Honours Dissertation

I have uploaded a PDF of my honours dissertation, which was submitted in 2017.

Title: The Eclipse of the Individual: Søren Kierkegaard, Varg Vikernes and the Scandinavian Church

Abstract: This dissertation offers an in-depth analysis of the criticism Vikernes and Kierkegaard direct toward the tendency of institutional Christianity to negate individual identity. For Vikernes, this tendency is exemplified in the way in which Christianity was introduced to Norway in the 11th century, and its subsequent expansion at the cost of traditional Norse religion. Different regions within Norway had different rites and customs, and Vikernes blames the Church and state for eradicating these traditions and enforcing a ideology of conformity on a people for whom the concept of monotheism was alien. Christianity in Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was similarly bound to the power of the state, but the history of its arrival in Denmark was far less violent and conflict-ridden. As a result of the close relationship between Christianity and political influence, Kierkegaard felt that the essence of faith as being a primarily individual matter was diluted. In its place stood a thoroughly mediocre and anti-Christian institution of deified civilized customs and tepid morality.

Link: Honours Dissertation- Ryan Buesnel

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Søren Kierkegaard’s Existential Hermeneutics

Introduction

Although widely recognised for his contribution to the fields of Western philosophy and psychology, Denmark’s Søren Kierkegaard was first and foremost a religious author. In this simple truth lies the key to unlocking the underlying convictions of Kierkegaard’s vast corpus. In a rare moment of biographical reflection, Kierkegaard allows his readers a brief glance inside the religious world of his mind when he candidly writes that ‘the whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity, to the problem of ‘becoming a Christian.’’ (1)

Above all else, Kierkegaard was clearly motivated by a desire to compel his readers toward a personal decision in response to the offer of Christ to take up one’s cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24-26). Kierkegaard understood the process of following Christ as being a lifelong journey of discovery that transversed what he called the ‘stages on life’s way.’ A staggering number of literary devices and genres were employed by Kierkegaard in order to explore what following Christ might mean for the individual who proclaims him as Lord: irony, polemic, indirect communication and use of pseudonyms, social commentary etc. (2) Underlying all this diversity-and unsurprisingly for someone with such a dedication to the theme of discipleship- is a fierce commitment to Scripture and theology as paramount in terms of his own self-understanding. But how did Kierkegaard use and interpret Scripture and theological tradition as a source of primary inspiration for his life’s work? In spite of the wealth of scholarly literature dedicated to him, relatively little has been written about Kierkegaard’s theological hermeneutics. (3) This may in part be due to the complexity involved in discerning Kierkegaard’s own position on the issues he writes about. The pseudonymous writings in particular pose unique problems in terms of figuring out exactly what Kierkegaard was advocating. (4) This difficulty has likely contributed to Kierkegaard’s hermeneutic category as falling within the post-structuralist method, the more so considering Kierkegaard’s rejection of the then-dominant Hegelianism. (5) However, in its assumption that there are no underlying principles and realities beyond that of linguistics, Kierkegaard’s idea of the ‘qualitative leap’ toward God appear to pose a barrier to him being understood in this light. (6)     

Thankfully, new ways of understanding Kierkegaard’s hermeneutic theory are emerging. In what is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject to date, Jolita Pons has convincingly argued that in line with his more popular casting as an existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard displays a distinctively ‘existential hermeneutic.’ (7) The following essay, therefore, aims to make a humble contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding Kierkegaard’s hermeneutic method, which places the individual at the centre of the action. To explore this further I will first offer an overview of Kierkegaard’s place within the existentialist tradition. I will then engage with two of his important works which display a distinctly existential approach to his interpretation of Christianity: Fear and Trembling and Either/Or. Finally, I will examine Kierkegaard’s methods of pseudonymous authorship and indirect communication, and conclude with a brief reflection on Kierkegaard’s relevance for contemporary theology.

