Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 4

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 3

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

(to be continued)

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

Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 2

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



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

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


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


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

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

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

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

(to be continued)

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

Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 1

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 (for Doug) 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 long-long readers of Nietzsche and take his challenge seriously, engaging it with a sense of urgency about Nietzsche’s 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)

Opera of the phantom

Tehom-570x505The pages of my copy of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite are like the layers of a Monet landscape, comments on top of comments scribbled in various mediums (pink and yellow highlighter, pencil, black ink, blue ink – whatever was nearby) from multiple visits made to re-read its wonderful reflections. Just today I happened upon this particular sobriety (BOI, p. 399-400; the brackets are mine, just to help):

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

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2


In his critique of Rene Girard (see Part 1), David Bentley Hart argues that Girard draws too absolute a distinction between the sacrificial violence of scapegoating and the non-violent forms of sacrifice present within Israel’s faith and history. For Girard, Hart points out, to speak of Christ’s death “as a sacrifice” legitimizes sacred violence. One can see this in Girard’s reading of the book of Hebrews as a violent, and so false, reading of the gospel whose sacrificial motifs implicate God in the persecution of the victim. Hart argues that Girard fails to appreciate how foundational the language of “sacrifice” is to God’s covenant with Israel (a covenant which Christ fulfills), and that Christianity’s soteriological vision is too bound up with sacrificial themes and motifs to dismiss such language. Not all talk of sacrifice describes an economy of exchange and propitiation that Girard rightly seeks to expose as violent.

Though Girard doesn’t intend as much, still in the end, Hart contends, one is left with a savior who is more gnostic than the Jew who fulfills and mediates Israel’s covenants in history, a savior who establishes not a way of being in the world but a path of escape from it, and so a savior who gives victims “no story to tell” within history. Though Hart agrees with Girard’s overall intent to establish a truly benevolent, non-violent view of God and God’s redemptive presence in the world, he feels Girard’s methodology is too negatively shaped by the force of prophetic fervor. Hart goes on to offer, beautifully as always, a non-violent reading of the Cross as sacrifice.

I’d like to respond a bit to Hart’s criticisms of Girard, because while some of his criticisms could describe the early Girard (given the texts Hart depends on), they are not true of the late Girard, as I’ll show. At the time Hart assessed Girard, Girard would have agreed with Hart’s non-violent account of Christ’s death, even as sacrifice, as being consistent with his overall theories on mimetic desire and sacred violence.

In an interview with Rebecca Adams (“Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with Rene Girard,” Religion & Literature [Vol. 25, No. 2] Summer, 1993), subsequent to the works of Girard that Hart basis his critique upon but prior to the publication of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003), Girard addresses the core of Hart’s concerns. The interview is quite revealing.

Take for example Hart’s mention of Girard’s dismissal of the book of Hebrews (and ‘sacrificial’ language as such) as a violent reading of the Cross implicating God in persecuting the victim. There’s no doubt this is Girard’s view in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French, 1987 in English). In that book (228) Girard writes:

According to this Epistle, there is certainly a difference between Christ’s Passion and the sacrifices that have gone before. But this difference is still defined within the context of the sacrificial, and consequently the real essence of the sacrificial is never examined. Like all the variants that are to follow, this first attempt at a sacrificial theology is based on analogies between the form of the Passion and the form of all other sacrifices, but it allows the essential feature to escape.

Certainly the believer rightly sees an enormous difference between Christianity and the sacrifices of the Old Testament. But he can give no justification for this difference as long as he continues to define everything in sacrificial terms…As long as the Christian difference is defined in sacrificial terms, as all former differences among religions have been defined, it will eventually be effaced.

To sum up: the Epistle to the Hebrews re-enacts what is re-enacted in all earlier formulations of sacrifice. It discharges human violence, but to a lesser degree. It restates God’s responsibility for the death of the victim….

But when asked about this by Adams in 1993, Girard repents of “having scapegoated Hebrews” and all talk of “sacrifice.” Here’s a portion of the conversation:

Girard: I agree entirely with you that there are problems with my treatment of Hebrews. It’s a problem of language: the language of the “last sacrifice,” even though in Things Hidden I say, ultimately, that the word “sacrifice” doesn’t matter that much. But I say it too briefly. And I give too much importance to that word. That’s one of the reasons for my misinterpreting Hebrews. I was aware of these great things in it, especially in the quotation of the Psalms.

Adams: You’re saying that you dismissed Hebrews too quickly?

