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Posts Tagged ‘fear and trembling’

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Philippians has for a long time been one of my favourite books in the Bible. I’m not sure if I can justify that. Maybe it’s just because of the overall encouraging message set against the backdrop of persecution and eschatological anticipation. I jumped at the chance then to do my assignment on it for biblical interpretation — that and the fact that it was the shortest out of the books we had to choose from. Reading Philippians this morning was a good time to reflect on one of the book’s most influential verses for my own faith and what that looks like in terms of the whole:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

(2:12-13)¹

Coming to this as a serious new Christian in a Pentecostal context there was only one way to interpret the passage: After Paul has given the model for faith and overseen young Christians as they come to terms with how to live that faith, they must then be weaned off their dependence on him and depend solely on God’s Spirit at work within them, existentially working out the faithful life in their individual relationship with God. This interpretation was no doubt consolidated by my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard and his use of “fear and trembling” for the title of his most famous work, one dealing with how the individual through relationship to God is an exception to the ethical context they find themselves in.

But there are some problems with this approach, especially considering the weight of importance Paul puts on the Christian community in writing to the Philippians. In reading the letter as a whole this sense of the individual working out their salvation in distinction to those who forsake the inner call of the Spirit is not as forthcoming as this reading of 2:12-13 would suggest. Au contraire, the sense is of the faith community at Philippi as a whole working in relationship with God.

2:12-13, starting with the “Therefore”, actually conclude the previous section where Paul sets out life in community demonstrated in the example of Jesus’ incarnation:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

(2:1-5)

As in v.13, God working within is the point from where the community works out their salvation, so at the beginning of this passage “encouragement in Christ” and “sharing in the Spirit” are the points from where the community learns to love each other in godly love. When Paul lays out the model of Jesus’ incarnation (vv.5-11) he only demonstrates in greater detail the point with which he has already begun. Therefore, a few verses later when Paul compares Timothy with selfish people, “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (v.21), the interests of Jesus here referred to are actually those concering the welfare of the community at Philippi: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (v.20). The point is that a primary concern of the Spirit working among the Philippians is not to justify them each as individuals in their relationships with God but to live and love together as community.²

Ok, so Paul in Philippians definitely shows the importance of right living in community but isn’t the community just a collection of individuals whose communal love stems from each of their individual relationships with God? The love does not exist in the community itself but in the collective of individuals who existentially come to terms with the importance of expressing that love. But I don’t see much of a problem in saying that the community itself is something more than a collection of individuals. There is something that cannot be accounted for in community by simply tallying the individual spiritual values of all contained within it. What if the category of the individual for Paul is something completely different to the category we employ today?

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

(1:27)³

Here it is interesting that Paul uses the same context to make his point: Whether he is present or absent should not affect the faithful state of the Philippian community. But in comparison with 2:12-13 there is no possibility of misreading it as the individual’s relationship to God when external support is withdrawn. In this case the external support (Paul) may be with the Philippians or not but the Spirit will lead them as a community into unity with “one mind”: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15). There will be differences among individuals within the community but these are not so much differences between some individuals and other individuals. They are differences between these individuals within the community and the mind of the community as essentially beyond a collection of individuals. The mature within the community mediate the one mind in spirit and together as a community, and the exceptions who are earnest in their commitment to the community will receive help from the Spirit to become fully a part of that community’s revelation.

The community as defined by the Spirit precedes the individuals within it, having a being both distinct from yet dependent on the individuals within it. This has been an attempt to explore that relationship, with more emphasis on the collective which individualistic Christianity, though sincere and a productive ground for people who would otherwise be caught up in the institutions of the status quo, largely ignores. I welcome any alternative readings of the passages and further discussion on the issue.

* * *

¹All scripture quotations taken from NRSV

²Cf. Jesus’ focus on being reconciled to others before reconciliation with God: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Perhaps more difficult are his words on not being forgiven unless we forgive others (Mt 6:15).

