A phantom kingdom

Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law’ within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.

(David Bentley Hart, Beauty of the Infinite)

The Cross and the transformation of evil

sac2I’ve been enjoying recent conversations about the Cross. These have centered on Rene Girard’s critique of sacrifice and the work of Girard’s close friend, Swiss Jesuit Raymund Schwager whose appropriation of Girard’s work to biblical studies and theology is most clearly worked out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, from which is taken the passage below.

The question concerns the nature of the Cross as sacrifice when read against the background of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice and from which economy we cannot extract the Cross. The letter to the Hebrews figures in hugely here for it so obviously compares and contrasts Christ’s death against this OT background. How are we to understand the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make? Is the Cross even an instance of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice, or does it subvert and expose that economy? We unequivocally condemn the evil of Christ’s crucifixion, and yet the language of ‘sacrifice’ has been embedded in Christian worship and ascetic practice throughout its entire history.

David Bentley Hart urges us not to view the Cross as “a” sacrifice but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice,” that the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make are these two opposed orders of sacrifice, that “[t]he crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event.” (emphasis mine) Here are two “currents of stress,” notes Hart, within Israel’s faith, and they are imposed upon us by the clear presence in the Old Testament of two contrary perspectives on sacrifice, one which affirms and celebrates (and portrays God as affirming and celebrating) Israel’s blood rituals, and another which unambiguously condemns and subverts that economy as such. These are not easy currents to separate, or even always to identify. But surely worship and ascetic practice are finally free of the “stress” Hart notes so that we may celebrate the sacrifice Christ makes without affirming the sacrifice those who crucify him make. To that end, let’s consider some of what Schwager has to say on the subject.


On the question of the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament there is another issue to consider, which makes things ever more complex. We are faced here not only with a cultic institution which is hard to interpret, but also an equally strong criticism of sacrifice, especially by the prophets. The great crisis in Israel which manifested itself at first in the destruction of the northern kingdom (721 B.C.) and then led to the long-drawn agony which lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (587 B.C.), stirred up faith in Yahweh in its inmost depths and called forth the great messages of the prophets. Faced with the threat, the prophets expected no help from God through the sacrificial cult, rather they saw in it an expression of that falsehood and mendacity which was responsible for the fatal crisis. In the name of Yahweh they proclaimed: “I hate your festivals, I loathe them and cannot smell your solemn assemblies. Even though you present burnt offerings to me, I take no pleasure in your gifts and I will not look at your fat peace offerings” (Amos 5:21-22). Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial cult went back to a command of God: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people” (Jer. 7:21-23; 6:20; Amos 5:25). The prophets called for true knowledge of god, justice and love, not in addition to the sacrifices but in opposition to them: “I want steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Isa. 1:10-17; Ps. 40:7ff)…

…The unsolved problem of the Old Testament sacrificial cult would seem to make it impossible to develop a systematic interpretation of the death of Christ from that starting point. Certainly, the letter to the Hebrews sees the cross explicitly against the background of the cult, and it describes Christ as the high priest who offered a sacrifice. But the letter to the Hebrews can make these statements only because, by the use of numerous antitheses, it totally alters the concepts of both priest and sacrifice. First of all it separates Christ from the great, broad tradition of the Aaronic and Levite priesthood and links him with the priest king Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-24), who is a marginal figure in the Old Testament and is mentioned there only briefly on two occasions (Gen. 14:18; Ps 110:4) As high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:1-13; 9:15), and to him belongs also a quite new priestly order. He does not have to offer sacrifices day after day for himself and the people (Heb. 7:25-28), nor does he enter an earthy sanctuary in order to sprinkle it with the blood of he-goats and bulls. Rather, he brought about a redemption once for all, and entered into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-10:18). From the viewpoint of this new sacrifice it can be seen that the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament brought about atonement only in the sense that people because “purified in the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). The letter to the Hebrews, then, expressly restricts the effectiveness of the earlier sacrifices to the realm of external cultic purity, whose purpose was to remind people of their sins, without being able to bring about any inner healing: “But through these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot possible take away sins” (Heb. 10:3ff). The verdict on the sacrificial cult is unambiguous: it was unable to bring about any actual purification from sins. This is why the letter to the Hebrews, despite its explicit relationship to the tradition of sacrifice, is able to take a critical line of thought on sacrifice and to note the paradoxical fact that Psalm 40:7-9 talks of God not demanding sacrifices and talking no pleasure in them, even though “these are offered according to the law” (Heb. 10:8). The letter to the Hebrews resolves the contradictory evidence of the Old Testament by relating the criticism of sacrifice directly to Christ, who with these words abolished the existing order and set up over against it obedience. The continuity of content between the Old and New Testament runs not through the cultic line, but through the line of criticism of the cult, which emphasizes obedience.

Rene Schwager

Schwager (left) and Girard (right)

The letter to the Hebrews is able, through a massive hermeneutical reinterpretation, to take up on the one hand the whole metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the cult, but on the other hand to express something which is completely new in content. Through the confrontation of the cultic tradition with the tradition critical of sacrifice, it succeeds in creating, out of a problematic at the heart of the Old Testament, a complex symbol for the divine action and the divine will: God by the law commanded something which he himself did not specifically want, but which – in awakening consciousness of sin – was temporarily needed for humankind. This command to offer sacrifices was promulgated by the law because of its pedagogic and linguist function and not because of its atoning effect. The new teaching is tied in which the cult only as an illustration, whereas the criticism of sacrifice is spelled out as Christ’s own worlds (Heb. 10:18ff.). What was a tradition competing with the cult in the Old Testament becomes in the letter to the Hebrews an authoritative pronouncement about this whole past practice of sacrifice.

There is, it is true, one point where the question arises as to whether the letter to the Hebrews might, after all, recognize a certain continuity of content between the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Christ. The cult operated through blood (Heb. 9:7, 18-22), and Christ too offered himself as a sacrifice through his blood (Heb. 9:14). The Aaronic and Levite priests sprinkled with others’ blood (that of he-goats and bulls), whereas Christ entered the sanctuary with his own (Heb. 9:12; 10:19; 12:24). But does this difference (others’ or one’s own blood) abolish the continuity between the cult and Christ’s death, or is there a certain common basis in the shedding of blood?

