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As of 2009, Romans 8:28 was the third most read verse on Biblegateway. Try to guess the others before peeking! Anyway, you probably know it:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Jesus Culture subtly restates it in Your Love Never Fails: “You make all things work together for my good.” I wonder if this has become the dominant direction in which this verse has been taken for middle-class Christians? The community of “those who love God” has become the individual, and God’s eschatological, cosmological, redemptive good has become middle class comforts. But it isn’t all for bad. I won’t deny the consolation that this verse can be for anyone who suffers. Regardless, what’s Paul’s context? The following verse reads, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” What is conforming to Jesus’ image? Can it be anything other than following in his footsteps to the cross, “sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11)?

As much of the early church experienced persecution, it was likely the church at Rome had undergone or were anticipating some future persecution. In the same way that God works all things together for the good of the church, Paul cites Psalm 44 a few verses on, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). Yet as Jesus died for the ungodly, not the righteous (5:6-8), the church is to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (12:14), giving themselves as living sacrifices to God (12:1; cf. Phil 2:17). I would love Romans 8:28 to be my favourite verse, but I’m not sure I’ve yet accepted all that it entails!

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This is a theme that has been developing in my theology over this year. Romans 8:18-23 I think demonstrates it well:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Here the imperfections and sufferings of creation, although they are tied to sin (5:12), are also “not of its own will.” I respect the theological qualifications of this passage that attempt to distance God from having any direct connection with sin, but the theme is prevalent throughout Romans, no doubt understanding that the same qualifications may apply: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). He sent the law, knowing that it would incite sin, yet that his grace would increase (5:20-21). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart for his purposes (9:17). And he used the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as part of his plan to include the Gentiles (11:15).

When God creates, the possibility of fall is intrinsic to his creation. God wills that his creation will freely respond to him so he must also allow free rebellion. Sin is not merely the individual breaking the moral law, delivered from this through repentance, but the failure of the cosmos to respond to God, of which creation is both perpetrator (sin) and victim (suffering).¹ Is God’s redemptive work in salvation history a response or always originally intended? I’m of the opinion that God creates with the plan to redeem, knowing sin is necessary to a free creation. Additionally, suffering may even be necessary for redemption to be fully realised: That which is created and freely loves God knows something of this love, but that which is created good, suffers and rejects God, and then is reconciled and redeemed, knows something else: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20).²

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¹Anthropocentric accounts of the fall must first explain why the Genesis story includes a snake.

²Not that I am involved in any great suffering so that I can give meaning to it. This at the moment is a merely intellectual exercise, although I do appreciate that when Paul speaks of suffering, he means it.

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Not too long ago I finished Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, a wee book with an accomplished philosopher’s take on the subject. Tomorrow I am required to write “a contemporary restatement on how the death of Jesus shows the love of God.” In defining what love is, I’ve found Badiou’s critiques of the contemporary, capitalist, individualist love to be of great prophetic value. He writes of a dating site with the slogan, “Get love without chance!”:

I believe this hype reflects a safety-first concept of “love”. It is love comprehensively insured against all risks: you will have love, but will have assessed the prospective relationship so thoroughly, will have selected your partner carefully by searching online — by obtaining , of course, a photo, details of his or her tastes, date of birth, horoscope sign, etc. — and putting it all in the mix you can tell yourself: “This is a risk-free option!” … Clearly, inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.¹

I was reminded of this by a quote from Jürgen Moltmann in the course reader: “Were God incapable of suffering then he would also be incapable of love.” Love, as putting another’s needs before oneself, requires risk, sacrifice, and even suffering.

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¹Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong, In Praise of Love (2009), translated by Peter Bush (London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 6-7.

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It’s been an awesome week studying for a single exam I have coming up, Christology and Revelation, with a question on how we know about God (revelation), one on the divine/human nature of Jesus (christology), and two on atonement, or “at-onement,” exploring the multiplicities of what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean for humanity’s reconciliation with God. Having never really delved into questions of atonement, I’ve drunk deeply of the wealth of material I’ve found this week! Recently though, as in about ten minutes ago, I revisited a nicety which I remember popping up not infrequently in the history of my exposure to all things atonement. It goes something like this:

“Even if you were the last person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you.”