³Little “spirit” here can also be read as “Spirit”. The Greek does not distinguish between the two. Also, it is unhealthy to say that Paul meant one or the other because saying this dismisses the possibility that Paul could be talking about both with a particular emphasis on one. Also notable is the use of the plural “you” in the Greek here and throughout Philippians.

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In Fear and trembling, Johannes de Silentio puts forth a definition of sin using Hegelian terms. Sinning, however, first requires a unique movement:

As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal. Every time single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in spiritual trial […]

(p.54, emphasis mine)¹

In other words, to know what is right and do otherwise is to sin. Temptation (spiritual trial) is the desire to do otherwise. But note this clause of interest, ‘after having entered the universal’. To have knowledge of right and wrong here is to enter the universal, or ethical, that is knowledge of others and their value. The original movement is not so much choice as knowledge, although someone who returns to the aesthetic, a self-oriented worldview, may not consider themselves in ethical terms as a sinner but on their own terms. For reasons I am still discovering in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the universal/ethical is defined by disclosure, or speaking:

The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and psychical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal.

(p.82)

I read the need for disclosure as an entering into the sphere of language which, in vulgar, pre-modern terms, represents the collective values and beliefs, etc, of humanity². Silence characterises the aesthetic because to live aesthetically is to live on your own terms, taking pleasure in the accidental rather than that which is shared essentially, universally. But Fear and trembling is written on the premise that there is a sphere higher than the universal where the individual lives not on their own or humanity’s terms but God’s. This, the religious sphere, takes place at the same site as the aesthetic, the individual. With these in mind, Abraham, the paragon of faith, cannot speak:

Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me. As soon as Abraham wants to express the universal, he must declare that his situation is a spiritual trial […], for he has no higher expression of the universal that ranks above the universal he violates.

(p.60)

Silentio shows that Abraham cannot be understood in universal terms. God calls him to sacrifice Isaac but ostensibly quite arbitrarily. Only Abraham himself can understand it (p.113ff), on the premise that it is right because God himself demands it. In ethical terms Abraham can only be a murderer (p.30). Even if Silentio presented a good case for an absolute duty to God (doing as God asks regardless of circumstance), this would not clear up the ambiguity, from outsider’s perspective, as to whether it really was God who called Abraham to sacrifice his son or whether it is a dark aesthetic desire. If Abraham was to attempt to explain himself in universal terms then he could only bring judgement upon himself. This is the value of not speaking. Mark Taylor puts sums it up simply:

The radical individuality of the believer’s relation to God is the basis of faithful silence. Such individuality cannot be articulated in or mediated by language.³

* * *

I want now to extract this entering the universal from Kierkegaard’s Hegelian terminology and find a usage applicable outside of this limited context. I have a formal definition but it must be noted that Kierkegaard here acts only as a stimulus — my definition misrepresents him a little. Here it is: To enter the universal is to subject something to a set of criteria in such a way that it is necessary to make a positive or negative qualification of that something in relation to the criteria4. Before moving on from Kierkegaard it may be helpful to see this in relation to Fear and trembling. If Abraham enters the universal he is subjected to a set of criteria determining what constitutes ethical action. He must be either qualified positively, as an ethical person, or negatively, in this case as a murderer. Once Abraham enters the universal though, he can only remain there. His relation to the criteria may change if he makes a convincing argument, like Silentio’s tragic hero, which could be something like God bringing a famine upon the land if Abraham did not give him Isaac. This would be understood ethically, as it affects people throughout the land, and thus puts Abraham in a positive relation to the criteria. The criteria will never disappear though. The only circumstances under which they would disappear would be something like memory loss, the whole tragedy quietly slipping from the minds of the people, akin to the adage time heals all wounds.

So badass.

