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Month: September 2015

Ken Ham and the “Traditions of Men”: The Irony Will Amaze You!

Ken Ham and the “Traditions of Men”: The Irony Will Amaze You!

ken-ham

In the midst of my researching for my book, The Heresy of Ham, I am constantly amazed at the truly ironic things that I find time and time again in regards to Ken Ham and the young earth creationism (YEC) of  Answers in Genesis. Case in point: his utterly twisted and deceptive use of the story in Mark 7 and Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions of men.”

A quick recap of the passage is in order. The Pharisees notice that Jesus’ disciples are eating without washed hands, so they ask him why they do not observe “the tradition of the elders.” Jesus then proceeds to berate the Pharisees for encouraging people to violate the Torah itself, for the sake of obeying “the tradition of the elders,” or as Jesus calls it, “the traditions of men.”

Ham’s Use of the “Traditions of Men”

Now, Ken Ham freely uses this term, “traditions of men,” as an accusation against anyone who disagrees with his young earth interpretation of Genesis 1-11. “If you do not believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that Adam and Eve were ‘perfect,’” he says, “then you are putting the ‘traditions of men’ in authority over the Bible.” For Ham, the “traditions of men” means any interpretation of Genesis 1-11 other than his.

I ran into this accusation last year. I had mentioned that I thought Irenaeus’ explanation of Adam and Eve was very convincing and insightful. Irenaeus had speculated that when Adam and Eve were created, they were more like immature children, and therefore when they sinned, it was not so much of a “shaking their fists in rebellion against God” type of thing, as it was a bumbling sin of childish naiveté and immaturity. He, therefore, saw the story of Adam and Eve as kind of a story about all of us.

In any case, Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John himself. The fact, therefore, that Irenaeus was a generation separated from the apostle John tells me that it is very possible that his interpretation of the Adam and Eve story could have gone back to John, if not Jesus himself. That’s a pretty big deal, so I’m going to seriously consider what Irenaeus has to say.

Well, the person I was talking with said, “But Irenaeus was just a man. Are you going to put his fallible opinion over the clear Word of God? Isn’t that putting the “traditions of men” as the ultimate authority over God’s Word?”

So there you have it. If even a disciple of a disciple of the apostle John himself disagrees with Ken Ham, then the verdict is in: Ken Ham = God’s Word; Irenaeus = Traditions of Men.

A Look at Mark 7: What is “Oral Tradition”?

A simple reading of Mark 7, though, shows that Ken Ham has completely twisted and misused this passage. It is clear that the “traditions of men” Jesus condemned in Mark 7 were not condemnations of Church Tradition (as expressed in Ireneaus’ writings, for example), but rather of the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees (i.e. the tradition of the elders) that added extra rules to the Torah in order to insure that the Torah couldn’t be violated.

You see, if the Pharisees felt a particular rule in the Torah was a bit too vague, they would, through their “oral tradition,” add to that law to clarify what and was not allowed. If the Torah said, “Do not work on the Sabbath,” the Pharisees would then articulate what was considered “work” (i.e. picking heads off grain, or healing those who were paralyzed or lame). Nowhere in the Torah does it forbid healing on the Sabbath, but according to the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees, it was considered work, and therefore a violation of the Torah…even though it really wasn’t!

Now the thing was, not only did this “oral tradition” make up rules that weren’t in the Torah to begin with, sometimes “oral tradition” would actually end up violating the Torah itself. This is why Jesus condemned the Pharisees in Mark 7. One of the rules in the Torah said that people were obligated to honor their mother and father, meaning not only respecting them, but taking care of them in their old age as well. According to the “oral tradition” though, the Pharisees would tell people that if they took any money that would be used to help their parents, and instead gave it to the Pharisees, that it would be considered an offering to God (i.e. Corban), and therefore would not be in violation of the Torah.

Essentially, the Pharisees were telling people, “Hey, don’t use that money to help your parents! Give it to us, after all, we’re doing God’s work! God will be pleased if you give extra money for His service!” Jesus rightly called them on such a con-game. They, by means of their “oral tradition,” were actually encouraging people to neglect their mother and father, and thus break the commandment in the Torah.

Jesus was condemning the Pharisees for adding their own “tradition” to the Scriptures, and then claiming that their “tradition” essentially was on par with Scripture itself. They were making no distinction between the two, and therefore through manipulation, they were encouraging people to obey their authority and man-made “tradition” at the expense of what God clearly taught and revealed in Scripture.

Oh the Irony!

So that is what Mark 7 is about. Given that, there are two fundamental reasons why Ken Ham’s use of the “traditions of men” in Mark 7 is so ironic.

First, there is the fact that Ken Ham’s own tactics are the exact same as that of the Pharisees:

(A) Like the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees, Ken Ham’s YEC is not found in the Bible; both are later interpretations that have been imposed back onto the Bible;

(B) Just like the Pharisees added to and imposed their “oral tradition” onto the Torah, YEC has imposed a thoroughly modern interpretation onto the biblical text of Genesis 1-11;

(C) Just as the Pharisees’ “oral tradition” essentially over-rode the clear commandment in the Torah, YEC’s modern-scientific interpretation of Genesis 1-11 over-rides the clear meaning of Genesis 1-11;

 (D) Therefore if Jesus condemned the Pharisees’ “oral tradition” of being the “traditions of men,” what does that imply about Ken Ham’s YEC? Should we not also see that YEC’s modern interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as being essentially a modern form of the Pharisees’ “oral tradition,” and thus deserving to be seen as the “traditions of men?”

The irony of all this is that this is the passage Ken Ham uses to condemn others who disagree with his YEC! He cannot see that he is actually the Pharisee in the story! Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions of men” apply to Ken Ham!

What is BDG?

The second irony about Ham’s use of Mark 7 is a doozy. It can be seen in a recent fundraiser Answers in Genesis has promoted. Ken Ham announced on a September 19, 2015 blog post entitled, “What is BDG?” that Answers in Genesis has started a new way people could help their ministry and “partner with us in sharing the gospel and equipping the church”—the beneficiary designation gift.

Basically, Ken Ham wants you to designate Answers in Genesis as the beneficiary of your “retirement account, investment account, bank account, or life insurance policy.” If you name them the beneficiaries, then you will be able “to leave a lasting legacy as you impact the world and the church for God’s glory.”

That’s right! When you pass away, the money you have in your retirement, investment, and bank accounts, or the money wrapped up in your life insurance policy won’t go to your loved ones (you know, the people you normally would designate as beneficiaries)! It will “be paid or transferred to Answers in Genesis”! Well, Hallelujah! What a great “offering to God!”

Ironically, Ken Ham is doing the exact same thing as the Pharisees in Mark 7—the very thing that earned them the condemnation of Jesus himself! He is encouraging you to take the money you had been saving to take care of your family after you die and give it to him in order to help his ministry!

So Let’s Be Clear

The irony of all this is that not only is the “traditions of men” not about what Ken Ham claims it’s about, but the larger context of Mark 7 actually serves as a condemnation of Ken Ham’s own organization and questionable fundraising tactics. To recap:

  • Ken Ham often uses Mark 7 and the term “traditions of men” to condemn others who do not hold to his YEC interpretation of Genesis 1-11, yet the “traditions of men” in Mark 7 is not a reference to any kind of interpretation of Genesis 1-11 at all.
  • The “traditions of men” that Jesus condemns is the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees that they used to essentially trump the clear meaning of the Torah, much like how YEC is a kind of modern “oral tradition” that Ken Ham uses to essentially trump the clear meaning of Genesis 1-11.
  • So when Ken Ham dismisses the testimony of Church Tradition that clearly shows YEC was never universally held as a fundamental tenant of Christianity—when he dismisses it as being the “traditions of men,” he is actually calling the very tradition and teaching that Christ himself handed down to his apostles “the traditions of men.”
  • And to top it all off, by promoting the “BDG” fundraising practice, Answers in Genesis is guilty of the very thing the Pharisees were guilty of in Mark 7!