A nicety, indeed. But maybe not the truth. Do we, in presenting the Gospel primarily as it concerns individuals the world over, empty the cross of its power? I wonder why Jesus doesn’t come instead to Adam and Eve and make reparation for their individual sins. And what broken relationships is this last person on earth going to be restored in? What about the cosmological extent of the fall: Even if you were the last moon in the universe, would Jesus still have died for you? What about all the fishes of the deep blue sea who go unmentioned in this metaphor?

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Jesus’ death is the high point of God’s reconciliation of Creation to him (Rom 8:20-21), entering into time at the “culmination of the ages” (Heb 9:26). Neither can Jesus say, “You are forgiven,” without, “Take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23-24). What if forgiveness was not a mere cancelling of our own indebtedness to God but an invitation to take part work of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18)? Even if you were the last person on earth, Jesus would still call with you to join in this work.

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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.

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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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To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.

— Emily Dickinson

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“Abraham cannot be mediated, and the same thing can be expressed also by saying that he cannot talk. So soon as I talk I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” — Kierkegaard, Fear and trembling

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Recently when I was reading Galatians I was struck with the unintelligibility of Paul’s call. Check out the words from the man himself:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! […] Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(1:8, 10¹)

A running theme throughout Galatians is God’s plan and initiative above human tradition. Thus Paul can say right from the get-go in verse one that he is “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”. He can say later that in light of his divine call the leaders in Jerusalem “contributed nothing to [him]” (2:6). And this also gives meaning to the later distinction between Spirit and flesh (eg. 3:3, 4:23, 5:16…).

You’ll understand when you’re older, mum.

Paul’s statement on who he’s trying to please needs to be held up to closer scrutiny. How can he make his essentially unintelligible call intelligible to others? Or why is his call unintelligible in the first place? This is Kierkegaard’s existential insight in Fear and Trembling: Abraham is called by the Lord to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In his very old age his wife, Sarah, (who, too, is a fossil) manages to bear a son, no doubt a blessing from God. How can Abraham make it intelligible to others that the Lord is asking him to give up his only descendent² and forfeit his name? Mary is visited by an angel and told she will bear the Messiah. “Hey guys, I’m pregnant, but don’t worry I haven’t been sleeping around, it’s just that God in human form is in my womb”³. Kierkegaard says of Mary that the “one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath”. I came across another example in church last Sunday when the speaker spoke of Joseph’s story in Genesis: Joseph was shown in a dream that he would rule over his brothers, so he thought it would be a good idea to tell them, partly contributing to his almost being killed and sent into slavery by them (Genesis 37). Calling, whether or not it can be made intelligible to the called, is immediately unintelligible to those around him or her.

Paul’s call is after his conversion, in Kierkegaardian terms, no longer a duty to God through the universal, which would entail all the practices he was obligated to under Judaism, but a duty to God through the particular, that which God calls the individual to. As soon as Paul attempts to justify his call to other people, it loses its particularity between God and himself and enters the universal. No doubt Paul does attempt to justify something to his readers, because he is involved in matters that concern a whole lot more people than merely God and himself. Paul needs to justify to the Galatians that they need not be concerned with circumcision and abiding by the law.

Yet Paul also attempts to justify his calling, but on what terms? He must make his appeal through the universal not to the particular, because that exists only in itself, between God and Paul. Any attempt to even describe it undermines it by electing a universal criteria with which to describe it, like language, or by saying there is some commonality between God’s call to Paul and God’s call to another (though that we can even say there is particularity shows that there is a universality to particularity). Paul must then make his appeal through the universality of language to, in this case, the universality of divine retribution4. He can therefore bind himself to an oath (1:8) and speak not just before his human audience, but before God (1:20) to assert his honesty regarding his call. Other than the possibility that Paul is speaking truthfully on pain of damnation, three other possibilities arrive. (a) Paul is blissfully deceived; (b) he is speaking deceitfully before both man and God; or (c) he  is appealing not to a commonality that he shares with his readers but to one only they share among themselves, in the same way that someone can walk under a ladder or open an umbrella inside as an act of self-sacrifice for their unwilling, superstitious friends.

This is a witch. If I’m lying then the witch is going to kill me in my sleep. You’ll just have to take my word and the cat’s face for it.