Where else might entering the universal be understood? I think of the opening scene in The Godfather III where Michael Corleone is standing in a church receiving honours for his charity work. There is a flashback to the end of the previous film where Michael watches a man he has ordered to shoot his unwitting brother Fredo while out fishing. In the present the archbishop speaks to Michael, “Do you, Michael, promise to be faithful to the noble purposes of this order, to have a special care to the poor, the needy, and those who are ill?” “Yes I promise,” Michael replies. For those familiar with Michael’s ruthless and determined rise to head of the Corleone family in the previous two movies this film, set years later, presents an interesting question. Has Michael really reformed? Or, Is his promise genuine? The flashback in the present scene, along with the entirety of the previous two films, acts as a kind of disclosure. Now, based on the evidence we have available, we must make the judgement against the criterium of Michael’s genuineness. The possibility of forgoing the question completely is not allowed. Michael has entered the universal and we cannot get him out of there unless we either ignore or forget him. The distinguishing feature of entering the universal is that the criteria to which something (an action, individual/collation of actions, etc) has been subjected is more lasting and significant than the judgement which presupposes that criteria.

* * *

What value does silence have? Is it so Abraham and the Corleone family can do dirty things behind our backs without having to face our judgement? Possibly. One of the desert fathers, Jacob the Deacon, records the legend of St Pelagia and St Nonnus, illustrating the value of silence:

As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.

[…]The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
Again they answered nothing.5

In Silentio’s terms, all the bishops bar Nonnus have entered the universal. They are judging themselves against an ethical criterium of lust. If they willingly look at Pelagia then they take part in the sin of lust but if they look away then they maintain their purity. Nonnus, on the other hand, has not made the movement. He does not subject himself to the criteria and therefore has remained silent. This silence can be construed aesthetically: Nonnus wanted a brief break from priestly responsibilities so made the most of the opportune moment. But that’s probably not the point Jacob is trying to make. Nonnus’ silence allows him to act in faith, according to the religious, rather than the ethical. The religious thus sees Pelagia as beautiful regardless of the categories of sin and purity because these belong to the ethical. To ‘speak’ is to enter into those categories, whereas those categories do not exist over the individual reconciled to God.

The obvious value of silence here is not an issue of personal purity. It is that an essentially trans-ethical action has positive ethical implications. Silentio’s model of faith is very earthly. It cannot stop at otherworldly interests but wants to take the world with it. Thus Abraham sacrifices Isaac to God yet in faith receives the son whom he loves back again. Faith is a restoration of the aesthetic. The aesthetic objectifies everything for its own advantage. In the case of Pelagia, an aesthetic admirer might take a look for the sake of a stiffy. The ethical looks away for the good of Pelagia and the observer. But the religious looks to Pelagia with the aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and the ethical acknowledgement of her humanity6.

* * *

¹Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

²That is, 19th Century, Northern European beliefs and values. Silentio explicitly dismisses the value of attempting to step out of his own worldview: “Or if Abraham perhaps did not do at all what the story tells, if perhaps because of the local conditions of that day it was something entirely different, then let us forget him, for what is the value of going to the trouble of remembering that past which cannot become a present” (p.30).

³Mark Taylor, cited here, pp. 61-62. Seriously I can’t be bothered with a proper reference.

4This is clearly very wordy and it will probably only make sense to most with use of the supplementary explanation. If anyone has any suggestions for reform of the statement after reading the rest of the post then let me know in the comments section.

5Retrieved here

6Readers may point out that the ethical in this case was just as objectifying as the aesthetic. Taken. Maybe it’s that many intentions ethical in orientation have an unethical expression. It also depends on where you’re coming from as to what constitutes the ethical. I get caught up too easily in the categories, but the point remains that there is a higher expression in silence and the individual which allows us to see the world differently.

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“I am convinced that God is love; for me this thought has a primal lyrical validity. When it is present to me, I am unspeakably happy; when it is absent, I long for it more vehemently than the lover for the object of his love. But I do not have faith; this courage I lack. To me God’s love, in both the direct and the converse sense, is incommensurable with the whole of actuality. Knowing that, I am not so cowardly that I whimper and complain, but neither am I so perfidious as to deny that faith is something far higher […] I do not trouble God with my little troubles, details do not concern me; I gaze only at my love and keep its virgin flame pure and clear. Faith is convinced that God is concerned about the smallest things. I am satisfied with a left-handed marriage in this life; faith is humble enough to insist on the right hand, for I do not deny that this is humility and will never deny it.”

