Time Magazine, reads "The hottest farming argument since the tractor first challenged the horse..." That, by the way, was not a joke, and yes, the book's thesis was a hot topic nationally.

When my brother and sisters converged in Minot, ND, in 2007 to help my mother and step-father move out of there long time home into assisted living, my mother gave me Plowman's Folly with this note, dated December 10, 1993, inside:

"Lyle (my father) loved this book. I want one of my children to have it."

So "Folly" found its way to me, and I was delighted to find this note inside, which captured my father's passion for agriculture along with his personality very well:

"One of silliest and [most] cynical statements ever made in the history of our country is that "Anybody can farm." Devoid of truth. Good farmer has to know more about more things than any professional man. This belief has cost untold amounts of $. But nothing compared..."

These are shorthand talking points on a note card that was torn in half and used as a bookmark in "Folly."

What in the world does this have to do with Nietzsche's criticism of St. Paul? Everything, it turns out.

Gardening--which I will use as a metaphor for human interaction with the environment--is endlessly interesting. There is no sphere of human understanding that it does not enter. As Dad said, the good farmer "has to know more about more things than any professional man," who is ensconced in a particular area of expertise. As beings who continually learn more about how to manipulate our environment, rather than making the garden metaphor ever more remote as our agricultural roots fade in the distance, it becomes ever more germane. Gardening is explicit human interplay with the environment, but all human action is de facto human interplay with the environment. Conscious human manipulation of the environment began on a large scale with agriculture, but human activity in all "fields" entails interaction with our environment, whether we are mindful of it or not.

Furthermore, it would seem that agriculture was the progenitor of science. The particulars of what to plant where and when are rules of thumb analogous to scientific "laws" that followed on much experiment in the "garden," which is still the agronomist's "laboratory."

Here's the rub for Nietzsche's argument. He claimed that the will to power is fundamental making the moral law an impotent agent when it comes to changing human nature. On this, recall, Nietzsche and St. Paul agree. But Nietzsche goes on to point out that the moral law as Christians view it is contrary to nature, since it advocates for mercy and charity and humility, whereas nature always sides with the strong. Since nature is fundamental in making all living beings strive after the things they want--and Christian morals are no exception to this as they pervert nature by being a ploy to give "power" to the weak--to go against nature is to go against reality.

But, ironically, Nietzsche's view cannot survive a realistic view of human interaction with nature. Nietzsche sees wider nature as determining human nature. Our nature is subject to the will to power. But what determines the will to power? Does an organism do best by exploiting its niche, or by understanding its environment and doing best by way of its environment? An organism struggling to maximize its interests within a given environment will say the first. That organism will have a subjective view of good. "Good" means "good for it." An organism that can inpact the environment in a signifacant way must also consider its impact on the environment as part of its view of "good." That organism will have a subjective and an objective view of good, at least in the sense that its subjective "good" is tied to the good of its wider, "objective" environment. That means there are two points of view for a creature, like us, who sees good in a wider and more narrow frame of reference. For such a creature it seems that the wider frame should inform the narrower, making "Good" an objectve matter. But Nietzsche does not take note of this. He writes as if nature informs us that the strong whould dominate the weak. That makes "domination" the goal and hence the good. But is it good that mold overtakes--dominates--its host orange? By that analogy, it would be good for us to despoil our environment, the "orange" called earth.

But once we back away from a narrow frame of interest and admit the need to understand our environment in order to be good in relationship to it, we have a god's-eye view of the world. We are no longer just creatures reacting within an environment. We are creators making it.

Theologically this recasts my view of what it means to be makde in the image of God. For the writer of Genesis I think that the metaphor of the garden captured this very dilemma: we with God are makers of our world. Theologically, this metaphor, then, must hold the answer to our rejoinder to Nietzsche: We have a god's-eye view of nature that cannot be reduced to your narrow view of the will to power as determining our good. To be good, we must function within a wider, wholistic view of good. And that means that there is a moral law that is outside of us and should inform our sense of what we need to do. The moral law may not be fundamental--and with St. Paul you establish that in fact it is not. But the wider view says it SHOULD be. And the metaphor of the garden is precisely what brings that wider view into play in a way that converges with our very real human dilemma: We are creatures with two views of good, a god's-eye view and a creature's-eye view, and it is--in some sense to be sure--sin to capitulate to the creature's-eye view.