The issue of the shedding of blood, so important for the letter to the Hebrews, points first to the need to examine and interrogate from a Christian perspective those theories of sacrifice arising from the study of religion which also emphasize the shedding of blood (the act of killing). The explicit statement that Christ offered a sacrifice with his own blood shows, moreover, that the problematic with which we began our reflections on sacrifice is in fact central. At the beginning of this section we asked how self-sacrifice is to be understood. If Christ identified himself not with the evil will of his opponents, but with their concrete actions (crucifixion), did he not therefore fully agree to his being killed? Can one not also take the statement that Christ sacrificed himself as high priest “with his own blood” as an indication of the indirect killing of himself? In considering the fate of Jesus we have often come across the them of God’s nonviolence. But now the more subtle question arises, whether we have to understand this concept in such a way that Christ, although he shunned all violence against others, finally turned that violence against himself – in self-sacrifice. Seeing things this way, could one not very easily link up the great Old Testament themes of judgment and God’s vengeance, the tradition of cultic killing, and also many New Testament utterances about judgment, with the message of nonviolence (toward others)? The cross would then be a sacrifice in the sense that the priest (Christ) did in fact kill something, namely, himself…Is there consequently a self-aggression in the service of the higher good? Because of this question we must once more go into the problematic of judgment at a new and deeper level. If the thesis that God in his anger directly struck and destroyed his Son by means of sinners (K. Barth) did not stand up to scrutiny, the more subtle problematic still remains, namely, whether he led the crucified one through obedience to self-aggression and thereby judged him. Christ would then have taken on himself the self-judgment of sinners in the sense that he did in full consciousness and freedom what sinners do in their blindness: judge and destroy themselves.

This question is not easy to answer, since we would need to feel our way into the inner attitude of Jesus and the New Testament utterances make use of words which come up in different contexts and can therefore be interpreted in different ways. However the question one with very great consequences. If the outcome is affirmative, then everything which we have worked out so far has to be looked at again in a completely fresh light, with considerable consequences for Christian spirituality and the practice of the faith.

In the Old Testament, with the exception of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, violent death was understood to imply only judgment and curse, while the New Testament sees the cross of Christ as positive. How is this difference to be understood? Since the Old Testament cult also attributes a positive atoning effect to the sacrificial death of animals, we must look into the question already addressed earlier in this investigation, namely, whether the formal element in atonement resides in the act of killing. The difference between the old and new order would consist in this, that in the former animals were killed daily, whereas in the latter Christ sacrificed and (indirectly) killed himself once for all.

Since the letter to the Hebrews understands Melchizedek as king of peace (Heb. 7:1ff.), such a view immediately causes problems But peace could be understood as a paradoxical result of “aggressivity turned in upon itself.” A useful indication is given by the letter to the Hebrews where it takes up the Old Testament’s critical line against sacrifice and, putting words into Christ’s mouth, also makes him say that he comes in order to do the divine will. Subsequently, the letter goes on: “And by that will we have been sanctified once and for all by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (dia tes prosphoras tou somatos Iesou Christou, Heb. 10:10). The sanctification was brought about fundamentally through the will of God, fulfilled by Christ. The agreement of wills was decisive. But what is meant by the addition ‘through the offering of the body”? Could it be that God wanted not the concrete burnt offering for sin but instead that element in this sacrifice, the killing, which pointed to the self-sacrifice of Christ? Even the apparently unambiguous text about the abolition of cultic sacrifice and about sanctification through the divine will can consequently be read in two different, even opposed directions.

Another passage in the letter to the Hebrews runs:

For by a single sacrifice he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their heart and write them on their minds”; then he adds, “I will remember their sins and transgressions no more.” Where sins are forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Heb. 10:14-18)

The New Testament letter makes a direct connection in this passage between the unique sacrifice of Christ and the saying of the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant. The will of Christ in his surrender is hereby formally identified with the new law which God inscribes on our innermost hearts. But self-aggression could not have a place under this new, inner, law, for otherwise disturbing consequences would follow for our understanding of God’s kingdom and of the life of completeness with God.

sac1A further text finally gives us a pointer to the answer we have been seeking: “For if the blood of goats…sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the power of the eternal Spirit offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, purify our conscience from dead words so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on our hearts; it came about also ‘by the power of the eternal Spirit.” The nature of this Spirit we have already seen fully in the second part of this work. It is the Spirit of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), of love (1 Cor. 13), of joy, of peace, of forbearance, and of gentleness (Gal. 5:22ff.). It does not make us into slaves (torturing ourselves), but into sons of God, and calls out from with us “Abba” (Rom. 8:15). A will to self-destruction is totally at odds with the working of the Spirit. If Christ surrendered himself in this Spirit, then his sacrifice cannot in any way be seen as (indirect) self-destruction. The working of the Spirit after Easter throws the decisive light on the innermost mystery of Christ’s will in his passion. The Spirit is never a spirit of aggression or self-aggression; it works rather from within the victims of violence; it stands by the persecuted in their need and protects them from inner subjection to their adversaries (Mark 13:11 and parallels).

For the true understanding of Christ’s sacrifice we must consequently look for a different solution from that of self-destruction. The persistent question is this: how was the crucified one able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents (condemnation and crucifixion) if he did not wish (indirectly) to destroy himself? Ethnology and the study of sacrificial cults in the different religions point not only to the act of killing but also to the important theme of transformation from the profane to the sacred…

…The ”conversion” and transformation of evil began with Jesus including his opponents in his being killed, and thus consciously living through on their behalf that dimension in their action which enable us to say that the act of crucifying him was in fact something suffered. But he had not yet achieved the decisive act, for suffering would only have had a positive sense if we had to assume that God directly will such suffering as a punishment, which, however, we have already excluded. The crucial point was the transformation of passivity through his surrender. Because of his unreserved acceptance of the suffering which came to him, it was already more than something merely undergone. Suffering which is affirmed becomes a new form of activity.

