“I now go away alone, my disciples! You too now go away and be alone! So I will have it.
Truly, I advisee you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he has deceived you.
The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?
You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!
You say you believe in Zarathustra? But of what importance is Zarathustra? You are my believers: but of what importance are all believers?
You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”
Zarathustra to his disciples in Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra (‘Of the bestowing virtue’, part one).
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Favourite picture of Nietzsche. Who needs philosophy when you’ve got a mo’ like that?
A couple of years ago, Nietzsche’s name for me was a symbol of intellectual insecurity. He was the kind of guy for the spiritual giants who fasted twice a week, prayed four hours a day and always ended up with the right amount of money (down to the cent!) from God at the last minute for whatever obscure purpose¹. They would love God too much to be swindled by some philosophical naysayer. Or Nietzsche was for those thinkers who had spent forty years doing so (ie. thinking), that when it came to the time to think about Nietzsche’s thoughts the words passed by devoid of all their original passion and challenge. But the attraction to Nietzsche came when I expanded my still-intellectually-secure reading list and began reading Christians who took Nietzsche’s criticism on board and agreed with him, mostly in the sense of saying that Christian theology (maybe not practice, but definitely a lot of theology) historically focusses on the beyond, the eternal, the unseen, the ideal, etc, to the detriment of the here and now, the temporal, the seen and the real². On reading these friendly faces, Nietzsche has become for me no longer a symbol of fear but one of creativity, and hope for a new voice in any stiff and outdated theologies, rather than a challenge that needs to be countered.
But, to be honest, I was quite disappointed. After potentially finding some ideas to contribute to more thoughtful theological practice, I just didn’t gel with the guy. The opening excerpt is one exception (there are a few more). As this post mentions the relative undangerousness of Nietzsche, I might also do a post in the future about why he’s not as cool as I thought he’d be.
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What’s Zarathustra actually saying? First of all, here’s the background. Zarathustra/Zoroaster was a Persian prophet/philosopher and the founder of Zoroastrianism, an ancient and today dying religion from the same primordial ooze as Judaism, Christianity, Islaam, etc — the Near East. Nietzsche wrested him from his historical context and characterised him in said book. Thus spoke Zarathustra was viewed by Nietzsche as his most important work and a lot of his vital organs are contained in it. The text throughout mocks the bible, portraying Zarathustra at once as the new Messiah and Anti-Christ. One of my favourites was, “If we do not alter and become as cows, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (‘The voluntary beggar’, part four). The existentialist heart of the opening excerpt is important to the other key ideas in the work, albeit not Nietzsche’s most important idea, in comparison to the emphasis with which he puts on others.
And after all that, here’s in short what the puppetted prophet Zarathustra is actually saying: “My philosophy does not ask you to believe in me and follow my ways, but to abandon me and find your own way. Those who abandon me and follow their own reality faithfully are most loyal to me and the ones I thus return to”. Zarathustra, in contrast to Jesus, asks not that we follow him and conform to his image, but that we abandon him and become like ourselves³. At this point you may want to re-read the quote at the start and realise its genius.
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A good (dead) friend of mine
But to what extent is Nietzsche’s critique of Jesus based on a caricature of him? Does Jesus actually want us to all be like sheep4? Or is Jesus more like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra than we think? Perhaps Nietzsche was not so much attacking Jesus as he really is but what the church had constructed of him. I’ll use an example from another name you may find difficult to pronounce. Kierkegaard, probably the best ever philosopher (who was not really a philosopher but more of a man of faith in my elevated, saint-canonising conception of him), also criticised Jesus for the same reason Nietzsche did, but with a different focus5: Kierkegaard recognised that it was the church and contemporary philosophy (rather than the saviour himself) that advocated conformity to a universal code of ethics, something that Kierkegaard criticised throughout his life as deeply non-Christian.
A biblical example of Zarathustra’s ‘abandon me and find yourself’ existentialism was used by Kierkegaard as the title to his landmark work on the subject, Fear and trembling:
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV).
Paul, one of the most defining figures in early Christianity with lasting significance, is writing to the Philippian church while in jail. “Hey guys, I’m not always going to be there to hold your hand and look both ways for you before you cross the road. You’re big kids now and it’s not me you should be looking to for direction. And it’s not conformity with the ethical law that makes you a good person. Now that you’ve received the Spirit, God will work in each of you according to his purposes”. Kierkegaard takes the sentiment and writes a lifetime’s supply of philosophy on it: We discover that the will of God is different for every person.