Girard: Yes, sure. I was completely wrong. And I don’t know what happened to me, really, because I was pretty careful not to do that, generally.

Adams: Hebrews is one of the main sources, of course, for sacrificial theology. And so it deserves careful treatment.

Girard: Yes, it deserves careful treatment. And its concept of the “last sacrifice” can be very easily interpreted, made to fit, the view I propose. There is no serious problem. But in Things Hidden I ask Hebrews to use the same vocabulary I do, which is just plain ridiculous.

Adams: We’ll look for further work on Hebrews, then?

Girard: That’s true. That’s one part of Things Hidden that I would like to change.

Adams: Let’s continue then with the question of “sacrifice” as a developing and fluid concept.

Girard: I say at the end of Things Hidden – and I think this is the right attitude to develop – that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my main theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.

Adams: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.

Girard: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice.” I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking…

girardWith respect to the notion that mimetic desire is inherently acquisitive and violent, Girard makes it clear that he always believed mimetic desire to be capable of peaceful and non-violent fulfillment. He in fact agreed that mimetic desire is that which opens us up (positively) to God and others.

Adams: But again, that’s the idea of renunciation of the will, isn’t it?

Girard: The idea of renunciation has, no doubt, been overdone by the Puritans and the Jansenists, but the blanket hostility that now prevails against it is even worse. The idea that renunciation in all its forms should be renounced once and for all may well be the most flagrant nonsense any human culture has ever devised. But as to whether I am advocating “renunciation” of mimetic desire, yes and no. Not the renunciation of mimetic desire itself, because what Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me, he says, so it’s twice mimetic. Jesus seems to say that the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father. So the idea that mimetic desire itself is bad makes no sense. It is true, however, that occasionally I say “mimetic desire’ when I really mean only the type of mimetic desire that generates mimetic rivalry and, in turn, is generated by it.

Adams: This is an important clarification. It seems that it wouldn’t make sense, in light of your theory itself, to say mimetic desire should be renounced…

Girard: A simple renunciation of desire I don’t think is Christian. It’s more Buddhist. Undoubtedly there are similarities between what I am saying and Buddhism. If you read the descriptions of Buddhism, they are very profound; they are very aware of mimetic desire, and of contagion, and of all the things that matter in human relations. Like all great religious writing. The thing that is unique about Christianity is that it wants to go back to the origin, to the sacrificial origin, and uncover it. Buddhism is not interested in doing this at all. And Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether. Christianity never does that. Christianity says, the cross will be there for you, inevitably. But that kind of renunciation is very different.

…I would say that mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.

Note, finally, in Girard’s objections to Buddhism an answer to those who see in Girard a gnostic tendency to see salvation as an escape from the world and time. “Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether,” Girard insists, “Christianity never does that.” Adams brings up the charge of Gnosticism:

Adams: I’d like to ask now about your understanding of history, and how you interpret both sacrifice itself and Christianity within the movement of history. It seems as if your thought tends toward Gnosticism, in the sense that it is knowledge which eventually saves us, history is a process of coming to greater and greater knowledge of the victimage mechanism, and there is some point toward which we are progressing, at which we will be enlightened in a definitive sense.

Girard: Yes, but don’t forget that I say that this knowledge is very ambivalent in the way it works with people, that there are always perversions of this knowledge.

Adams: So history is not a straight line, a humanistic progress toward an end goal, or something like that.

Girard: No, no.

Adams: And yet you do seem to have a sense of progression.

Girard: I do. The nineteenth century had too much of this sense; our age has too little of it. We are a big reaction against the nineteenth century, and in many ways that’s very positive. But in some ways it’s excessive: all the pessimism against our own religion, against our own culture, against everything which is ours. So I think that’s a problem as well.

Adams: You are referring to multiculturalism, at least in some of the extreme separatist or punitive forms it takes?

Girard: Yes, and that sort of thing.

Adams: Because we’re reacting against our own ethnocentrism, and that’s a healthy impulse, but what we are doing essentially is scapegoating our own culture in the process, and that’s problematic.

Girard: It is the little compensation we can give to the people who have been historically scapegoated. But we are then turning around and scapegoating our own tradition. Scapegoating and betraying our own tradition has become an absolute duty, especially when it is done in the name of Christian charity, of course.

