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Archive for May, 2012

Five sonnets here I wrote over the course of 2010, now slowly rotting on my USB drive. If you choose to read one or two, bear in mind they need to be read slowly. They look long but poetry is really short. If you would like to appreciate them then you may even read one over more than once. They are written with some loose chronology in mind.

i.

To see Eden in its first spring
would inspire life
in the wintriest soul, warming
to its Creator from merciless
grey. The freshwater trickle down

an arm’s length of rocks is a torrent
upon the heart; faint starlight through the forest

canopy illuminates each beat.
On some soft buttercups in Paradise,

Adam lay and gave audience to a pair
of sleeping doves. No previous
offshoot of naïve rationality had so much
as inclined him to the hole
in his being, the edge of which he now slept.

ii.

Dawn arrived
earlier. Ample shards of sun
pierced the shade, broke on
the gossamer, heavy
with dew, and flitted about Adam’s eyelids.

He stirred a little. She,
circumspect, withdrew her step and waited,

as one eye, then another, slowly discerned morning
on moss and bark, to discover her feet

and stop.
There! Wildly, over Adam rolled! And ran to outrun
his pounding chest – and beautiful
God he challenged when his gaze
fell about Eve’s face.

iii.

As the jackal grinds her teeth
to twilight, she whets
her muzzle
downwind. Ecru mountains
flank the dimming horizon. If the huntress

had sniffed him in her territory, it was his
raw passion that let on, though Adam

would have her
skin. But soon the sable hour and desert

air will smooth the sand and cool
his lust better
than sweat can. The constant, steady heartbeat
of a distant other will lull this weary spirit to
rest. And El Shaddai’s smile will wrinkle in dust.

iv.

Some figure stumbles across
the dirt, and skips a step over some
misplaced pebble. Another trails
at a distance, in inadvertent pursuit. From the highest
point above them, the sun burns

like a curse. When the throat starts
pulsing, the body needs water, and sleep

when the sultry day relents. Two
stragglers crossed a wasteland

and settled with the sea.
And as the tide pushed inland, Eve pushed
toward the only other she knew. Her tired
eyes remained open. Adam drank no water.
But they sat very close.

v.

With night looming silently
above, the shore inched up
the sandy incline. Up sprang Adam
from the bite that nipped his toes,
and left his companion’s side. In his arms

he carefully gathered her to
the higher ground, then lunged with a fist of sand

at the haughty wave that tried to snatch
his Eve. But in that moment, the first man saw

the first time he, with deadly curiosity, spied
her face and had longed just to meet her
eyes again. And he saw
the embers edging the carcass of the goat he
first slaughtered. He was jealous that the sands

would one day take his Eve. And he held her
as if holding eternity.

Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology

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One of the most glaringly obvious critiques of Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism is that you can pretty much remove your accountability to any action by attributing its source to God. In his landmark work on the subject¹, Kierkegaard exposes some problems with Kantian/Hegelian universalism, the philosophical ideas that focus on humanity moving towards a rationally justifiable way of acting ethically in all situations. Put simply, in any ethical dilemma there would be a right way to act, which the right amount of reasoning can allow us to discern. But Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac to problematise this premise: According to the ethical, Abraham is nothing but a murderer, so how then can he be named the father of faith? Kierkegaard suggests an absolute duty to God, which sometimes transcends the ethical — God asks of us things that conflict with our notions of the ethical, but this is faith, as it puts God’s purposes beyond our own rationally discernible ones. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, if loving one’s neighbour is an expression of loving God then there is no love of God; love of God is just the language we use to describe our actions of love for our neighbour.

I love this neighbour

* * *

This again is the most obvious critique of Kierkegaard: If we are to “obey God rather than men” then sooner or later someone is going to do something stupid and try to justify it by saying they were serving God, whose purposes are higher than our rationally discernible ones. George Bush claims God told him, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. Pope Urban II initiated the first crusade with the belief that God was with his troops. No doubt these instances and others take inspiration from similar biblical stories (eg. Deuteronomy 2:24-25). In many instances people will actually believe that the Lord is leading them into violence, whereas there will be other people who decide first what they want to do and then attribute the initiative to God. Whatever the case is not to the point (although adherents of the former may be understandably annoyed by abusers of the latter), but rather that a person or group of people have the ability to justify, even gain support for, their cause by appealing to a higher, divine purpose.

