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.


Cerebral alchemist

Chirst1 - Copy

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

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

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

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

Dwayne Polk (Art by Chris Green)

The ministry of Tom Thumb

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

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

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

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

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

Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 4

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

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

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

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

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


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)

Some guy named Alexander…

2008-1208-schmemannMy son David called me this morning asking if I was sitting down (I was) because he had a passage from a class text he wanted to read me. David is doing his master’s (theology of worship). You have to appreciate the context. I’m an Evangelical who raised my kids in my tradition. A couple years ago David found the Anglican tradition a better fit. I couldn’t be happier for him. To add another layer, though, this particular class he’s taking is taught by an Episcopalian, and the class text he read to me was – well, it was this:

It is not accidental, therefore, that the biblical story of the Fall is centered again on food. Man ate the forbidden fruit. The fruit of that one tree, whatever else it may signify, was unlike every other fruit in the Garden: it was not offered as a gift to man. Not given, not blessed by God, it was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself.

To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to return God’s love. Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God. He has done it so consistently that it has become something that is “in the air.” It seems natural for man to experience the world as opaque, and not shot through with the presence of God. It seems natural to live a life of thanksgiving for God’s gift of a world. It seems natural not to be eucharistic.

The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called “sacred” (“spiritual,” “supernatural”)—as opposed to the world as “profane.” It has accepted the all-embracing secularism with attempts to steal the world away from God.

The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life. Man was to be the priest of a eucharist, offering the world to God, and in this offering he was to receive the gift of life. But in the fallen world man does not have the priestly power to do this. His dependence on the world becomes a closed circuit, and his love is deviated from its true direction. He still loves, he is still hungry. He knows he is dependent on that which is beyond him. But his love and his dependence refer only to the world in itself. He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive his life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God’s sake, in God and as bearers of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life.

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.

This text was reconstructing his worldview, as it should. I suspected an Eastern Orthodox text, so I asked who the author was. He said, “Some guy named Alexan- ,” and I interrupted, “Alexander Schmemann?” “Yeah, that guy,” he said. “And the text,” I asked, “Is it For the Life of the World?” “Yes!” he reacted, “How’d you know?”

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

willardI spied this soon to be released volume of Willard’s just today: The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. I’m a big fan of Willard’s. I don’t mind forking over hard-earned cash to get an exceptional volume, but at $152.00 (I’m not linking to the Amazon page – Why?), I’ll have to admire this book from the very distant margins of those who haven’t read it and can only suppose it’s exceptional rather than from within its pages. Happily, links to Willard’s lectures given under the same title can be found here.

Besides wondering what artistic competence is left among the cover-design folk at Routledge (one might guess based on this design that the title would better be The Disappearance of Design Sense), I did have a reaction to the summary that’s found on Amazon:

Based on an unfinished manuscript by the late philosopher Dallas Willard, this book makes the case that the 20th century saw a massive shift in Western beliefs and attitudes concerning the possibility of moral knowledge, such that knowledge of the moral life and of its conduct is no longer routinely available from the social institutions long thought to be responsible for it. In this sense, moral knowledge―as a publicly available resource for living―has disappeared. Via a detailed survey of main developments in ethical theory from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries, Willard explains philosophy’s role in this shift. In pointing out the shortcomings of these developments, he shows that the shift was not the result of rational argument or discovery, but largely of arational social forces―in other words, there was no good reason for moral knowledge to have disappeared. The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge is a unique contribution to the literature on the history of ethics and social morality. Its review of historical work on moral knowledge covers a wide range of thinkers including T.H Green, G.E Moore, Charles L. Stevenson, John Rawls, and Alasdair MacIntyre. But, most importantly, it concludes with a novel proposal for how we might reclaim moral knowledge that is inspired by the phenomenological approach of Knud Logstrup and Emmanuel Levinas….

My reaction: Emmanuel Levinas? Noooooooo!

Love in the Void

Weil1I’m ashamed to confess that as much as I admire every quotation from Simone Weil (pronounced ‘vay’ in French) that I’ve run across through the years, I have not taken up her work directly to get to know her thought. To begin correcting this mistake, I thought I’d pick up a quick read to sandwich in between other things. I happened upon Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us, a selection of passages chosen by Laurie Gagne (St. Michael’s College) from three of Weil’s writings. If you are not yet familiar with Weil, I hope Gagne’s introduction reproduced here (a bit longer than my normal post) will entice you to change that.