These possibilities show the ultimately inaccessible particularity of Paul’s call to the Gospel. On one level it is universal and can be made known to other people, but on another level, that of the possibilities above, Paul cannot make himself intelligible to his audience when speaking of matters between himself and God, namely that he is telling the truth. Why then is the Epistle to the Galatians still available to use today? Why didn’t it get burnt by Gentiles zealous for the law? How is it possible that Paul is seen as speaking truth albeit being ultimately impenetrable? It is not only that Paul takes his theology from scripture, appealing to the universal throughout the letter, but that the early church depended on the universality of particularity: The Holy Spirit.

This is an absurdity not just of Christianity, not just of religion, but of all belief systems: Everything rational is ultimately taken in faith. All objectivity is subjectivity in disguise. All truth is untruth. Christianity takes as its chosen untruth, the Holy Spirit. This is the absurdity of Paul’s call: “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). The writer of Acts renders Paul’s conversion experience in a certain way (Acts 9), but, as a rule, primary literature should first be taken into consideration. Paul claims that he has seen Jesus and later compares this to other post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (1Corinthians 9:1, 15:3-8), and his description of being caught up into Paradise possibly adds to this account (2Corinthians 12:1-4). What is absurd about Paul’s experience on which he bases his life purposes? What is absurd is that he privileges a particular finite means for access to the call of God. Some people may continually read the collected wisdom of thinkers ancient and modern to ascertain the meaning of life, some may view life as statistics and numbers and embrace the idiosyncratic nooks and crannies of nihilism, another may find their complete meaning in being in the presence of certain person. For Paul it is the experience of revelation which sits at the base of his call5.

It’s interesting to note that Paul’s call compels him to three years serving the Lord in Arabia, Damascus, and possibly other unmentioned places, before spending some time with Peter in Jerusalem and after another eleven or fourteen years on the mission field (the text is unclear) Paul returns to Jerusalem, surprise surprise, in response to another revelation (Galatians 1:15-2:2). Paul leaves it this long after his conversion to consult the leadership in Jerusalem, “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (v.2). There’s a little bit of classic irony there, and I wonder if Paul himself saw the humour in his actions. Yet that Paul did this in response to a revelation will not be easily dismissed: revelation was still primary, though now it required supplement to be fully justified. His approval from leaders in Jerusalem was not something that revelation could be swayed by; his approval was commissioned through revelation. Notably, the individual nature of Paul’s call has not changed. What is the outcome of Paul’s Christian individualism? It is responded to and approved (2:7-9) by those who also, to some extent, work in the same medium of call as Paul does, and then supplemented by an appeal to a universal ethic, remembering the poor (v.10).

This is the universality of particularity. When both parties are responding to the call of the Holy Spirit then this call is common to both parties; it is universal. Thus Paul can say of those in Jerusalem “they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (2:7) because the leaders recognised that where God had been at work in their own lives and the lives of those around them, he had also been at work in the hearts of those who formerly actively opposed the Gospel (1:23-24). The only way that the conversion of their enemy was intelligible to them was through the work of God in their own lives. And this is the subjectivity, whether it be revelation in whichever of its infinite forms, which ensures Galatians in our modern biblical canon: The Holy Spirit was not just at work in Paul but in the hearts of his readers.

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¹All bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the NRSV and the Book of Galatians

²Ishmael, born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, realistically doesn’t hold as much value in this position, considering ancient Near East perceptions of family, etc.

³Noting, however, that an angel appears to Joseph to clear things up (Matthew 1:20) and John the Baptist’s mother was aware of it according to Luke too (1:43). In light of the other examples, allow a little room for Mary’s story to be read as Kierkegaard reads it, for the sake of the argument. Even so, he may have understood Mary’s original call to bear the Messiah, before elucidation to others, as strictly between her and God, and this is what he is focussing on in the example.

4 I use universality quite loosely here to refer to any commonality among a group of individuals, and I realise that this is the proper use, as true Kantian/Hegelian (?) universality which Kierkegaard uses as a reference point is undermined by Kierkegaard himself and Nietzsche onwards: There is no universal morality, code, ethics, etc. This universality that people refer to is a fantasy and only exists to some extent (though in absolute terms to none at all) within different groups of people. Thus language expresses the universal as much as ideas are universally accessible through it, but it is an approximation of the universal as much as the individual’s subjective perceptions of language allow for infinite nuances in interpretation.

5 The other sources of call given may disregard revelation by, for example, openly rebelling against God in light of the revelation, attempting to the revelation, dismissing revelation as human fantasy, etc.

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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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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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