Because I love Kierkegaard so much (having read three of his books, Sickness unto death and Fear and Trembling twice) I have to stick up for the guy here. I don’t want to believe that his conception of God has anything to do with the three examples given above. But I really don’t know enough about him to make that decision. However, I will make it based on his reading of Abraham’s story: Abraham never goes through with the sacrifice. Isaac remains alive and lives a life necessary to being the progenitor of the nation Israel. It seems that God only asked Abraham to be willing to sacrifice fully his son to display his complete trust in God. At the last moment, Abraham is provided a ram to sacrifice to God instead of Isaac (read all about it in Genesis 22:1-18). What is more, God had told Abraham earlier, “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (17:19 NIV), and yet even more definitely, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (21:12 NIV). On this Kierkegaard bases his argument that Abraham, as man of faith, believed the absurd, that God asked him to sacrifice his son as much as he would retain or ‘regain’ his son as the Lord would give Abraham descendants through Isaac. You could chance to say that God is justified in inviting Abraham to child sacrifice by the results rather than the source of the action. What is more, laws in the Torah present God as staunchly against child sacrifice (eg. Deuteronomy 12:31).

Blake’s depiction of Abraham and Isaac. “Don’t do it Santa Claus!”

So I have made a mild case for Kierkegaard’s acceptability. In making this case though, I have almost brought his argument back into the ethical. I am justifying to readers Kierkegaard’s position using rationality, as he inevitably also does, so we miss the point that Kierkegaard’s ethics aren’t grounded in interpersonal dialogue but the single individual’s trust and faith in God. What matters for him is not what others think, but what God thinks.

I’ve been pressed to think of other examples of the religious transcending the ethical. A while ago I linked to a video where in some cases even the commitment to marriage might be broken for the sake of God. Unfortunately, if you were one who clicked on it, the link was dead at the time. So here it is again. Anyway, it basically describes two guys leaving their families (at a time when they probably provided much needed support for their wives and children) to sell themselves as slaves and share the Gospel with other slaves. Another example was when I was at Eastercamp years ago and a speaker spoke on being led by the Spirit onto the mission field with his and his wife’s new child who later died on the field because they couldn’t give it the support it needed so far away from home. The story created a lot of division and many people didn’t like the speaker too much afterwards. That’s understandable. Unlike the story of Abraham, in these cases of the religious transcending the ethical, there are no great fruits to point to, or maybe there are, but only with great loss. I can make no attempt to justify the actions of the people in either of these stories, but only point to them as possible examples of what Kierkegaard is saying. In each case, if he is right, their actions shouldn’t justify them to people, but only to God as they are done in faith. They are still subject to the judgement of good Christians, and concerned people with two feet firmly on the ground.

* * *

If we take Kierkegaard seriously, in his words of prophetic flair, echoing the biblical, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19 NASB²), then there remains the problem that what we designate “God” to be can be anything. As of yet I have only read one of Zizek’s books, Violence, and it was exhilarating. I almost only have good things to say about the guy. But I was let down by his defence of traditional atheism. Of course it’s probable that more much more thoughtful examples exist, but I must pick on Zizek here for a moment because his words indicate how easy it is for even super-smart people to fall into the weakness of this simple critique of Kierkegaard³. He starts by removing the definition of the religious suspension of the ethical away from common criticisms:

So it is not that you can just do whatever you want: your love for God, if true, guarantees that in what you want to do you will follow the highest ethical standards.

(Violence, p.116, 2009, Big Ideas series)

And then he digs at the roots of this idea, to provide a more deeply set alternative:

Fundamentalists do (what they perceive as) good deeds in order to fulfil God’s will and to deserve salvation: atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do not do it with a view to gaining God’s favour, I do it because I cannot do otherwise — if I were not to do it, I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward.

(p.117)

Admittedly, Zizek is primarily speaking of our motivations for doing good; it’s the assumptions behind his argument that are the problem. He supposes that the thoughtful atheist practice of good for good’s sake is an improvement on the previous good for God’s sake. Yet the central problem is that he is pitting one subjectivity up against another. In my relationship with God, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or whatever my Lord asks me to do, is expressed subjectively and therefore warrants the possibility of responses such as, “God wouldn’t ask you to do that” or “I’d rather make up my own mind than obey that god”, as people have different conceptions of the good. See where I’m going? To do good for good’s sake is just as subjective as to do it for God’s sake. You’re only changing the terms with which you refer to good.