Johannes de Silentio¹ in Kierkegaard’s Fear and trembling (p.34)².

* * *

After a slow start in his own lifetime, Kierkegaard’s writings have had a profound effect on secular philosophy. Sarte was influenced by Kierkegaard’s detailings of the the anxiety involved in making choices. Heidegger found value in Kierkegaard’s notion of becoming a self and took a cue from the Dane when he wrote about what it means to exist authentically. More generally, a reader conversant in postmodernism will find ideas in Kierkegaard’s writings which inform their own, like the many explorations of the subject’s relation to truth. But reading Kierkegaard, a professing Christian himself, also has deep religious value. Martin Buber saw this and, so I’m told, Karl Barth.

This was my experience in reading Fear and trembling again recently. It was my third time and I’ve hopefully come a long way since that first fateful attempt to read philosophy without any background. I can even say that I arrived at places which allowed me to see holes in the philosophy I hadn’t seen before. One example which you may have noted in reading the quote above is Silentio’s reverential insistence on the im/possibility of faith. Kierkegaard, possibly quite ironically, writes Silentio as seeing faith higher than love, contra Paul (1Cor 13:13) and Jesus (Mat 22.37-40)³. Not only that, but faith in Fear and trembling has been elevated to such a height that it is only attainable by the few.

* * *

Quite serendipitously I have enjoyed the coincidence of formulating an important question on the nature of prayer during my re-reading of Fear and trembling. In my own prayer life and the thoughts surrounding it, the problem of whether petitionary prayer should be humble resignation to the will of God or bold, childlike requests returns perennially. If I’m applying for a job (*mumble, cough, etc*) do I submit to whatever may be as a the outworking of the will of God (I don’t get this job but another opportunity presents itself) or do I daringly believe and receive from the Lord this job I have applied for? But Camo, the two can exist beside each other! Yes reader, but only to an extent. The moment I subtitle my prayer for this application with “but only if it’s your will” is the moment I throw away everything I just asked for. How? It demonstrates my conception of God as a being who is ultimately indifferent to particular requests. What if God’s will was not something we adhered to but that which we took active, constructive participation in?

I had this conversation with our new youth pastor last night to see what his thoughts were on it. The most difficulty I have with this idea is due to Jesus’s words in Matthew:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

(6:7-10, NRSV)

If the Father knows what we need and we’re praying generally for his will to be done, then what use is prayer!? Is it just a gesture, some awkward conversation to make when you have nothing else to say? But my friend pointed me to the crux of what Jesus is saying here. It’s not a blind acceptance of reality in line with God’s will but a pointing to the God at the center of our prayers. If we displace this center then our prayers become just the expressions of our selfish desires. I’m not saying that we can no longer consider ourselves in centered prayer — the job may be close to home and have convenient working hours for your lifestyle — but that centered prayer brings our own bold requests into the greater context of the Kingdom of God: What we expect and ask for, we do so with the trust that we are taking part in the co-construction of God’s plans and their fulfillment4.

http://cheezburger.com/4707153664

Is this what Jesus meant when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, with authority to loose and bind on earth and heaven (Mat 16:19)? My friend gave examples of Jesus’ teaching on prayer:

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

(Mat 7:7-11 NRSV)

In Luke, Jesus goes even further, speaking on the need for persistence in prayer (18:1) and going as far to ironically compare God with an unjust judge (vv.2-8) and an angry neighbour (11:5-8). I have written elsewhere about this, looking at examples such as Abraham beseeching God to withhold judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20ff).