The writings of philosopher and mystic Simone Weil first appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s—the period after World War II characterized by a widespread desire to return to normalcy in Western societies. Having defeated the “great beast” of totalitarianism, the liberal democracies concentrated on creating the good life at home. In America, especially it was the golden age of the middle class: a comfortable, even affluent lifestyle seemed within the reach of everyone. Given this context, it is not surprising that Weil, who had died in 1943, quickly achieved legendary status among a whole generation of countercultural intellectuals and spiritual seekers. Her writings are radically, vehemently anti-bourgeois, as was her short, intense life. Christians are atheists alike seemed to find in Weil a corrective to the burgeoning consumer culture that threatened to stifle the life of the mind and the soul. The French philosopher Albert Camus, for example, known for his depiction of a moral landscape without God, praised this lover of God extravagantly, calling her “the only great spirit of our time.” The equally atheistic literary critic Susan Sontag, writings in the New York Review of Books in 1963, allowed that Weil was fanatically ascetical and given to “noble and ridiculous political gestures” but confessed that she was “moved” and “nourished” by Weil’s “seriousness.” “In the respect we pay to such lives,” Sontag wrote, “we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world….”

In our time, too, when religion—really, fundamentalist religion—has once again emerged as a force in world events, Simone Weil’s writings have again been invoked, this time to distinguish between true religion and false religion or idolatry. In Gravity and Grace, Weil uses the language of idolatry to describe the way that religion can become destructive. There, we read that “idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention, and we have not the patience to allow it to develop.” So convinced was Weil of human beings’ susceptibility to idolatry that she came to emphasize the necessity of non-action, or waiting for grace, as the starting point for responsible action in the world.

Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in the aftermath of 9/11, noted the importance of Weil’s concept of “the void,” calling it a “breathing space,” a moment, created by catastrophe, when we are open to God and others. Like Weil, Williams believes that all too often we waste these moments by filling them up with our attempts to make God fit our agendas, in religious language that is “formal or self-giving.”

Never dreaming that she would be subject of all this attention so many decades later, Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of thirty-four, the time of life when most young people are hitting their stride in work and relationships. Commitments have been made, sometimes vows have been taken, and there’s often a mortgage to cement the young person’s ties to a particular place and way of being for the next fifty years. Even today, when people travel the globe and change jobs frequently, maturity still means some measure of “settling down.” In the brief time tat she had on this earth, Simone Weil constructed a life that was antithetical to time-honored standards of worldly success. She sought to uproot herself from everything—her parents’ solicitousness, the comfortable surroundings of her childhood, and even the normal benchmarks of academic achievement—to which she might form an attachment. Her goal was an untrammeled heart—the necessary condition, she believed, for knowing the truth. We can chart her life according to the turning points in this passionate quest. The body of work she left us—virtually all of it published posthumously—is the fruit of an anguished, but ultimately luminous spiritual journey.

Born in 1909 to a Jewish family in Paris, Simone Weil had a privileged, extremely intellectual childhood. She and her older brother, Andre, who was widely regarded as a prodigy (he became an internationally recognized mathematician) would memorize long passages from the classics of French drama and play complicated math games; this before she even went to school. At the Lycée Heni IV, under the tutelage of the well-respected but non-conformist philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier, her intellectual vocation seemed confirmed. He judged her short essays outstanding and predicted a brilliant career for the high-minded young woman. However, at the age of fourteen, she went through a deep depression during which she even thought of dying, convinced, as she writes in her spiritual autobiography, of “the mediocrity of her natural faculties.” The comparison which her brother, she says, had brought her “own inferiority to home” to her. It wasn’t the lac of outward success that she lamented, but rather the thought of being exclude “from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” She suffered this way for months, until the conviction suddenly came to her that anyone can enter “the kingdom of truth reserved for genius,” if only “he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention on its attainment.”