* * *

Kierkegaard’s theologico-philosophy is an example of changing the terms. Throughout church history, different people have located the Spirit in different structures. This overview is a bit of a slaughtersome generalisation but it’s helpful in making the point I want to make. So you could say that in ancient Israel the Spirit was located in the prophets, whom God used to direct his people. When the Jewish nation it seemed became overzealous for the law and missed the God behind it, the Spirit then found himself into the apostles and those who walked with Jesus, maybe even some more prophets (a few Gentiles here and there) in the first century Church. Then as the Church grew in numbers and needed some point of centrality for its many members the Spirit was located in the bishopric and Church leadership, who quickly defined what it meant to be and not be Christ’s. A millenium and a half later, a bunch of northern Europeans got annoyed at the hypocrisy of certain churchees and decided that the Spirit was located in Scripture. Amid this history Kierkegaard steps onto the scene and locates the Spirit in the relationship between the single individual and God.

Kierkegaard, attested to as the founder of existentialism, may also be somewhat accountable for the individualism rampant in 21st Century Western civilisation, which is so fashionable to rail against that I just couldn’t help myself. We can see him as a precursor to individualistic practices of Christianity, where our theology meets all our own needs and serves to justify our own already constructed comfortable worldview, with me at the centre. In modern Catholicism, the Spirit remains located in the Church, who determines right and wrong, and how to interpret Scriptures and tradition. In modern forms of Protestantism, the Spirit is located in readings of the Scriptures in accordance with the denomination’s tradition, or continual attempts to read the Scriptures in themselves, based on the assumption that a theology would be kind of self-evident. And then in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, the extra emphasis on experience and leading of the Holy Spirit plays a large part in the way we read Scripture.

What then can we say? What if we’ve been looking at it the wrong way, and the ball is actually in God’s court? I’m not saying this to dismiss human responsibility, but, depending on who reads the stories, there are instances in history where the Spirit seemed to take his own initiative when things got a bit evil, a bit human. One example is the Montanists in the early history of the Church, a group who found the Spirit located among their own adherents rather than in the authority of the Church (I read this post on them just a couple of days ago). The Spirit led them to prophesy and to take up their own practices distinguishable from those of the Church at the time. The Waldensians and Cathari are examples of similarly motivated groups that arose later in Europe. The Catholic encyclopaedia provides some deliciously almost unbiased histories, although you may want to look elsewhere as well. Kierkegaard arose at a time when the Danish Church held a monopoly over what it means to be Christian in his area. His religious suspension of the ethical should be read in this sense: The Spirit rose Kierkegaard up as a single individual counterpoint to the dry and passionless practice of the Church at his time. And throughout history, it seems, the Spirit rises up to indwell certain structures for a time when other structures have neglected to have God at the centre

* * *

¹A pun.

²The NIV overlooks the idiomatic value for something a little more specific, “We must obey God rather than human beings!”

³Zizek is not in direct dialogue with Kierkegaard, but this critique of religion could easily be substituted for a critique of Kierkegaard.

* * *

Further reading:

There’s an old school translation of Fear and Trembling here, but I’d recommend a newer one for more serious readers.

You can get an overview of the work and some helpful commentary on SparkNotes.

For some good reading on Kierkegaard’s use of and departure from Kant, check out this article here.

Roger E. Olson makes use of the universal/ethical and judges the Calvinist God against it here.

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Before reading, you may find it exceedingly helpful to know that I’ve provided a large number of glosses just after the poem that you can refer to throughout for understanding. It’s not that different from English though and you can usually figure it out!

When the sheep are in the fauld, and the kye at hame, (1)
And a’ the warld to rest are gane,
The waes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my e’e,
While my gudeman lies sound by me.

Young Jamie lo’ed me weel, and sought me for his bride; (5)
But saving a croun he had naething else beside:
To make the croun a pund, young Jamie gaed to sea;
And the croun and the pund were baith for me.

He hadna been awa’ a week but only twa,
When my father brak his arm, and the cow was stown awa’; (10)
My mother she fell sick,–and my Jamie at the sea–
And auld Robin Gray came a-courtin’ me.

My father couldna work, and my mother couldna spin;
I toil’d day and night, but their bread I couldna win;
Auld Rob maintain’d them baith, and wi’ tears in his e’e (15)
Said, ‘Jennie, for their sakes, O, marry me!’

My heart it said nay; I look’d for Jamie back;
But the wind it blew high, and the ship it was a wrack;
His ship it was a wrack–Why didna Jamie dee?
Or why do I live to cry, Wae ‘s me? (20)

My father urgit sair: my mother didna speak;
But she look’d in my face till my heart was like to break:
They gi’ed him my hand, tho’ my heart was in the sea;
Sae auld Robin Gray he was gudeman to me.