Girard - Things Hidden__________________________

It may be that Girard is driven by a certain prophetic fervor to expose the violence that has crept into so much of Christian thought and self-understanding. But this is, after all, the prophetic calling. One could similarly accuse Israel’s prophets of being too one-sided, too over-invested in negative assessments, too eager to find fault but not to map out what a redeemed human culture looks like, etc. Girard did not map out an ecclesiology of how the Church embodies within the world all the cultural forms of human solidarity that God realizes in and through it. This is an incompleteness to be sure, but to suspect him of latent gnostic tendencies seems a bit much, to say nothing of the fact that Girard directly addressed the question.

It’s one thing to admit non-violent senses of sacrificial language in the ways Hart describes – as expressive of the loving self-surrender and reception that defines Father, Son and Spirit as the God who is love. But does this tell us how to distinguish those “currents of stress” within Israel’s faith and history which Hart as well as Girard sees in Israel’s texts? Near the end of discussing Girard, Hart notes that we should not speak of the Cross “as a sacrifice” but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” That sounds perfectly Girardian (later in his life). And the convergence cannot be allowed to blend together to become a third thing. The “radical opposition” has to remain clear and definable throughout or no truly non-violent account of the gospel is possible – and Hart wants that as much as Girard.

So what are the two opposing orders? One is Israel’s entire sacrificial economy with every requirement of blood sacrifice. The other is the peaceful surrendering of Christ’s life to God – a life we can describe as a ‘sacrifice’ in the positive, peaceful sense Hart champions (and which we now know Girard himself celebrated). But as Hart agrees, Christ does not require the Cross to constitute the event of his life as gift surrendered/sacrificed to God, however completely his life of surrender is revealed in the demands which being crucified make of him. Thus, the sacrifice which Christ makes and the sacrifice which they who crucify him make are the “two radically opposed orders of sacrifice” Hart describes. crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart describes, “is what happens to this sacrifice [viz., the sacrifice that is Christ’s peaceful and loving life lived in surrender to God], even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event” (emphasis mine). Thanks to Rebecca Adams, we know that there’s nothing here the late Girard would have disagreed with, so I take Hart’s criticisms of Girard in BOI to be answered. Had Hart engaged Girard’s later reflections published by Adams, I’m guessing his assessment of Girard would have been different.

What Hart doesn’t address in his critique of Girard’s thoughts on Israel’s sacrificial cult is whether or not he (Hart) thinks God really directed Israel’s development of sacrificial rituals. It’s a fair question. Does God’s being non-violent extend to the treatment of animals used in sacrifice to God or to the arguably inevitable corruption of faith and thought that so bloody an approach would precipitate? It would arguably be impossible to secure a non-violent reading of the gospel if one believes God ordained and directed the slaughter of vast numbers of animals. If the “event” of God’s triune fullness is an infinitely accomplished peace which Christ’s life reveals, whence the divine requirement for blood? Hart seems to agree with Girard that there is none. So are the prophets who rebuke Israel merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying? Or is the final truth that Christ reveals anticipated more by the occasional but unmistakably radical sentiment of Ps 51.17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings”? The writer doesn’t appear to believe that sacrifice is the proper response even of a transformed heart. On the contrary, once the heart becomes the explicit scene of grace’s transformation, there’s no need for sacrifice. As he says, “…else I would bring it.” Hosea 6.6 as well: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” But one might ask why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? Or Heb 10.8: “‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’, though they were offered in accordance with the law,” and so forth.

I liken Israel’s entire sacrificial cult as missing the point to Israel’s monarchy (see Israel’s request for a king in 1Sam 8), or for that matter to God’s permitting divorce (Mt 19:8) – as something God never wanted, something which was essentially a misrelation to God’s intentions and desires, a violation of an economy of peace God sought to establish, but something which God permitted due to the hardened heart of Israel, God’s covenant partner. Consider how this plays out with Israel’s insistence upon having a king. God never wanted Israel to have a king, and the very request, Samuel warns, amounted to a rejection of God by Israel. And yet God gave them what they wanted, complete with instructions on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation become inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship come to express themselves in the same terms. But the “radical opposition” never gets resolved into a peaceful economy. However natural it feels to celebrate later achievements wrought by grace through such accommodations (whether blood sacrifice or monarchy or what have you), the accommodations remain obstacles that are overcome, contingencies in spite of which God brings his salvation.