Re-read Genesis 1-3 and see if that children's story isn't a lot more sophistocated than it appears on first blush. IN fact, having read Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene" again recently, there is no mention of this crucial level of consideration. As creators of our world, we need the god's-eye view. As creatures within it, we loath to take on that responsibility, along with the sacrifices it might ential...

The picture at the head of this post is of the corner plot at our home. My wife goes out and gazes at it and the other plots lon Saturday mornings wondering what will make it better. As you can see, at the center fot he plot there is an open area, and she has yet to decide what should go there. It's a big decision, for a serious gardener.

Well, gotta go... Please forgive my not proofing this; recall this is prep for a rewriting in the fall.

Friday, June 19, 2009

St. Nietzsche V: Parting Company with St. Paul

In the last Nietzsche post (numeral IV) I agreed with the third argument, that "it is the will to power, and not the moral law, that is fundamental to human motivation." And, "Accordingly, seeking to follow the moral law does not change human nature, fundamentally." Of course, the whole idea behind morals is that they really improve us and the world. So if they are but window dressing on a perspective which, if it is looked into deeply enough, shows us that we aren't really moral, we ought to be honest enough to face the fact. I agree with Nietzsche on that, completely. It happens that Paul agrees that, if we look deeply at ourselves, we aren't really moral: To quote Paul, "...sin has made its home in my nature." (Rom. 7:17, Phillips)

In addition to that, Nietzsche has the following complaint against Christianity and the Apostle Paul, whom he called "The First Christian" (an essay from "The Dawn" with that title explains Nietzsche's view): "The Christian conception of God [is of] God as god of the sick..." (The AntiChrist, tr. Kaufmann, section 18.) By teaching us to value compassion and humility and mercy and charity, etc., Christianity betrays our natural devotion to greatness and strength. My rejoinder to Nietzsche's view is that there is no human greatness or strength without long, loving, nurturing patience with human weakness and incompetence. Nietzsche's hyperbolic disparagement of Christian values is at least as naive and misguided as he takes the object of his scorn to be. But this impasse is hardly worth arriving at.

Fortunately, the disagreement can be followed to a deeper point. Both the Apostle Paul and the Great Atheist agree on the need to transcend the moral law: Nietzsche announces the "uber-mensch" and Paul "a new creature." (Gal. 6:15 KJV) The status quo is, to be sure, an impasse that is hardly worth arriving at.

But for Nietzsche,

"When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation..." (from "Homer's Contest" in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. Kaufmann.)

The Apostle Paul agrees that,

"we [live] on the level of our lower nature." (Rom. 7:5, NEB)

The point of absolute departure for the two is precisely where it should be: grace, as understood in its primary, theological sense: divine assistance given to humanity in its state of helplessness apart for it. "For by grace you have been saved through faith..."

Before tracing the separation, let's note the astounding unity of the Apostle Paul and the Great Atheist on this point: we are estranged from the moral law by our very human nature. We are helpless in the face of the law, and here Nietzsche's view informs faith, precisely because it is unnatural; it is not in accord with who we fundamentally are. The "third argument" makes that case persuasively, and so we should be grateful to Nietzsche.

And since we are using the Great Atheist to make the point, why not bring in another to second it. ""There is really only one entity whose point of view matters in evolution, and that entity is the selfish gene." (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) p. 137.) And, "Genes are selected for their ability to make the best use of the levers of power at their disposal..." (Ibid.) A better "fundamental" explanation of human nature in accord with Nietzsche's will to power would be impossible to find. Since Dawkins does not think that his view from 1976 is outmoded--see his "Introduction to the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition"--it seems that Paul's point of view prior to grace accords with Nietzsche and Dawkins. And as a matter of fact, it is not a stretch to say that it is because his view accords with Dawkins and Nietzsche that he sees the need for grace. Paul was thoroughly up to date 2,000 years ago.