I hadna been a wife a week but only four, (25)
When mournfu’ as I sat on the stane at the door,
I saw my Jamie’s wraith,–for I couldna think it he,
Till he said, ‘I’m come hame to marry thee.’

O sair, sair did we greet, and muckle did we say;
We took but ae kiss, and we tore ourselves away: (30)
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae ‘s me!

I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to spin;
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife aye to be, (35)
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me.

Auld Robin Gray by Lady Anne Lindsay

The bonny lass who wrote this poem

* * *

(1) kye: kine/cows, hame: home; (2) a’: all; (3) waes: woes, fa’: fall, frae: from;

(6) saving a croun: apart from a croun, a unit of Scottish currency; (7) To make a croun a pund: metaphorically, to make more money, as a pound, a British unit, was worth more, gaed: goed/went; (8) baith: both;

(9) twa: two; (10) brak: broke, stown: stolen;

(19) dee: die; (20) This should be read with quote marks: why do I live to cry, “Woe is me”?

(21) urgit sair: literally, ‘urged it sore’, although sair functions as an adverb so it can be read as ‘urged me sorely’; (23) gi’ed: gived/gave;

(26) stane: stone; (27) wraith: ghost;

(29) sair, sair: sorely, sorely, greet: cry, possibly also a pun on the English word, muckle: much; (30) ae: one;

(33) gang: go; (34) daurna: dare not; (35) aye: always

With huge thanks to the Scots dictionary.

* * *

You have just witnessed one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful occurrences in English literature. Some guy necessarily put it to song a wee while after it was written. I came across this singer when I was trying to figure out how to pronounce the words authentically.

Lady Anne Barnard wrote the poem in 1772, her early twenties. It is unique in the English poetry tradition in that it’s a published work of a female writer (not that there aren’t others, just that others are more exceptions than the rule). Francis Palgrave, the editor of the classic Golden treasury of English verse, was sparse in his notes, yet he tersely records, with unwitting condescension, “There can hardly exist a poem more truly tragic in the highest sense than this, nor, perhaps, has any poetess known to the editor equalled it in excellence” (emphasis mine). Possibly Lady Anne’s success had something to do with her nobility, although the poem is also written in the Scots language, a Germanic origin, close relative of English, which although having a rich literary history bears the burden of being sourced in a people historically oppressed by the English.

The poem was written leading up to Romanticism, when literary figures started placing more emphasis and value on folk traditions. Scots-English relations were on the up and up, as the beginnings of the United Kingdom had been initiated about 65 years earlier. And Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet, also wrote around this time.

Check out this site (scroll down to Lady Anne) for more information on context.

* * *

The poem opens similarly to Thomas Gray’s foundational melancholy, Elegy written in a country churchyard, published earlier that century:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Both contain images of the stock settling down for the night as the world goes to rest, with the narrator, Jennie, left alone to contemplate the sorrows of life. It’s possible that Lady Anne borrowed from the classic, whether intentionally or no, as Elegy was an immediate and ongoing success when released 21 years earlier. In a more holistic sense, the two are similar in that they are both written by well-to-do people, reflecting on the sorrows of the rural underclasses.

Mickey and the Beanstalk, a slightly more modern example

Whatever the case, the blatant irony of Jennie’s situation is doleful: She is alone crying in her bed while her gudeman lies sound by me. As we progress through the poem, we discover the term gudeman does not so much represent an authentic feeling of Jennie towards her new husband. More so she refers to Auld Robin Gray as a good man out of reluctant resignation to her circumstances. He can give Jennie and her family security but he cannot give her the emotional engagement, even ‘love’ that she needs, because her heart was already given to another. Is it possible that this is a reflection of some subtle going-on in Lady Anne’s real life, a subject matter to which she was attracted to write with much more bombastic despondency?

In the second verse we are introduced to the young and hopeful Jamie. He knows nothing of the sorrows that will befall his intended bride-to-be while at sea, and therefore engages in his work with hope marrying her when it is complete. I think it’s almost bad form to speculate who has it worse off here. But I would say Jennie still takes the cake as she must spiral downwards into sadness as she progressively finds it difficult to care for her family and must resign to marriage to someone she doesn’t love, whereas Jamie is actually moving happily closer towards something he desires, albeit deceptively, and is let down all of a sudden when he is reunited with her after going to sea.