For the present it is the Church’s calling to realize, via the Spirit, what God intends human solidarity to look like, all the while maintaining the “radically opposed orders” of sacrifice. There’s no way to read straight off Israel’s history the one story God is writing, however tied to Israel’s history we must be. Does God’s good story include divorce since God permitted divorce? Hardly. Does it include monarchy since God tolerated that? Not in light of Israel’s reassessment of her own history. Does it include animal sacrifice since God accommodated blood sacrifice? Does it include the Cross since God submitted to it? Here, with Girard, I have to follow the logic of peaceful love. The story we tell, the story victims tell, is the story of our shared participation in the “event” (Hart’s word) of God’s peaceful, self-surrender. The revelation of this event always occurs in a violent, less than ideal world, a world which is both the means of revelation and the object revelation addresses and seeks to transform. That may not be an easy history to parse, but (the late) Girard manages it as well as any, better than most.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 1


There’s a Youtube interview (never mind the link) with David Bentley Hart in which Hart discusses Rene Girard’s work. Unfortunately the audio recording makes understanding Hart impossible.

I’ve kept an open ear online for announcements of an interview or essay in which Hart describes his appreciation for and criticisms of Girard, but nothing forthcoming. I did, however, manage to find enough of Hart’s thoughts on Girard in Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI, 347-353), relevant portions of which I’ve reproduced below. I’ll leave this Part 1 to Hart and return with a Part 2 to reflect upon his assessment. If you have BOI and are a fan of Girard as I am, take advantage of the whole passage. Hart writes:

The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst and infinite ocean of violent energy – which is also the myth of the polis or the empire – belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence within the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic – repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian [pronounced /Kthounian/ or /Thounian/, meaning “pertaining to the underworld”] energies and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order – and economic – recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves…This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice.

Can, though, sacrifice defeat sacrifice? Is not the cross of Christ another myth of peace won through violence, of chaos and death subdued by a propitiatory offering, and of, indeed (as Nietzsche said), the infinite multiplication of debt rather than its discharge? One would obviously wish to say not, but one must also have a care that, in making one’s argument, one does not fail to account for the element of oblation in the story of salvation. A salutary example, both for good and ill, of how delicate a matter it is to argue against the idea of the cross as divine violence is Rene Girard; no one else has made so great an issue of the difference between the death of Christ and the death of the “sacrificial” victim. Girard’s most extensive treatment of propitiatory exclusion is found in The Scapegoat, where he draws an absolute distinction between the mythology that dictates that religions make room, on ritual occasions, for disorder in subordination to order and those biblical narratives that tell their story from the perspective of the victim of both that disorder and that order. Mythologies, according to Girard, generally reflect the thinking of the class of persecutors; and “[s]trong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled” (104). Not that persecutors are always creatures of malice more often than not they are guardians of the public weal, whose prudence prevents violence from erupting into riot, warfare, or internecine strife. Their sacrificial economics is simply the art of responsible politics. Of Caiaphas’s remark that it is better that one die than that the nation perish, for instance, Girard writes: “Caiaphas is stating the…political reason…for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible bot to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician (113). And so, “Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decider, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution” (114). For Girard this means that theologians who speak of Christ’s death (at least in its salvific function) as a sacrifice “once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text (126); and in so doing they lose sight of the evangel that truly sets free: “The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand” (189). In Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World Girard goes so far as to advocate a “non-sacrificial reading of the gospel text”: the Bible from the beginning seeks to unwind the narrative of sacrifice, he says, taking the side of Abel against Cain, whose violence is indeed the founding of cities; the crucifixion is, thus, in no sense a sacrifice (180); for the notion of divine violence is no part of the Gospel story (189). Girard sees the profound logic of Scripture, as a whole, as lying in its constant movement away from the mythology of sacrifice (205-6), even as the presence of sacrificial and exclusionary themes causes currents of contradiction to run through its texts: he contrasts (to the former’s discredit) the stories of humanity’s expulsion from Eden and that of Johns prologue, which speaks of God’s exclusion by a violent world (247-76); and he does not hesitate to take the book of Hebrews to task for trafficking in sacrificial motifs and for, in consequence, implicating God in the persecution of the victim (227-31).