It is safe to say that Ken Ham stands self-condemned.

“You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:13)

Kierkegaard: The Nature of Faith (Part 1)

Kierkegaard: The Nature of Faith (Part 1)

Kierkegaard

As I think I tried to get across in the previous post, “faith” and “reason” should not be viewed as polar opposites that are engaged in some kind of war with each other. Reason and rationality are good things, but they will always, inevitably, be rooted in some sort of relational faith. Simply put, contrary to Immanuel Kant, reason and rationality are inevitably subordinated to faith—not the other way around. Any objective facts one might learn through one’s reason are just that—facts. In order for them to be interpreted and given meaning, one must root them in faith…in something or someone (but that is another topic in and of itself). As Vardy says, “The objective approach makes the individual irrelevant, as nothing is staked on objective facts—they need not affect an individual’s life. We can study science, history, theology, psychology or philosophy and may build up much objective knowledge but this does not really get us very far” (24).

Faith, Reason…and Yankee Stadium?

And so, we would do well to admit the obvious: faith goes beyond reason; it is higher and deeper than human rationality. It does not negate reason or war against it; rather, it is the “playing field” on which reason and rationality play and compete. To equate the two as equal competitors would be a categorical mistake, like equating Yankee Stadium with Babe Ruth. Without Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth would have never accomplished all the baseball greatness he accomplished. Without Yankee Stadium, he would have just been a fat orphan who never amounted to much. And as great and big as Babe Ruth was, try to use him as a baseball field and play a game on him—it just isn’t going to work! And if you limit your field of knowledge to only the person of Babe Ruth, then you won’t know the game of baseball, the existence of any other ball field, or the greatness of the many other ball players throughout the history of the game.

Faith, Reason…and Mathematics?

But my baseball analogy only goes so far. And since Kierkegaard knew nothing of baseball, perhaps we should move on to precisely what his take on “Faith” is. But let’s first do it in sort of a mathematical equation. First, in regards to Reason: Reason = Facts = Objective Knowledge. Reason takes no consideration of the inherent relationality of human beings, and it assumes that “truth” is only found in “facts.” By contrast, in regards to Faith: Faith = Relationship = Subjective Knowledge. Faith sees relationality as supremely important, and it claims the ultimate “Truth” concerning human beings is found in a person’s personal, subjective relationship with God. Faith, for Kierkegaard challenges a person to stake his life on a claim that reason  would reject, namely “that reason itself is limited and there is something bigger, something Eternally True. It is not a single decision, it is a commitment to living and thinking differently, it is the beginning of a relationship, and relationships are essentially subjective. Faith cannot depend on tests or be affected by arguments. It is a subjective state of being” (23-24).

Faith: An Existential Act, not a Rational Proof

And this leads to another thing Kierkegaard emphasizes. The person who says, “I am logically convinced that there is a God,” is not, on the grounds of that statement alone, making a “Christian proclamation.” For to claim that you believe God exists is really nothing more than saying you believe a slug exists, or that London is a real city—you are just making a statement of fact. That is not faith; for the Christian faith is an existential act, not a rational proof or fact. Much like the famous “leap of faith” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones has to step out into what he perceives to be a giant chasm, only to find that there was a land bridge there all along, the Christian faith demands that we step out into what our reason cannot sense or understand.

It’s not that the land bridge wasn’t there—it was that Indiana’s limited senses forced him to reason that there was nothing there…and if he had not taken that step, he would have never known that there was something more; his senses and reason would have never been opened up to a whole new, and “more real” reality than he would have remained in, had he not taken that step. And what, by the way, was his reason for taking that step? Was it not his love and the relationship he had with his father? That is precisely what the Christian faith describes and demands: stepping out beyond what our senses can reason out, being urged on by that love and relationality we find in our very souls to a deeper and “more real” reality—that is where Eternal Truth and Life is found.

Kierkegaard: The War Between Faith and Reason

Kierkegaard: The War Between Faith and Reason

Kierkegaard

Perhaps the most misleading idea in current philosophical dialogue that plays itself out in popular culture is the assertion that “faith” and “reason” are polar opposites, and that there has always been an underlying “war” between faith and reason, religion and science. Such claims are as uncritical and simplistic as those who make them. Their definition of “reason” is really just “objective scientific method,” and their definition of “faith” is “blind belief in fairytales.” Neither definition is much of a definition and both definitions are nothing more than nursery school explanations of graduate school concepts.

Immanuel Kant and George W.F. Hegel

So what is “faith”? What is “reason”? Kierkegaard gives a very thought-provoking explanation of both. But before we discuss his take on these things, we need to quickly review the philosophical worldview of early 19th Century Europe, namely the influence of two men: Immanuel Kant and George W. F. Hegel.

Immanuel Kant is the one credited for arguing that when it comes to understanding morality and God, rationality, reason, and scientific knowledge must be the “playing field” on which morality and God is understood. He was influenced by, and ultimately rejected, the teachings of George Hegel, who tried to wed the growing Enlightenment worldview to a sense of spirituality. What he came up with, though, was not Christianity. It was a vague pantheism.

Hegel argued that ideas and truth develop throughout history, so that what is “true” essentially evolves over time. There is an initial concept of truth (thesis), then another idea happens to run into conflict with it (antithesis), and after awhile the thesis and antithesis “duke it out,” reconcile, hop in bed together, and eventually give birth to another truth (synthesis), which in turn becomes the new thesis. Eventually another conflicting idea (antithesis) comes along…and so on and so on. Hegel, therefore, believed that this “evolution of ideas” would eventually lead to the “Ultimate Idea,” which he understood to be “God”—the ultimate reality of everything known.

Whatever your reaction to Hegel’s theory itself may be, you should see that his underlying assumption was still the same as Kant’s: rationality and reason were in the driver’s seat of truth. Hegel’s “God” was really just “ideas, fully understood.” Now, I’m guessing that most modern people will say, “What’s the problem? How else are we even able to understand morality and God without our reason, and without a careful ‘scientific’ study of the world?” The very fact that most people probably see nothing startling with Kant’s claims shows just how much we have been influenced by him. It doesn’t even occur to us that there is anything wrong with that notion.

What’s the Problem?

There is. The problem isn’t that reason is used within our search for morality and God. The problem is the assumption that reason and the scientific method is the primary, if not only viable, way of coming to an understanding of morality and God. The problem is that the Kantian view essentially reduces human beings to mere brains. And we all know what happens if one detaches a human brain from the rest of the body—it quickly dies and becomes useless.

Such is the ultimate problem with the modern/Enlightenment worldview—it elevates the rationality as the only real way truth can be assessed, and all other ways are fairytales and illusions. Of course, a moment’s reflection should convince every one of us just how (ironically) irrational such a view is: the times you are holding your baby in your arms as he falls asleep, the times a certain song, poem, or work of art touches your heart and affects you in a way you don’t fully understand, and yet you are aware of a deeper meaning to life that you can’t quite get your mind around, but you know it’s there, and is just as real, if not more so, than what your tiny brain can understand.

