Determinism = Pantheism

handsI remember first running across Charles Hartshorne’s argument that to the extent X determines Y, Y just is X, i.e., theological determinism reduces to pantheism. I also enjoy points of agreement between Hartshorne and David Bentley Hart, shorn of the former’s Process theology! (Had to say it.) Hart writes (Doors of the Sea):

…conclusions as foolish as Calvin’s…that God predestined the fall of man so as to show forth his greatness in both the salvation and the damnation of those he has eternally preordained to their several fates. Were this so, god would be the author of and so entirely beyond both good and evil, or at once both and neither, or indeed merely evil (which power without justice always is). The curious absurdity of all such doctrines is that, out of a pious anxiety to defend God’s transcendence against any scintilla of genuine creaturely freedom, they threaten effectively to collapse that transcendence into absolute identity – with the world, with us, with the devil, etc. For, unless the world is truly set apart from god and possesses a dependent but real liberty of its own analogous to the freedom of God, everything is merely a fragment of the divine volition, and God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.

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God as Sacrificial Love

eikremThere is much to say about Asle Eikrem’s God as Sacrificial Love (T&T Clark, 2018). I got out of pure interest, suspecting it would be another run of the mill passibilist account of God as being the truth of our pain and suffering. But it’s not that. It’s much more. I’m nowhere near processing it, but I’ll offer his thoughts on one issue about which we agree – mortality:

“To begin with, I will argue that death, as such, is no penalty. It is simply a consequence of being a finite human. Furthermore, Jesus did not experience death as absolute ontological separation from God. Rather his death and resurrection revealed the only relational power able to transform the meaning of mortality as an existential condition of humanity in a way that overcomes it as the ultimate threat to fellowship. Jesus did not die the death of a sinner, but died in God and so ‘by the power of an indestructible life’ he freed those ‘who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Heb. 7.16; 2.14b, Mk 5.36; 1Jn 4.17). Does this mean that the death and resurrection of Jesus do not confront human beings with their sin(s)? No, but this confrontation is not related to the manner of his death on the cross, but to his prophetic critique of injustice, his practice of healing and forgiveness, and in his resurrection from the dead. Also, and importantly, the resurrection of Jesus is not only that of someone who died, but also that of a murder-victim. The way in which Jesus died was an expression of someone becoming the object of sin (Rom 8.3). It was not a divine penalty, but an affliction brought on him by the hands of human beings. God’s ultimate judgement upon sin did not manifest itself in Jesus’ suffering on the cross, but in the empty grave.”

Regarding love as essentially ‘self-sacrificial’, he writes:

“The second line of critique rejects that just relationships will ever be established if we depart from explicating the relationship in God, and between God and humanity, by recourse to such relational dynamics. If self-sacrifice means self-emptying (or selflessness) it is a relational problem, not a solution. Insofar as true love requires the existence of relaters who are truly other to each other, the absorption of one of the relaters into the other makes true love impossible. What we need then is a notion of God, the relational life of whom is one of strict mutuality (or equality), both in relation to Godself and in relation to humanity…True love (or justice) will only be actualized where two (or more) persons give to each other without giving up anything of that which constitutes them as persons, that is, their capacity to pursue their own aims in freedom. This will neither be achieved if we base our moral lives on a Trinitarian theology according to which the Son gives himself up to the Father, the Father gives up his Son, or where the Father gives up himself in the Son. Correspondingly, the Christological problem is that neither a Christ emptying himself of his humanity, nor of his divinity, will actualize true mutuality. True mutuality is only present where the personhood and equality of all involved are preserved and nurtured.”

(Asle Eikrem is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Norway.)

Cerebral alchemist

Chirst1 - Copy

I’m a cerebral alchemist, making gold from mere sentences
Mastered the matriculation, y’all are mere apprentices
Martin Luther King and Tech N9ne, I am the synthesis
Bifurcate the real from the fake like a parenthesis.

Switchin hands with the ball in the lane, I’m ambidextrous
Equanimity is the goal for my soul, never impetuous
Well, that might be a slight exaggeration,
‘Cuz when I get on fire I’m a walkin conflagration.

Hotter than lava percolating in Earth’s mantle
Dismantle the lame, with bursts of flame, Roman candl’in
But exquisite in every setting, commercial or residential
Serving me will never happen – like Trump being presidential.

Man stop – now you’re just being precocious,
Like you got some higher gnosis,
But these bars are straight atrocious
Poppin like Mary on the track, as the end approaches
like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Dwayne Polk (Art by Chris Green)

The ministry of Tom Thumb

perlmanI hope you’re not disappointed, but I’ve nothing to say about the Tom Thumb of 17th century English folklore. It just so happens that my name is Tom and I’m here to talk about thumbs. Being a thumb is often a thankless job, in spite of the fact that thumbs make possible great artistry. Thumbs don’t get the notoriety that fingers enjoy. Thumbs don’t even seek that attention.

Take any great violin player as an example. What’s the thumb of a violin player really do except support the amazing flair and virtuosity of the other fingers in their race up and down the fingerboard? The thumb hides quietly behind the stage upon which the other fingers dance and sing, never performing to the admiration of listeners or even asking to be noticed. Indeed, can we imagine Itzhak Perlman playing the violin with a hand full of thumbs? Hardly. But – and this is why I’m here to pay tribute to thumbs – neither can we imagine Perlman’s artistry without the thumb.

I’ve been in full-time ministry my entire life. A while back a friend and minister I have great respect for told me I needed to “start thinking about my legacy.” I secretly wondered if he thought that quiet and unapplauded work among addicts couldn’t be the stuff of which “legacies” are built. We talked about other ministry options. In the end, I wasn’t “entrepreneurial enough.”

170px-Tom_Thumb_1888I suppose there’s some truth to that. I am, after all, a thumb, and my friend is a finger, and that’s OK, except when fingers define the legacy of thumbs in terms of what fingers are and what fingers can do. Of course, fingers can’t do what they do without thumbs. And remember, a single good thumb can support the four fingers!

Thank God for the ministry of thumbs! Come on people, let’s lift our glasses. Here’s to all you thumbs out there!

Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 4

rublev_trinityI hope you’ve been enjoying Hart’s dense and challenging engagement of Nietzsche. This Part 4 closes out the relevant section on Nietzsche from Beauty of the Infinite (92-127) with which we began. Concluding that section, Hart writes:

Obviously there is something dubious about any attempt to abstract a “historical” Jesus from the New Testament, and to his credit, this is not really Nietzsche’s aim; nor is his Jesus any more implausible than that of, say, Harnack. If anything, Nietzsche’s reconstruction of the figure of Christ is to be preferred to many others, in that he is at least candid enough to confess how much of an imaginative project it is that he has undertaken. “What I am concerned with is the psychological type of the redeemer. For it could be contained in the Gospels in spite of the Gospels, however much mutilated and overloaded with foreign traits: as that of Francis of Assisi is contained in the legends about him in spite of the legends” (AC, 140-41). This “could” is at least some kind of admission of the ultimate impossibility of pursuing such a psychology as a purely “scientific” project. To treat the Gospels as palimpsests, concealing the original text of the historical Jesus, is often to arrogate to oneself considerable license for creating a Jesus amenable to one’s purposes; this has long been the special disease of the search for the historical Jesus, and it is certainly the case with Nietzsche; but The Anti-Christ does not simply limn a caricature and then make it an object of ridicule. Still, it is just as well to note from the outset that, in the end, Nietzsche’s “psychology of the redeemer” must be accounted an imaginative failure, if for no other reason than that it never actually succeeds at all in reinterpreting the figure that appears in the text of the Gospels, but becomes instead an incredible feat of hermeneutical intuition; so remote is the portrait Nietzsche draws from the narrated Christ of the Gospels that the texts can be used to very little effect, with the result that his Jesus turns out to be less a subversion of the biblical Jesus than an arbitrary (and rather conventional) construction. Christ, for Nietzsche, remains a point of particular resistance for the narrative of power, as is evident from the extreme inventiveness required of him as he attempts to commensurate and encircle Christ’s aesthetic force; and still invention flags, falls far short, exceeded in every direction by the uncanniness of the Christ of the Gospels – and this failure could not be more instructive.