All the synoptic Gospels on the one hand emphasize the suffering of the crucified on and on the other they clearly describe his dying as an activity. We find in Mark: “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out the Spirit…(mark 15:37; Matt. 27:50). The loud cry was an expression of the most extreme desolation, and with the breathing out of his Spirit he indicated at the same time a revelatory event Mark 1:11; 9:7) which went out from Jesus as bearer of the Spirit. The breathing out of the Spirit is made even clearer in Luke: “And Jesus cried loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit’” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrender and handing over the Spirit to the Father. Since Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as the long awaited bearer of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), the return of the Spirit to the Father means at the same time the fulfillment of the mission. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father consequently come together in the one event described by the letter to the Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.

Whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another person renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other, to whom he thereby entrusts himself without reserve in love. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life has its limits, arising at the least from the demands of one’s own life and one’s own identity. At the moment of dying, these limits can be broken down. But since in death all of a person’s strengths fail, death in itself is extremely ambiguous. Is it merely the passive undergoing of an inexorable limit, or can there be a surrender which goes beyond all previous limits? From the viewpoint of ordinary human experience, no clear answer is possible. However, Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14) and, dying, entrusted his Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46)…

Whoever no longer determines himself by his own spirit, but entrusts this to the heavenly Father in order to allow himself to be totally determined by him, achieves a sort of openness and availability which go beyond our earthly experience….

(Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption)

The evil of golf

golf2[G]olf is not in any meaningful sense a sport, and golfers are not in any meaningful sense athletes (that is why they almost never really have to retire). It is true that to play the game at the highest levels requires skills that few persons could hope to attain. But the difficulty inherent in any given activity is not an index of that activity’s value or creditability. Indeed, the more difficult an intrinsically worthless pursuit is, the more morally lamentable it becomes. If anything, the extraordinary effort required to master the game of golf is its most damning feature.

More importantly, though, golf is utterly “utterly” devoid of all the virtues of genuine sport. There is nothing daring, sudden, inspired, or splendid in the game. It is not a game of strategy, as are the best team sports (baseball supremely), except in the trivial sense that a golfer has to think about how to make each shot. Agility, speed, and strength are largely absent from the field; there are no moments of sublime physical artistry or fortuitous grace, no grand displays of heedless courage, no astonishing instances of the triumph of spirit over the limits of the flesh. Golf requires amazing physical precision, of course, but of so absolutely inconsequential a kind that it can scarcely be regarded as anything more than a laboriously acquired daintiness.

Moreover, unless one is cursed with a peculiarly morbid sensibility, and so can be excited by occasional changes of lead on the course, it is impossible to find any drama in the game: there are no great contests of will, no hopeless struggles, no breathtaking peripeties, no advances and retreats, no amazing or heartbreaking last acts. (“Oh, yes there are!” the querulous golf enthusiast will protest, but he can be silenced with a threatening glare.)

And, of course, whereas a professional sports franchise represents a local population, and is therefore an essential part of the fabric of community “a source of common aspiration, of festivity, of shared leisure, of fellowship in triumph and defeat, of celebration and mourning” a golfer represents only himself. And, quite unlike athletes in genuine individual sports, such as track and field, a golfer is engaged in a form of activity that does not test the limits of the body’s native powers or gloriously reveal the heights of perfection to which human movement can be brought, but only demonstrates how grotesquely hypertrophied a pathologically odd behavior can become when the person who suffers from it neglects just about everything else in life.

All of which is only to say “as if we needed to say it” that professional golf is essentially evil. I use the word here in its venerable Platonic and Christian metaphysical sense. If evil is, of its nature, a privation of the good “a steresis agathou or privatio boni” lacking any substance of its own, but subsisting solely as a kind of umbratilous negation of the real, then professional golf, by virtue of its complete lack of any of the good things proper to true sport, must be accounted the “ideal” embodiment of evil in matters athletic: it is the malum in athleticis , the perfect reverse image of all that is wholesome and ennobling in sport, the shadow produced when the light of the good is thwarted by the perversity of human will, an artifact of depraved desire. It is an absolute wickedness, and we must hate it absolutely.

David Bentley Hart (First Things, 2011)

Lost in translation—Part 2


“The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘love’ to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.” (David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo.”)

I’d like to continue exploring questions related to theological language – how our language apprehends (or, as I prefer to say, is apprehended by) God. It’s a topic the currents of my own faith-journey circle me back round to with some regularity. I’ll continue my thoughts primarily in light of the earlier part of David Hart’s essay “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” which I’ve been reading and re-reading for the past few weeks. The essay is a call to remember the difference between “nomination” and “attribution,” that is, between the “theological enunciation of ‘divine names’,” on the one hand, and the “philosophical enumeration of the ‘attributes of deity’” on the other.

To begin with Hart’s description of the latter, a univocal ontology “understands being as nothing but the bare category of existence under which all substances (God no less than creatures) are severally placed.” It posits a “direct proportionate similitude between attributes inhering in discrete beings (albeit between finite and infinite instances,” which “allows the essences of our attributions to remain intact even when they are modified by the addition of the further attribute ‘infinite’.” In a metaphysics of participation, on the other hand, “all things are embraced in being as in the supereminent source of all their transcendental perfections.” This model asserts an “infinite qualitative difference between the coincidence in God’s simplicity and plenitude of all the transcendental moments that compose the creature (goodness, truth, beauty, unity, etc.) and the finite, multiplicit ‘prismation’ of being’s light in the creature.” This allows for “a continuity of eminence between those moments and the transcendent wellspring from which they flow,” a continuity which allows one to “in some sense name God from creatures” even though the “truth of such names is infinitely beyond the capacity of finite reason properly to grasp.” In this sense analogy, unlike univocal predication, is “a language of likeness chastened by the pious acknowledgement of an ever greater unlikeness.”