Simply put, the Enlightenment worldview and Kantian elevation to human reason as the “be all/end all” to truth is nothing more than egotistical idolatry, and a denial of the deep mystery and wonder of life. It is the removal of the human brain from the body, the putting it on a pedestal, and the bowing down to it. Of course, when that happens, in a very short time, both that brain and the one who worships it will be dead. We must remember, against the backdrop of the millions of years of existence, the past 200 years of Enlightenment-influenced ideas is but a blip on the radar screen of history.

Given this Enlightenment worldview of Kant and Hegel, enter Kierkegaard. He saw where such a view led to, and he rejected it. It wasn’t because he was opposed to “reason.” It was because he was opposed to the naïve (and he would argue sinful) attempt to place limited human reason as the arbiter of truth about everything regarding humanity and God. He rejected the same old ancient idolatry dressed up in modern clothes.

Human Beings: Rational and Relational Creatures

For Kierkegaard, what it means to be a human being cannot be reduced to mere rational ideas. To be a human being is to be a relational creature. Therefore, it is relational knowledge (what Kierkegaard calls faith) that takes precedence over rational knowledge. You can amass all the data about a woman—her likes, dislikes, body size, hair color, personal history, etc.—but unless you actually go up and talk to her, and get to know her in a personal and relational way, all your facts and figures about her life won’t mean anything when it comes to living as a human being. We see the same view in the Bible itself: when a husband and wife have sex and produce a child, the Bible puts it in terms of “Adam knew Eve, and she bore a son…” etc.

So, relational knowledge goes much deeper than rational knowledge, for it is relationality that defines human beings, not rationality. In fact, our rationality is only of any use when it is subordinated to relationality.  Rationality is the servant, relationality is the lord, and for Kierkegaard, it is that relationality that lies at the heart of faith. That is why he reacted so strongly against the Enlightenment’s claim that unaided human reason’s pursuit of truth about things could be king, and could give meaning to human life.

But Kierkegaard puts it in even starker terms: the putting of human reason on a pedestal is nothing less than sin, for it is usurping the primacy of relational knowledge with limited human knowledge about facts. It is essentially saying, “I can cover my room with Justin Bieber posters, buy every teen magazine that has pictures and facts about Justin Bieber, learn every one of his songs, and know every fact about him, and thus convince myself that I actually know him (even though I don’t, and won’t ever will, because I’m too busy plastering myself with Bieber paraphernalia!”

What is Truth?

Or let’s leave my rather silly example of Justin Bieber, and use another one—one that Kierkegaard used to condemn the institutionalized Church. As Vardy writes, “the Truth that Jesus reveals is not a matter of doctrines or propositional knowledge, it is Truth about human beings and their relationship to God” (14). Many Christians (and non-Christians, for that matter) are so busy learning facts and doctrines about Christ, that they have never taken the time to get to know him. It is that obsession with gathering facts about Christ, elevating your reason to the point where you think you can “prove” God exists and Jesus is Lord, and assuming that the Christian faith is just another theory that can be convincingly proven, if only we get our facts straight and use our reason to convince people—for Kierkegaard that is sin. Sin is not just a moral failing—it is ultimately placing yourself and your limited, autonomous human reason at the center of your life, and believing that it can figure everything out by itself.

Autonomous Human Reason is Sin?

For Kierkegaard, it is a sin to limit the Christian faith within the borders of human reason alone. Biblically speaking, sin brings death, and the Enlightenment idolatry of human reason brings death to the individual, relational person who is made in God’s image. Kierkegaard, as well as the entire Eastern Orthodox Tradition, understood that just because something isn’t “rational,” doesn’t mean it’s not true. Is the love a parent has for his child “rational?” Is the beauty of Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night” “rational”? Are Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos “rational”? Is stepping out in a living faith and entering into a relationship with the Trinitarian God as revealed in Christ “rational”? The answer to all those questions is, “No”—but they are all real and true. In fact, they are more real and more true that the actual paint on a canvas, notes on a page, or systematized creed.

Now don’t get me wrong: the paint, notes, and creeds are needed, but they are only tools by which a painting, concerto, or relationship goes forward and is developed. What the philosophy since the Enlightenment has done is to cast aside the painting, concerto, and relationship as “not really true,” and then point to the paint still in the tubes, or the ivory keys on the keyboard, or the “naturalistic facts” that make up the biological world, say, “THAT is truth because we can measure it and quantify it!”

Ultimately, modern philosophy ever since the Enlightenment, the kind that Kierkegaard lambasted, and the kind that still is prevalent today in not only philosophy classes, but also comparative religions classes, and even the pop culture “science vs. religion” debates, is an exercise in silliness—but it is the worst kind of silliness, for it is a silliness that negates the human being, and ultimately brings death. As Kierkegaard put it, it is the worst kind of sin, for it attempts to put autonomous human reason—an amputated human brain—in the center of the universe. It is philosophical geo-centrism…and it signals the death of true knowledge and faith.

Getting Naked With Soren Kierkegaard: Yes, You Should be Self-Conscious!

Getting Naked With Soren Kierkegaard: Yes, You Should be Self-Conscious!

Kierkegaard

There are certain things in my life that have convinced me that I am not really a bright person: my pathetic choice to be a die-hard Cubs fan, my enjoyment of fart jokes, and my career choice of teaching—quite possibly the most under-appreciated and under-paid careers in history. Now sure, I have had a good bit of academic training in Biblical Studies, and I feel am well-versed in that area. But once a few basic concepts and contexts are grasped, reading a book like Jonah, or Mark, or even Revelation, really isn’t that difficult.

But when I try to read guys like G.K. Chesteron or Soren Kierkegaard, I feel like the only words that form in my mind are those of Forrest Gump: “Mama always said, ‘Stupid is as stupid does!” I may have a PhD in Old Testament, but those intellectual heavyweights knock me out and send me to the mat within one or two pages. Fortunately, there are people who read and actually get what these men have written. One of my best friends, in fact, is currently wrapping up his PhD on Kierkegaard! I am in awe.

In any case, a few months ago I came across an introduction to Kierkegaard by Peter Vardy, and like the introduction to Nietzsche, it amazingly made a very difficult topic clear and understandable. Vardy was able to take the “graduate-school” intellect of Kierkegaard’s writings and explain it to my “5th grade brain” (at least when it comes to Kierkegaard!). In all seriousness, though, it was an amazing book, and I felt myself attracted to, and challenged by, Kierkegaard’s outlook. As will be seen in the next few posts, the fundamental core of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is actually strangely similar to that of Nietzsche’s. Both men lived in 19th Century Europe, and both men were sickened by the lifeless and stale brand of European Christianity that effectively reduced the Christian faith to mere polite moralism. But where Nietzsche went wrong, Kierkegaard hit the bull’s eye.

The introduction to Vardy’s book starts off with this quote: “Kierkegaard’s aim is straightforward: to strip you…naked at two in the morning, to sit you in front of a mirror and to force you to think about your life” (xi). Well now, that pretty much says it, doesn’t it? If that is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. Over the next few posts, I am going to share my thoughts on Kierkegaard from the front of that mirror…but I will be sure to put some pants on.

Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard lived in a 19th Century “Christian” Europe that bowed at the altar of Enlightenment objectivity, rationality…and politeness. The “Christian theology” was all systematized and neat, and the “Christian life” was a thin veneer of a gentle moralism. It mirrored “The Gilded Age” of the Industrial Revolution: all shiny and bright on the surface, but just underneath that surface was despair and heartache. Kierkegaard, therefore, really wanted to “strip people naked” in that sense, for only by stripping off that “gilded mask” could there be any hope of anyone (a) coming to truly understand who they really were, and (b) reaching out to the Living God through faith.