Nietzsche expresses special contempt for Renan’s use of such psychological types as the hero or the genius to describe Jesus. One cannot, Nietzsche insists, call heroic a person who preached that evil should not be resisted, who knew only “blessedness in peace, in gentleness, in the inability for enmity” (141); “idiot” is the better epithet (perhaps on the model of Prince Myshkin): Christ lived in a sweet delirium, in which a life of eternal love seemed present in each moment, in which all men appeared as equal, the children of God; an inner world of his own creation, one to which he fled principally on account of his excessive sensitivity to touch and abrasion, his morbid dread of reality’s sting; his was a child’s evangel, an exhortation to simple faith, a devotion to an inner light and an immunity to all concrete realities (29-32, 141-44). Nietzsche rejects as barbarizing falsifications all attributions to Christ of irony, gall, or esprit, and all the nonsensical apostolic dogmas of a “second coming” or “final judgment” (142-43). Jesus was indifferent to dogmatic Judaism and to all formulations of religious orthodox; for him the entire world was a language, a system of spiritual symbols (144). This is why Christ’s evangel could not possibly survive him:

such a symbolist par excellence stands outside of all religion, all conceptions of divine worship, all history, all natural science, all experience of the world, all acquirements, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art – his “knowledge” is precisely the pure folly of the fact that anything of this kind exists….he never had reason to deny “the world,” he had no notion of the ecclesiastical concept “world.”… Neither can such a doctrine argue: it simply does not understand that other doctrines exist….Where it encounters one it will…lament the “blindness” – for it sees the “light” – but it will make no objection. (145)

Christ’s good tiding were that all sin and guilt were remitted, all punishment abolished, all separation from God overcome – now, in the present; he taught no system of belief, but only a sense of blessedness, a form of life; “evangelic practice alone leads to God, it is God!” (146). S the supreme symbolist, able to acknowledge the actuality of only his own inward universe, even his use of such terms as “son of man,” “God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” was metaphorical, a poetical plying of symbols of eternal “fact” (146). “But it is patently obvious what is alluded to in the symbols ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ – not patently obvious to everyone, I grant: in the word ‘Son’ is expressed the entry into the collective feeling of the transfiguration of all things (blessedness), in the word ‘Father’ this feeling itself, the feeling of perfection and eternity” (147). Even death, for such a one, is only a symbol, and Christ’s death was a final realization of the life he led (147-48). In short, Nietzsche’s Christ is a study in the psychopathology of moral and intellectual angelism. Unfortunately, this figure – though somewhat altered, is at the last boringly familiar: in Nietzsche’s Christ, as I have said, one renews acquaintance with Hegel’s “beautiful soul.”

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The church, then, according to Nietzsche, actually represents the absolute opposite of Christ’s evangel; “in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross” (151). The church was built by staggeringly unimaginative philistines, unable to understand or, certainly, to imitate Christ’s life; they transformed their master into a savior, a judge, a rebel against the prevailing social order, the one son of God; though Christ’s death was itself free of all ressentiment, in the minds of his disciples it became an act of sacrificial propitiation (152-54). Nietzsche especially condemns Paul for his role in this falsification; to Paul he ascribes a positive genius for hatred, and accuses him of inventing the resurrected Christ, the lord of history and the doctrine of judgment: in order, so the story goes, to extend his sacerdotal tyranny over the herd (155). Only by way of such dogmas could the church inveigle into its fold the impudent dross that became its vast constituency (115-16). Nietzsche’s treatment of Paul is, as it happens, easily the weakest, tritest, and most risible portion of The Anti-Christ; one could scarcely conceive of a diatribe that could succeed better at being at once so unbalanced and so platitudinous. But from the morass of these pages one can still extract the substance of the accusation being made, and it is one with a certain real gravity for Christian thought: that the historical church, far from simply failing to live up to Christ’s teachings, contradicts them in every essential feature. This is no simple attack on Christian hypocrisy; not only does the church fail to live up to what it professes, but that very profession is diametrically opposed to everything Christ was. Such an accusation carries with it an altogether devastating force – if, that is, one is actually convinced by Nietzsche’s portrait of Christ.

It would be fruitless to ask whether Nietzsche’s Christ is a psychologically plausible figure (perhaps he is); but as a historical reconstruction he is rather absurd, and more or less unimaginable in terms of Jesus’ time and place. It is difficult at first to know what to make of Nietzsche’s portrait, chiefly because it describes so singular a pathology in Nietzschean psychology: for the “man of ressentiment” everything is a cause of pain, and so he resents (EH, 229-31), but Christ’s reaction to reality’s afflictions, as Nietzsche imagines him, is neither resentment nor resistance, but an ethereal withdrawal, detachment, and tabescence of the will. This makes no very creative use of the texts; the more one inspects the picture presented, the more it looks like pure invention or a feat of divination more penetrating than any mere hermeneutical method: the Christ of the Gospels possesses simply too much irony and gall for this to be taken as an incidental addition to the memory whose impression was left in the Gospels (so much gall, in fact, as to be the cause of some considerable discomfort to Christians who occasionally wish that this biblical Christ cut a somewhat more domesticated figure – not so feckless as the piscine imbecile Nietzsche describes, of course, but something no more threatening than a social worker, or a community organizer, or ideally a conscientious bourgeois). The oddity of Nietzsche’s Christ is how close he comes to a cliché on the one hand and how remote he seems from the texts from which his picture is extracted on the other: he appears in The Anti-Christ as a sort of outlandish hybrid between a fin de siècle Parisian decadent, nourished on absinthe and opium, and an autistic child. The implausibility is difficult to exaggerate; the fiction is so thoroughly polemical that all proportion and narrative continuity is lost – an imaginative failure, as I have said. It would seem that, for Nietzsche, the figure of the Gospels remained to the end indomitable: in Christ he encountered a restive, alien, and intractable quality that had to be put at a distance by a combination of invective and extravagant psychological speculation. Admittedly, to deem The Anti-Christ an artistic failure is an entirely aesthetic evaluation, but in regard to Nietzsche nothing could be more pertinent. In this work, finally, the form of Christ remains rhetorically untouched (which is what is at issue for Nietzsche: he is not like Harnack, deluded that he can retrieve something of Christ’s historical substance as an objective quantity). To Nietzsche, whose limited psychological phenomenology can accommodate nothing that does not obey the simple taxonomy of active and reactive, Christ can be grasped only as withdrawal, dissolution, spindrift evaporating at the verge of the great ocean of violent energy that is the cosmos; it is inconceivable to him that the lamb brought to slaughter could be also the lion of Judah. But if there is an energy – which Christians call agape – that does not conform to this polarity between active and reactive, dominant or dominated, but is at once creative and responsive, evoking and evoked, and is able to constitute the distance between differences as neither force, nor violence, nor plain univocal heterogeneity, but as an analogical peace, as the gaze of recognition and regard, as a gift; if, in short, Christ represents a model of being that is active in receiving and creative in responding, or in which these things abide within one another, indivisibly, then the Nietzschean cosmos is revealed to be not simply an arbitrary fiction, an aesthetic perspective, but also perhaps – by comparison – a fairly squalid one.