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs be said; in particular, his failure adequately to distinguish different senses of sacrifice from one another leads him all too often to treat the history of Israel’s faith as a stark opposition between a sacrificial cult and a prophetic tradition that has rejected sacrifice, causing him in consequence to overlook the manifold meanings inherent in Israel’s many sacrificial practices, the dependency of the prophetic tradition upon the language of sacrifice, and the ways in which the life and death of Christ are received in Christian thought as perfecting God’s covenant with Israel – even insofar as that covenant involves sacrifices. If Christ’s death overcomes a certain sacrificial order, it also fulfills one. Still, Girard’s observations must not be casually dismissed: it would obviously be repellent, for instance, for a Christian theologian to make of the crucifixion a kind of justification for capital punishment; but within a certain understanding of sacrifice, the immolation of the hostia and the execution of the criminal belong to the same motion of exclusion, the same inhibition of chaos, the same economic gesture; and this is a distinction that cannot be ignored. If the language of sacrifice in Christian thought did properly refer to an economy of exchange, such that God were appeased in the slaughter of a victim and his wrath were simply averted by way of a prudential violence of which he approved (and Flagellation of Christ, ca. 1900.who can deny that many Christians have imagined their faith in just these terms?), then indeed the Christian God would be a God of violence, and the Christian evangel of peace would simply dissemble another economy of violence and debt – one that, in fact (Nietzsche winning the field), has been monstrously magnified. Here, as nowhere else, this book’s initial question proves most perilous to ask: Does the language of sacrifice within Christian thought, inextirpable from Scripture, make of the gospel a tale that defeats itself in the telling, the beauty of whose rhetoric proves in the end to be another – and particularly meretricious – variant of the glamor of violence? And this is by no means an easy question to answer: contrary to Girard’s contention, the presence of sacrificial language in the New Testament is so deeply constitutive of Christian soteriology (even in its overcoming of sacrificial models of cosmic order) that it cannot simply be dispelled by drawing a firm demarcation between the site of the persecutor and the site of the victim, between the place of eminence and the place of abjection. Girard is right to make this distinction, of course, and even right to do so with a degree of prophetic fervor; but the dangers of his method are many: he risks leaving Israel behind and so, in consequence, the world.

The Christian story of salvation concerns not the descent of some gnostic savior bearing tidings of an alien God, but the covenant that God makes with Israel and the covenant he makes, consequently, with all flesh; it is in the history of the world he elects; it is in his people, the Jews, that God instates an order of infinite giving that responds to the infinity of his gift in creating, and that stands apart from the hierarchies of worldly power. It is only in fulfilling – indeed, in being the substance of – this covenant that Christ makes the story that God tells concerning creation triumph over the false and violent stories that sinful humanity tells of the world. Girard’s treatment of the matter, however, in its most extreme moments, makes out the salvific motion of Christ’s life to be almost purely negative, a motion of alienation, running dialectically against history. Not that this is Girard’s intention: he intends that the story of the victim be recognized as a true story and one that must be liberated from the narratives of the persecutor; but the effect of his account of salvation is that Christ comes to look almost like a Marcionite savior, who does not so much inaugurate the liberating history of God with us as describe a path of flight from time. Rather than the form that stands in the midst of creation to declare the true shape of creation, Christ looks suspiciously like a figure who saves simply by pointing beyond every economy – and every world but society is exchange, giving and taking, even in some sense sacrificing one thing for another, offering one thing up for another. Does Christ then offer a new order of exchange and sacrifice, or is he simply the abnegation of human solidarity, a revolutionary outcry that forever interrupts the story of the world but tells no story of its own? Is salvation merely the liberation of souls from the bondage of the world? Again, Girard intends to say no such thing; but where, in the world, does the victim have a story of his own?…

There are many sacrificial moments in Israel’s response to God, of course, and so Israel’s cultic practices cannot be reduced to one essential thing univocally termed “sacrifice.” There are indeed practices of violence and exclusion, but also practices of sanctification and reconciliation, thanksgiving and adoration. Before all else, though, sacrifice is a qurban, a drawing nigh, an approach to God who graciously approaches his people in love. If there are currents of stress in the history of Israel’s cult, they do not run between the idea of sacrifice as such and a prophetic rejection of sacrifice, but between different ways of understanding the motion of sacrifice that Israel is, the gift it makes of itself – of its body – to the God who gives it its being and its name…

…For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit’s eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Renus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love…

This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other. Within Israel’s history the most important practice of sacrifice is ultimately confined to the temple in Jerusalem alone, and this is entirely appropriate. Israel’s offering does not express a sacrificial logic simply inherent in being, practicable in any setting, for purposes of auspication or haruspication or private benefit, but is the single action of God’s people, the extraordinary motion of Israel’s ceaseless exodus toward God, to whom all being belongs, peacefully, and who therefore has no need for it to be portioned to him in an economy of violence. It is this same motion toward God that is made perfect in the life of Christ, in the gift he makes of himself to the Father by the entirety of who he is. The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an attempt to contain it.