Posted by: gcarkner | January 20, 2013

Nietzsche and Jesus

Further Notes on the Nihilism

In an age of cynicism and nihilsitic despair, hope can seem in short supply, and for some it sounds like an absurd suggestion. But we want to engage this culture of despair with a Christian culture of hope. Many people are shrinking back from hope today with a fear of disappointment, or maybe just because it is safe and cool to be cynical in your group of friends. This is to let fear of failure rule one’s position in the world, to allow self and identity to be shaped by a negative rather than a positive vision. We know what we are against, but what are we for? Perhaps this is one of the roots of our current existential crisis of the self in late modernity. Have we lost hope in Hope itself as leisure specialist Joseph Pieper warned us years ago at University of Waterloo in his Pascal Lectures? See also Glenn Tinder’s 1999 The Fabric of Hope, the theme of his GFCF Lectures at University of British Columbia.

The postmodern/late modern self is often nihilistic in the final analysis because no stable meaning is really on offer; the self is humiliated; reality is breaking up (dissolution). In what can we trust or depend? Best and Kellner say regarding Baudrillard, “The Postmodern world is devoid of meaning, it is a universe of nihilism where theories float in a void, unanchored in any secure harbour” (Postmodern Theory, 127). All meaning is self-created and changing, constructed and reconstructed, including my very own identity. We reflexively make the game and the game makes us–the self is ephemeral, thin, protean, ever changing. We are in a state of perpetual ‘dialectical self-contradiction’, populated by multiple selves, self-parodying, robbed of historical power and agency, left with a sense of hollowness of being. The postmodern self is lost at sea on a vulnerable raft of its own creation with little hope for the future (Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, p. 62). It is cut off from the past; everything is lived in the present; its narrative is broken. There is a loss of narrative continuity and unity–life appears as one disconnected thing after another. We no longer know who we are, where we come from or what we may legitimately hope for. This is tragic.

Perhaps we can fruitfully stage this engagement as a debate between Nietzsche and Jesus (Dionysus versus the Crucified). British intellectual John Milbank (Theology and Social Theory) says that the only two choices for Westerners is religion or nihilism. At the end of the day, there is no real secular humanist in-between. If we give up on religion, we are not left with science or humanism. Science offers no ultimate meaning and never did; Neo-Atheists are trying to make science do too much and turn it into an ideology–scientism. We humans need both nature and culture. Milbank sees Postmodernism as a “lengthy footnote on Nietzsche”. If we give up on the metaphysical, we give up more than we can imagine, give up a major source of meaning and imagination itself (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss).

With which of these voices and lives do we identify? Jesus or Nietzsche? It seems to us that the twentieth and twenty-first century moods, attitudes, and activities, political and cultural, have been deeply influenced by both these two men and their attendant ideas and vision for life. Both Nietzsche and Jesus have been major cultural drivers in our world. Nietzsche himself was quite aware of the magnitude of the spirit of Christ that he was against. He also knew the “cultural crisis that the fading of Christian faith would bring us culturally and socially.” Moreover, he had the manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was–above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion …. He hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased. ” (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions 2009, p. 6). René Girard agrees. Nietzsche had no sympathy for victims; rather, he was all for the strong, the aristocratic. It is no accident that every German Nazi soldier carried in his pack The Portable Nietzsche.

So where is our Western heritage to be found? Who are we moderns really? Some reputable scholars claim that Christianity is the source of Western civilization, the very seedbed of our social and scientific imagination (Milbank, Hart, Zimmerman, Woltersdorf). What do you think? What has motivated our behaviour: the will-to-power or radical servanthood towards the neighbour? What has shaped our values and goals: an aesthetic turn beyond principles, codes and norms, beyond good and evil, beyond rights of the vulnerable, or Jesus’ quest for justice, peace-making, righteousness, forgiveness, hospitality and mercy? Is it the aristocratic valorization of conquest and crushing the weak or Jesus agape love? The contrast can be poignant and stark when it is highlighted through our debate, self-reflection and interrogation of Western accomplishments (and its darker secrets). There are many people on both sides of this debate on the human condition (humanist, anti-humanist, and trans-humanist). Northern Mexico and Russia now represent to us the new nihilistic worlds, claims Milbank, a world controlled by corruption, power and violence. Is this what we hope for or settle for?

Napali Coast

The genocide, the ideology wars, coercive dictatorships, various humanist alternatives of Marxism, Nazism, Nationalism, the Alt-right,  Capitalism and Liberalism challenge us, promise much and sometimes crush our dreams and our loves with ruthless abandon as the trickle down never comes. Even our great technological breakthroughs have shocked us with their destruct power in the hands of state-sponsored terror, violence and secret drone assassinations. It is urgent that we develop a consciousness of the Nietzschean influence in our culture; we are often swimming unconsciously in a pool of nihilist thought and attitude (goddaughter of relativism), without being aware of its philosophical roots or where it leads us culturally or politically, its  consequences.