As Peter Vardy states, “most of us forget who we are—we become so focused on creating a mask that is pleasing and acceptable to our peers, our colleagues, our parents, our partners that, beneath the mask, we never realize that ‘I’ as an individual has ceased to exist” (xiv). So how does Kierkegaard describe these sorts of people? He writes, “They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out worldly enterprises, make prudent calculations, etc. and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves. In a spiritual sense they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript  64-5).

Indeed, Kierkegaard’s description isn’t just of “those people”—let’s face it, it describes every single one of us at one time or another. We become so concerned and obsessed with impressing others, with making sure that other people are either proud or envious of us, that we do everything we can to project an image of the kind of person we think others will admire or approve of. And here’s the irony: while we are so busy trying to make our lives and idol that projects a false image of ourselves to others to worship, we end up becoming enslaved to the expectations and admirations of those very people. And since we become so afraid that other people might somehow find out “who we really are” (i.e. not like that idol/image we project), we drown ourselves in a flurry of activity in an attempt to keep up that image.

And why don’t we want people to find out “who we really are”? If we are honest, it’s because we don’t even know who we really are—we’ve been so enslaved in our own “self-idolatrous behavior,” we simply have lost sight of our own true humanity. As Vardy says, “We throw ourselves into activity of various kinds which is subconsciously designed to prevent us having to think deeply about ourselves at all” (xiv).

That is why spending time “away,” is so important—away from the iphone, the texting, the job, the blogging (!!!)…whatever. Silence and reflection is essential if we are to understand who we really are. It can also be frustrating and frightening at first—like any idolatrous addiction, we think we will lose the sense of who we are if we give up those activities. Well, hopefully we will lose the sense of who that person is, for that person is merely a mask, a hollow shell with eye-sockets. And let’s face it that person is not happy, because he’s not real.

So, do we have the courage to strip off those activities and masks and stand naked before…whatever is there? That is Kierkegaard’s challenge. And that is the topic of my next few posts over the next few days.

Why Nietzsche is Good for Modern Day Christianity

Why Nietzsche is Good for Modern Day Christianity

Nietzsche187a

Ultimately, Friedrich Nietzsche is an iconoclast, someone who longs to smash even the most sacred idols of a culture. That is a sentiment that every true Christian should embrace and practice. Now, it is true that Nietzsche felt that Christianity involved possibly the worst kind of idolatry, the idolatry of the will to truth; but if Christians are honest with themselves, they will admit that sometimes we have made idols of our neat little theological categories and “truths” that just explain everything. As my former professor Gordon Fee used to say, “Evangelical Christians have made an idol out of their theology.”

Indeed, I think modern day Evangelical Christians have unknowingly imbibed the arrogant yet false certainty of the Enlightenment worldview. Just as Enlightenment thinkers found themselves actually slaves to the claim that “science and reason has explained everything,” many Christians today have become enslaved to slogans like, “The Bible gives us answers to everything! It’s all there!” Ironically, that kind of “certainty” is unbiblical and completely out of step with Church Tradition. Claiming mental adherence to a series of theological statements or Enlightenment claims is exactly what Nietzsche derided as a slave morality and the will to truth. Therefore, Nietzsche’s challenge to Christians, as Lucy Huskinson says, is this: “It is not enough to express one’s allegiance to the Christian faith; one must embody it and continually test one’s faith to determine whether it is necessary and genuine, or habitual and idolatrous” (84).

One of the most frustrating stereotypes (and unfortunately a true criticism) of Christians is that they are too afraid and defensive when anyone questions their faith. Chosen ignorance is seen as a virtue. I remember my Bible teacher in high school one time actually warning us students from having an open mind: “Like I’ve always said, if you have an open mind, the devil can jump right in!” I also remember a certain Baptist pastor who often spoke in chapel at a Christian school at which I worked start every single one of his chapel talks with something like, “Now y’all, I’m not a smart man…but I love Jesus and I trust the Bible!” It was as if he was actually taking pride in the fact that he was ignorant. The impression I got in high school, and those students got in chapel was that “thinking” was dangerous, so avoid it…just love Jesus.

I never got that kind of mentality. If one’s faith cannot withstand to honest questioning and doubt, then it is a faith in some sort of blind, deaf, stupid idol, and it deserves to be mocked, ridiculed, and destroyed. Does that sound harsh? Tough, deal with it. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my life about following Christ, it is this: Christ is no fluffy bunny and the Christian life is not easy. It’s not enough to love God with your whole heart. It takes all your mind as well.

Nietzsche would agree. As Huskinson says, “Life, Nietzsche argues, is not this simple or cheap! Indeed, such an approach to Christianity has, he claims, brought about ‘the euthanasia of Christianity’ (D 92). A genuine faith is one embodied in struggle and hardship, in which question s must be asked but no definitive answer is expected or sought” (84). Think about that phrase, “the euthanasia of Christianity.” When statistics show that upwards of 75% of students who have gone to Christian schools end up walking away from the Christian faith by the time they graduate from college, if that doesn’t speak of the euthanasia of Christianity, I don’t know what does. But that’s the thing—it’s not the euthanasia of Christianity; it’s the euthanasia of the idolatrous, slave-mentality, will to truth religious parasite that has sucked the life out of many churches in America today. And when the life is sucked out, it becomes almost impossible to truly live within this difficult and chaotic world that God has made.

The “answer” that Christianity gives is not some nice and tidy explanation of God, or some promise of leisurely bliss as long as you say the “sinner’s prayer.” The answer that Christianity gives is the very thing that Nietzsche yearned for, but missed because he mistook the 19th Century idolatrous notion of Christian etiquette for the historic Church Tradition and practice.

The Christian answer is one that empowers one to walk on the waters of chaos, to reel in Leviathan, to bathe in rivers of truth, to run and not be weary, to mount up on wings like eagle’s, and to paint the new creation on the canvas of the old, to where it seeps into every crack and crevice, and Christ is all in all, and we are one with him. That is not some “truth” to which you merely give mental adherence; it is not something to check off with our intellect. It is something to be lived and struggled for…and it involves death and resurrection every day. Any Christian who fails to take hold of his suffering and offer it as a living, daily sacrifice is someone who is a weak slave to that suffering, for that suffering is sacrificing him, and not the other way around.

Suffering and death are part of this creation…they are inevitable. How we react to them will determine whether or not we truly live. As Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh said, “People who are afraid of death are afraid of life. It is impossible not to be afraid of life with all its complexity and dangers if one is afraid of death. If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful and timid manner.” I think Nietzsche would have agreed, and perhaps he would have been attracted to the Orthodox Church Tradition in which it was said.

What this all comes down to is an understanding of what faith truly is. The kind of “faith” that Nietzsche condemned is a weak, idolatrous and slavish thing. It is afraid of suffering, questioning, and death. But as Church Tradition has proclaimed for the past 2,000 years, true faith embraces doubt and questioning, suffering and death—for it knows that is the only—the ONLY—path to resurrection and new creation. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has said, when talking about the death of faith, it is a “…loss of our root certainties (or seeming certainties) about God and the meaning of existence. But this too is a death-life experience through which we have to pass if our faith is to become mature. True faith is a constant dialogue with doubt, for God is incomparably greater than all our preconceptions about Him; our mental concepts are idols that need to be shattered. So as to be fully alive, our faith needs to continually die.”