In the third verse we get a further glimpse of auld Robin Gray. His age is something that immediately distinguishes him from Jamie. Perhaps he has had some more time in life to ‘get ahead’ and make some financial successes, thus providing a good base for marital/familial support. Note the humour in his last name, Gray. He is given a title, with a full name, whereas Jennie and Jamie are only referred to on a first name basis. Doesn’t this show Jennie’s emotional distance to him, maybe even auld carrying a tone of scorn? The use of a last name could also denote some respectability on Robin’s part, as he is a bit older and carries financial/societal sway. Perhaps we need to be sympathetic to Robin’s situation as well. Was he a lonely old man, rejected in his youth, who was just seeking companionship? Yet he pursues someone who he will not successfully emotionally engage with, making clear the universal tragedy of the poem: No character receives what they sought, perhaps only Jennie’s mother and father, yet at the expense of their daughter’s happiness.

How seriously can we take Robin’s sincerity? In the fourth verse when he pleads Jennie marry him, wi’ tears in his e’e, what does this mean? He had clearly reflected upon the hopelessness of her parents’ situation. But how necessary was his marriage to her? If he really cared for Jennie as much as he did for her parents then maybe he could have continued to provide financial support and let her alone to await the homecoming of her man to be. Robin Gray comes onto the scene just when he needs to, when he knows that Jennie cannot say no. Why didn’t he come a’courtin‘ her a little earlier, when he could’ve given her heart a chance, instead of taking advantage of the position of power he was in? To Robin’s credit, if he was genuinely concerned about Jennie’s parents welfare, and made the necessary steps to provide for them, this may have aroused concern in the neighbourhood that there was some under the table trade-off going on, ie. Jennie. His imploring her to marry him allows him to more blamelessly support her and her family.

In the fifth verse we discover that Jamie’s ship is a wrack. Nature has made a mockery of Jennie’s last inhibition. She now has no reason not to marry Robin. Yet, I think it’s unclear whether or not Jennie knew Jamie was dead. In the next verse she evidently is still reluctant to marry Robin. Perhaps she is holding onto the hope that Jamie is still alive. The main contention comes with her question, Why didna Jamie dee? Is this a present reflection on something that happened not too long ago? Or is this evidence that at the time of hearing about Jamie’s accident, she also heard he was ok? I’d say the former, as it was probably used as a point of argument from Robin and Jennie’s parents to persuade her to marry. Also, when Jamie comes home not too long after, Jennie appears to think it his ghost (wraith). The question is worth more than that though. She seems to say that it would have been better her beloved die than for him to live and the two of them be apart.

In the sixth verse there is a repeat of gudeman, alluded to also in the closing line, For auld Robin Gray, he is kind unto me. As mentioned earlier, this signals Jennie’s resignation to her circumstances. She mourns the loss of marriage to her beloved, yet she must take some consolation, however unwillful, in the fact that Robin is a good husband and provider.

Jamie’s boat

For me the seventh verse is the most tragic of the whole poem. Imagine Jamie, after his hard months at sea, come home to claim Jennie as his wife. Imagine his hopeful smile as he cuts straight to the chase, I’m come hame to marry thee. But at what moment does he realise something is not right? Does Jennie break into tears encountering his wretched deception? Worse, is he blissfully unaware, thinking rather that his forward proposal was received with such joy and emotion that Jennie couldn’t withhold from weeping? Surely he must have an inkling upon seeing her once again, as she is mournfu‘ when he arrives. Perhaps he is so unprepared for her sadness that his assertion of marriage is the only thing can think of to say. He proposes to her out of weakness. Or maybe he is trying desperately to cheer her up?

Now we are left with Jennie in her life without love. It has lost all meaning and colour that her previous affection afforded it. Even simple tasks like spinning are difficult. She has too much of a conscience to dwell on her lost opportunity. And she only desires her death. Well! I hope you enjoyed the analysis! There’s something strangely, deeply appealing to me about the poem. If you have any further questions or speculations, please let me know in the comments section.

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If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have Nietzsche, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

* * *

Recently I’ve been tucking into Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil. I first read Thus spoke Zarathustra, but found it quite riddlesome and esoteric. Nietzsche seems to speak a lot more straight-forwardly here, and with a lot less righteous decrying against humanity’s stupidity to this point (his critique is a lot more peaceful and shows some understanding).