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This is, of course, what is at stake in Nietzsche’s “psychology of the redeemer,” and this is why Jesus must tenant his narrative in just this fashion. The otherness that Nietzsche encountered in Christ, the strangeness and refractoriness to conventional psychology, is openly acknowledged in The Anti-Christ: Christ desired no power and suffered from no resentment toward his persecutors – indeed, he loved them. For Nietzsche this means Christ was a dreamer, which is to say a decadent, a creature of perishing life; but then again, perhaps a dreamer might also be creative. A certain degree of detachment from merely “obvious” circumstances, a certain distance and oneiric cast of mind, is required for any creative action; a new practice requires a new imagination of the world. Depending on the “dreamer” or the dream, the oneiric may be a force of historical effect, cultural change, social genesis, or revolution; the oneiric may be that rhetorical excess that reconstitutes understanding and practice, that alters the vision of others; it need not be only an inward and perishing force. A Christian might well acknowledge that Christ was a masterful “symbolist” – the documentary evidence is sufficiently convincing – but precisely in the sense that Christ showed that the world was a text that could be read differently: according to the grammar not of power, but of agape. The Christian contention, then, would be that this “dreamer” could also, in reenvisaging the world, initiate a real historical sequence, a positive if oft-imperiled “new creation.” He was a “revolutionary,” recasting the very form and reconstituting the very substance of the human in the life he lived in perfect faithfulness. And obviously the church may then regard itself as somehow a partial realization and imperfect enactment of this new creation – this kingdom without coercion – that was made flesh in Christ and is continuously made present in the Spirit. The church has Christ as its beginning and its end. Nor need any Christian meekly accept the Nietzschean division between what Christ saw and what he did: or rather, what Christ saw and what, in consequence, he did not do. One might even ask if Nietzsche is not engaged throughout The Anti-Christ in a strategy of ressentiment, the interposition of a moral interval between Christ (the agent) and the church (his agency), in order – to use Deleuze’s happy turn of phrase – to separate Christ’s (aesthetic) force from what it can do. A deviousness bred of weakness and a poverty of aesthetic imagination will – so one is reliably informed – inevitably assert itself in this way. In truth, Christ’s cleansing of the temple precincts, his creation of a new and holy space within history, can be conceived quite compatibly together with his “symbolic” pronouncements; his injunction to “render unto Caesar” may be regarded not merely as a dreamer’s recoil from “reality,” but as the active rejection of one order in favor of another, intended to make room for the concrete community of the church and its peculiar practices. For Nietzsche this remains always inconceivable: to allow that the symbolist of the Gospels could be also creative, forceful, imperious, and capable of discrimination and judgment – to allow, that is, that the “idiot” whose rejection of power was final and still free of resentment could genuinely enter into history, or constitute an apprehensible aesthetic form among the many forms cast up by time, or pose against all philosophies of will and power the historical example of a community able to live, however imperfectly and infrequently, by charity rather than by force – would give the lie to Nietzsche’s own narrative of cosmos and history, his own metaphysics and (more importantly) aesthetics.

Again, there is little but force of rhetoric behind Nietzsche’s constant reversion to a pagan vision of the world as perpetual agon, a terrible collusion of chaos and order, which is shaped and controlled through the judicious deployment of various powers, such as “reason” or “the state,” or (as is the case with Nietzsche) merely affirmed as wasteful but indestructible creativity. Nietzsche is a pure metaphysician insofar as he cannot endure the “irrational” idea of a freely creative and utterly transcendent love; he thirsts for the soothing fatalism of “necessity.” Thus he merely repeats the wisdom of totality, how redoubled and reinvigorated by a critique internal to itself: like Dionysus, totality rends itself apart to give itself new birth; the limbs of Parmenides are reassembled in the form of Heracleitos. If, however, the language of Christ’s evangel is taken seriously, for even a moment, a certain salutary trembling must pass through the edifice of totality: it is irreconcilably subversive of all the values of antique virtue and public philosophy, whether guarded by Apollo or animated by Dionysus; it makes every claim to power and to rights not only provisional, not only false, but quite simply absurd. Christians claim that the beauty that appears in Christ, contrary to all judicious taste, abides with and in the poor, the godforsaken, the forgotten, and the lowly, not simply as a sweetening of their lot with bootless sentimentality, or because Christianity cherishes life only when it is weak, perishing, and uncomely, but because Christ – who is the truth of being – indwelling among and embracing these “slaves,” shows them to be luminously beautiful. Can this be believed? To entertain the possibility that such a language could indeed effect the reality it depicts, even if fitfully and failingly, or to imagine that the future that impends upon every instant might lie open to the practice of such a reality, would require a far more radical historicization of thought, a more radical antiessentialism, than Nietzsche’s: it would require the belief that nothing in the world so essentially determines the nature of humanity or the scope of the human soul that there is no possibility of being reborn.

Finally, of course, as I have repeatedly insisted, it is taste, rather than historical evidence, that must dictate whether one elects to see Christ as a creator of values or as an impotent decadent. Again, it is Nietzsche’s aesthetic evaluation – I this case his preference for the form and allure of noble values over Christ’s gospel of love – that remains unassailable. The metaphysical aspects of his critique, which continually float to the surface wherever they are denied, are embarrassing if regarded as anything other than facets of an imaginative narrative, an attempt at a more compelling story, whose appeal is rhetorical, whose logic is figurative, and whose foundation is none. Nietzsche’s disdain does not follow from the force of his reasoning; it is that force. Despite which, certain of his postmodern followers all too often allow the metaphysical within Nietzsche to predominate (quite contrary to their intentions) by taking his narrative of being and his distaste together in such a way that the narrative comes to constitute an assumption that functions all the more pervasively for going unacknowledged: the Heracleitean cosmos is taken as, in some sense, as unproblematic and unarguable truth, and the only alternative to totalizing metaphysics (of which, however, it is a very venerable variety). Still, in the case of Nietzsche, it is the aesthetic side to which theology must attend, because this provides the only real challenge to the Christian kerygma: one gospel confronts another; Nietzsche’s preferences are all. They are preferences that are scintillatingly well expressed in numerous passages throughout his writings, such as one notable reflection in The Anti-Christ upon the kind of persons – the sordid little provincials – one finds everywhere in the New Testament: “Their ambition is laughable: people of that sort regurgitating their most private affairs, their stupidities, sorrows, and petty worries, as if the Heart of Being were obliged to concern itself with them; they never grow tired of involving God himself in even the pettiest troubles they have got themselves into. And the appalling taste of this perpetual familiarity with God” (144). In fact, Nietzsche may well be right; there is little in the New Testament, given his tastes, that might favorably compare with Homer – or even with Apuleius. One Gospel story that one can assume, from this quotation, earned Nietzsche’s disdain is that of Peter, hearing the cock crow and, remembering his denial of Christ, going apart to weep. Nowhere previously in the literature of antiquity had the tears of a rustic been treated as anything but an object of mirth; certainly to regard them as worthy of attention, as grave or meaningful or tragic or expressive of a profound human grief, could appear only grotesque from the vantage of a classical, noble aesthetic. There was indeed a revolution, a slave revolt, both in those frightfully subversive tears and in the shocking tastelessness of a narrator so indiscreet as to record them, so vulgar as to view them with anything but elevated contempt. And FNinsanethis is where the battle lines, ruefully to say, between Nietzsche’s narrative and the Christian narrative have been irrevocably drawn. The most potent reply a Christian can make to Nietzsche’s critique is to accuse him of a defect of sensibility – of bad taste. And this, in fact, is the last observation that should be made at this point: Nietzsche had atrocious taste.

…I intend nothing facetious in saying that Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself – of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity (and at a time when and in a land where modernity had gained a commanding advantage over it); this first eruption of the postmodern, which arrived appropriately as a rediscovery of a pagan ontology and aesthetics, reminds theology that against the God declared in Christ, Dionysus and Apollo stand as allies, guarding an enclosed world of chaos and order against the anarchic prodigality of his love. Many of theology’s native resources might otherwise have continued to lie largely unexploited. Since Nietzsche was always sufficiently aware that the “death of God” is not something that has simply epochally occurred, but must now be narrated and invented (lest only the “last man” inherit the earth), he always showed enough good manners to confront theology with what is clearly a story, stridently posed against the Christian story. And so theology is reminded that it has – and may boldly tell – another tale: one in which the being of creation is an essential peace, hospitable to all true difference, reflecting the infinite peace of God’s triune life in its beauty and diversity. For this recollection of its uniqueness within the world totality describes, and for this provocation to renew the kerygmatic essence of theology, Christian thought would be churlish not to be grateful.