This insight, that truth (which included, for her, “beauty, virtue, and ever kind of goodness”) is accessible through the heart’s longing opened up a spiritual as opposed to a purely intellectual path for Weil. She was, at this point, agnostic. She had never read the Gospels, but her discovery, she says, amounted to the realization that “when one hungers for bread, one does not receive stones.” Confirmed in her quest, Weil made other choices during her teen years that seem to have set her on the solitary course from which she never diverged. She embraced the spirit of poverty and “always believed and hoped that one day Fate would force upon [her] the condition of a vagabond and a beggar.” Her classmates caller her “the Red Virgin” in jest, but her commitment to chastity and decision not to marry were adopted deliberately. “The idea of purity,” she explains, “with all that this word can imply for a Christian, took possession of me at the age of sixteen…when I was contemplating a mountain landscape.” She never wavered in this commitment. The unconventional turns her path took are in part explained by the understanding of vocation at which she arrived during this time: “I saw that the carrying out of a vocation differed from the actions dictated by reason or inclination I that it was due to an impulse of an essentially and manifestly different order; and not to follow such an impulse when it made itself felt, even if it demanded impossibilities, seemed to me the greatest of all ills.”

Impulses such as she was describing are not a matter of following the ego’s desires, however, insistent. Instead, they spring from the point of transcendence in us – the soul – which tends unerringly toward eternal truth. Trusting this tendency, instead of more rational considerations, resulted in a decidedly unspectacular teaching career for Weil. After graduating highest in her class from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, she taught at girls’ schools in the French countryside from 1931 to 1938. A lightning rod for controversy because of her extreme opinions, she became embroiled in conflicts with school boards, who strongly objected to the social activism she could not resist undertaking.

Ever since the age of five, when she had refused to eat sugar, having heard that it was denied the soldiers at the front, Weil had exhibited a desire to identity with those who suffer. (Simone de Beauvoir, a classmate of Weil’s at university, says that when she heard that Weil had burst into tears on hearing about a famine in China, she envied her for having “a heart that could beat right across the world”). In Le Puy and Auxerre, Weil’s first two teaching assignments, she took up the cause of the workers, writing articles for leftist journals, marching and picketing, donating most of her salary to the purchase of books to be used in workers’ study circles, and providing free lessons to all comers. Reportedly, her students at both schools loved her, but in each place, Weil was dismissed after only one year.

A break from teaching gave Simone Weil the opportunity to be one with the workers quite literally. She obtained employment at a succession of factories in Paris, including the Renault automobile plant. Proposing to study the conditions of industrial workers, she immersed herself thoroughly in the factory environment; the experience was transformative. Physically, it undermined her health. Weil had always been delicate and subject to migraines, but her headaches increased during her year in the factor. Mentally, it was excruciating. She could not endure the pressure of assembly line work, nor its indifference to the individual. Her vision of life as oriented toward the ideal was replaced with a permanent awareness of the void, of death. “As I worked in the factor,” she writes in her spiritual autobiography, “indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue.” Up against death we are powerless. Weil says that in the factory, she “received forever the mark of a slave” and “since then, I have always regarded myself as a slave.”

Paradoxically, Weil derived tremendous spiritual benefit from her time in the factory. Her new consciousness, she says, turned her in the direction of Christianity. Prior to her factory experience, Weil had believed that we progress toward truth or the good through our own efforts—by obeying the heart’s impulses, as we have noted, and by focusing all our energies on the good we desire. Her awareness of powerlessness in the face of death, however, made her realize that at a certain point on the spiritual journey all we can do is wait. By accepting death and powerlessness, without denying the heart’s longing, we position ourselves to receive the good. Christianity teaches that the good comes to us.

Weil would begin to learn this firsthand. She went to Portugal with her parents to recover from the shattering experience of factor work One night, inn a little fishing village, she observed a procession of fishermen’s wives making a candlelit tour of all the ships, singing “ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.” Touched to the core of her own heart, she came to an insight: “Christianity is pre-eminently the region of slaves,” she thought, slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.” [Tom here: What would Nietzsche say?]

Weil returned to teaching in 1935 at a lycée at Bourges. In 1936, she trained for action on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but due to an accident—she scalded herself by stepping into a pot of boiling oil—she never saw combat. Back in France, she taught philosophy at the Lycée Saint-Quentin, but in January of 1938, she took sick leave from her job and never returned to teaching.