The ‘Father of Existentialism’

In 1892 theologian Martin Kähler’s Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche biblische Christus  (8) challenged the prevailing assumptions of the historical-critical hermeneutic method. Scholars within this vast school of interpretation attempted to understand biblical texts within the context of their own culture and time period. If faith in God was to mean anything, it needed to be based on verifiable evidence that could be corroborated. Finding its origins in the Protestant Reformation-era writings of Desiderius Erasmus, historical-criticism developed over the coming centuries into a complex and highly technical interpretive approach, including the use of tools such as form and source criticism, as well as an ongoing critique of established dogmatic traditions. By the 19th century, historical-criticism had come to consider its methods liberated from the tendency to find contemporary meaning and relevance from ancient texts that had marked more devotional approaches to Scripture. Instead, it found its task focussed solely on ‘critical collection and chronological ordering of the source material.’ (9) Continuing on into the 20th century, the principles of historical-criticism found a particularly notable expression in the work of German Church historian Adolf Harnack. Harnack’s magnum opus The History of Dogma traced the influence of Hellenism on the shaping of early Christian doctrine, and paints a picture of early Christianity rooted within a specific set of cultural norms and practices. Because of its dependency on the thought-world of its time, Harnack concluded that Christianity must first be understood as a historical phenomenon rather than a revealed religion whose message was intended to be relevant for future eras. The long-term significance of the Christian religion, argued Harnack, lies in the realm of its moral teaching. The truly transcendent and miraculous element of its dogma could no-longer be believed by individuals living in an age of genuine scientific inquiry. And so Harnack could write that ‘the earth in its course stood still; that a she-ass spoke; that a storm was quieted by a word, we do not believe, and shall never believe again.’ (10)          

For Kähler, however, the use of historical-criticism (also known as higher criticism) as a meta-principle threatened to confine the understanding of Christ to the academic elite, or at the very least those who had knowledge in the application of higher-critical methods. (11) Not every reader of the Bible will have the education necessary to utilise the tools of higher criticism in their own interpretation of sacred texts, and so this hermeneutic principle will inevitably leave the majority of Christians confused as to the reliability of their faith. In short, Kähler felt that if Christianity had anything to say at all, it must be able to be spoken to ordinary people in language that they could understand, and in a way that painted a clear picture of who Jesus was. Higher criticism could not do this, as it had made itself subservient to the ideology of the scientific method. A new approach was needed, and so existential hermeneutics emerged as an alternative.  

UnknownIn relation to its methodology, the existential approach can be thought of as placing humanity and the centre of the interpretive task. Whereas higher-criticism was guided by the values of scientific empiricism, existential hermeneutics attempted to interpret texts based on how they might respond to the concerns of the human condition. The aim was to draw out the real and ongoing meaning ‘behind’ a text, so that it can continue to speak to lived experience. Instead of being interpreted as an end in itself, the biblical text could be considered a linguistic representation of wider experiential truths. Within the existential vernacular, this concept is referred to as the ‘event of language.’ Of the many and varied theologians in this field, Rudolf Bultmann remains one of the most influential in terms of his lasting impact on biblical interpretation. It is important to note here that an existential approach to hermeneutics did not negate the interpretive methods of higher criticism, and in Bultmann’s case he extensively applied the principles of form criticism to the biblical text- most notably within a commentary John’s Gospel. (12) What took precedence, however, is an overriding concern for how the narrative of the New Testament impacted life in the here and now. In contrast to the pursuit of historical fact as a sort of ‘proof’ for the claims of Christian dogma, Bultmann suggested that faith in Christ required an act of the will, which was to be considered a gift from God. (13) In this sense, the human subject is placed in the centre of the interpretive method as a matter of ‘ultimate concern.’ On the topic of humanities centrality within the theological task, Paul Tillich- another major 20th theologian with an existential focus- wrote that ‘faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It is the most centred act of the human mind…it participates in the dynamics of personal life.’ (14)     