_______________________________

AC (The Anti-Christ)
BGE (Beyond Good and Evil)
EH (Ecce Homo)
GM (On the Genealogy of Morals)
TI (Twilight of the Idols)
WP (The Will to Power)

Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 3

FN5See Part 1 and Part 2 of Hart’s extended reflections on Nietzsche from Beauty of the Infinite (92-127). In this Part 3, Hart continues:

One should probably ask whether the phenomenalistic monism of Nietzsche’s account of noble naturality is not still as firmly wedded to a subjective essentialism as Christian thought could ever be. When, after all, one likens the unfettered power and uncomplicated immanence of the noble in his action to the indivisibility of lightning and the lightning flash, the felicity of the image veils a fairly obvious intellectual crudity. Lightning, as it happens, possesses very little in the way of linguistic ambiguity, and any given flash has a very particular and uninvolved history; but one need only consider the linguistic, social, and political complexity of human existence, the historicity and metaphorical provisionality of every human “essence,” to recognize in the martial virtues of the noble not simply an original and natural phenomenon, but an effect – and a stage effect, at that. Were the noble warrior simply his own phenomenon, an immediate expression of himself, present to himself in the event of his “unveiling,” what would he be other than an egological substance? Where there is no distinction between action and identity, where no moral space intervenes, is this not still the concrete reality of a self, invariable and absolute, the Cartesian ego transposed into a phenomenalist key? A moral interval is characteristic of a metaphysics of the “self” (of a Cartesian soul) presumably because it is thought of as an interval that can be traversed “backwards,” in order to find that fixed terminus a quo whence moral action proceeds and so to alight upon a simple substance of self-present identity; the reproaches of the slave are meant to arrive at an agent, to whom actions are exterior and accidental, and in whom there is no division between what he is and how he is: an agency immediately at hand – unwritten – within the interiority of the soul. The inward space of Cartesian reflection still remains an “exterior” apprehension of the manifold, from which thought retreats to fall back upon the indivisible substance of an unquestioned and monadic identity, inseparable from the action of thought. Is it not obvious that his account of the self is just as irredeemably “identitial” from the very ease with which Nietzsche can construct analogies of resemblance: lightning, eagles, lions…? A “phenomenalized” substance, a soul brought to the surface of time and space, is still a pristine essence, in which identity vibrates as a single note of absolute presence. And a self that is called “event” rather than “substance” is at least as mythical as an enduring subjectivity. If what one refers to as the subject is in truth a series of happenings rather than a substratum of identity, one still indicates a substance: one that exists as the univocally reiterated moment of self-presence, and as an identifiable sequence of concrete eventuations of identity; it is even a substance to which one may point, a causal and phenomenal insistence, a concatenating presentation of self, neither retaining nor protaining, but whole and complete in its repetition. One catches a hint in Nietzsche’s language of the most substantial metaphysical “substance” of all: Did not Augustine, for example, speak of God as being without accidents (De Trinitate 5.3), who is what he has (De civitate Dei 1.10.10.1), and did not Aquinas, in keeping with tradition, deny accidents to God because such constitute the potential of becoming other than what he is (Summa theologiae 1.3.6)? What exactly, after all, is the “moral” interval that Christian thought imagines the soul to possess, if not precisely an interval, an opening or delay, where will doubles back upon itself or divides, where thought hesitates between identity and difference, where desire pendulates from delight to delight (“delectatio quippe quasi pondus est animae,” as Augustine says; “delectatio ergo orinate animam”), and where the self finds itself always subject to the bearing over (μεταφερειν) of metaphor? Is it not such an “interiority” merely an intensity, an inward fold of an outward surface (to misappropriate Deleuzean terminology), a space of interpretation, where the self’s “plot” may be rewritten? One might argue against Nietzsche that only an essential self could be immutable and resistant to renarration. The special pathos of the human is one of ubiquitous metaphor, the condition of being always an interpreted being, never to be traced back to a place prior to culture or language, to a state of nature and simple presence; there is always in the action of the person a formidable absence of the person; an “otherwise” within presence, even the instincts of the flesh, upon which Nietzsche places so great an emphasis, are curiously inadequate in delineating the shape of the human – “totemism” is born with human “nature.” In the end, for all his efforts tot liberate the subject from the labyrinthine metaphorics of the soul, Nietzsche can at best merely prefer the kids of animals that the “noble” chose to imitate.

Hart

This is of no small concern: part of our current postmetaphysical orthodoxy is the certitude that Christian “theism” and the idea of the self are the two poles of a single onto-theological myth; the subject whose death postmodernism announces, who reconstructs the world from its own original position in Descartes’s Meditations, who is at once the proprietor of Kantian freedom and the hostage of the carceral society’s therapeutic scrutiny, supposedly descends from the “subject” that makes its debut in such texts as Augustine’s Confessions and De Trinitate and that allegedly stands at the heart of the Christian narrative as the Archimedean point from which the sublimity of “difference” can be constantly displaced, the citadel of selfhood from which chaos may be held at bay; the self of modernity, so the story goes, is Hellenism’s nous or pneuma, enriched by the Christian language of the imago Dei and sin, now serving as simultaneously the rational surety of the world and an instrument of social tyranny. This story wants for subtlety. There have been many “selves,” many “souls,” in the history of the West, describing no continuum but one that is largely semantic; nor does any “postmodern” inclination of thought, inherited from Nietzsche, accomplish anything but the invention of yet another species of subjectivity. It is even questionable that Nietzsche succeeds at being a more radical critic than classical Christian theology of the idea of an invariable spiritual essence; this is not to deny the prominence traditionally enjoyed within Christian culture by talk of the self or soul, nor certainly to deplore it, but from certain vantages within the Christian tradition Nietzsche might appear somewhat retrograde. True, for Nietzsche there is no single self revealed by the creative and interpretive disclosures of the genealogist or the psychologist, but only a mortal, subjective multiplicity, a social organization of drives and affects, habits, qualities, and velleities (BGE, 20-21); even the simplest intentionality is a surface, concealing more than it shows, a symptom (BGE, 44). In a sense, thought, this merely repeats the Platonic metaphor, which makes of the soul a polis, an image of the “truth” that also appears outwardly in the world: a multiplicity whose strife must be vigilantly governed, lest it fall prey to the chaos that lies about on every side (an image serving, for Plato, as simultaneously a psychology and a politics). For Nietzsche, of course, there is obviously no self-sufficient rational faculty – no philosopher-king – to bring the disorder of the self into a uniformly organized and stable commonwealth, but only an endless series of conflicting passions (an Ephesian, rather than an Eleatic, interiority). Yet, predictably, the flight from metaphysics is described metaphysically: intention is a surface, a symptom, because Nietzsche too must find depths within depths, a changeless substrate of anarchic and autotelic will to power that, like Dionysus, is rent into innumerable fragments without ceasing to be one indestructible essence. It is difficult to see, in fact, in precisely what sense the twin practices of Nietzschean genealogy and Nietzschean psychology do not tend toward a metaphysics of the self that, far from dismantling subjectivity, merely brings it to rest upon a different foundation or “motive.” When, for instance (to choose among hundreds of examples), Nietzsche asserts that a popular pious adoration of saints is really only an admiration for the clarity of the saint’s expression of the will to power, the intensity with which he manifests our shared desire for dominion (BGE, 65), it seems all to obvious that this narrative of power has become an excuse for avoiding the testimony of the surface. One enters here into Nietzsche’s confessional, not to be absolved of sinful motives, but to be judged for the hypocrisy of failing to acknowledge them; there is no end of therapeutic terror in this place. Of course, it may well be that the saint fascinates a lust for power every bit as much as he or she convicts hearts of their want of charity; there are many dark and devious motives for many things, as desire is invaded in every quarter by sin; but desire is neither simply sin nor simply will to power. The saint may also evoke a quite blameless response to the type he or she at once embodies and varies; the saint, as an opening upon or interpretation of the form of Christ, may simply draw the gaze of the one who looks on into another radiance, another ambit of vision, a different aesthetic of being, in which one finds some measure of liberation from the self and its baser impulses; many lights and colors play upon the surface of the saint. Nietzsche’s apparent subtlety at such points invariably turns out to be surpassingly reductive and rhetorically monochrome: his is a constantly reiterated fiction of a second, inward, inverted gaze, a furtive and feral circumspection within each gaze, doubling its intent; he is compelled always to find a second, more interior, more fundamental motive. But if one stays at the surface of things, at least temporarily, and entertains the radical notion that most things are superficial, other perspectives appear: there may be a latent desire for power that the saint stirs into renewed longing, but the saintly form also embraces powerlessness and self-donation, the motion of charity, the love of the neighbor; and one can understand the saint and oneself according to this grammar; the saint’s portrait may occupy many frames, and may transfigure the eyes that gaze upon it. Neither what appears in saintliness nor what moves others to admire it can be grasped by so simple and mechanical a psychology as animates Nietzsche’s science of the soul. Nietzsche, though, cannot rest content with the ambiguity and richness of the surface; he must imagine instead an interiority of invariable disposition, by which the surface may be uniformly explained: as symbol, symptom, lie. But surfaces are always more complicated than “depths.”