One particularly seductive piece of insight Nietzsche employs is his term ‘will to power’, by which he interprets existence. Basically he’s saying that everything we do is done out of a motivation, a will, if you will, for power, which is more important to beings than mere self-preservation. The popular example (which I know not whether it has its origins in Nietzsche or the commentators) is that a martyr gladly embraces death out of a will to power, the will to eternal life. But maybe this isn’t an accurate enough example. If a martyr really believes they will live eternally then this is still an expression of will to self-preservation. Will to power can be examined more surely in someone who has no hope of life after death, say someone who believes they will cease to exist in their entirety, bar a lifeless body, on the point of their death yet chooses to give their life for the sake of another. If Nietzsche were to read into this situation the will to power, I’m guessing he would say something about how in the last few seconds of that person’s life they gained a sense of power in knowing that their sacrifice would preserve another’s life just that little bit longer. This, then, is what Nietzsche says on Christian love:

There is nothing for it: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour, the entire morality of self-renunciation must be taken mercilessly to task and brought to court[…] That they give pleasure — to him who has them and to him who enjoys their fruits, also to the mere spectator — does not yet furnish an argument in their favour, but urges us rather to caution. So let us be cautious!

(Beyond good and evil, p.64, 2003 Penguin edition, emphasis original)

It really depends what you mean by power… The word translated here as ‘pleasure’ is just another way of terming the benefit of love for the one who loves, which Nietzsche points out. Whatever word you may use, pleasure, power or something else, the crux of this German’s point cannot easily be overlooked, and this is the interpretation to which I can reduce it: Complete selflessness is impossible as it is always in response to a desire within the self. And with this emphasis, Nietzsche summarises the history of morality with a vision for a new morality. His vision seems somehow to prophetically herald modern psychology:

Throughout the longest part of human history — it is called prehistoric times — the value or non-value of an action was derived from its consequences: the action itself came as little into consideration as did its origin[…] Over the past ten thousand years, on the other hand, one has in a few large tracts of the earth come step by step to the point at which it is no longer the consequences but the origin of the action which determines its value[…] men became unanimous in the belief that the value of an action resided in the value of the intention behind it[…] today, when among us immoralists at least the suspicion has arisen that the decisive value of an action resides in precisely that which is not intentional in it, and that all that in it which is intentional, all of it that can be seen, known, ‘conscious’, still belongs to its surface and skin — which, like every skin, betrays something but conceals still more? In brief, we believe that the intention is only a sign and a symptom that needs interpreting, and a sign, moreover, that signifies too many things and which thus taken by itself signifies practically nothing.

(pp.62-63, emphasis original)

Link confronts his extra-moral intentions

I’ve made some omissions because the passage is quite lengthy. This means you’ve missed out on the terms: ‘pre-moral’ for actions evaluated by their consequences, ‘moral’ for their intentions, and ‘extra-moral’ for the complexity behind the intentions. If you didn’t get that, Nietzsche seems to me to be basically saying that there is such a range of forces acting upon us and within us that to judge an action by its intentions is a gross oversimplification. As he contemplates the will, “Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as a word” (p.48). When we are loving towards others, there seems to be an almost infinite amount of factors acting with us to bring about that love. This means not just factors within ourselves but also physical/environmental factors acting upon us. If they are lovable, yes that helps; if they are especially unlovable then that may be the very factor that makes them lovable, as a kind of challenging response to Jesus’ words “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47 NIV)¹

* * *

Now that Nietzsche has so eloquently pooed on the Christian campfire, how can love still be possible? But to that I say, to what extent have you stuck your theological crowbar between the poles of love and individuality? In other words, why do we necessarily need to have pure motives to love? A year or so ago I undulated into some spiritual despair regarding not actually wanting to spend time in prayer and other devotional activities. I was disillusioned with my own depravity. How could I be a Christian if my natural desires overpowered my spiritual ones? Why not be true to myself and face who I really was? A good friend (who will remain nameless) gave me some words of wisdom that resonated with me. Reflecting on a relationship with a pretty special person, my friend told me, “We have a lot of great times, but we also have not so great times. Sometimes when my partner wants to spend time together, that person is the last person I want to see at that moment, but I know I need to do it for the sake of our relationship”². And this is the honesty with which we must approach love.

In the wake of Nietzsche’s critique on morality, it wouldn’t be completely smart to attempt an evaluation of every single factor acting upon our each and every action. This only shows our desire to justify ourselves. What would be smarter would be to acknowledge the inherent selfishness and introspective mystery in everything we do, and then to go beyond it, to make a double movement back to the pre-moral, where actions are evaluated by their consequences. In so doing we embrace all three stages of Nietzsche’s morality: We act humbly as we do now and acknowledge that we have good intentions and bad intentions, all the while confronting these; we examine ourselves as the bearers of a complex will in a world of complex forces; and finally, we self-defeatedly seek consolation from our selfish intentions by focussing now on what our actions produce.