The value of contrast between Nietzsche and Jesus is a pressing concern of discernment. French philosopher René Girard, author of the scapegoat concept (I See Satan Falling), saw this clearly. There are huge and consequential cultural choices to be made in the twenty-first century. We had better ask tough questions about where we want to go, what kind of trajectory we want to negotiate, what we as a society want to become. These are two radically different discourses, two very different incarnations of the human spirit, two totally different paradigms for looking at self, society, politics, the arts and the Other. 

The more will-to-power, weaponized lies and egoistic self-interest promotion dominates, the more cynicism will reign and hope will disintegrate and die, the more we will be divided from one another. Is the movement of the wealth in the USA in the last thirty years into fewer and fewer hands not actually nihilism (1% of Americans own 50% of the entire wealth of the country and seem to want even more) and a form of oppression and brokenness within Capitalism. It looks and smells like will-to-power to many (John R. Talbott, Survival Investing; Al Gore, The Future: six drivers of global change). How do these anarchic traders and de-regulating bankers and financiers get away with their crimes? No banker in America has been prosecuted for fraud since 2008, when the financial system was riddled with fraudulent activity. Are they ‘too big to jail’ as one pundit wrote? Now we learn that a number of top banks have been laundering money from criminals and terrorists in large quantities.

The book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies takes aim at the heart of this debate. Cultural philosopher and Church Fathers expert David Bentley Hart takes us back in history to help us recover part of our lost narrative, to show us what a revolution, what cultural value Christianity actually offered to the brutal ancient Greco-Roman world.  Hart wants to prevent us from trivializing our heritage or taking civility and democracy for granted. He shakes us to the core with the serious cultural consequences ahead, as we sometimes naive late moderns contemplate leaving the Christian values behind, often with vociferous intent of moving towards freedom. Atheist Tom Holland (Dominion) agrees with this concern.

How do we recover substantial hope in late modernity (so vital to our well-being), and talk about God, virtue and love in today’s campus environment? Firstly, we suggest that there must be an understanding and identification with the causes of despair and cynicism, or our message of hope will sound naive, even hollow. It will be suspected of another attempt at domination. One method of confronting the ruse of power games of our day is through the critique of the cross. The cross offers an alternate vision of a subversive power through weakness. As English philosopher of hermeneutics Anthony Thiselton puts it, the cross offers a meta-critique, a paradigm of God’s self-giving love (New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 614-619). Nietzsche’s will-to-power is thereby transformed into the Christian will-to-love. Healing comes through brokenness; hope emerges out of despair. The resurrection hope follows Good Friday’s crushing blow (Jeremy Begbie). It does not bypass it. Do we go with Milbank who claims that theology out-narrates social theory? “Give people back their tradition”, he argues in his The Myth of the Secular interview (CBC Ideas Series). Otherwise, they will have only ashes. Hope is one of our most precious resources and we dare not squander it.

There seems to be no way forward without a thorough identification with the despair of people in our day. Jesus identifies with their brokenness, pain and alienation. Nothing is more central to his message than deep compassion towards the marginalized and weaker members of society, as well as anger against those who oppress them–speaking truth and accountability to power. His gospel is about the emergence of hope breaking forth out of the midst of despair. It is brokenness, oppression and despair that creates the quest, the longing and category for hope (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer). This theme is fleshed out beautifully in Andy Crouch’s important Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. See some pertinent quotes from this profound book below.

The postmodern world in one sense is a form of critique of false hope offered by secular enlightenment, but it in turn offers nothing substantial in its place. I interact with the ethos of late modernity in my book The Great Escape from Nihilism (2016). Irony is not enough. Expressivism is not enough. Perhaps promise can emerge through getting in touch with pain in a paradoxical way. The human heart doesn’t want to give up on hope even in the midst of tragedy, senseless suffering, exploitation and displacement such as failed states like Syria. True despair is much more harmful than pain or oppression. Can we discover again a politics of virtue, of equal opportunity, of self-sacrifice for the Other? Can we renew civil society and restore virtuous associations? We certainly hope towards that end explored in the the quest for incarnational humanism (Jens Zimmermann). This is the way of true human creativity and wisdom.

Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, Meta-Educator, Champion of Graduate Students

See also: Article on Narcissism

Does Nihilism Rightfully Have the Last Word? Read The Great Escape from Nihilism and find out.