The danger inherent in attempting univocal predication, Hart argues, is that it necessarily commits one to a logical nonsense – i.e., God who is a “being among beings, who possesses the properties of his nature in a composite way,” a “mere supreme being, whose being and nature are in some sense distinct from one another,” who “receives his being from being as such,” and who “in some sense becomes the being he is by partaking of that prior unity (existence) that allows his nature to persist as that composite reality it is.” Such a univocal ontology fails properly to think “the difference between nomination and attribution.” It evacuates theology of transcendence, and plunges thought “into an absolute and self-sealing discourse of immanence” and finally nihilism. It seems to me that the notion of univocity operative in Hart’s critique is one in which terms used of God must mean everything they mean when describing us, i.e., no more and no less than what they mean when used of us, in which case the ontology in which love or goodness or justice is possessed by us is the ontology that grounds their manifestation in God. I agree this is disastrous.

lost2A great deal more is said to clarify the distinction between these two ontologies and to argue why the later (metaphysics of participation) is Christianity’s genius transformation of its first world, but I’ll not get into that. It’s a wonderful essay. I’ll only embarrass myself as much as I have to here by wondering if there is not a slight equivocation hiding within Hart’s argument. To be precise, does not Hart end up agreeing that moral terms (like ‘love’, ‘goodness’, ‘justice’) mean pretty much what they mean when attributed to creatures? The term ‘love’, for example, names the self-giving pursuit of another’s highest good in God as opposed to seeking selfishly to harm or exploit others. That’s what it means for us to love. Semantically, that much is at least what it means for God to love us. To return to the opening quote of Hart, if we use the term of God as Hart advocates, “as if [it is] mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures” [emphasis mine], I don’t see how the term ‘love’ is much different in meaning from the univocal sense – unless of course by ‘univocal’ one means to gather up everything about the contingent mode of becoming by which creatures know and experience love and attribute this to God, which obviously we do not want to do. Still, that being the case doesn’t result in ‘love’ becoming an empty notion. Even understood analogically, that is, ‘love’ doesn’t seem to come out meaning something other than what it means for us (taking into account the difference between God’s mode of being and our mode of becoming).

God loves us in an uncreated, non-composit mode of being, a mode that is, as Hart says, as qualitatively different as the difference between ‘truth’ and truths, or ‘goodness’ as such and particular instances of goodness. We, unlike God, love God and others in a created, composit, essentially temporal mode of becoming. But the term in question (love) in both cases describes the same selfless pursuit of the highest good of another. The infinite qualitative distinction prevents us from attributing precisely those features of the ontic (the “composite becoming” that “receives its life from outside itself”) that Hart points out cannot logically describe God, but ‘love’ doesn’t thereby change its meaning to hate, say, or to what have you. Why not? What prevents us from wondering whether love in God’s transcendence is not what we call hate or indifference? Most would answer by saying that’s simply not what the word ‘love’ means and would encourage us to find another word (‘hate’ or ‘indifference’).

If all that’s meant by analogy is that the terms we derive from our mode of becoming are understood both to be fulfilled and infinitely exceeded in God’s mode of being, I have no qualms. But I suspect more is meant, I’m just not sure what. I wouldn’t think one need insist that the word ‘univocal’ be abandoned (because it entails ontological commitments not even Scotus tolerated) and ‘analogy’ be substituted. It seems easy enough simply to ask the one doing the talking: Do you think God is a composite God of becoming whose nature is, like all created natures, an endless oscillation between essence and existence? If the answer is no – what other complaint have we?

lost3It is not like Scotus’s disagreeing on the semantic nature of attribution (univocal vs analogical) included his believing God was in fact a composite God of temporal becoming who received his life from outside himself. Scotus was no Process theist or Evangelical. When he says being is to be understood univocally, at the very least he does not mean to say God and creatures alike are assumed under a third reality (being as such) as something other than God, superior to both God and creation and in which both participate. But if Scotus managed a univocal model of theological language in which God was not believed to be a composite being of temporal becoming who derived his life from something greater than himself, how is such a model necessarily beholden to the mistakes Hart warns us of?

It also does not appear to be the case that agreeing entirely with an ontology of participation means one always rightly names God. As Hart notes (“God, Creation, and Evil”):

[D]own the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages— most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness…Nor am I speaking of a few marginal, eccentric sects within Christian history; I mean the broad mainstream….

This is interesting, because if Scotus can affirm a univocal predication of, say, love or goodness, to God while knowing God not to be a composite God of temporal becoming who derives his life by participating in some independent being as such which is greater than him, and if many in “the broad mainstream” of classical theism who agree God is not such “a” being, though their equivocations also “reduce the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness,” then we have to wonder where the danger really lies. What really opens the door to the nihilism Hart warns of? I’m just asking. Certainly the actual belief that God is a composite God of becoming would invite that nihilism. But the latter equivocators (with the right ontology in hand) lead us to the same nihilism. So I’m wondering if there is some other mistake hiding in the details which has nothing to do with whether one explicitly affirms God’s transcendent ontological otherness.

I don’t mean to deny the difference between the perfectio significato (the thing signified) and the modus significandi (mode of signification). Yes, ‘love’ is attributed to God differently (as different as ‘being as such’ is from beings, or ‘truth as such’ is from truths, or ‘beauty as such’ from instances of beauty – all Hartian examples of that difference). My point is that the meaning of ‘love’ (semantically, not ontologically – if the distinction is permitted) is the same, i.e., we’re talking about desiring and pursuing the highest good of another in God (not about hating or fishing or sailing, or whatever random meaning the quantum-semantic wave might collapse us into). The how is not the worry people generally have. It’s whether when we talk about God our terms mean something transparently different or contradictory to what they mean within our experience.

A last thought. Just this morning I was pondering Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (Eph 3). He prays “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Here is the intimacy of transcendency’s presence, not its absence, and yet its presence is no categorical reduction of God, for Paul prays (more literally) “that you know the knowledge-exceeding love of Christ.” Don’t miss the isomorphic affirmation/denial – what is in fact ‘known’ is in fact ‘beyond knowing’. One could throw in all one’s holdings (all one’s ‘categories’) on an ontological call to see what ‘in fact’ is hiding in love’s ‘knowledge-excelling’ hand, but one would lose everything in the wager. For surely here we have as explicit a description of the distance between cataphatic and apophatic, of the “epistemological caesura” one must tolerate between the two as one could ask for. And as long as it remains a propositional exchange, ‘toleration’ is what it will feel like, perhaps intoleration. But when it’s experienced (‘known’) as ‘knowledge-exceeding’ love (v. 19), toleration is transformed into the welcome sweetness of being’s inexhaustible goodness and we are, as Paul said, “filled unto all the fullness of God.”