Such is the Christian walk of faith. If Nietzsche can be used to shatter the idolatrous shackles that keep us from walking that Christian walk of faith, then God bless Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” vs. Jesus Christ

Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” vs. Jesus Christ

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As we saw in the last post, Nietzsche had declared that the Enlightenment culture of Europe had essentially “killed” God, even though it had not yet realized it.  The question for Nietzsche thus became, “After the supposed ‘death of God,’ what was to emerge in the post-Enlightenment culture that Nietzsche envisioned?

The Ubermensch

Nietzsche’s answer was the Ubermensch—or “Superman.” Now, the Nazis took this idea of an Ubermensch and ran with it in terms a racially and genetically perfected race of Germanic people. But for Nietzsche, the Ubermensch embodied the “higher culture” that would be brought about by the will to power and would live out the master morality that lived life to its fullest, most creative extent. For Nietzsche, one must put one’s faith in himself, in the here and now, and not in some transcendent God who dictated his rules from afar and then showed supposed compassion for the slaves who couldn’t quite keep all those rules.

The only kind of God that Nietzsche felt was worthy of divinity and our worship was “…a noble God, a God who affirms our humanity and the instability of life” (Huskinson 55). For Nietzsche, the only true God would be one who “…embodies the will to power, and the capacity continually to create, destroy and recreate values in parallel to the ebb and flow of life” (Huskinson 55), or as Nietzsche had Zarathustra say, “I should believe only in a God who knows how to dance.”

I find it interesting to note that C.S. Lewis, when describing the very life of the Trinity and his relationship to his creation, explained in Mere Christianity that very relational life as a dance. He also emphasized that the various doctrines and theological statements found within Christianity are not God—they are only like maps that various Christians have recorded in the process of their own living out the life of the Trinity within their own lives. But the more I think about it, I like the idea of seeing the doctrines and dogmas of Christianity as “the dance lessons of God.” They are not static, unbending “rules” for us to blindly obey, but rather they are dances and steps that we are to learn, so we can enter into that ever-creative dance of the Trinitarian life within the Church.

But this, of course, would make no sense to Nietzsche, for he saw the doctrines and dogmas of Christianity as nothing more than the static, unbending “rules” that dictated moral behavior. And why wouldn’t he think that? That was exactly how the Enlightenment-influenced Christianity of 19th Century Europe presented Christianity—as nothing more that “Ms. Peabody’s rules for proper etiquette.” Sadly, even today, people tend to assume that Christianity is nothing more than a divinely-imposed etiquette class that really isn’t divine at all. In any case, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch was to be a supremely creative being who was able to overcome those superficially-imposed “etiquette rules” [which Nietzsche believed to embody Christianity] and work toward his own creative ends.

Three Types of People

And so, for Nietzsche, there were essentially three types of man. There is the slave, who he equated with the 19th Century Christian that believed “all we have to do is try to keep God’s rules, although we can’t, but don’t worry, he’ll show compassion on us, filthy sinners!” This sort of man, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, was a sniveling weakling who was too afraid to live his own life. And, ironically, I think Jesus would agree…for Nietzsche’s slave, although it might describe a certain perversion of the Christian faith, is not the true Christian faith.

Then there is the last man, who he equated with the 19th Century Enlightenment philosophers who convinced themselves that through science and reason they had come to complete knowledge about life and human progress. This sort of man, to me, typifies men like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris—arrogant, completely satisfied with themselves, and foolish enough to think science and human reason has given them the ultimate answers to everything.

Finally, there is the Ubermensch, who Nietzsche believed would be able to “harness the chaos of his conflicting instincts to his own creative ends” (Huskinson 60). For Nietzsche, the Ubermensch would be able to “walk on the waters of chaos,” and “dance on the edge of the abyss.” He’d never control them, for that was impossible, but he would be able to muster those chaotic forces of life to live out a truly creative life.

To this end, Nietzsche put forth the role-model of the Greek god Dionysus, who suffered in his human life and then was born back into that very life. Nietzsche rejected the crucified Christ because he felt it symbolized a “final redemption from the human condition, a delusory need for a life without suffering and a resurrection into a better life” (Huskinson 65). By contrast, Nietzsche felt that Dionysus affirmed the suffering that happens within human life. Simply put, suffering is a necessary part of human life, and to look to someone else who “dies for your sins” so that you won’t suffer is to, in fact, deny life itself.

Conclusion

And on this point, I feel Nietzsche is so close, yet so far away. Now, it is true, far too often, Christianity is presented as sort of a “Jesus died for you, so you can go to Heaven and suffer no more” type of thing. People who reduce the Christian faith to that, though, certainly have not seriously read their Bibles. Read Paul, read Peter, James, or the writings of John, and one theme runs throughout them: Christ suffered and died and rose again in order to show us the way we are to suffer and die to the world, so that we too would be resurrected. And that resurrection is not in some distant “spirit-heaven,” but in the here and now, beginning within this creation and culminating in a new and resurrected creation. Simply put, the message of Christ crucified is not one that seeks a flight from suffering and the human condition; it is one that invests meaning and redemption into that very suffering so that the human condition could be resurrected into, and with, the ultimate Ubermensch—Jesus Christ.

Tomorrow, I will wrap up my thoughts on Nietzsche by focusing precisely on how he can challenge Christians to live a more vibrant faith.

Friedrich Nietzsche: God is Dead…and We Have Killed Him!

Friedrich Nietzsche: God is Dead…and We Have Killed Him!

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Perhaps the most famous saying attributed to Nietzsche is, “God is Dead.” Sure, the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” probably comes in a close second, but most people don’t realize that comes from Nietzsche, and not Kelly Clarkson! In any case, the declaration, “God is dead” has caused many Christians to recoil in horror from Nietzsche. But when seen within the context that Nietzsche is speaking about, I think Christians can appreciate, at least to a certain degree, what Nietzsche is saying.

The Enlightenment Background to “God is Dead” 

The cultural context in which Nietzsche declared, “God is dead” was the culture of 19th Century Europe: a direct result of the flood of Enlightenment ideas that came about just a half-century earlier with the likes of Rousseau, Voltaire, and the events of the French Revolution. The Enlightenment was essentially a movement that condemned religion as irrational superstition, the Catholic Church as oppressive, and that purposefully and successfully mischaracterized the previous few centuries of European innovation and achievement as “medieval.” It was a movement that declared the ever-progressing advancement of human society which now had achieved such a high level of scientific and rational success, that it was time to cast off the shackles of superstition, religion, and of course, Christianity.

Therefore, anything good that came out in Europe precisely because of the Christian worldview—like universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, advances in orchestration and choral music, the list can go on—had to be glossed over; and anything seemingly bad that happened—be it the Crusades or the Inquisition—had to be mischaracterized and sensationalized as insane religious zealotry, and the entire time period was slandered as backwards and medieval.

And so, Enlightenment thinkers and the 19th Century philosophers that were children of the Enlightenment declared that it was time to do away with superstitious organized religion, and progress ever-forward with science and reason. But they couldn’t quite completely do away with the idea of God. Hence, we had Deism: a sort of head-nod to the idea of a creator God, but that nevertheless pushed him completely out of the picture regarding human history and involvement. Or we had the “god” of George Hegel, who equated with sort of a “grand idea” that was all of human existence, and that human existence was just the evolution of that idea until it achieved “total being.”