Decades prior to the work of Kähler, Bultmann and Tillich, Soren Kierkegaard had been authoring important existential religious texts in his native Copenhagen. Largely self-published using funds from his deceased Father’s inheritance, Kierkegaard’s works are widely considered to be the embodiment of existential thought, and have earned him the    title of the ‘father of the existentialism.’ The eccentric Dane’s life and philosophy represents a preoccupation not just with the human subject as phenomena, but with the task of the single person becoming a true individual. For Kierkegaard, the true individual was someone who had been able to liberate themselves from the illusions and distractions that he understood as part and parcel of life in 19th century Copenhagen. Individuality was not a state we are born into, but rather a process and challenge that must be actively engaged in throughout the course of life. The ultimate goal of this journey was to arrive at an understanding of who one is in relation to the eternal God. On this point Kierkegaard famously wrote: ‘what I really need is to get clear about about what I must do, not what I must know, insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it is that God wills I should do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.’ (15)      

Within the existential tendency of interpreting texts anthropocentrically (a tradition he helped pioneer), Kierkegaard developed some important techniques that he used in order to draw out the meaning of religious texts for his own time. In the following section, I will draw on Fear and Trembling and Either/Or as examples of Kierkegaard’s approach to theological hermeneutics. Before launching into this discussion, however, it needs to be mentioned that one of the driving forces behind Kierkegaard’s approach to hermeneutics was a desire to repudiate the towering influence of German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel over the European intellectual scene.  Despite clear and ongoing traces of Hegelian categories within his own thinking, Kierkegaard nevertheless felt that Hegel’s comprehensive philosophical systems placed limitations on the need for subjective individual freedom, which is of course the major premise for existential thought. (16) With this context in mind, I now turn to Kierkegaard’s written works.       

Kierkegaard’s Applied Existential Hermeneutics

Fear and Trembling:

1843’s Fear and Trembling is widely considered to be a classic of Christian literature. Its influence is vast, yet it is rarely considered as a direct example of Kierkegaard’s hermeneutical concerns. Instead, Fear and Trembling is often understood merely as a way of rationalising a particularly notorious and provocative text in Old Testament literature. This is a pity, as Fear and Trembling offers readers a clear glimpse into the interpretive frameworks that Kierkegaard uses to understand Biblical narratives. The work is a sustained treatment of God’s command to Abraham that he should sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1-2). Using the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard embarks on a series of reflections that seek to address the various existential themes raised by this problematic and deeply offensive text. The work is broken down into three sections, with each addressing a particular aspect (Kierkegaard calls these ‘problema’) of the biblical text. Section one relates to the teleological elements of the narrative, with particular emphasis placed on how ethical awareness may be suspended in response to the command of God over one’s life. Section two relates to the individual response to God; is the command of God binding on one’s life? Might Abraham have refused God’s order on ethical grounds? The final section considers Abraham’s retreat into himself; was he justified in concealing the command of God from both Sarah and Eliezer and indeed Isaac himself?

The structure of the work betrays a strong focus on the moral dimension of Abraham’s decision to follow God’s order, and this is an entirely justified reading of this text. The question of the right moral response to God permeates every page, along with the question of what kind of God would command such a heinous act as a sign of faithfulness. Despite our natural instinct to condemn Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son, Kierkegaard encourages readers to consider a deeper reality beyond the confines of literal interpretation, and suggests that ‘faith begins where thinking leaves off.’ (17) Although not explicitly outlined in this text, Kierkegaard’s concept of the qualitative ‘leap’ is implied in his interpretation of Abraham’s plight. In this lies one of the major elements of Kierkegaard’s hermeneutics. Extracting meaning from biblical narratives requires something more than human reason and the tools of exegesis. In fact, the conceit of reason can function as a major barrier when it comes to grasping not just the meaning of the text but how we are called to act on it. A purely intellectual interpretation of Abraham’s dilemma is insufficient and likely to fall into the rationalisation trap of either neutralising the moral quandary or elevating it to a place of undue centrality that overshadows the texts deeper meaning. As Kierkegaard writes:

‘We do not want to know anything about the anxiety, the distress, the paradox. We carry on an aesthetic flirtation with the result. It arrives just as unexpectedly but also just as effortlessly as a prize in the lottery, and when we have heard the result, we have built ourselves up.’ (18)

Kierkegaard’s point here is that the rational, self-orientated mind wants to interpret texts based on their suitability for the zeitgeist, rather than their eternal significance. Instead of allowing ourselves to be challenged by the ‘infinite qualitative difference,’ (19) we expect the divine to fit in with our own systems of understanding. Another way of explaining this might be to say that rational hermeneutics (i.e. historical-critical approaches) attempt to find meaning within the confines of the text, whereas Kierkegaard’s existential approach uses the text to locate a deeper, timeless meaning. Yet although ultimate meaning may lie beyond the text, it is also partially revealed in it. Interpreting Genesis 22:1-2 without grasping its infinite, eternal dimension, however, will result in little more than an account of attempted murder. (20) With the ‘eternal’ in mind, the narrative can be interpreted on a deeper level.   

535132-wikimediaThe question naturally arises as to how one is specifically able to grasp the deeper level of a text. For Kierkegaard, the most important element in the interpretative task is the attempt to imagine the feelings and passions at play in the heart of a given text. In this sense there are strong echoes of contemporaneous theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s emphasis on capturing ‘feeling’ as a goal of hermeneutics. In his significant work The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher famously wrote that the essence of religion consists in the feeling of absolute dependence. (21) For Schleiermacher, ‘feeling’ is not a general descriptor that refers to all possible emotional responses (i.e. fear, longing, joy, guilt etc.), but is to be interpreted as representing an ever-present awareness that the creature is not the creator. A more encouraging way of stating this is to say that despite humanity’s qualitative difference to God, the revelation of the divine through scripture provides the means necessary to bridge the gap between between the two worlds. God has made himself known to humanity. Our task is to individually respond. What makes Kierkegaard’s hermeneutic approach so distinctive is the coupling of ‘feeling’ with an equal emphasis on action. In this sense he moves beyond Schleiermacher and into a theology of praxis. For Kierkegaard, the Abraham and Isaac narrative tells us something important about how we must live in relation to God, and it is not in anyway a comfortable message. He writes that ‘if anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.’ (22) Hermeneutics, therefore, is helpful up to a point, after which it becomes harmful to pursue the task of interpretation. In a marketplace of ideas, what’s needed is a commitment to act in response to God, even if one is called to sacrifice all that is most dear.

As we know, the story has a happy ending; God relents and Isaac is spared. Kierkegaard, however, rarely allows us the luxury of neat endings. It is just as likely that God, in his incomprehensible and terrible power, might have gone through with the act. Abraham could not have known. For this reason, Kierkegaard sees much to admire in Abraham. He is to be praised for his consciousness of the eternal, and of his faithfulness in placing the command of God above the temptations of reason and worldly expectation. Abraham embraced the paradox that is at the heart of faith. Kierkegaard said this best when he wrote:

Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.’ (23)         

Either/Or:

Either/Or was the first published work of Kierkegaard, and remains one of his most popular and complex texts. Published in two volumes (hereafter referenced as EO1 and EO2), the work has strong religious overtones but is not primarily concerned with biblical interpretation. Instead, Kierkegaard maps out a kind of psychological journey through life, in which an individual exist in two stages: the aesthetic and the ethical. A third stage- the religious- is subtly implied as an ideal but never clearly described within EO, although Kierkegaard developed this theme more fully in Stages on Life’s Way. (24) Although not strictly an exercise in hermeneutics, I will argue that the key themes in EO provide an overall framework in which Kierkegaard interpreted human existence, and is therefore essential in his understanding of what true Christianity is. The second point to be made here is that in terms of certain hermeneutical tools, Kierkegaard was an innovator whose unconventional (at that time) approaches to questions of meaning had little historical precedent.