Of course, at that very point their views diverge in irreconcilable ways. But all this is to set up the following point: the way to transcend the impasse is encoded in the first biblical metaphors describing the relationship of divinity to humanity. And, I will contend, the view that Christianity set up--when understood at the necessary depth--offers a view of a truth that to too big for nature of science; a truth only faith can accept; but a truth none-the-less.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

St. Nietzsche IV: Arguments II and III

Is it really so easy to counter Nietzsche as to note that there is no human greatness--no "uber-mensch"--without the long patience with weakness and smallness on every level that form the crucial initial stages of every human beings history? Well, it was with the first of the three arguments. Let's look at the next two. (And just a reminder, I'm basically vamping on implications taken from one of Nietzsche's aphorisms, which you can read by looking back a couple of posts.)


This argument begins with the point that the first argument turned on (see last post): If the two main ideas connected to "justice" are getting what one deserves and delivering equality of opportunity, then justice is inherently elitist in that it should overturn any biases AGAINST the best--the greatest--among us from getting the lion's share of the goods sought for in competition with other lesser human beings. And stated in the abstract, it is undoubtedly true. The entailments of the two main senses of "justice" brought into conjunction auger in Nietzsche's favor. I am both surprised that Nietzsche never offered this argument directly and sincerely of the opinion that the simple and summary critique offered above--and in the last post--counters it effectively. Consequently, my best guess is that Nietzsche also saw that making the argument explicit was a dead end. But that suggests the question, if he saw that this argument was a dead end for the reason stated, what else did he presumably see in it (to account for the fact that he did not recant)? That brings us to the second argument.

The remaining rationale is, in fact, easy to locate: Nietzsche thought that it was bad for human society to corrupt the moral law in order to overturn the elitist bias natural to justice. It is bad precisely because it is against nature.

So here's the second argument, reduced to a sentence: to the extent that it's against nature, human beings should not value mercy and compassion, as Christianity teaches them/us to do.

Notice that this second argument--or this supplement to the first, if you like--does not fall by applying the critique of the first: Since human beings mature slowly and need much nurture, it is good to be patient with the weakness and smallness of human beings in development. And if the more talented often take longer to develop because they are in training for the more difficult disciplines, well then, we should indulge them fully with patience and good will as they take their time developing.

And so it seems that there is a simple and effective Nietzscheian rejoinder to the simple and effective anti-Nietzschian rejoinder offered in response to the first argument.

Critique of the SECOND ARGUMENT:

Much of the human society each of us keeps is weak and small. Should I not love and honor my 85 year old mother because she has become frail and weak? That would imply an inhuman smallness of a particularly repugnant sort, certainly not something to be credited to an "uber-mensch." It is healthy and and good BECAUSE NATURAL for human beings to cherish friendships and institutional connections just because our personal histories--if nothing else--are tied to them. Nietzsche's crude endorsement of "greatness" and "nature" simply offends human nature.


This is the argument I originally was going to critique, before discovering while forming its critique that there were three separate points or arguments that needed a response. (And as a reminder, I am working this out for putting together as a more considered monograph-length essay to complement "Into the World.") Here it is, again, modified in accordance with my evolving understanding of it:

Tautologically, everyone wants what they want, and if one really wants something, all things considered, one also wills the means. This is a rationale for Nietzsche's will to power: we all want what we want along with the means to get it; the will to power is a truism.

Accordingly, the moral law as something people want is subject to the will to power.

But then it is the will to power and not the moral law that is fundamental to human motivation.

Accordingly, seeking to follow the moral law does not change human nature, fundamentally.

In that case, any hope to bring real, fundamental change to humanity must be by way of addressing the will to power, not through the moral law.