So the feeling in 19th Century Europe was, “Let’s get rid of religion, but let’s not quite get rid of the notion of ‘God.’ We’ll say we have ‘God-given rights,’ like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that make up what morality is, but we won’t have to bother with that ‘God’ actually revealing himself, or being actually involved in history!” (Remember, the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence? Those were Enlightenment times and Enlightenment ideals dressed up in “God language”).

Given that climate, given those nice, fuzzy, warm “God-feelings” coming from the hearth with the Enlightenment cottage, Nietzsche came along and essentially pissed in that fireplace. Yes, it’s a vulgar image, but one that is quite fitting. The famous “God is dead” quote comes from his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the one who declares that God is dead is a madman. He says, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him! How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?”

That is something very important to realize, for the “death of God” is not a condemnation of Christianity (although Nietzsche certain does do that elsewhere), but a condemnation of the European Enlightenment.

Nietzsche saw the Enlightenment narrative of the “inevitable progress of humanity by means of science and reason” as just another example of the will to truth that substituted the reliance on a God as the source of truth with the reliance on science and autonomous human reason as the source of all truth. He saw the Enlightenment worldview as simply “still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests…We godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame [of] Christian faith” [The Gay Science 344]. It was just another crutch—therefore, when the Enlightenment philosophers “purport to know that God does not exist, they are not speaking from a more advanced perspective  than that of the madman who searches for God in vain. On the contrary, because Nietzsche maintains that to settle on the truth is to be deluded, we may assume that the madman is in fact closer to the truth because he has yet to find its source (An Introduction to Nietzsche, Huskinson 39).

Nietzsche and Nihilism…and Christianity

Simply put, for Nietzsche, life is meaningless and chaotic—any attempt to claim absolute truth, be it coming from God or from science and reason, is a futile and delusional exercise in the will to truth. This idea from Nietzsche brings us to another concept closely associated with him: nihilism. “Life is meaningless and chaotic, just accept it,” Nietzsche declares. If that statement seems to you to be pessimistic and depressing, Nietzsche says it doesn’t have to be. Given the nihilism of life, one can face it pessimistically, and just curl up and die, or optimistically. To that end, Nietzsche essentially says, “Exercise the will to power, play a part in the endless flux of life, be creative and live your life, although it will inevitably end.”  Or as Huskinson says, “After the death of God we can approach life either passively, in despair or in denial (unaware of the need for radical change), or actively, as dynamic creators continually refashioning our lives” (53).

Ironically, there is an aspect in Nietzsche’s outlook and goals that, despite his condemnation of Christianity, is actually thoroughly Christian. Christianity teaches that life is chaotic (just look at Genesis 1:1-2); Christianity teaches that human beings are slaves to the elemental things of the world; and Christianity challenges us to become united to Christ in order to mature and grow into the fullness of humanity that reigns with Christ over his creation.

To re-work Huckinson’s previous quote, we should realize that the Christian challenge is for us to be dynamic co-creators with Christ who continually reign and cultivate the New Creation that Christ as brought about. Christianity teaches that those who submit to the lordship of Christ will be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and will be able to grow into maturity in Christ—we will be able to walk on the waters of chaos, and “kick the darkness ‘till it bleeds daylight” (U2, God, Part 2). And what makes that possible? The love of Christ that has been poured out into our hearts.

The reason why the Christian message ultimately works, and why Nietzsche was ultimately wrong, is that what Nietzsche separates as the will to power and the will to truth only works as a unity within a resurrected human heart. The truth of God is not something “out there” that is imposed on us from the outside–the very notion that God is “out there” (a notion that Nietzsche ultimately takes for granted) is an unbiblical and Enlightenment/Deistic notion. The truth of God is among us, it is here. We do not need to go seeking it “out there,” for God has written it on our hearts. And we discover that truth as we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, when we give of ourselves to help others. And when we do that, we also discover that it is the Holy Spirit within us who is empowering us to do just that.

As much as Nietzsche railed against the Enlightenment certainty/delusion of absolute truth, he still nevertheless was a slave to its teaching of the autonomous human being as the measure of all things. “Make your own measure and create your own life according to your own rules,” Nietzsche basically said. But taken to its ultimate conclusion, that gets you where it got Nietzsche–loneliness and insanity. And why? Because one can’t do it alone–humanity is not just a collection of individuals trying to exercise their own will to powers. Humanity is a unity, where the individuals only have purpose, meaning, and creativity when they live in a truthful, empowered, and loving relationship with each other and the Living God who created them.

This key difference will lead us into discussing another aspect of Nietzsche’s: that of the Ubermensch—the superman.

Friedrich Nietzsche: Master Morality and Slave Morality…and Jesus

Friedrich Nietzsche: Master Morality and Slave Morality…and Jesus

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In addition to talking about the will to power and the will to truth, Nietzsche also has a lot to say about what he coins master morality and slave morality. These two terms, obviously, have a lot of overlap with the will to power and the will to truth.

Now Nietzsche sees Christianity as the epitome of slave morality—it is simply a “projection of ultimate power to provide a crutch for its impotent believers who are incapable of harnessing the power of life for themselves” (A Short Introduction to Nietzsche, 12). Simply put, it is a matter of being so afraid and impotent to take on life itself, one just projects that power on a “big daddy” in the sky whom one deludes himself into believing will make everything all right, as long as you are a “good boy,” submit, and keep the rules.

By contrast, master morality, for Nietzsche, is shaped by the will to power and finds its morality based in whether or not something is useful for “the furtherance of creativity and life” (14). Basically—if something adds to your self-worth and self-confidence, it is good; but if something hinders you or stunts your growth, it is bad.

Slave morality is just the opposite. Its basis for morality is this: if something makes you feel good about yourself, it must be bad…you need to deny yourself, bend your knee, and submit to the great “other” who will simply tell you what to do. So, what is “good” becomes nothing more than denying the good things in life that, well…make you feel good! And, as everybody knows, the person who lives his life in that way ends up being quite a pessimistic, waspish, and petty person.

Let’s face it, throughout the history of Christianity, this sort of mentality is well known, whether it is the 19th Century Victorian society in which Nietzsche lived, or the 21st Century American Evangelical society in which we find ourselves today. What is that old adage? When a young boy was asked how can we know God’s will, he answered, “If there is something that is fun to do or makes you feel good, don’t do it.”

Nietzsche is to a certain extent correct. There is a tendency within the human heart that gravitates toward being a slave and that is too afraid to truly live life. Why is that? I think it is because true freedom scares us. There’s a part of us that wants to just be told what to do, just so we can feel safe. We feel unworthy, ill-equipped, and too weak to have the courage to step out and truly live life. We are, in a very real sense, still children in our thinking. Paul says in Romans that as long as we are children in our thinking, we, for all practical purposes, are still slaves—either to the “elements of the world” or to God.

The difference, of course, is that those who are slaves to the “elements of the world” will never be able to grow up, for those “elements of the world” want to keep us as subservient slaves who cowering in fear, just so they can maintain control over us. By contrast, the whole goal of the Christian life is to “grow into maturity in Christ.” It is not to remain childish slaves. It is to grow, mature, and to eventually reign over this creation with Christ.