The frustration and debility Weil experienced in her outer life at this time was paralleled by an impasse interiorly. In her spiritual autobiography, Weil says that she “persevered for ten years”—before and after her time in the factory—“in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results.” But beginning with a visit to Assisi in 1937, she had a series of spiritual breakthroughs. Still an agnostic, Weil, now twenty-eight, had never prayed, but in the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, once frequented by Saint Francis, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” In 1938, she spent Holy Week and Easter attending the services at the Benedictine abbey in Solesmes. Her headaches were raging, but by an extreme effort of attention she was able, she says, “to rise above this wretched flesh…and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words.” In this experience, she said, “the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.”

These experiences were the prelude to the climactic moment of her life. A young Englishman at Solesmes had introduced her to the works of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and she formed the habit of reciting the poem “Love,” by George Herbert, whenever her headaches were particularly intense. During one of these recitations, she tells us, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” As if defending the authenticity of the experience, not only to Jean Perrin, the Catholic priest to whom her spiritual autobiography is addressed, but also to herself, she says that “neither my senses nor my imagination had any part” in it; she only felt “in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” Weil was completely unprepared for this encounter with Christ. Having never read the mystics, she had never conceived of the possibility of a “real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.” This experience, not surprisingly, led Weil to rethink many of her intellectual positions. It also raised the question of baptism.

For the next several years, Weil’s life, which to that point had been taken up in the great political struggles of the day, took an inward turn. She wrote about the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia, but her chief focus was religion. She read the Gospels and was immediately convinced that Jesus is God, but she also studied classical texts from non-Christian religions, finding resonances therein with her own unexpected mystical encounters. She had always loved the Greeks, but now as she read her favorite authors—Plato and Homer—she found the former to be a mystic and the latter to be “bathed in Christian light.” Indeed, she found “intimations of Christianity” throughout Greek literature, from the early myths through the great tragedians. This confirmation of the universality of mystical experiences like hers, coupled with the Catholic Church’s exclusive claim to be the vehicle of God’s presence in the world, was the greatest impediment to her joining the church. It pained her that the church was catholic (universal) “by right but not in fact,” having condemned so much in the world and throughout history that was good. She explained to Perrin, who greatly desired her baptism, that her place was not inside the church, but “on the threshold…at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

Another obstacle to becoming Christian, for Weil, was the church as a social structure. She feared the collective enthusiasm of Christians, noting that it had blinded even saints on occasions—an egregious example being those who approved of the Crusades. She admitted that her own temperament was such that she would be highly susceptible to the emotion of “church patriotism,” going so far as to say that “if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans signing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi.” Weil’s rejection of church membership on these grounds is in line with her lifelong dedication to purity of heart. She acknowledged the need for the church as a social structure if it were going to exist in the world at all, but could never regard participation in it as anything other than a compromise with her own spiritual vocation. In her New York journal, written just a year before her death, she puts it quite categorically: “The virtue of humility is incompatible with the sense of belonging to a social group chosen by God, whether a nation or a church.”

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Weil fled with her parents to Marseilles, in the unoccupied zone. She developed deep friendships with Christians there, but held to her decision to remain outside the church. Offered lodging in the home of one of her Catholic friends, she chose to live in a shed on his property instead and spent her days in the fields doing exhausting manual labor. By night, she filled notebooks with her mystical vision of reality. What particularly engaged Weil during this period was the question of how to reconcile the love that God has for us, which she was experiencing more and more deeply, with the horrendous suffering that so many people have to endure. The year in the factory had taught her that extreme, soul-crushing suffering—what she calls “affliction”—is real and its existence, in a world created by God, seemed scandalous to her. “It is surprising,” she writes, “that God has given affliction the power to seize the very souls of the innocent and to take possession of them as their sovereign Lord.” Only the Passion of Christ, she believed, could overcome this contradiction. The perfect love of Jesus on the cross reveals the presence of divine love in the midst of affliction. By remaining open to divine love when we are afflicted ourselves, we participate in Christ’s redemptive act.