Philosophy’s divestment


Western thought had attempted to rise from this superstitious subjugation to the world’s mere event: Plato and Aristotle, however imperfectly, were both shaken by that effulgent moment of wonder that can free reflection from here animal dread; perhaps the one could not quite transcend the dialectic of change and changeless essences, the other the dialectic of finite form and unrealized potency, nor either the still “sacrificial” economy of finitude, but both stood within the opening in Western thought that theology could transform into a genuine openness before the transcendent God. Still, Heidegger may be somewhat correct in seeing, even in this openness, the inauguration of Western reason’s long journey toward technological mastery as the highest ideal, toward instrumental control as the governing model of all truth, toward—in short—nihilism. Perhaps there truly was, precisely in the birth of philosophy as a self-conscious enterprise of rising above the ephemerality of the phenomena to take hold of their immutable premises, a turning away from the light toward the things it illuminated, a forgetfulness of being within philosophy’s very wakefulness to being. And perhaps in this fateful moment of inattention to the mystery of being’s event, the relentless search for being’s positive foundations commenced, and then proceeded along a path that, in the end, would arrive at the ruin of philosophic faith. All of this may be—indeed, in some obvious sense, in—quite true. But the Platonic eros for the beautiful, good, and true was also a longing for something more than mere “grounds”; it was a desire for being’s fullness, though one not yet able to understand being as gift. Other ancient schools of thought were generally less precocious in their advances toward Christian theology. Stoicism, for instance, however magnificent, humane, and sophisticated it was in its most developed forms, was still somewhat retrograde in this regard, and was bound to a vision of the cosmos as a fated economy of placement and displacement, and to a more transparently sacrificial cosmic mythology of eternally repeated ekpyroseis (the universe as an eternal sacrificial pyre); but Stoicism too was profoundly marked by philosophical wonder before the goodness and loveliness of cosmic and divine order. The syncretism of late antiquity may often have produced monstrosities of occult “wisdom” and grotesque aberrations of philosophy and religion alike, but in the case of the Platonic tradition it also made it possible for a philosopher like Plotinus to reflect upon the generosity of the good and the convertibility of the good and being, and thus press against the boundaries of the totality. But it was only when Christian thought arrived, and with it the doctrine of creation, that the totality was broken open and, for the first time ever, philosophy was granted a glimpse of being’s splendid strangeness within its very immediacy and gratuity.

With this “Christian interruption” of metaphysics, every principle of necessity was made subordinate to the higher principle of grace. Christian thought, then, in its long history of metaphysical speculation, far from constituting just another episode in the genealogy of nihilism, was in fact so profound a disruption of many of the most basic premises of philosophy, and so audacious a rescue of many of philosophy’s truths from the impotent embrace of mere metaphysical ambition, that it is doubtful yet that philosophy can grasp what has happened to it, or why now it cannot be anything but an ever more indignant and self-tormenting flight from that interruption. The language of creation—however much it may be parodied as a language regarding efficient causality and metaphysical “founding”—actually introduced into Western thought the radically new idea that an infinite freedom is the “principle” of the world’s being and so for the first time opened up the possibility of a genuine reflection upon the difference between being and beings. And the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, without need of the world for his determination as difference, relatedness, or manifestation, for the first time confronted Western thought with a genuine discourse of transcendence, of an ontological truth whose “identity” is not completed by any ontic order. The event of being is, for beings, a pure gift, into whose mysteries no scala naturae by itself can lead us. And if the world is not a manifestation of necessity, but of gratuity—even if it must necessarily reflect in its intrinsic orderliness and concinnity the goodness of its source—then philosophy may be able to grasp many things, but by its own power it can never attain to the source or end of things. If being is not bound to the dimensions prescribed for it by fate or the need for self-determination or the contumacity of a material substrate, then the misconstrual of the contingent for the necessary constitutes philosophy’s original error.

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinIt is for this reason also that theology’s interruption of the “history of nihilism” was philosophy’s redemption, immeasurably deepening its openness to being and increasing the intensity of its highest eros. Within Christianity’s narrative, the world acquired a new glory; for all that it had been robbed of the imposing dignity of metaphysical necessity, it had been imbued with the still more extraordinary dignity of divine pleasure; the world had become an instance of what could only be called beauty—beauty of a kind more absolute and irreducible than any known to pagan Greek culture. A God whose very being is love, delight in the glory of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense In such a God, beauty and the infinite entirely coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists not in a dialectic between multiplicity and unity, composition and simplicity, shape and indeterminacy, but in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate. Thus it is that theology alone preserves and clarifies all of philosophy’s most enchanting prospects upon being: precisely by detaching them from the mythology of “grounds,” and by resituating them within the space of this peaceful analogical interval between divine and worldly being, within which space the sorrows of necessity enjoy no welcome Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing. Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed. Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it. In a strangely impoverished and negative way, Heidegger—the apostate from theology—almost understood this, but ultimately proved to be only a “metaphysician” after all. Then again, Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was unable to see that his own revolt against metaphysics was itself really nothing but a necessary moment in metaphysics’ recovery of itself from theology. Philosophy could not, after all, accept the gift Christian thought extended to it and remain what it had been—a science of mastery, an interrogation of the “ground”—but neither could it ignore Christianity’s transformation of its native terms: once the splendor of truth had been assumed into the Christian love of beauty, its philokalia, once the light of the world had been taken into the discourse of ontological analogy and divine transcendence, and once the difference between being and beings had entered thought and disrupted every attempt to “deduce” from the world its metaphysical identity, philosophy could not simply reassert itself as an independent project, but had to discover a new foundation. Philosophy, like a king in exile, would have to suffer the most extreme divestment and privation before it could reclaim its lost privileges. This is the true sense in which theology is part of the history of nihilism: it leaves nothing good behind in the philosopher’s hands; it plunders all of philosophy’s most powerful interpretive instruments for its own uses (despoiling the Egyptians, to use the classic metaphor), and so makes it necessary, in the aftermath of theology’s cultural influence, that philosophy advance itself every more openly as a struggle against the light, an ever more vehement refusal of the generosity of the given. If nihilism is indeed the hidden core or secret vocation of metaphysics, in the post-Christian age nothing but that core, that vocation, remains: and so it must become ever less hidden, ever less secret.