So where Nietzsche goes wrong is that he doesn’t seem to see that, by virtue of our own humanity, we will always have a starting position of “slave morality,” simply because we start off immature, weak, vulnerable, and gullible. That is part of the growing and creative process of life. This is the part that Nietzsche doesn’t see. He sees master morality as directly opposed to slave morality—it is an “either/or” for Nietzsche. But the Christian message is that in Christ it is ultimately a “both/and.” We are born with a childish mindset that is essentially that of slavery. The way out of that immature/slavery mindset, though, is, ironically, to submit to the source of true life and freedom—namely Christ. Paul is correct when he says that when you are a “slave to sin,” you are free from righteousness, life, and maturity, and that when you submit to God and become a “slave to righteousness,” you are freed from the slavery of sin.

But by rejecting the notion of God, particularly Christ as both God and Man, Nietzsche has attempted to argue that although we all essentially have that slave morality, we can somehow, by our own will to power, free ourselves of that sort of bondage into true freedom, so we can truly be ourselves. But what’s the problem there? If our starting point is, in fact, slave morality, then that is, in fact, who we are. Breaking out of that entails that somehow we make ourselves into something else—but what is that “something else?”

Nietzsche ultimately has no real answer to that, other than, “Whatever you want to be.” But, of course, if that is the case, if a master morality is simply defined as that which furthers life and creativity for a particular individual, then there is bound to be endless problems whenever one bumps into another individual—what if his desire for life and creativity conflicts with yours? Nietzsche’s answer is, “Whosever will to power is stronger.” But then doesn’t that become simply a power-play, and the imposition of a far more insidious slave morality on the weak, the kind of which the Nazis, in the name of Nietzsche, imposed?

Now, I have a hard time believing that Nietzsche would endorse Nazi ideology. I think the extent of Nietzsche’s talk of the will to power and master morality was simply about one talking control of one’s life and living it to the fullest. But by denying God, Nietzsche’s quest for “the good and truly creative life” opens itself up to manipulation by the powerful who, by their sheer act of will, bring death and destruction upon others.

But Nietzsche was right to reject the sort of watered-down, childishly-simplistic brand of Victorian Christianity. For it reduced the truly living, active, and creative work of Christ through the Holy Spirit to a weak moralism that did, in fact, say, “To be a good Christian means to be a ‘good boy’ who has good manners, is polite, and keeps the rules.” ….and that is a ‘gospel’ that is no Gospel at all. Jesus would reject it, Paul would reject it, and the living Tradition of the Christian faith rejects it.

The true slave of Christ is one who is empowered by the Holy Spirit to rule with Christ over His creation—and that morality is one that is reduced to basically two things: to love God and to love your neighbor. Love through sacrificial living brings life, creativity and power to reign. Anything else ends up in hatred, power-games, death, boredom, and impotence….and in Nietzsche’s case, insanity.

Friedrich Nietzsche on the Sea of Galilee

Friedrich Nietzsche on the Sea of Galilee

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In my previous post, I ended with the fact that groups like the Nazis have taken Nietzsche’s concepts and have used them to justify some very evil acts. That whole issue regarding how others have taken Nietzsche is not my concern here in this post.. I readily admit that Nietzsche’s teaching, like “the will to power,” can be taken, and has been taken, to horrible extremes—and such interpretations really are wrong. But I think that Nietzsche really wasn’t advocating mass murder. I think he was focused on how one lives one’s life: in bondage or in freedom. And on this level, I think we can see numerous similarities with Christ’s teachings and the Orthodox Christian faith.

To make my point, let me refer to four examples from the Bible: (1) the account of creation in Genesis, (2) Jesus calling to Peter to come walk on the water with him in Matthew 14:22-33, (3) Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” and (4) the often mistranslated Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

First off, what do we see at the very beginning of the Bible? Chaos—the Sea of Chaos. And what does God go about doing? Creating order out of chaos, creating dry land out of the sea, so that human beings can live and commune with Him. The chaos never completely goes away; it is always pounding against the shores of His creation, but it is held at bay. Is it too much to ask that we see Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power in this light? Furthermore, when God creates Man in His image, what does that mean, if not that we bear the image of the creator God—we are to reflect his justice, mercy, compassion, and His creativity within His creation. We are called to cultivate His creation, and thereby take part in that very creation. Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we do our part to bring order and beauty out of the dark chaotic abyss that continually beats against creation.

Secondly, this is what we see in Matthew 14:22-33. Jesus is walking on the water, he is treading down the Sea of Chaos, and he calls Peter out to join him. Peter begins to do just that, but soon becomes fearful and starts to sink. When Jesus catches him, he says, “O you of little faith.” The same admonition applies to us. We are called to “walk on the water” of this world of chaos, and the reason why we so often sink and fail is because we are of little faith. We too easily are frightened of the chaos and too quickly make a dash for the boat, if you will. Of course, the boat is already going down, so it’s really of no help! The boat, if you will, is similar to Nietzsche’s will to truth—it is our attempt to cling to a clear man-made definition and false security. Jesus’ call, on the other hand, is precisely what Nietzsche’s will to power is addressing: the challenge to walk on water.

Of course, no one in their own humanness can ever live out Nietzsche’s will to power. And the reason is because it is humanly impossible. Such faith can only be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Enter example #3: when Jesus talks to Nicodemus, he parallels the Holy Spirit to the blowing of the wind, and essentially says, “The Holy Spirit is going to go where he wants to go, and do what he wants to do. And just as you can’t box up the wind, you can’t box up the Holy Spirit.” But what the New Testament bears witness to is that for those who have put their faith in Christ and who have received the Holy Spirit, such a “spirit-filled, walk-on-the-water, will to power” type of life is their reality. Baby steps, to be sure…in little measured improvements day to day, but a slow, gradual acclimation to walking on the water to be sure.

And that leads us to Matthew 5:48. Instead of the word “perfect,” the Greek word telos denotes “full maturity.” Jesus is not saying that we need to achieve some sort of “standard of perfection,” as if all God is, is some Platonic “perfect form.” What Jesus is saying is that we are called to grow into full maturity, and thus be re-made into the image of God. Such a process is life-long, continual, and on-going. It takes people in an infinite number of ways, based on their backgrounds, inner make-up, and personalities. But such infinite creativity should come across as some sort of nihilistic/relativistic chaotic mess. Instead, it should be a cause of wonder and celebration. It illustrates the infinite creativity of God Himself. If we, as His image-bearers, step out in faith and follow Christ, and receive the creative and free Holy Spirit, our lives will be ones of infinite growth, development, and creativity, for we will be taken up into the very Trinitarian Life of God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is the eternal life that Christ has promised to those who love him.

And so, in an ironic way, Nietzsche has laid out the challenge to Christians that Jesus initially gave to Peter one night on the Sea of Galilee. Will we step out in faith and learn to dance on the edge of the abyss, or will we cling to our illusions of security within our rickety old tubs of a ready-made (and thus idolatrous) dogma?

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Enlightenment, Christianity, and the Philosopher of the Hammer

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Enlightenment, Christianity, and the Philosopher of the Hammer

Nietzsche1882Ever since I was in college, Friedrich Nietzsche has long fascinated me, although I’ll admit it right now: I couldn’t understand him 85% of the time. After struggling through his various works like Beyond Good and Evil, The Anti-Christ, Thus Spoke Zarathustraand The Twilight of the Idols, all I had really come away with was a handful of very insightful and insane quotes, and an odd sense in my mind that there was something really penetratingly genius in Nietzsche that somehow always slipped beyond my reach and back into the ramblings of that madman.

A few Christmases ago, I purchased a short introduction by Lucy Huskinson on the philosophy of Nietzsche, and for the first time in my life I felt like I actually “got” him…sort of. What I realized was that all of Nietzsche’s most famous, most controversial, and most influential teachings and concepts simply will stay incomprehensible to you unless you try to understand them against the backdrop of the Modern-Enlightenment-influenced 19th Century European Christianity. If that makes absolutely no sense to you, don’t worry. Hopefully, I’ll be able to explain things better over the next few posts.