What, indeed, is the Christian understanding of the soul? What is the imago Dei, and how does it resemble God? There is no entirely adequate answer to such questions, but any of worth will look nothing like the “subject” lost in the ruins of modern metaphysics. For example: the tendency to take Augustine as in some sense the father of the modern subject and the most perfect exemplar of the onto-theologian proceeds from a fairly maladroit exegesis of texts like the Confessions and De Trinitate, one which finds in their pages simply the story of God and the soul, two discrete substances whose mutual regard insures the meaningfulness of being as a whole. If this reading were essentially correct, one would expect to find in either text Augustine’s discovery of a stable subject, an appropriable identity present to itself, a singularity transcendent of time’s motion; there would have to be some still point at which, in traversing the inward interval, one finally arrives; but this is precisely what Augustine never discovers. The interiority that opens up in the Confessions possesses no center in itself, nor does it depend upon an idea in relation to which it is a shadow tormented by its simulacral drift; instead it is an infinitely revisable, multiplicity, self-contradictory text, whose creaturely contingency is restless in its longing, founded in nothing, and open to what it cannot own by nature. Memoria appears for Augustine – even in this fairly early text, written when the language of Neoplatonism still sprang easily to his lips – not as Platonic anamnesis, but as an open space filled with more music than it can contain, constantly “decentering” itself, transcending itself not toward an idea it grasps or simply “resembles,” but toward an infinite it longs for despite its incapacity to contain the infinite desire. To cross this “moral” interval is not the transcend the accidental so as to arrive at the substantial, but is rather perpetually to transcend any fixed identity: a transcendence which is always more transcendent, an infinite scope within the self that no self can comprise, and to which the self belongs. The imago Dei is not simply a possession of the soul so much as a future, a hope; the self forever displaced and exceeded by its desire for God is a self displaced toward an image it never owns as a “substance.” Thus, within himself Augustine finds no place to stand, nor does he glimpse above him a higher self, an idea that serves as the ontological treasure stored up for him in heaven, guaranteeing his identity; but he does see a light that embraces him as it shapes him – without need – as a vessel of its glory. Even in De Trinitate’s most “metaphysical” moments, the image of God is precisely that which cannot be fixed and cannot lend stability to a unified “ego,” because it is a trinitarian image, whose plurality does not correspond to “hierarchical” aspects of the soul (this is a Christian, not a Platonic soul), but rather illuminates the soul as an interdependence of equally present but diverse energies, and so leaves the self in a state of circumvolving multiplicity. The very meaning of the Confessions, after all, depends upon an understanding of the particular life, the particular self, as always reinterpretable; the soul is a story that can always be retold, subjected to new grammars, converted. The Christian understanding of the soul is, of necessity, dynamic, multifarious, contradictory; no one more profoundly expressed this dynamism than Gregory of Nyssa, for whom the soul could be understood only as επεκτασις, an always outstretched, open, and changing motion, and infinite exodus from nothingness into God’s inexhaustible transcendence (in Kierkegaardian terms, repetition). Theology need feel no pangs of conscience in this matter; for while Nietzsche simply draws a quasi-Platonic picture of the self as polity (or, as the case may be, anarchy), the Christian tradition substitutes for the Platonic soul something still more dynamic: an openness of the “self” before infinite being and infinite novelty.

ApollvomBelvedere

Really, it matters little whether Nietzsche was still a metaphysician, as Heidegger saw him, or just an irrepressibly mercurial mischievous ironist, because irony has always been a contour within the metaphysical (what did Plato believe?). The will to power is only a story, perhaps, but so is every metaphysics; and even as a story, its plot has often a poignantly dialectical logic. Nietzsche’s able advocate, Deleuze, has assured us that “For the speculative element of negation, opposition or contradiction Nietzsche substitutes the practical element of difference, the object of affirmation and enjoyment….The empirical feeling of difference, in short hierarchy, is the essential motor of the concept, deeper and more effective than all thought about contradiction.” But this is by no means clear. To begin with, one should be suspicious of any “empirical feeling” that stands identifiably prior to the code (the metanarrative) employed to describe it. And while Nietzsche may dispense with such notions as the thing-in-itself or the “soul,” he nevertheless clings to an equally naïve belief in the essential event, the transcendent event of power present in all the universe’s finite transactions: hence, a Christian repudiation of power must turn out to be the strategy whereby power assumes an unprecedentedly potent form. The will to power necessarily remains hidden within, and is indeed advanced by, its own negation. This is metaphysics tout court, more crudely monistic than Hegel’s, and no less dependent on the circular myth of negation. There is, in the Nietzschean cosmos, a perpetual deployment of violence against violence: early on he imagines this in terms of the simple dialectical opposition of Apollo and Dionysian violence, a violence that is a creative dynamism and the engine of its own multiplication (thus dialectic and identity emerge from one another). It may be true that Nietzsche has little taste for the grosser manifestations of power (though his views here know their vicissitudes), and it may also be the case that the truly Dionysian will is harsh only in order to create and is most harsh with itself, but this in no way mitigates the violence that sustains this ontology: difference originates always as opposition, and the genealogist of morals (as Foucault has said) must inevitably discover in history a series of dominations and subjugations (ontology and historicism here run inextricably together). It may be, in fact, that Nietzsche does not intend to be a vulgar monist; the world of his philosophy is not “one thing” – love, hate, war, peace – and cannot be comprehended from any one perspective (GM, 118-19). But at the same time, he cannot countenance the suggestion that the Christian exclusion of violence from original or ultimate reality is an intelligible or even honest philosophical position: it must be the querulous dissemblance of the man of ressentiment, there cannot be a repudiation of power immediately transparent to itself because “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!” (WP, 550). Difference cannot be sustained simply within a relationship of love; there is no perfect openness before the other, nor very much real openness at all except what is left open as a ruse or broken open by force. This is the magisterial metaphysics that for Nietzsche uniformily validates the world’s multiplicity of values, its always deeper and invariable truth; and he reserves such special acrimony for Christian morality because its language has tried to subvert the game – the agon – that sets the rules of that multiplicity.

Of course, Nietzsche is quite correct: as Celsus understood, Christianity did indeed subvert the language of noble virtue, especially insofar as the latter presupposed the necessity of strife and honored strength for its own sake; Christianity, in its origins, perversely refrained from the celebration of acquisition and dominion. But this much, for all the church’s frequent failure to embody the good it proclaims, theology has never sought to hide: when Nietzsche says that every civil state is created and maintained by violence (GM, 86-87), or that cruelty lies at the base of society and culture (GM, 64-69), he asserts nothing that is not already present in Augustine’s account of the civitas terrena as a city founded upon violence, indeed upon fratricide (Rome being the paradigm of all secular politics). For Augustine, though, this genealogy of culture remains a thoroughly historical observation; another city can be imagined, enacted, even experienced in the midst of a history alien to it, a history known to the church as sin: originally unnecessary and of a secondary order or reality. For Nietzsche, though, it describes nature’s patrimony to humanity, the inexorable advance of the ubiquitous will to power. In the end, what the theologian should probably most deplore in Nietzsche’s thought is that it simply is not nearly historicist enough.