This, by the way is the "Principle of Futility" that I announced as forthcoming in a post about three weeks ago--should have made that connection earlier. Oops! The futility is with respect to the moral laws ability to change human nature for the better. That is, fundamentally the moral law does not make us more moral. If you think of Paul's view of the law as presented in Galations and Romans, I'm pretty sure you can see how this can be developed.

Critique of the THIRD ARGUMENT:

I have no critique of this argument, narrowly considered. That is, I think that Nietzsche is correct. But here's the fun part. I think he is making the same point as the Apostle Paul! I'll make that connection explicit in the next post, along with how Christianity addresses the will to power with the gospel...

[Note: I'm trying to get a business off the ground, and one that must "make hay" in the summer. It just might be a couple weeks before I can post again. Sorry about that.]

Friday, June 5, 2009

St. Nietzsche III: How does one get more life?

How do we get more life? In many ways the answer is likely very particular for each of us. The things that you want, beyond the basics, are not likely to overlap much with my wants. But even in the particulars where we are more at variance than alike, we share an abstract commonality: we want power. We all want the power to get the things we want. True, a person can want something, but not enough to do what it takes to get it, but in that case, all things considered, she doesn't really want it.

In the last couple posts we looked at an argument inspired by a comment of Nietzsche's that entails--on my interpretation at least--that the moral law can be a way for the "little man" who envy's "the great man" to gain power over him. This point of view is destabalizing for morality, since it means that it does not necessarily "right" anything when it protects the little man from the great. It just churns the wheels of power without making any real change in the character of the person wielding it. Of course, for Nietzsche, the problem is much worse: The moral law is counter to nature in its protecting the little man from the dominance of the great.

The surprising point in the last post is that Nietzsche and Christianity agree on this: The moral law does not make us better; it does not improve humanity when it turns the tables on a powerful person by subjecting her to its sanctions. The history of the Jewish nation, in Paul's writings, teach us that: it was our "tutor" to bring us to the understanding that "If a law had been given which had power to bestows life, then indeed righteousness would have come from keeping the law. But Scripture has declared the whole world to be prisoners in subjection to sin..." (Galations 3:21-2) In effect, Paul makes the underlying complaint of Nietzsche--that the law teaches us that human nature makes the law a sham--into a fundamental doctrine of the faith. It's interesting when Christ and Antichrist find a point of agreement. To me, that's a place where we just might learn something important.

Last week, I stated that I would critique Nietzsche's argument (or the argument implicit in my interpretation of him). In looking more closely, I found THREE. My approach is still informal and tentative, but the value of thinking this through can hardly be overstated: We are considering two very different views of how to approach life, and we have found a common point of departure. What we learn about these basic and antithetical approaches to life almost can't fail to be important. Today I will critique just the first of the three distinct arguments.


Justice, as an end that many people want, entails wanting the power to achieve it.

But justice can be approached from two very different starting points: A. People should get what they earn or otherwise deserve, and B. People should all be given an equal opportunity to pursue the goods they want.

Crucially, if everyone is given an equal opportunity to pursue the goods they want, it will be the "great" who are successful.

Therefore, justice should not overturn the natural order in which the strong or "great" win and the weak or "small" lose. Let's just say it: Justice should be--and by nature is--elitist. In fact, if it really were, Nietzsche would have, I believe, endorsed it.

But under the spell of Christianity's transvaluation of values, we have unnaturally learned to love the weak and value mercy. Therefore "justice" has become unjust. The great of humanity should be above it: hence, the uber-mensch.


This will be short. Obviously no human greatness is achieved without great nurture. Greatness follows on a patience with weakness and smallness that takes decades and even scores of years to achieve. The idea that a "great man" like Nietzsche can look back at the people and tradition that raised him and scorn it for indulging weakness and smallness is not just bad manners, but ludicrous inconsistency. It is crucial to human greatness that we love the weak.

Nevertheless, there are also crucial lessons to be learned from Nietzsche's critique, lessons connected with the point of departure he shares with Paul. We will turn to lessons after considering the other two arguments. And remember; we are thinking about how to approach life to get what we want from it--to get the most out of it.