I don’t want to undermine the challenge to spiritual introspection and a pure heart that Christianity poses,  but I do want to note that this is sometimes disarming. Whether your work for the kingdom is in part motivated by an interest in the light at the end of tunnel, your societal image, or a desire to prove to your parents that you’re something rather than nothing, etc, all you can do is acknowledge. Yes, seek to overhaul your desires, but yes, also soldier on in spite of the knowledge your selfishness.

* * *

¹Jesus’ appeal to rewards, which seems to be so often overlooked, possibly as a response to the negative conceptions of Christianity as a selfish practice to ensure your own eternal life, can be read with a kind of Nietzschean irony: We can’t escape our desire for rewards so why not embrace it?

²It might sound awkward because I’ve removed all references to gender

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They say, “Evil prevails when good men fail to act.” What they ought to say is, “Evil prevails.” — Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage) in Lord of War

* * *

To have a fateful¹ outlook on life means to see everything as inevitable. There is no room for “What if that…” and “What if this…” Everything just is. So the fateful person accepts the inevitable. But it doesn’t always have to be negative, like Shakespeare’s famous introduction to Romeo and Juliet: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes /A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”, as if to say the tragic endings of the couple were determined by the stars. I was more worried about the fatal loins… Sometimes fate even seems to be on your side. “There was no way even I could have stood in the way of myself getting this job; it was meant to be” or “Everything good is coming to me lately”.

What’s this other word then, faithful? You might find, if you listen hard enough, that when most people say faithfulness, they’re actually saying fatefulness. The two just sound the same. Could they really actually possibly really be that much different? Yet at the heart of the Christian story, the very beginning, there is a rejection of fate; things are not the way they’re supposed to be. In the words of Switchfoot:

Dreaming about providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open
Maybe we’re bent and broken, broken

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?

This particular mouse had plenty of second tries

* * *

In the Christian tradition (of mission, contrition and spiritual nutrition) God stands in opposition to fate: We were created for communion with God and creation, but we rejected this for other pursuits so that the position we are now in is not our fate; it is not meant to be². The deus contra fatum³ (God against fate) summarises holistic biblical theology in that God has dealt the death-blow to death/fate and is continuing his work to restore an Edenic earth, to restore what is meant to be. To pray “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10 NIV) is to acknowledge that God’s will stands in contradistinction to the state of the earth at present.

Jesus’ earthly ministry is teeming with examples of deus contra fatum. In one of my favourite examples, Jesus not only asserts the divine will against the fate of being born blind but he gives new meaning to it:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him[…]”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, made some mud with the saliva and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go”, he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” […] So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

(John 9:1-3,6-7 NIV)

The man’s fate was to live life without sight. Jesus’ reason for the man’s blindness is not so much a theodicy, a justification for his blindness in divine terms, as it is an intervention on divine terms. Of course the man wasn’t born blind for God’s purposes, but his blindness, on encountering Jesus, becomes a part of God’s purpose. Through Jesus’ redemptive work he gives the suffering a new meaning.

Paul heralds the deus contra fatum through his descriptions of the significance of life in Christ and Christian community. The gods are not an orgy of selfish caprice, demanding our sacrifices and punishing us for their own failures4, but the Lord himself would give his all for us (Philippians 2:6-8)5. We are not pawns in a chess game of cosmic-indifference, but loved more than we can imagine (Romans 8:38-39). All distinctions and inequalities that our birth and society thrust upon us are overcome in Christ and Christian community as we are adopted as children of God (Galatians 3:26-28) and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).

* * *

Ah, that was refreshing. But it’s all a bit simple. In some very dark corners of your beloved God’s Word we come across an altogether different conception of fate, one that necessarily arrives in conceptualising existence both as not as it’s meant to be and in line with God’s sovereign rule. But rather than blissful submission to deus ut fatum (God as fate)6, the subject takes on the spirit of deus contra fatum, this time against God himself. This is to say that “Your will be done” can only be prayed regarding this caveat a couple of verses earlier, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 NIV).

Abraham prefigures universalism in his confrontation with God before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. He persists in asking God to relent from destruction because there may be righteous people in the cities (Genesis 18:20-33). Moses prays that God will not show the extent of his anger to Israel after they turn to idolatry, although the Lord is determined to do so (Exodus 32:7-14). The evil king Ahab is promised by the Lord through Elijah to die horribly but, after repenting in light of Elijah’s words, God adjusts his intentions (1Kings 21:17-29). And, much to the prophet’s dismay, Jonah pronounces judgement upon the foreign city of Nineveh, who in turn repent, causing God to change his mind (Jonah 3:4-10 NRSV — many popular translations like the NIV avoid the awkward theology; cf James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8).