FNstatue

However, when all of this has been said, little has been achieved. Once one has demonstrated that Nietzsche proceeds from a fairly foundational set of premises, that he is a metaphysical fabulist and that his metaphysics is circular, one has made only a very small advance against his position. It is true that the element of irony does not make metaphysics less metaphysical, but an irony entirely conscious of itself proves remarkably resistant to any bad conscience; it can slough off the surd of metaphysical assurance without inconveniencing itself or impeding metaphysical invention. To expose the Nietzschean metaphysics is not yet to bring his critique to a halt; one has merely seen behind one of his tricks, grasped the logic of his initial moves, but one has not reached the end of his game, because it is with just this sense of the inadjudicability of contradictory narratives that Nietzsche begins. Here, at least, one must agree with certain contemporary readings of Nietzsche, over against Heidegger’s, and recognize the metaphysical moment in Nietzsche as prolegomenal to the aesthetic (and so, finally, as itself aesthetic). Nietzsche has yet to be outstripped in philosophical irreverence, even by his most loyal intellectual heirs, in the matter of “truth’s” subservience to evaluation. Nietzsche is engaged principally in identifying an aesthetic disposition, a critical vantage, from which to wage a war of stories; he wishes to overcome the Christian narrative but never imagines he has “proved” it meaningless. This is why one does not confront Nietzsche’s full case “against the Crucified” unless one turns to the books of the 1880s, in which the critique of Christianity becomes more obviously an act of artistic imagination. Where Nietzsche is most convincing, and where his treatment of Christianity cannot be factually gainsaid, is where he portrays the church’s faith as a telling of the tale of being to which he is implacably opposed, I place of which he intends to tell another story. There is nothing facetious in saying that it is a cutting critic of the Christian aesthetic that Nietzsche is most effective. In general, Christian thought has understood as well as Nietzsche that truth cannot be decided by pure and disinterested reason (as if there were such a thing), but must be allowed to disclose itself as rhetoric, persuasion, narrative form; the evangel makes its appeal to the heart and eye, and has no arguments profounder than the forma Christi. Nietzsche’s account, apart from its aesthetic challenge, is one the church can either dismiss or even accommodate in its own understanding of itself: any tradition that enjoins constant skepticism regarding its own most basic motives, that insists on an almost merciless cognizance of its own hypocrisies, and that habitually convicts itself of its chronic inability to comply fully (or even meagerly) with the mission given by its “founder” can entertain the possibility that its history has in some sense been a sustained apostasy from itself, a will to vengeance more often than charity (the world “ressentiment” cannot but strike a responsive chord in a Christian conscience). What the church should not be able to abide, tough, is a rhetorical assault on the form of Christ (no matter how often it has perpetrated moral assaults of its own), nor can it very well suffer any insinuation tat it enjoys no true historical continuity with or access to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and these are the strategies that distinguish Nietzsche’s line of argument in his most rhetorically brilliant attack on the Christian tradition, The Anti-Christ.

Brilliant, that is, but not invincible: Nietzsche’s own acuity and subtlety make his task in this text difficult. For while he has no difficulty reading Christian history according to his narrative of the will to power, the figure of Christ remains, for him, somewhat elusive of this story. He mounts, therefore, a two-pronged attack, on the one hand asserting that Christianity as a whole constitutes a contradiction of Christ’s actual evangel and, on the other, depicting Christ himself as someone whose teaching was necessarily ineffectual, a supreme decadent, detached from reality and preaching dreams. The immediately obvious weakness of The Anti-Christ are in many cases those of late nineteenth-century German Protestant biblical scholarship, with which it seems reasonable to suppose Nietzsche had some acquaintance (hence his portrayal of Christ as principally a moral teacher, a gentle soul, proclaiming God’s fatherhood and the brotherhood of man, but not as the apocalyptic prophet of the Gospels, or the whip-wielding rabbi driving money changers from the temple, or even really a first-century Jew). But this should not distract one from the more durable aspects of Nietzsche’s portraiture, nor from the occasional force of his aesthetic assessment of the figure of Christ in the Gospels. What is most astonishing about The Anti-Christ is that Nietzsche makes no attempt therein to argue that the ministry of Jesus can, like the ministry of the Christian church, be treated as a covert strategy of the will to power; if his Jesus is moved in any way by this will, it is only in its most rarefied form: not as a crude desire to dominate, expand, or acquire, but as an overwhelming sense of the presence of eternal bliss in the present moment, of universal reconciliation with God, and of the solidarity of all men in a fraternity of mutual love and forgiveness. Nietzsche never gives the slightest indication that he does not take entirely seriously Christ’s own repudiation of power; he seeks only to demonstrate that such repudiation belonged to a way of life that was incommunicable and flawed, blighted at the roots, incapable of entering into history or of changing the conditions of human existence.

(to be continued)
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AC (The Anti-Christ)
BGE (Beyond Good and Evil)
EH (Ecce Homo)
GM (On the Genealogy of Morals)
TI (Twilight of the Idols)
WP (The Will to Power)

Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 2

Here continues from Part 1 Hart’s reflections on Nietzsche in Beauty of the Infinite. Each part in this series continues immediately from the end of the previous part and follows the text in BOI (92-127) I’ve omitted only footnotes; all emphases in the text are as they appear in BOI. The section toward the end on wine (oinotheology) is priceless. Enjoy!

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FNwide

The priest rules. For all its claims to have abjured violence, the church was from the first, even before it enjoyed political power, a structure of coercion, of in fact the greatest of imaginable tyrannies. Not that the exercise of tyranny, as such, is any indictment in itself. Nietzsche’s later writings, after all, espouse a vision of the world as nothing other than the will to power, a cosmic “pathos” constituted from innumerable quanta of force existing in “relations of tension” (WP, 338-39), “a monster of energy, without beginning, without end…a play of forces,” boundlessly fecund, abundant, contradictory, and recurrent, serving no end but its won Dionysian creativity and destructiveness (WP, 549-50), of which every efficient force in the world – natural, “moral,” or other – is one or another aspect (BGE, 47-48). What Nietzsche despises in the particularly Christian expression of this will, however, is its sheer reactivity, its want of creativity, its empty grasping for control, and its pusillanimous longing to sill the turbulences of life. Christianity may allow the invalids created by its palliating spirituality certain mild but consoling expressions of power – acts of benevolence, gestures of condescension (GM, 135) – but it simultaneously depresses any impulse toward higher forms of life. And while Nietzsche insists that the sublimation of the will to power – through sacrifice, discipline, internalization of law – is a necessary moment in power’s creative expansion, he sees nothing in Christian asceticism, morality, or priestcraft but a depraved mockery of this sublimation, a dissimulation, a refusal to acknowledge the church’s true motives, and an expression of craven ressentiment directed against those possessed of “free spirits.” Even if, indeed, all effects are shapes assumed by the incalculably various will to power, even if what one calls will, thought, and act are only artificially isolated moments within a far greater process, one must still recognize Christian faith as the will to power at its most vulgar and debased: power representing itself as the refusal of power, as the negation of strife, as the evangel of perfect peace – only in order to make itself stronger, more terrifying, more invincible.

All very bracing rhetoric. But when one steps back from the flow of Nietzsche’s polemic, one becomes uncomfortably aware of a certain stress at the heart of this critique, a fissure of contradiction constantly displacing the center of the Nietzschean narrative to one or the other side (bridged, perhaps, by a furtive irony, which refuses to take too seriously the claims it impregnates); at one and the same time an edifice of “truth” is in the process of being dismantled and erected. One can scarcely deny, to begin with, the appearance of a seemingly unreflective naturalism in Nietzsche’s thought, prompting him to employ such words as “life,” “instinct,” and “nature” with a casual assurance that belies his own acute awareness of the cultural contingency of all “truths”; and one might justly wonder whether the life he celebrates is anything more diverting than the upward thrusting of an empty will, blind and idiotic, to which he has arbitrarily ascribed (in an ebullition of romantic enthusiasm) such qualities as richness, vitality, and creativity. One is often sorely pressed to hear the ironic tone that will indicate to the attentive ear that discreet juncture where an apparently absolutist metaphysics reveals itself as an intentional and exotic feat of fabulation. If Nietzsche’s vision of nature – of being – is simply that of the pagan (Heracleitean, Epicurean, etc.) αγων κοσμικος, if the “life” of which he speaks is essentially appropriation, injury, and overpowering, then of course ontic difference appears in Nietzschean narrative as opposition and contradiction; indeed, difference is appreciably different precisely in the degree to which each force resists, succumbs to, or vanquishes another force: an ontology of violence in its most elementary form. Not that this is in any sense a startling observation, nor does it somehow tell against Nietzsche’s position; it merely renders dubious the antimetaphysical rigor of his arguments. Can any degree of ironic distance make the Nietzschean critique any less “metaphysical” than what it attacks? Or, rather, can that critique sustain itself with any force or durability unless it stakes itself upon the “truth” of the narrative it invokes? And is then the nostalgia of Janus, at the last, unconquerable? This is a question probably of more interest in retrospect, from the perspective of Nietzsche’s postmodern disciples (those who hope to reject not only metanarratives but narrativity as such, with its “closure” and hierarchy of meaning), than it could ever have been for the man himself. But it is also a question that cannot simply be ignored as a humorless concern with “literal” readings, because even if one grant that Nietzsche is entirely conscious of his doubleness of tone, this in no way alters the truth that in posing an ontology of violence against the Christian narrative, the advantage that Nietzsche seems to have gained turns out to be, ultimately, only as compelling as any other aesthetic preference. There would be no objection to this, of course, if it were not for Nietzsche’s habit of treating his preference as a more honest, less resentful, less arbitrary, and more truthful account of reality; Nietzsche’s post-Christian counternarrative (which is itself perhaps occasionally tainted by resentment rather than honesty) cannot be denied its power and its appeal, but it should be recognized not simply as critique but as always already another kerygma. Between Nietzsche’s vision of life and an agon and the Christian vision of life as creation – as a primordial “gift and “grace” – there is nothing (not even the palpable evidences of “nature red in tooth and claw”) that makes ether perspective self-evidently more correct than the other. Each sees and accounts for the violence of experience and the beauty of being, but each according to an irreducible mythos and a particular aesthetics. A battle of tastes is being waged by Nietzsche, and the metaphysical appears therein as a necessary element of his narrative’s completeness; the difference that is immediately noticeable, however, between the Christian and Nietzschean narrative dynamisms is not that the former is indisceptibly bound to the metaphysics of identity and presence, but that the latter is simply more disingenuous regarding the metaphysics it advances.