 This book is about a challenging journey: out of the prison camp of nihilism and into the heart of meaning. It begins by raising some pressing questions about the nihilism and cynicism that grips many minds today. The discussion maps a crisis of faith, a crisis of identity, and a sense of lostness in late modernity. Our companions on the journey are a seasoned group of writers, poets, social reformers, scientists, scholars and public intellectuals. Among the notables are Alvin Plantinga, Miralslov Volf, Jürgen Habermas, David Bentley Hart, Michel Foucault, Calvin Schrag, Jim Wallis, Tom McLeish and Jens Zimmermann. Special mention goes to eminent Canadian philosopher of modernity, Charles Taylor Professor Emeritus at McGill University, for his broad ranging work on cultural analysis. They have made their mark, shaped the public mind and continue to impact our understanding of Western thought and its social imaginary. As scholars and thinkers of high integrity and credibility, with a real sense of urgency they bring substantial insight to bear on the drama and dilemma of our time.

The Great Escape from Nihilism is about a courageous and somewhat dangerous journey. But it is ultimately a path towards hopeful alternatives to the forces that weigh down our spirits, the voices that seek to make us live in fear or anger, and the tensions that divide us. We must decide in our minds and our hearts whether the quest to escape outweighs the risks. The community of thinkers behind this book believe that it is. What kind of story do we want to live? How indeed are we to access the mature freedom we all long for? The book is modeled on real, ongoing discussions and debates over several years on university campuses across Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Through the span of ten conversations, the book calls for the development of the art of effective dialogue, promoting a trajectory for hope and renewal of culture. It also illustrates that, despite their marked importance, there is wisdom to be acquired beyond science, technology, business and algorithms. Our journey involves the quest for the Holy Grail of human flourishing, the deeper life, the thick self, the virtuous community.

“Through the complex cultural lens of Charles Taylor and the writings of some of the most influential philosophers and theologians of our time, Dr. Carkner provides wise and persuasive suggestions of ways forward in navigating the landscape of late modernity. The transcendent turn to agape love is the most challenging concept he exposits. This project is a rare and provocative contribution of high integrity.”

~Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus Geography, University of British Columbia

Gordon E. Carkner Ph.D., works at the University of British Columbia as a meta-educator and networker, where he seeks to complement and engage the regular discourse among graduate students and faculty. Supporting and mentoring postgraduate students towards wholeheartedness and creative genius in the UBC Graduate Christian Union, his work is impacting young leaders for their future contribution. His work as a team leader in the notable interdisciplinary UBC Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum lecture series brings together great minds and noble souls from around the globe for serious academic engagement, linking persons of common vision and inspiring, cutting-edge future research.

Keywords:  Nihilism, Secular Age, Search for Meaning, Scientism, Radical Individualism, Moral Confusion, Aesthetic Self, Recovery of the Good, Agape Love, Incarnational Humanism, The Great Virtues, Communal Responsibility, Late Modernity, Transcendent Turn

~Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Our language has lost, and needs to have restored, its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us but their deeper meaning (background in which they exist) the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and invisible. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing and being; our vision and our lives are reduced and flattened.

~Below paraphrased from Richard Dollmayr, Philosophy and Political Science, Notre Dame University on “The Myth of the Secular” CBC Ideas Series, Part 7

“Richard Dawkins is in denial of the larger horizons of our reason, which give it its fecundity. He represents a loss of the human imagination, an intellectual implosion, a desperation, a failure to deeply search for the truth.”

Love transfigures power. Absolute love transfigures absolute power. And power transfigured by love is the power that made and saves the world. (A. Crouch, 45)

What is the deepest truth about the world? Is the deepest truth a struggle for mastery and domination? Or is the deepest truth collaboration, cooperation and ultimately love?” (A. Crouch, 48) 

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that nearly an entire generation of students of literature and cultures, under the influence of Nietzsche’s intellectual decedent Michael Foucault, devoted tremendous intellectual energies to exposing the Nietzschean underbelly of dominion in precisely the domains that were once thought to represent a refuge from the will to power—in art and architecture, in family and friendship, and not least in religion.” (A. Crouch, 48)

All true beings strive to create room for more being and to expand its power in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust back the chaos of that limits being true. In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into multi creation and tending to the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation. And the process goes on.” (A. Crouch, 51)

What matters to Jesus, it seems, is not what is done with the lifeless coins on which Caesar has placed his stamp, but another image—the image of God in living image bearers. The image of God is found in human beings, and the real demonic power of Caesar is to demand not the sacrifice of coins but of people, not money but lives. (A. Crouch, 87)

In the midst of the colossal, arrogant idolatry of Nation Socialism we find Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oskar Schindler; in the gulags of Stalin we find Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn; amidst the bitter, dead-end violence of apartheid we find Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu; in precisely the states where Jim Crow was most entrenched, Rosa Parks sits down and Martin Luther King Jr. rises up. The question is, which God are we playing? (A. Crouch, 97)

(A. Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power)

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