* * *

How does this relate to Fear and trembling? Silentio’s understanding of the spheres of existence are applicable to this model of prayer. In short, possibly erroneous terms, three spheres are referenced in Fear and trembling, the aesthetic, ethical and religious. The mysterious ‘A’ explores the aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s Either/or, although this may be quite different to the way Silentio understands it.  My understanding of the aesthetic is to live for yourself according to your own desires without a lot of care for God or others. The ethical is quite the opposite, almost equivalent to the idea of law in Christian theology (I do, however, admit the massive space for interpretation of ‘law’). To live ethically is to live responsibly, with thought of others’ needs and social contracts, generally putting those before your own (There is a more specific Hegelian definition Kierkegaard is referring to but I’m not yet familiar enough with it!). In Either/or, Judge Vilhelm answers A by saying that to live ethically is the only way to be truly aesthetic, to have peace with God and your community. The religious does not appear in Either/or but it can be understood as a return to the aesthetic through faith. In Fear and trembling, the religious person, or ‘knight of faith’ is the one who seeks not their own or another’s good but the good of both God and their self. Just with that formulation a lot of people will immediately have problems. Who is this Silentio and why is Kierkegaard corrupting the youth through his bad theology? The formulation is based on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac: Abraham cannot sacrifice Isaac aesthetically because he wants to have descendants. He cannot do it ethically because it will destroy his family. He can only do it religiously, because God commands him, without explanation, to do it.

Silentio goes on to compare Abraham’s sacrifice to Jephthah’s (Jdg 11), who made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house when returning home if the Lord gave him victory against the Ammonites: “What good would it be for Jephthah to win the victory by means of a promise if he did not keep it — would not the victory be taken away from the people again?” (p.58). Jephthah can justify his sacrifice to the people but Abraham cannot. His is, as far as they know, arbitrary and downright evil (not that there is a non-evil form of sacrifice). There is an important idea Kierkegaard develops in what is required for sacrifice: resignation. This is what makes the ethical higher than the aesthetic. A possible aesthetic Jephthah would just say, “Screw you guys, I won the battle but now I will defy God and keep my daughter.” But the ethical Jephthah tragically gives up his daughter (figuratively everything) for the greater good of the community of which he is a part. He fully surrenders himself to God and people (or God through people). Silentio makes the point that this is not, however, unpraiseworthy. In Kierkegaard’s trademark denunciation of the society of his day he writes of the monastic life:

To enter a monastery is not the highest, but by no means do I therefore believe that everyone in our day, when no one enters the monastery, is greater than the deep and earnest souls who found rest in a monastery.

(p. 100)

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard's snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist.

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard’s snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist, as much as he tried to distance himself from that culture.

The monastery here is a symbol for resigning all worldly ambition and asset to God. For Silentio, to renounce everything is not as high as faith, but it is still an admirable, even a necessary step on the road to faith. What, then, is faith? Faith is that which gives everything to God and then asks for it all back. For Silentio, this is the paradox of Abraham: He finally receives from God the promised heir through which his descendants will come and then God asks him to get rid of him! Abraham’s faith is in simultaneously giving Isaac up to God and trusting God to stay true to his promise.

* * *

This is where Kierkegaard meets my thoughts on prayer: The aesthetic, ethical and religious line up roughly with different ways of praying. To pray aesthetically is to ask God to meet your own needs without much thought of him or others (cf. the prayers Bruce is asked in Bruce Almighty like winning the lotto). To pray ethically is to pray just that the Lord’s will be done, to give your whole life to him by qualifying all your requests with “but only if it’s your will”. To pray ethically is not a bad thing and it is a necessary area to move through and return to continually through your walk with God. To pray religiously, in faith, is to give yourself fully to God but dare also to receive that which you ask for.

* * *

¹Number one rule of Kierkegaard scholarship: Don’t talk about Kierkegaard. Or, do so but keep in mind that he constructs characters who may have views differing markedly from his own.

²Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

³Love I believe to be the center of Christian theology and practice, although I don’t make a big case for it here and the two passages need to of course be understood as situated within the wider biblical story. The English words ‘love’ and ‘believe’ are etymologically related.

4Enter the contentious issue of car park theology: How consumerist has our faith become when we start asking God to find us a car park at a mall? Yet this is the very illustration I have been looking for. If car parks are the only thing we ever ask of God then what kind of god is that? But if we pray for car parks within the wider context of participating in the Kingdom of God, if this is just a small expression of the God who is continually making his way into every area of our lives then I don’t only have no problem with it but see it as a positively good thing.

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“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).

* * *

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.
* * *

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).

4A pun.

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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