FN4

Of course, Nietzsche would hardly be inconvenienced by such a complaint; truth is always a metaphorical pleating within the fabric of language, he might airily reply, a transposition of meaning from one context to another in an endless series of interdependent tropes, an appearance of proximity to “being” achieved by an ever more devious play of semantic remotion; and his strategy, in all good conscience, is one of suasive exhortation: he means only to urge, at times with magnificent indifference to fine distinctions, the forcefulness of his own metaphors. It matters little, for instance, that the rhetorical flourish of his facile equation of Christianity with Platonism is burdened by no small measure of philosophical imprecision, so long as his story has the power to persuade. Nonetheless, it is well to note that Christian thought can exculpate itself of this charge with comparable rhetorical aplomb; if nothing else, the metaphysical implication within the aesthetic denunciation is, in this case, difficult to sustain, if for no other reason than the demonstrable (and historically significant) truth that, while Christian thought early on often adopted a “Platonic” language for its theology, it also found itself moved radically to change that language. It is even arguable that Neoplatonism, in the early centuries of the church, had already altered the Platonic ontology in a slightly “Christian “ direction by substituting for the merely specular relationship between the apparent world of chaotic materiality and the ideal world it imperfectly imitates a relationship of emanation, such that all being “belongs” to the multiplicity of nous in its contemplation of the One (as Plotinus would say); for Plotinus, after all, “the infinite” (το απειρον) had already ceased to be a term of philosophical opprobrium, a synonym for the indeterminate and formless, and become a term for the positive plenitude of the goodness of the One. In any event, one approaches Plato’s realm of the forms through abstraction from the world of particularity and difference, but something had fundamentally changed by the time Christian theologians began to identify their absolute with the infinite, to equate goodness, truth, and beauty with the whole of being itself, and to introduce into their understanding of Godhead the language of relation, responsiveness, and creativity. Whether or not the “Platonism” patristic theology found congenial to its aims had already begun to unburden itself of the Platonic χωρισμος and to exorcise from itself the specter of a “bad infinity,” Christian thought, insofar as it appropriated a Neoplatonic morphology of being, transformed it in accord with its own narrative; what remained then was a formidable collection of concepts and terms, now integrated into a more generous scheme of signification and rendered analogous by another, radically more transcendent analogate. When Christian thought defined the Trinity as a coequal circumincession as opposed to a hierarchy of diminishing divinity, the Neoplatonic story of substantial emanation – and with it, the last trace of an ontological space of the simulacral – became meaningless; if the beauty of material existence is not merely the overflow of a self-enclosed, strictly unitary, and entirely spiritual beauty into the confining channels of material deformity, but is the unnecessary, untrammeled, and contingent expression of a divine delight that is always already “differential,” created difference is loosed, as univocally good in its creatureliness, though it is analogically imparted; and when Christian thought replaced the identist and substantial analogy Platonism presumed between the world and “God” with a genuinely ontological analogy between creatures who own no substantial claim on being at all and a God who is the utterly transcendent and absolutely immediate actuality of any being’s existence, every form of metaphysical reasoning had to be recast. Even the Neoplatonic thought of the infinite as an excess of perfection in a state of divine and monadic simplicity came to be radically surpassed by a Christian account of the infinite (which Gregory of Nyssa first gave coherent shape). To regard creation as the gift of yet another difference is not to treat this world as merely a distinct and inferior reality from which one is obliged to flee in order to attain to the absolute, but is rather to see finitude as embraced by and containing the grace of the infinite; for classical Christianity it would perhaps be less proper to speak of “another world” than to say, quite simply, that the world is infinitely greater than one might expect, in one’s less reflective moments. Were this not so, Christian tradition would not have been able to sustain the biblical affirmation of creation’s goodness, to speak of creation’s participation in the good (Frederick Copleston is quite justified in objecting to Nietzsche’s habit of describing Christianity in terms proper to Manichaeism), or even to have described creation – including human art and virtue – as belonging to the gloria Dei. Christian “truth” is more spacious – it must be – than the “truth” of Platonism; the Christian Logos must be conceived of as containing all of creation and history within itself – without despoiling creation of its differences and reducing ontological contingency to a condition of impoverishment and distortion – and so is, as Karl Jaspers perceptively phrases it, “open to the alogon”; which is to say, on the one hand, that the world is comprised by God’s being and so can be known only in particular perspectives, and on the other, that absolute truth is God himself, who is transcendent of the world and in whom being and the infinite are one, and so cannot e grasped at all save in the series of perspectives that, in themselves, are still apophatically denied to possess any ultimate purchase on the divine. As created being is the analogical expression of the infinite Trinity, it “corresponds” to its source not through an inanition of the simulacral and particular, in order to converge upon the ideal, but by way of its own motion of differential excess, as the expressive rhetoric of an infinitely responsive and differentiating God. Thus it is scarcely clear whether the Christian tradition or the Nietzschean critique is demonstrably more “idealist.”

FN3

But, again, all this serves to overburden Nietzsche’s diatribe with critical scruples; in speaking of Christianity as popular Platonism, Nietzsche is not making a metaphysical or hermeneutical claim; he is simply expressing his repugnance for an ethos that denigrates the senses, strives against the instincts of the flesh, and defers ultimate value to the realm of spiritual “reality” alone: the ethos of “castratism,” the cult of death. Nietzsche’s Dionysus, by contrast, supposedly unites in himself the strongest impulses of spirituality and sensuality; an emblem of the most pious godlessness, he represents enmity against every faith that distracts life from itself, in all its wasteful, extravagant, contradictory magnificence. (And here, lamentably, Nietzsche’s callow apostrophes to “Life” sound notes that will echo down the plangent corridors of a whole century’s literature of puerile paganism, from A. C. Swinburne and Havelock Ellis to Gore Vidal.) Still, even within these limits, it is not altogether certain how far Nietzsche’s rhetoric can credibly be taken, for however just his condemnation of pious otherworldliness may be – and the church has seen no end of it – it is the unambiguous renunciation of gnoticism, and not the paradoxical renunciation of classical Christianity, that would correspond most nearly to his account. Indeed, no one familiar with late antiquity and the world in which the gospel was first preached can be unaware that a prevailing spirit of otherworldliness had long been moving inexorably through the empire: not only Gnosticism, but every variety of etherealizing devotion, mystery religions, Eastern esoterica, mystical Platonisms, and the occult; the contempt for the flesh expressed by Valentinus, Ammonias Saccas, Plotinus, the Mithraic mysteries, or even the sanctimoniously ungroomed Emperor Julian was more bitterly world-weary than any of the exorbitant expressions of spirituality to which the church fell prey. One may agree with Nietzsche that this atmosphere of acosmic and incorporeal religiosity defames the world, and one may acknowledge that it infected every institution and spiritual aspiration of its age, including those of the church; but one should also recognize it as first and foremost a pagan phenomenon: a growing awareness, within an increasingly pluralistic and cosmopolitan empire, that the pagan cosmos was a region of strife, in response to which one could adopt only the grammars of empire or spiritual retreat, and an increasingly fashionable tendency to elect the latter. Christianity suffered from the contagion in some considerable measure, but was also able to resist it as paganism could not, because it had at its disposal means for renarrating the cosmos from the ground up. But Nietzsche may serve as a reminder that the church did not always entirely free itself from the lingering residue of paganism: its otherworldliness, its inability to see the beauty of creation without succumbing to the pain of being, its terror before a world of violence; the joyous, sacrificial communality and heroic agape of the desert fathers could not entirely resist the invasion of an occasionally exsanguinating spirituality; the model of Simon Stylites and his kind was too eagerly admired by a populace that tended to understand his spiritual achievement in terms of a spectacle, as a feat of impossible endurance and abnegation of the self. But it was also into this crepuscular world of transcendental longings, of a pagan order grown weary of the burden of itself, that the Christian faith came as an evangel promising newness of life, and that in all abundance, preaching creation, divine incarnation, resurrection of the flesh, and the ultimate restoration of heavens and earth: a faith, moreover, whose symbols were not occult sigils, or bull’s blood, or the brackish water and coarse fare of the ascetic sage, but the cardinal signs of fellowship, feasting, and joy: bread and wine. There was in such a faith an undeniable assault upon pagan values: a certain very Jewish subversion, a rejoicing in the order of creation as gift and blessing, an inability to grow too weary of the flesh, an abiding sense of the sheer weightiness – kabod – of God’s glory and the goodness of all that is; but it is a subversion that Nietzsche does not grasp from the perspective of his rather adolescent adoration of pagan harshness, and so his story grows shrill and unbalanced. If Christian culture were simply spiritualist, if it endorsed an ethos like that of the Corpus Hermeticum or the libretto of Parsifal, Nietzsche’s indictments of Christian “castratism” would command great force; but for all the cunning and psychological inventiveness of his genealogy, it fails at every juncture to accommodate the complexity of what he wishes to describe. The orthodox doctrine of creation out of nothingness, and its attendant doctrine of the goodness of creation, led the church (more radically even that Neoplatonism) to deny to evil any ascription of true being, to define it not as an essence or positive force but as mere negation, reaction, a privation of the good (στερησις αγαθου), a perversity of the will, an appetite for nonbeing – but no objective thing among things: all things had to be affirmed, and with equal emphasis, as God’s good creation.