(From David Bentley Hart, “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” in The Hidden and the Manifest)

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.

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.”


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.


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, 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.


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.


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.


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)

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!



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.


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.”


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)

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 1


Hart especially leaves no doubt as to the depth of his respect for Nietzsche, a figure who appears repeatedly in his essays and conversations. The section I intend to reproduce here (without footnotes) in 4-parts for those who do not own BOI is that portion in which Hart engages Nietzsche most directly (BOI, 93-127). This will provide a place for comments and interaction as well. Buckle your seat belts, return your trays to their upright and locked position, and keep an unabridged Webster nearby.


David Bentley Hart (BOI, 92-127):

This is one reason for turning, belatedly perhaps, to Nietzsche himself, in whom theology encounters all the most truly daunting challenges to Christianity emanating from antiquity, modernity, or postmodernity expressed with a purity and force quite simply unmatched in any other thinker. He is also undoubtedly the figure who most conspicuously looms on the threshold of postmodernity. In greatest measure it is he who has determined what ethos must govern any philosophy that would convert disenchantment with (or enmity to) all discourses of transcendence into a vigorous and creative style of thinking, without illusion or regret. Being without transcendence or transcendent purpose: this ontology has had no more eloquent and consistent advocate than Nietzsche (nor one in whose rhetoric the confrontation with theology is more explicit). Not that Nietzsche’s thought as such has been accepted uncritically by postmodern thinking: Deleuze and Foucault come closest to assuming a Nietzschean position without apparent embarrassment, but even they – in their sober moments – decline to take the rhetoric of the will to power as far as Nietzsche did; of the better part of postmodern thought it may be said that insofar as Nietzsche’s metaphysical inclinations are recognized, they are often rejected, and insofar as the more disturbing ethical implications of Nietzsche’s writings are acknowledged, they are not embraced. But this is why Nietzsche is often preferable to his epigones: he announced his ontology without deluding himself that it somewhere makes room for an ethics of political or moral “responsibility.” He understood both options the epoch “after” Christianity offers: the “pagan” or the “gnostic,” exuberance or withdrawal. The former he endued with the name of Dionysus, the latter (unfortunately) with the name of Christ, and he recognized the impossibility of a reconciliation between them: especially one framed in terms of the “ethical.” Moreover, Nietzsche’s thought is still quite close to theology, in unexpected ways. If nothing else, it was his ardent conviction that the pain of existence must never be thought just cause for a hatred of the world (a maxim at the heart, though Nietzsche denies it, of a Christian sensibility). More importantly, though, his method was evangelical; his ontology appears in his writings only as part of a thoroughgoing assault on Christianity, one conducted rhetorically, diegetically, in terms of aesthetic critique. He confronts theological reflection, therefore, with a polemical challenge, a war of narratives, and in doing so he liberates theology from apologetical dialectic, in which it has no ultimate stake, and calls it again to its proper idiom: a proclamation of the story of peace posed over against the narrative of violence, a hymnody rising up around the form of Christ offered over against the jubilant dithyrambs of Dionysus, the depiction of an eternal beauty advanced over against the depiction of a sempiternal sublime.

Nietzsche, perhaps, still indicates a future; the scope of his influence on Western thought is, it seems, scarcely beginning to make itself manifest. For Heidegger, of course, Nietzsche was the liminal philosopher, the flash of lightning breaking out in idealism’s long, chill twilight, the fatidic Janus who at once, gazing forward, announced the death of metaphysics and, staring back, gave metaphysics its final form. In the eyes of some, however, Heidegger – however well he grasped Nietzsche’s epochal significance – still approached him with too ponderous, humorless, and Teutonic a spirit, and so failed to appreciate that Nietzsche’s “metaphysics” is a thoroughly ironic and consciously fabricated fable, devised (like Plato’s autochthonous myth) to accomplish and end, not discover an origin. Nietzsche should rather, they say, be taken as a liberator, not Janus but a true Dionysus, causing the citadels of metaphysics, faith, and reason to tremble at his passing, summoning free spirits to bacchanal, calling thought to festival and the task of affirmation before the aimless play of being. For Christianity, however, which has heard all of Dionysus’s claims before, Nietzsche may well represent an even more momentous turning in the thought of the West, to wit: the appearance at long last of a philosophical adversary whose critique of Christianity appears to be as radical as the kerygma it denounces. Nietzsche grasped, even more completely than Celsus (the only other significant pagan critic of the faith), how audacious, impertinent, and absolute was Christianity’s subversion of the values of antiquity: thus allowing theology to glimpse something of its own depths in the mirror of his contempt. In short, with Nietzsche the voice of unbelief at last swells to the registers of the voice of faith and so, curiously, does faith honor.

Of course, in its profound gratitude for Nietzsche’s enmity, theology must not be so flattered as to forget to respond to his critique, and to do so “genealogically”: to show, that is, that Nietzsche’s narrative rests upon premises it dissembles, and that this narrative is accounted for and already surpassed within the Christian story. Nietzsche’s critique cannot simply be dismissed, much less avoided, because it strikes too near the core of Christian faith and action; it is too cunning in its understanding of the language of Christian morality and hope, and too deft in its use of the quintessentially Christian practices of narration and evangelical exhortation. After all, the Nietzschean attack on the gospel is first and foremost a virtuoso performance, a rhetorical tour de force, moving from imaginative historical reconstructions to displays of brilliant psychological portraiture, from a kind of phenomenology of “the natural” to flights of apocalyptic hyperbole; and it calls for a comparable demonstration on theology’s part of a capacity for comprehensive and creative renarration. Unfortunately, the attempt by theologians to engage Nietzsche on his own terms has been rare (if occasionally notable), even though so much of the terrain of the postmodern lies under the ensigns of Nietzsche’s Antichrist. Nor can anything so comprehensive as an adequate theological response to Nietzsche be undertaken here; and it obviously lies outside the scope of the present chapter to deal with all of Nietzsche’s remarks concerning Christianity, which range from incidental bursts of invective to passages of sustained argument. Thus I shall confine myself to an account of Nietzsche’s treatment of, in order, Christian morality and the person of Christ; and to a partial assessment of the force of his critique, its consistency, and its resistance to reciprocal theological “deconstruction”; I shall address neither the factual accuracy of his interpretations of Christian history nor the limits of his grasp of the spectrum of Christian thought. It is more to the point to recognize in Nietzsche’s imaginative probings of the Christian tradition an attempt at narrative subversion; he understood that Christian truth depends first upon a story, and so to meet his critique of Christianity tellingly (so to put it), one must engage it on the field of rhetoric, persuasion, and aesthetic evaluation first, and not that of “historical science” or the discourses of “disinterested” reason.

