Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 1

hart1I have a close friend who, outside my siblings, has known me longer than anyone. We met in school as teens and have stayed connected since, though less in touch at times than we should have allowed ourselves to be. I moved to California last year and since Doug lives here with his family, we’ve been able to renew our friendship face to face.

Doug and I shared and processed faith together throughout High School, we both traveled the world involved in Christian ministry, and we both stood up as groomsmen in each other’s weddings. Doug is way smarter than I am, so when life’s questions and complexities led him to question and later abandon his faith, I wanted to know why. We discussed it off and on for years I suppose.  I tried to challenge him; he definitely challenged me.

I think Doug would agree that German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) came to represent the main lines of argument that express his reasons for letting go of Christianity. I explored Nietzsche briefly years ago but have recently wanted to better understand the force of his rhetoric and his case against faith. So I’ve picked Nietzsche back up and intend to make my way through a few of his more important works.

My friend Doug has also agreed to write up a series of posts on Nietzsche for us here. I can’t wait. I think we’re looking at sharing those by the end of the year, but they’ll appear eventually. In the meantime, I thought that in addition to getting back into Nietzsche for myself I’d also revisit what others have to say about him. Irish philosopher William Desmond has been reading Nietzsche for decades and reflects on Nietzsche’s thought in Is There a Sabbath Rest for Thought? I’ve tapped into British philosopher Denys Turner, also a life-long reader of Nietzsche. And of course there’s David Hart who reflects upon Nietzsche at some length in his The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003). None of these (Christian) thinkers dismiss Nietzsche out of hand. On the contrary, they’re life-long readers of Nietzsche and take his challenge seriously, engaging it with a sense of urgency about his abiding relevance.

Hart especially leaves no doubt as to the depth of his respect for Nietzsche, a figure who appears repeatedly in Hart’s essays and conversations. The section I intend to reproduce here (without footnotes) in 4-parts for those who do not own BOI that portion that 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 that 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 transgression 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 despises 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)


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!

They toil not…but then they burn?

GardenAs a teenager my parents struggled to get my brother and me to mow the lawn and trim the hedges. Over the course of my life, however, I took increasing interest in developing whatever potential our home had for growing a garden. I embraced my part with an interest that surprised even me – mowing, planting, transplanting, watering.

I daily check what Anita and I have planted. And – don’t laugh – I chat with my flowers when I water them. The bougainvillea I planted struggled at first, but with love and care, and talking to, it looks like they’ll make it. I look at flowers differently (like the picture featured here, from a planter outside the window inches from where I’m writing this note). I don’t just stare at them because they happen to come into view as I’m on my way to seeing something else. I contemplate them intentionally. I go looking for them. I don’t know what word to use other than ‘love’ to describe this, though obviously it’s not equivalent to what I feel for the people in my life. But neither is it entirely something else.

As I tended to my garden this morning, Jesus’ words in Mat 5 came to mind: “Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these [flowers of the field].” I paused to enjoy the moment and affirm it. How true it is that these flowers are more beautiful than any man-made jewelry. The best that we clothe human royalty in can’t exceed the flowers outside my window.

However, just then my thought was disturbed by what Jesus says immediately following his statement about the incomparable beauty of flowers: “If that [the beauty of the flowers of the field] is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. Perhaps it’s a bit of a philosophical abstraction, but I feel it personally. I talk a lot here about the theology of beauty, the implications of our perception of beauty, the redeeming/healing properties of beauty. Suddenly it bothered me that Jesus juxtaposes the incomparable beauty of flowers with their being discarded into the fire so nonchalantly. There’s no disagreeing that the beauty of flowers are a fleeting thing and that we have to discard them when they die. But for me there’s something to truly grieve here, and I don’t see the grief in Jesus’ comments. Even if the overall point is to reassure us that God will care for us more than he cares for the flowers of the field, somewhere along the line the reassurance became a warning: If the flowers are here today and tomorrow are tossed into an oven, what might happen to me? Maybe the beauty I constitute for God is disposable too. How would I know if God is OK with so obvious and excessive a beauty as flowers being here today and gone tomorrow?

I didn’t feel reassured. But I suppose the reassurance is in the fact that the flowers parallel not me but rather the clothes, food and shelter we seek for survival’s sake; so if we seek first God’s kingdom God will clothe and feed and shelter us (more than he does the grass of the field?). Well, OK. But then, I thought, seeing the beauty of flowers as exceeding Solomon’s is the Kingdom (i.e., is the Kingdom come in the shaping of our aesthetic perceptions and valuation of things). And that gets tossed into the fire? The Kingdom tosses the Kingdom? You might respond, “Well, those are flowers being tossed, not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is something else. It’s bigger and more important.” Really?

I guess my question is: How’s the passing of such beauty (the perceiving of which is the Kingdom) into the oven shape our understanding of beauty and the way we’re to value it?

The beef is back on

So I guess the beef is back on

So I guess the beef is back on, just toss it in the wok – flame
Blazes and amazes, but they never on the block – game
Is always played pettily with no rules, it’s no shock – shame
Upon the industry that can’t tell the times, a broken clock – name
Me one rapper that’s talkin honestly bout the real story,
Bout the horror flick called Fascism, full of blood and gory,
Pullin out the straps on innocent mothers, aimin Gunz like Cory,
Then braggin on the Gram about the “war” and all its glory;
“Make America Great Again” chant of the next Trumpster hire,
Little knowin the guy’s close to combustion like a dumpster fire,
Willing to spit the false gospel of an even falser Messiah,
Needle’s already in the red, but he’s ready to take it higher;
Briar patches fillin up scary white rabbits,
While Nanaw done lost her healthcare and “She’s Gotta Have It”;
Word to Spike Lee, they might dislike me,
Even try to fight me, but they will never slight me,
Slight of hand with the reality, David Copperfield
Droppin bombs on illusion, with a kiloton whopper yield;
In the wreckage I hope to find us a kernel of truth,
To stop the wildfire of doublespeak from burnin the youth.
Speakin of kids, I heard about 1500 missin,
Torn from mothers and others, cryin and kissin,
Screw hearin about a couple-o wealthy egos dissin,
Please open your third eye and inner ear and just listen;
What have we become when we become so indifferent to pain,
I wish we cared more about our kids, indifferent to fame,
Betsy Ross in heaven cryin tears of Purple Rain,
The circle of stars she made is nothing but a circle of shame.
America, time to live up to your promise of hope,
Instead of Blue oppression, Red blood, and White lines of coke,
Nationalistic fires and destruction you continue to stoke,
So when God brings the rod of correction we’ll get more than a poke.

(Dwayne Polk)

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.

No, not that scapegoat

180px-The_Scapegoat,_film_posterI was thinking through the letter to the Hebrews in light of Girard’s early opinion that the author, though a Christ-follower, had nonetheless lapsed into a violent-sacrificial reading of the gospel. Girard later admitted this was rash and conceded a non-sacrificial reading of the letter was possible, though he never described how such a reading should proceed. I happened upon Hebrews 9.22 which states that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” and recorded my thoughts in the margins:

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” does not mean sacrificial blood is the price paid to make forgiveness possible. Shedding of blood is the offense needing forgiveness, not a means to forgiveness, but forgiveness is manifest in the bearing of the offense. It is forgiveness, then, not justice, which must be seen to be done. Unless our violence is seen to exhaust itself upon the One who in turn forgives, forgiveness is not manifest. The Cross is where forgiveness is revealed not where it is achieved. In other words, you cannot demonstrate that you forgive someone their violence without suffering that violence, but this is very different from saying you suffer the punishment their violence deserves.