And surely there is something almost tediously wrong in asserting that Christ’s crucifixion has ever figured in Christian tradition as a repudiation, rather than ultimately an affirmation, of the fleshly life Christ was forced to relinquish. “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25; Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18) – wine clearly appears here as the perfect and concrete emblem of the beauty of creation and the joy of dwelling at peace in the midst of others: not the wine of Dionysus, which makes fellowship impossible, promising only intoxication, brute absorption into the turba, anonymity, and violence, but the wine of the wedding feast of Cana, or of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In fact, if I may be permitted an excursus, it is conceivable that a theological answer to Nietzsche could be developed entirely in terms of the typology of wine. After all, the wine of Dionysus is no doubt of the coarsest vintage, intended to blind with drunkenness rather than enliven whimsy; it is fruit of the same vine with which Dionysus bridged the Euphrates, after flaying alive the king of Damascus, so that he could conquer India for viniculture (so we know from Plutarch, Pausanias, Strabo, Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, and others); and of the same vine for which Lycurgus mistook his son Dryas when driven mad for offending the wild god, causing him to cut Dryas down for “pruning” (as Homer Apollodorus report); the vine that destroyed the pirates who would not bear Dionysus to Naxos (so say Homer, Apollodorus, and Ovid); it is the wine that inflamed the maenads to rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by his own mother Agave (as Euripides and others record); the wine repeatedly associated with madness, anthropophagy, slaughter, warfare, and rapine (one need consider only the Dionysian cult at Orchomenus – with its ritual act of random murder – and the story of the daughters of Minyas – frenzy, infanticide, cannibalism – from which it sprang). The wine of Christian Scripture, on the other hand, is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God’s bounty (Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13; 11:14; Ps. 104:15; Prov. 3:10; Isa. 25:6: 65:8; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19-24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Zech. 9:17), and an appropriate thank offering by which to declare Israel’s love of God (Exod. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num 15:5-10; 18:12; 28:14; Deut. 14:23; 15:14; 18:4); it is the wine that “cheers the hearts of gods and men” (Judg. 9:13), to be drunk and shared with those for whom nothing is prepared on the day holy to the Lord (Neh. 8:10), the sign of God’s renewed covenant with his people (Isa. 55:1-3), the drink of lovers (Song of Sol. 5:1) and the very symbol of love (7:2, 9; 8:2), whose absence is the eventide of all joy (Isa. b040bdf6a85abdc79048cf93bb03ccc924:11); it is, moreover, the wine of agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing, at Cana – a wine of the highest quality – when the kingdom showed itself “out of season” (John 2:3-10); the wine, again, forsaken with all the good things of creation, when Christ went to his death, but promised to be drunk anew at the banquet table of his Father’s kingdom, and from which – embittered with myrrh – he was forced to turn is lips when on the cross (Mark 15:23; Matt. 27:34); the wine, finally, whose joy is imparted to the church again, and eternally, with the fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:13), and in which the fellowship of Christ and is flock is reborn with every celebration of the Eucharist. Of course, Nietzsche was a teetotaler and could judge the merit of neither vintage, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that his attempts at oino-theology should betray a somewhat pedestrian palate.

At the very least, though, one might ask of Nietzsche some recognition that the doctrine of resurrection could never be reducible to a simple doctrine of the immorality of the soul, of a spiritual essence yearning for liberation from the prison house of the flesh, but must be an assertion of the belief that from the divine side of the world of God’s making will be shown to be worthy of his eternal affirmation. Or a recognition that the eschatological vision described by Paul in the eighth chapter of Romans describes the ultimate revelation of God not as a destruction of this world in favor of heaven, but as the world’s transfiguration and glorification. And given the most venerable strain of Christian soteriology, which understands Christ’s cross and resurrection as the conquest of death and the return of his invincible life, it is questionable how far the terms of Nietzsche’s opposition between the mythologies of Christ and Dionysus can credibly be taken; and questionable whether the Deleuzean embroidery upon this typology does not prove a bit threadbare and vulgar: Does the suffering of Christ confirm being’s guilt while the suffering of Dionysus proclaims its innocence, or may one exercise some subtlety here and see in the cross and resurrection of Christ the story of life’s unjust suffering (that is, the injustice of a violence that crucifies), and of a justice hat cries out for the salvation of what lies in bondage, and reveals itself as a deathless love of creation’s fullness? This crude dualism, between a suffering that condemns life and another that hallows it, ignores the multivalency of both narratives; or rather, it leaves unquestioned the life Dionysus affirms and entirely fails to see what life is raised up with Christ. Simply said, Dionysus’s affirmation is a curse pronounced on life, while Christ’s renunciation affirms the whole of creation.

As for Nietzsche’s contention, in On the Genealogy of Morals, that the idea of a soul, an abiding subjectivity lying behind the actions of the nobles – the ravening birds of prey – was the invention of the imaginations of the weak upon whom the nobles visited their spoliations, and who wished to believe in a moral interval, an intermediate ground between agent and action at which they could direct their reproaches, it is unlikely that it can bear very close scrutiny. Milbank can be credited with the most inspired riposte to this story: no leap of fancy, he observes, is required for the slave to reprehend the master; there is no need for a “metonymic” displacement of moral judgment onto a permanent “self,” because within “noble” actions there is always already a metaphoric tension. The wild warrior of primitive, tribal societies did not simply resemble the eagle or the lion, but actively imitated them, took them for totems; noble naturality was already a cultural invention, the mimetic piety of man-becoming-eagle. Perhaps, then, the slave has merely seen the truth of metaphor, and so is entirely justified in denying the necessity of noble aggression or the inevitability of life’s boisterous violences, and equally justified in choosing another story, woven from a more pastoral tropology, whose grammar depends not upon the romance of strength and acquisition but upon the primordiality of love. Milbank also notes that Nietzsche is little interested in the codes that were already written into heroic society, but imagines the order of that society (rather fantastically) as consisting in the compromises arrived at between powerful men, in the prime of their animal exuberance; and he suggests, further, that another genealogy of subjective interiority might more plausibly locate its origins in the fanatical self-referentiality of heroic culture.

(to be continued)
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AC (The Anti-Christ)
BGE (Beyond Good and Evil)
EH (Ecce Homo)
GM (On the Genealogy of Morals)
TI (Twilight of the Idols)
WP (The Will to Power)