This is obvious. What strikes one most forcibly in Nietzsche’s attach on Christianity is his distaste for Christian life as an aesthetic phenomenon; it is his sensibility, more than his reason, that suffers offense. “Modern men, obtuse to all Christian nomenclature, no longer feel the gruesome superlative that struck a classical taste in the paradoxical formula ‘god on a cross.’ Never yet and nowhere has there been an equal boldness in inversion, anything as horrible, questioning, and questionable as this formula: it promised a revaluation of all the values of antiquity.” Few are the transgressions of good taste and spiritual hygiene that cannot, in his eyes, be laid to Christianity’s charge: as the one great curse pronounced on life, its ethos is no more than a perfidious inversion of noble values, an occult strategy of vengeful resentment, and an exaltation of weakness and deformity at the expense of strength and beauty; as the most acute and perverse kind of decadence, its enfeebling creed drains life from this world by directing life’s energies toward another, unreal world; as absolute enmity toward life, it is the poor man’s Platonism: vulgar idealism, expressed most perfectly as hatred for the life of the flesh. It was in the Christian tradition uniquely, he claims, that

antinature itself received the highest honors as morality and was fixed over humanity as law and categorical imperative. – To blunder to such an extent, not as individuals, not as a people, but as humanity! – That one taught men to despise the very first instincts of life; that one mendaciously invented a “soul,” a “spirit” to ruin the body; that one taught men to experience the presupposition of life, sexuality, as something unclean; that one looks for the evil principle in what is most profoundly necessary for growth, in severe self-love (this very word constitutes a slander); that, conversely, one regards the typical signs of decline and contradiction of the instincts, the “selfless,” the loss of a center of gravity, “depersonalization” and “neighbor love” (addiction to the neighbor) as the higher value – what am I saying? – the absolute value! (EH, 272)


Christian benevolence is merely part of the pathology of decadence, “irreconcilable with an ascending, Yes-saying life” (EH, 328); and the Christian version of the “other” world is merely a squalid defamation of the world that is, an idealization that derogates the actual, a soothing premise of immortality that thwarts life’s proper instincts (AC, 118, 155-156). With gaze fixed on this fabulous eternity, eyes averted from the spectacle of the world, how can the Christian fail to find life impure? For Nietzsche, no doctrine could more exquisitely encapsulate the inmost essence of Christian faith than the immaculate conception – whereby the church “has…maculated conception” (AC, 147). In short, whereas everything beautiful and noble is accomplished through the refinement (the spiritualization) of the passions (of desires, even of cruelty), the church, on account of its inability to transfigure the animal passions through salubrious disciplines, must prescribe instead their extirpation; unable to transform life into ever higher expressions, Christianity is the gospel of castration.

Nietzsche’s gift for denunciation of this sort is all but inexhaustible, and in the course of their elaboration, as a kind of concrescence of their inner logic, a contrary form takes shape, a god appropriate to Nietzsche’s own special piety; against the figure of the crucified God he poses that of Dionysus, god of indestructible life, ecstasy, joy, and power. The polarity is expressed with particular force and lucidity in one of the notes collected in The Will to Power:

Dionysus verses the “Crucified”: there you have the antithesis. It is not a difference in regard to their martyrdom – it is a difference in the meaning of it. Life itself, its eternal fruitlessness and recurrence, creates torment, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering – the “Crucified as the innocent one” – counts as an objection to this life, as a formula for its condemnation. – One will see that the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. In the former case, it is supposed to be the path of a holy existence; in the latter case, being is counted as holy enough to justify even a monstrous amount of suffering. The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich, and capable of deifying to do so. The Christian denies even the happiest lot on earth: he is sufficiently weak, poor, disinherited to suffer from life in whatever form he meets it. The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction.

As Deleuze describes the opposition, Christ’s suffering indicts life as unjust, as guilty and deserving of the suffering it endures, as in in need of salvation, and as a dark workshop where life itself can be loved only when it is tender, weak, in torment, mutilated; but the suffering of Dionysus is the justice of being. Whereas the cross symbolizes contradiction and its solution, Dionysian affirmation lies beyond either contradiction or reconciliation.

Of course, all his vituperative venom would seem merely coarse and childish (and frankly, much of it does anyway) were it not for the extraordinary story Nietzsche tells regarding the way Christian morality overturned the antique order. I shall not recite in detail the account Nietzsche gives in On the Genealogy of Morals of Christianity’s “slave revolt” in values; it is sufficient to recall his claim that Christian morals are nothing but those values that are inevitable for slaves, the weak, and the ill constituted, somehow grotesquely elevated to the status of universal law and then – through a cunning supplantation of the “aesthetic” values of the nobles by the “moral” values of the herd – imposed upon the strong and healthy. In this slave morality, with its inordinate emphasis upon pity, relief from suffering, consolation, and comfort, one finds all the symptoms of nihilism and decline consecrated with the holiest names (AC, 117-18). And yet, despite having been incubated within the most debile constitutions, Christian values did indeed triumph over the noble values of antiquity, on account of the force, subtlety, and inexhaustible energy of ressentiment, the spite that animates the impotent and incites the mob against its masters. To those whose diseased natures are in the thrall of resentment – who are “neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward,” who love dark corners and who are silent, forgetful, humble, self-deprecating, and clever (GM, 38-39) – that attainment of which they are most incapable (that is, noble “goodness”) must be in fact “evil”; indeed, the Christian image of the Evil One is nothing but a distillation of the instincts of the higher type of man (AC, 117). Christian love is really only the flower that adorns the nettles of a very particular Jewish species of hatred, a sublime vengefulness directed against the healthy, strong, and vigorous (GM, 35); Judeo-Christian morality is the ingenious creation of an indefatigably aggressive impotence, which transforms itself into an irresistible power: like the power of vermin, indestructible by its atomistic multiplicity, collectivity, smallness, and voracity. Amid Nietzsche’s rhapsodic celebrations of his wild, rapacious, thoughtless, generous nobles, one might well lose sight of how brilliantly the Genealogy describes the logic, the fearful inventiveness, of the resentful heart; it is here that Nietzsche, with keen precision, strikes one of his surer blows against the church’s understanding of itself: he knows well, and savagely exploits, a certain predisposition in Christian thought – perhaps, Nietzsche might argue, a mechanism for preserving itself against critique – to suspect its own motives, to anticipate the discovery of hypocrisy, egoism, and sin in even its seemingly purest motives. For Nietzsche, however, much more is at stake: hypocrisy, impurity of motives – complaints of this nature would serve little purpose of themselves; it is the very content of Christian morality, its intrinsic enmity toward life, that he detests.