Background

In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment swept through Europe. At the risk of over-simplifying things, the world seemed to be divided into two camps. First, there was the “old world,” that was characterized by monarchies, irrational superstition, and religion. Then there was the “new world,” that was characterized by democracy, reason, and science. It was around this time that the very term “medieval” was invented. It was a propaganda term that sought to denigrate the time in Europe when the Catholic Church wielded the most influence. That time was “the dark ages”—why? Because the Catholic Church was in charge! There was no learning, no advances, no logic or reason, because blind, superstitious religion snuffed out any sort of independent, rational thought!

Of course, such a characterization of Europe during that time is completely false. It is shockingly tragic to find that most people even today still think that. What does that prove? That the masters of 18th-19th century propaganda did their job well, and that 20th-21st century people—the grandchildren of the so-called “Enlightenment” are still buying it.

With the Enlightenment, there came an attack on religion in the name of reason. It was at this time that modern biblical studies was born. Hosts of biblical scholars (mostly from Germany) proceeded to attack the credibility of the Bible and the veracity of the traditional Christian faith. But what had happened in France (namely, the Reign of Terror) had no doubt scared the rest of Europe enough to put on the breaks to such violent revolution…at least a bit:

“Yes…” said the 19th century children of the 18th century Enlightenment, “…the Bible isn’t ‘true.’ Yes, the Bible isn’t reliable. Yes, the Church is outdated and wrong about its teachings about Jesus and God; BUT NO…we don’t have to discard Christian morality! Reason tells us that there probably was a God who created the world. But with all its natural laws, it works like a machine, and therefore God really isn’t needed in the created order. Therefore, there is no ‘revelation’ in the Bible. God hasn’t ‘revealed’ to us what is morally right. We can use our reason to figure that out. Indeed, science and reason and democracy will usher in a new, more enlightened, kinder, gentler religion.”

Such a view caught on like wildfire…even in major portions of the Church throughout Europe. This was the Victorian Era. The Christian religion that was accepted in society was one that preached (1) mental adherence to a handful of theological propositions, and (2) good behavior for the betterment of society. It was institutionalized liberal Christianity—and it was this trend that Nietzsche railed against.

Now Nietzsche was by no means a “secret Christian” who was merely speaking out against the 19th century neutered heresy of Christianity. When he says he hates Christianity, we should take him at his word, but we should also realize that his venom was directed at a kind of Christianity that many Christians like Soren Kierkegaard and others saw equally as abhorrent. In short, Christians today can actually learn a lot from Nietzsche. For he saw the way 19th century “quasi-Christian” Europe went about viewing reality, and prophetically pronounced judgment on its weak, hollow, and superficial worldview. Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity has unwittingly bought into the overall arching narrative of the Enlightenment, and thus feels threatened by Nietzsche’s condemnations. And perhaps it should feel threatened…for Nietzsche violently shakes things up, and anything that is not strong enough will crumble.

Will to Power/Will to Truth

One of Nietzsche’s fundamental criticisms of the modern world in general, and the modern version of Christianity in particular is that people are self-imprisoned slaves to the need to feel secure and safe. Reality is so chaotic, that most people cannot deal with it, and so “…many of us need and desire permanent structures of meaning, and that this need drives us towards projecting illusory structures on to the flux of reality in order to hide its meaningless nature” (3).

Translation? Let me put it this way: the reality of life is like a violent storm at sea, and people are clinging to leaky life rafts, all the while trying to convince themselves that the leaky life raft isn’t really a life raft at all, but rather an impenetrable ocean-liner. Why? Because it makes them feel better to believe that there is security and structure to life, than to own up to the fact that life is a chaotic mess. This kind of thinking is what Nietzsche calls the will to truth. It is a way of life that clings to the illusion of certainty: instead of having the courage to own up to the fact that you’re clinging to a leaky life raft, you have “gone to your happy place” on that fake ocean-liner in your head, and you have convinced yourself that that ocean-liner is really going to one day cross the sea and get to an even more fixed destination, if only you really believe it to be so.

Now, let’s say you really were in a life boat with a group of other people at sea, and there were a couple of people who “had gone to their happy place”—in reality, of what value would they be to the rest of the people in the boat? Probably not much. In fact, they might actually be a hindrance. If they are so convinced that their “truth illusion” is certain, they might end up trying to prevent anyone from actually navigating the life raft through the chaotic sea.

Such is what Nietzsche calls the will to truth. Not only does it not fully acknowledge the reality of the chaos of life, but it ultimately claims that the “truth” about life itself comes from a place outside of that very life—hence, it is the illusion of a weak person who can’t take on reality. And it is dangerous because that weak person attempts to impose his illusion of a ready-made “truth” on others, regardless of the reality of the circumstances of life.

In contrast to the will to truth, Nietzsche argues for the need of the will to power. Hutchinson defines it this way: “Will to Power seeks to enable the tension and creative dialogue between opposites, ‘like wrestlers of whom sometimes the one, sometimes the other, is on top,’ so that a multitude of perspectives and values are sought and played off against each other, which, in turn, inspires further ideas and values” (4).

Translation? Life is chaotic, multi-perspectival, and in a constant state of struggle. It is, if you will, an on-going wrestling match. And therefore, there really is no such thing as “fixed/absolute truth.” The truth of something depends on the situation. For instance, the “truth” regarding shooting a man because he looked at you funny and shooting a man who has broken into your house and is making a bee-line you’re your children’s room with a machete obviously depends on the situation. In the first instance, we understand that act to be immoral and wrong, whereas in the second instance, we understand it to actually be a moral act, because you are defending the lives of your children. And it is the various situations within human existence that actually force us to play such “truths” off each other, in order to get a better understanding of reality.

For Nietzsche, the essential difference between the will to power and the will to truth is this: although the will to power challenges us to embrace the uncertainty and chaos that is life, it also proclaims, “The door to infinite possibility and fullness of life is open!” The will to truth, on the other hand, not only denies that life is chaotic, it hands out a ready-made “cheat sheet” of all the answers you need in life! But then, if all the “answers are there,” what is the point of living your life? As Hutchinson states, “To be strong and powerful…is not to dominate life but to master our response to the strife that life presents. It is to create out of chaos and…even to dance on the edge of the abyss. By contrast, the will to  truth is weak precisely because it seeks to dominate and control life by imposing structure and purpose upon it” (9).

Simply put, will to power is the power of creation, development, and what Nietzsche calls, “great health,” whereas will to truth is delusion, nothingness, and ultimately living death. The value of life is in the living of it, not in the acceptance of a ready-made definition as to what it should be.

Now, it is historically true that many of Nietzsche’s key concepts were taken by Hitler and the Nazis and twisted to suit their own fascist ends. Admittedly, Nietzsche was so cryptic and all over the map, that it is easy to see how one could take his teaching to justify atrocities and mass killing. In fact, in his novel, Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s main character, Raskolnikov, attempts to live out this “will to power” and become a Nietzschean “superman” by rising above society’s “ready-made morality” and he ends up killing an old woman at the beginning of the novel. Throughout the entire novel, though, Raskolnikov is haunted by his conscience—he realizes that murder really is wrong, and that one cannot simply make up one’s own morality.

Come back tomorrow to see me take Nietzsche walking on the Sea of Galilee.

    

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