Anyone keen for some modern propheteering? Nineveh’s back up and running!

Surely God gets it together by the time of Jesus though? Or maybe Jesus represents a stronger affinity with this side of God, one more open to the challenges of the people who accuse God of fatefulness. It turns out that his first miracle, the inauguratory water into wine, is a reaction to motherly nagging (John 2:1-11). A Canaanite woman interrupts Jesus’ important ministry to the Jews and demands his attention when he feels the need to focus on other things (Matthew 15:21-28). And towards the end of his ministry he seems to desire otherwise than God’s plans for him (Matthew 26:39), culminating in disillusionment with God’s abandoning of him, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV). These examples show both how Jesus changed his will in regard to the desires of others, and how he as God was at odds with God.

Of course, in each of the illustrations from both Old and New Testaments, one could, to avoid Pelagian/Arminian heresy, etc, and maintain the duality of God = good, person =bad, impose their own theology onto the stories and read them as opportunities or tests that God was giving to reveal the true hearts of the characters in them. I think it’s somehow better to read the stories at face value though, and give them some credit in themselves for what they’re saying. In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord admits to this principle outright, although it’s more so regarding sin, punishment and repentance (which a lot of New Testament theology problematises, eg. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3; Galatians 3:10-14), rather than such as intercession (the Abraham, Moses, Mary examples) or beseeching regarding your own undeserved suffering (the Canaanite woman):

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

(Jeremiah 18:7-10 NIV)

* * *

The biblical story of King Hezekiah is another favourite of mine. The writer of 2Kings praises him for his trust in and following after the Lord, connecting this to the blessing that his kingdom received and saying, “There was no-one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him” (2Kings 18:5-7 NIV). Take that, David!7 The thing with this dude is though that he, like other examples listed here, contested what God had planned, in a similar situation to the Canaanite woman towards Jesus. Basically, the prophet Amoz comes up to Hezekiah when he’s sick to let him know that he’s going to die. Thanks for the heads up, bro! Hezekiah is disillusioned. He weeps before God so Isaiah comes to let him know that God has decided to give him another fifteen years (This story paraphrased from 2Kings 20:1-5). But the interesting thing is that Hezekiah doesn’t get up to a lot in these next fifteen years. He managed to have a son, Manasseh, who was twelve when Hezekiah died, but turned out to be a bit rotten, according to the historian (2Kings 21:2). Hezekiah had seen a great defeat of Assyrian oppressors prior to his sickness (2Kings 18:17-19:37), and in his extra years the Lord promised the end in its fullness (2Kings 20:6). But all of Hezekiah’s righteous achievements seem to me more so a part of his previous life, that within the parameters of God’s will.

God pwning the Assyrian army

Maybe his extra years were a display of God’s grace. In fact, Hezekiah didn’t explicitly ask for more years; he only wept because he knew his time was near (2Kings 20:3). Isaiah records a song attributed to Hezekiah that notes he was in the ‘prime of [his] life’ when Amoz announced his impending death (Isaiah 38:10). This is where the argument goes full circle. It is the embrace of both Deus ut fatum and Deus contra fatum: God against the God of fate. Is this not the most viable conclusion to draw on the Judeo-Christian conception of a sovereign God? That is, a God who oversees and is in control of all, yet opposes what is going on? As the serious King James translators put it:

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV).

* * *

¹Fatalistic is probably a more recognisable term concerning the context, but for the sake of poetry!

²This, of course, is to avoid all that controversy around the Fall as a measure for God’s sovereignty (a euphemism for determinism). Oh, and that other controversy concerning the origins of evil, which is no doubt an uneasy paramour of the question as to whether God intended the Fall…

³Totally working on my Latin here to create the illusion of working within some historical theological parameters. Help me out if you can: deus (God, masculine, nominative) contra (against) fatum (fate, masculine, accusative). I was unsure whether to put fate in the nominative or accusative and what gender to use, but I’m pretty sure it’s the accusative because it acts as an object; the only reservation I had was that contra wasn’t a verb.

4Also a reading of Christianity that our theology often makes all too easy for us and the world around us to agree with.

5Paul’s embodiment of this complete self-sacrifice is an important example to make note of here, as it provides a good metaphor for Jesus’ cosmic humility in that it approaches the self-emptying from the perspective of the believer rather than Saviour: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4, on Israel rejecting the Gospel).

6Does it still make sense if I replace ut for contra? Help me out here! And to what extent should I consider word order?

7Take that Jesus!???

 

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