But before I move on, I’ve got to call Nietzsche back over here for some input. While Kierkegaard would say that good determined by society or the Church should not deter the individual from doing the good to which God has called them, Nietzsche would say he has not gone far enough: good determined by society, the Church and God should not deter the individual from being faithful to their individual reality. Nietzsche would say that Kierkegaard’s theological weaknesses are trapping him from fully facing and embracing his reality. But I’m just the guy that drives the van.
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This is seriously the coolest picture of Moltres I’ve ever seen and a Moltres tattoo might be the place to start. Check out the rest of this guy’s work here: http://cockrocket.deviantart.com/ You can buy his prints.
Working in hospitality with a lot of travellers and passing-through-ers, and knowing a lot of people my own age, has generally brought me into contact with a lot of tattoos. And every now and then a stray thought (stray in the sense of a stray dog) tells me how cool it would be to get a tattoo. And then I’m totally pouring different glasses of wine for customers, and that beautiful aroma! But I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t see anything wrong with getting tattoos or having a drink; I just don’t do it. Herein lies the tension between the universal and the particular6.
The particular is what I’ve hitherto spent this whole essay explaining to you, whether Kierkegaardian, the call to follow the Holy Spirit7, or Nietzshean, the challenge to live faithful to your individual reality. But the particular can only be understood against the background of the universal. Universalism in this sense asserts things such as universal truth, and therefore universal ethics, the idea that the most virtuous person in society is he or she who conforms most closely to this code of ethics. For me, this idea stinks of mathematical simplicity and is in keeping with reducing people to numbers, statistics, and stick figures. But, necessarily, a dual embrace of the universal and the particular is required for living as a Christian. Most clearly, I think, and this example would be a common one, if in the universal I know that God is love and that the ideal person is loving, then in the particular I cannot say that God is asking me to kill someone. Note also, that in the same chapter to the Philippians, Paul first describes aspects of a unified community, the universal which he encourages his readers to conform to before he reminds them that God will work in them according to his purposes:
“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:2-4 NIV).
Further, a mature understanding of the universal and particular requires the rejection of the two as a dichotomy. The rejection is based on who has claims to the universal. In some states in the USA, capital punishment is an accepted punishment for certain crimes. In other states, it’s no longer an option. Understand that there are particular claims to the universal. According to some, it is universally acceptable that those who commit certain crimes should be punishable by death; according to others it’s universally unacceptable. The individual therefore has the duty of constructing their own universal but living according to their particular. In my understanding of the universal, it is alright to drink and get tattoos, but it’s not alright to get drunk. In my particular, I have not been called to either drink or get tattoos at this point in my life. Not that I’m so righteous because I’m doing what the Lord asked me to do. I could tell you that he’s asked me to do a lot of things that by my actions I’ve laughed at. Tattoos and drinking are just two things I’ve yet been almost successful in.
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I leave you with this poem from the very existential and forever readable Emily Dickinson:
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity.
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¹It’s amazing how manifold these stories of divine providence are and they never cease to shock me and capture my imagination. I had a quick lazy look for some but I couldn’t find any so if you’d like to know what I mean then just ask.
²N T Wright, for example would be one of the writers that helps me identify with Nietzsche’s critique; however it’d be my guess that Wright’s not in direct dialogue with the man himself but rather listening to what the world around him and onto-it theologians are saying about the Christian heads-in-clouds-syndrome, which no doubt this critique has been inherited by secular academia and onto-it theologians from reading Nietzsche. Peter Rollins, another guy whose writings influenced me, on the other hand, seems to be in more direct dialogue with him.
³Paradoxically, Zarathustra’s disciples can either heed his words and abandon him (thus following him by taking his counsel) or, in weakness, continue to follow him (thus abandoning him by not understanding or being strong enough to take his counsel).
5It’s possible that Nietzsche, coming onto the scene a few years later, south of a couple of borders, read the holy philosopher as he seems to be denouncing him in some parts of Thus spoke Zarathustra. If so, Nietzsche took on board Kierkegaard’s existential ideas but pushed them beyond the realm of faith. However, I haven’t yet heard of any direct and verifiable evidence of Nietzsche’s speculated reading habits.
6I first came into contact with these terms through Kierkegaard, but they may be Hegelian. I really don’t know.
7A deliberately charismatic reading of Kierkegaard. Note that Kierkegaard acknowledges two possibilities in the particular, (a) the aesthetic, which means living according to your own desires and (b) faith, living according to your best understanding of God. Pentecostalism goes horribly wrong when faith is confused with the aesthetic, resulting in an heavily individualist approach to Christianity, a practice that fulfills all your spiritual and fleshly desires under the guise of faith.
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