With the war ragging, Weil also reflected on the use of force. In her earliest writings, in the 1930s, she had championed pacifism. Now she renounced it, referring to “the criminal error I committed before 1939” (when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia) “with regard to pacifist groups and their actions.” Weil admired Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, but believed that it should only be used when truly effective; that is, when its proponents radiate the power of love so strongly that their cause Is irreversible. Otherwise, she proposed, the responsibility to protect innocent human life supersedes the commandment against killing. If a soldier is willing to die in the service of the good, Weil asserted, he has the right to kill when war is necessary. Dismayed by the capitulation of France to Hitler, she supported the French Resistance wholeheartedly. In July of 1942, she accompanied her parents to New York. As Jews, they were in danger under the Vichy regime, but she knew that they would never leave France without her. Four months later, however, she returned to Europe; she had contacts who would enable her to work with de Gaulle’s Free French in London.

In New York, Weil had penned a prayer which some commentators refer to as “the terrible prayer.” She asks to be so identified with Christ’s suffering that what is left of her is an empty shell of a human being: “That I may be unable to will any bodily movement…like a total paralytic. That I may be incapable of receiving any sensation….That I may be unable to make the slightest connection between two thoughts.” Whatever knowledge and love she possesses she asks to be “stripped away, devoured by God, transformed into Christ’s substance and given for food to the afflicted whose body and soul lack every kind of nourishment.” The prayer indicates that in her own being Weil wants to resolve the contradiction between human suffering and divine love. By becoming totally emptied of self, through the acceptance of affliction, there would be, she thought, a pure exchange of love between God and the spirit of God within her. The extremity of suffering depicted in Weil’s request is disturbing, yet it reveals not the masochism which some have suggested, but rather the ultimate expression of her lifelong desire to know the truth. This desire has become, at this point, the desire to be one with God. It is the expression of her soul, and the enactment of the soul’s desires, as we know, can do violence to the self. What lover, in the fevered ecstasy of her love, has not proclaimed her desire to die for the sake of the beloved?

Working for the Free French in London, Weil certainly seemed intent on dying. She asked to be sent behind enemy lines as a covert operator, but her classically Jewish looks and physical awkwardness rules that out. Another plan was for a corps of front line nurses: unarmed, she and other intrepid souls would brave enemy fire to treat the wounded. (When the idea reached General de Gaulle, he is said to have exclaimed, “elle est fou!”—she is crazy.) Weil’s literary production was significant during her time in London. Besides the usual reports and memoranda, she wrote The Need for Roots, a treatise addressing the problem of how to rebuild French society after the war. But the whole tie, she was like a mother distraught because her children are suffering while she is kept from them. Just as she had at the age of five, she fasted to practice solidarity with the men at the front. This time, though, she refused not just sugar, but nearly everything, restricting herself to what she believed to be the rations of those on the front. It is likely that she ate even less. During the summer of 1943, she contracted tuberculosis, and in late August she died, being too weakened by malnourishment for her body to recover. The attending physician declared her death a suicide, but in the context of her whole life’s journey, we can say that she died of an excess of love.

Since her death, Weil’s life and work have been the subject of praise and controversy. She has been labeled “anorexic” and “self-hating”; her religious sense has been called that of a life-denying Gnostic. Susan Sontag writes, “No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves.” The purpose of this volume is neither to hold Simone Weil up as a paragon of spiritual understanding and Christian discipleship, nor to pass judgment on her distinctive spiritual journey and mystical writings. Instead, it will, I hope, quicken in the reader that sense of the eternal which Weil had to an extreme degree. Her gift to all those sincere in seeking the truth is the way she points to the reality of God. Like all mystics, she reminds us that our souls will not be satisfied with anything else. While others have used music and poetry to convey this discovery, Weil expressed it through a life of self-discovery, Weil expressed it through a life of self-denial. She wanted nothing about herself—in her life or in her writings—to distract from her role as witness. Thanks to her, those of us not similar focused can catch a glimpse of “that transcendent kingdom” which she came to know.

If we hesitate to emulate, or even to approve of, Weil’s path and her ideas in their entirety, still her intensity in the pursuit of the truth should fill us with gratitude. She discovered, much to her surprise, that her pursuit of truth was, finally, the pursuit of Christ. In this, she points a way toward Christ for those who struggle with institutional religion, showing that Christ makes himself known not through dogma or obedience to religious authorities, but to those who follow the deepest desires of their hearts.