Fn1What is good? – All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power itself in man.
What is bad? – All that proceeds from weakness. (AC, 115)

Nurture of the weak, the essence of Christian morality – indeed, preservation of the weak in their weakness – functions only to obviate the process whereby life evaluates, selects, and elects itself (AC, 118).

The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? – Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak – Christianity…. (AC, 116).

There can be no more damning accusation, in Nietzsche’s eyes, than that Christian values stand in contradiction to natural existence; there should be nature in morality, he protests; one’s values should have life’s own shape (TI, 48). But where nature is weak, there is the church strong, thriving where life is in retreat, amidst illness and decrepitude; Catholicism’s ideal is the world as one vast lunatics’ asylum (AC, 167). It is chiefly the cruelty of the Christian creed that Nietzsche decries, its ruthlessness in teaching humanity to despise joy and vital sensuality (AC, 131), in further advancing a certain Jewish falsification of nature (AC, 134), and above all in seeking to poison and crush the strong. Christianity, simply said, is false to the world (AC, 125).

But what exactly, one must pause to ask, is the world, and what precisely is nature? The current emphasis in the academy on Nietzsche’s “antiessentialism” and irony often fails to do justice to his equally pronounced inclination toward miraculously broad, but earnest, pronouncements.

Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…
…life simply is will to power. (BGE, 203)

The lessons of nature are “agonistic,” they enjoin contest and struggle, presuppose injustice, and have no end but ascent, growth, expansion, and ever greater acquisition. Values, though, that require the suppression of this “nature” rather than its spiritualization and the recognition of its necessity in the economy of culture (albeit in refined form), are the unique achievements of the most depraved world-haters: of, that is, priests. Whether or not it is the case (as Karl Jaspers claims it is) that in opposing unconditional nature to unconditional morality, Nietzsche knowingly violates his own injunction against absolutes, it is quite beyond dispute that, for him, consonance with nature is the standard against which any morality must be measured. And Christianity, in his eyes, slyly exploited (and became deeply complicit in) the greatest inversion of nature ever visited upon the human animal: The fabrication of the soul.

The very idea of an abiding agent, a stable presence lurking behind the play of action and appearance, can be an invention only of the cunning of the weak, a metonymic knot tied in the warp of language to provide nature’s disinherited offspring with terms whereby to reproach the strong nobles who prey upon them. “To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength (GM, 45). As Deleuze phrases the matter, every force – and force is the prior truth of things – goes, if unimpeded, to the limit of its power or desire; nor is force something distinct from its power, which can remain intact when withdrawn from its manifestation, but is like light and the shinning of light: one thing. Reactive forces, however, seek to make the active forces themselves reactive by separating the active from what it can do: the triumph of the reactive is always brought about by subtraction or division. True force is desire, creativity, will to power, and so – as Callicles attempted in vain to explain to Socrates – even when the weak and reactive band themselves together to oppose the strong, they do not form a greater power, but still, in order to work their will, must introduce an interruption – and interval of factitious interiority – between active force and what it is capable of accomplishing, because, says Deleuze, “from the point of view of nature concrete force is that which goes to its ultimate consequences, to the limit of power and desire”; this force must be displaced by a moral interval, a “subjectivity” that separates it from itself, if it is to be overcome; but “[i]n each case the separation rests on a fiction, on a mystification or a falsification.” To Nietzsche it seems clear that the notion of some fixed and punctiliar subjectivity dwelling below the level of will, drive, and affect is mere fantasy, an illusion created by the enticements of grammar: even as it would be an error to imagine the existence of some independent substance called “lightning” apart from the lightning flash. The “natural man” is not undergirded by some invariable substratum of “self,” nor is there some naturally present moral interval wherein such a man could reflectively choose to withdraw from his act, or recoil from his own force; the bird of prey is not free to be a lamb, nor is it accountable – guilty – for being what it is. But Christian faith feeds upon, above all, the phenomenon of “bad conscience,” the strange and unnatural internalization of the strong man’s most aggressive instincts: the violence that was forced to turn inward upon the self in the very degree to which constraints were placed upon it by the emergence of civilization. As Nietzsche tells the tale, the strong, semibestial men of war whose savageries made the building of civil societies possible were – once immured within political and social order and made subject to the laws and penalties of the state – little better than caged animals yearning for the wild, longing to set free their repressed vitalities. Driven into a suppressed but habitual frenzy, they transformed themselves into adventures and torture chambers, constructing ever greater heights and depths for their inner worlds; and this hypertrophied interiority (which is also the predisposition to “guilt”) proved of inestimable value to the church. For Christianity then ingeniously multiplied the sense of guilty indebtedness civilized peoples feel before their ancestor gods to an infinite sum, by devising the monstrous notions of an eternal penance due for sin and debt before the divine of such magnitude as only God himself, the creditor, could discharge (a payment, made out of “love,” that actually binds humanity to God by an equally infinite debt of gratitude) (GM, 45-92). Writes Nietzsche, with elegant exactitude, “the priest rules through the invention of sin” (AC, 166).

(to be continued)


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)