EO1 is a series of aphorisms, stories, reflections and diary entries related to different aspects of aesthetic existence. Topics discussed are varied, and include music, art and drama. One of the most popular and notorious sections of EO1 is The Diary of a Seducer. This section features pseudonymous authorship and indirect communication as a certain ‘Johannes the Seducer’ contemplates the love and affections of a fictional girl named Cordelia. On the surface of things, the diary is indeed about the act of seduction, and Johannes spares no effort in cultivating a variety of techniques for this purpose. In reality, Kierkegaard is describing a trait of the human condition that deeply impacted how he interpreted the abuses of Christianity under the banner of ‘Christendom.’.

Those who delve into these diaries expecting them to culminate in the blissful union of Johannes and Cordelia will be sorely disappointed. After playing with her heart to such a degree that she longs for marriage, the commitment-averse Johannes sets about crafting disingenuous ways of ensuring the termination of their relationship. The idea is that he can create a scenario in which Cordelia grows to hate him, thus avoiding the necessity for a confrontation. (25) Using the language of love, seduction and even tragedy, Kierkegaard is ultimately painting readers a picture of the futility of a life spent in pursuance of novelty. For Kierkegaard, we are all born into a state of aesthetic longing, which is really an obsession with things being ‘interesting.’ However, pursuing the ‘interesting’ as the primary meaning of life leads to despair, because we can never be content with what we find. The relentless pursuit of more pleasure is accompanied by a deep sense of emptiness that we try to suppress. Thus, Kierkegaard writes that the moments of joy we experience in life are always accompanied by death. (26) It is worth noting here that Kierkegaard’s frequent condemnation of the national Danish Church often referenced his own offense at the Church’s endorsement of pleasure, materialism and earthly power. (27) Kierkegaard would go on to spend the later years of his life dedicated to challenging the status quo of national Christianity within Denmark, and would often refer back to the ideas in his earlier works as fuel for his polemic.

In contrast to the indulgences of EO1, the content of EO2 is a defense of the ethical life as described by the fictitious Judge Wilhelm. The idea here is that those who have become disillusioned with the empty pursuit of novelty naturally seek deeper meaning and purpose. A dedication to the ethical life (in contrast to a mere life of ‘duty’) is to be considered a positive development beyond the aesthetic, in that to be ethical requires a degree of self-reflection and (most importantly) action. (28) For the stern Wilhelm, a necessary step in commiting to a life of practical ethics is to set about limiting one’s choices and deciding a clear path in which to travel. (29) The aesthete is lost in a sea of endless choice and unlimited potentialities, which prevent action and lead to discontent. The ethical person, through their commitment to duty and moral conduct, will contribute to the betterment of society through civic participation and will also avoid the spiritual abyss that accompanies the endless search for novelty. Becoming an ethical person is a step in the right direction toward becoming both a holistic individual and a true Christian, and the ethical stage is intended to be a necessary phase along the journey of life. However, the more difficult task is to progress from the ethical to the religious, as the purely ethical life is still subject to limitations and contradictions. In his thorough study of Kierkegaard’s understanding of ethics, Anthony Rudd describes the ultimate point of the ethical phase as being teleological in nature. That is, ethics aims to bring about a deeper awareness of God, for it is only through God that concepts such as the ‘good life,’ compassion, empathy and justice can be truly understood. (30) To be ethical for its own sake may be a noble pursuit, but if it lacks the element of transcendence that comes from an awareness of God then it is ultimately empty.        

Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical stages of life present an interesting lens through which we may view his approach to hermeneutics. Consider the aesthetic stage having its hermeneutic parallel in the historical-critical approach. Constantly seeking new evidence and new theories, these approaches to interpretation may ensure we know more about the biblical text, but they are powerless to tell us how to live. In a sense, it hovers around the surface of things, without penetrating deeper into what ultimately matters. Conversely, the ethical approach looks to texts to provide answers for how we might live a good and moral life. For Kierkegaard, the limitations of the purely ethical are that it does not necessarily speak to the deeper human need, which can only be met through relationship with the creator God. Any person undertaking theological hermeneutics, therefore, will be living in one of the three modes of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical or the religious, with the religious being the most rare. The interpretation of meaning will inevitably be coloured by the assumptions of such stages, even if they only operate at a subconscious level. The aesthete will value the form and literary merits of a text, for example. They are likely to study a religious text with an eye to analyse its contribution to the world of literature rather than a signpost toward the eternal. In contrast, the ethically oriented will mine the text for evidence to support a given moral agenda. For the ethical interpreter, texts that contradict or ignore a preferred ethical or moral vision are seen as irrelevant, in so far as they are not practical.

Pseudonyms and Indirect Communication

It remains for us to survey the two key contributions Kierkegaard made to hermeneutics in terms of innovation. Although each work within the Kierkegaardian corpus explores many different theological and existential themes, the literary devices of pseudonymous authorship and indirect communication frequently recur as preferred methods through which Kierkegaard imparted his message.

We turn first to Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship. The use of fictitious names as authors of his works is perhaps Kierkegaard’s most distinctive characteristic, at least in terms of a technical analysis of his style. The list of ‘authors’ is extensive, as both Fear and Trembling and Either/Or attest. Yet the use of these names was not an attempt at mere literary flair; the pursuit of novelty for its own sake was diametrically opposite to all Kierkegaard stood for. Rather, through the development of fictitious characters, Kierkegaard was able to step-outside his own mind and imagine perspectives and interpretations from alternate points of view. This is a necessary element in a distinctly Christian hermeneutics, as the Christian individual exists within a given culture (s), and as a result will always encounter a diversity of opinion. It is not enough to cling to historical dogma with a clenched fist in the face of an ever-changing world. The Christian must reflect on and consider the wider world, and the pseudonymous authors are often used to explore issues from a variety of religious, philosophical and ethical standpoints.  (31) By using pseudonyms, Kierkegaard also liberated himself from the accusation that what he was writing was in fact a personal endorsement. By ‘hiding’ behind the text in this way, Kierkegaard was free to explore a truly eclectic array of themes, and in so doing push his curiosity to its limits. Very few topics were taboo for Kierkegaard, but in order to achieve this sense of literary liberty it was necessary to create a facade in order to pursue truth. Writing in the Point of View for My Work as an Author, Kierkegaard wrote that instruction began when a teacher put themselves in the place of the learner, and in so doing the teacher begins to see things through the eyes of another. (32) In a sense, this is what Kierkegaard was doing with pseudonymous authorship. In this sweeping task of active listening through the written word, Kierkegaard’s underlying purpose was to survey the world and arrive at a deeper sense of the truth. This aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought can be seen in the work of later theologians such as Paul Tillich, who took the role of culture seriously as a necessary dialogue partner with theology. In fact, Tillich’s own reflections on Kierkegaard see him as pursuing truth through disinterest. (33) Through the use of pseudonyms, Kierkegaard was also able to free himself from his own agenda- at least in theory. 

Complimenting the pseudonymous authorship was Kierkegaard’s method of ‘indirect communication.’ To put it as succinctly as possible, ‘indirect communication’ is for Kierkegaard the attempt to communicate a message through subtle and implied means, rather than through overt proclamation. To understand why Kierkegaard used this method, it is important to understand to his view of discipleship. Kierkegaard’s Christology emphasised the need for individuals to make a decision in relation to Christ’s call to follow him. Indirect communication, therefore, was a tool used in order to encourage the reader to reflect on their own position, and to hopefully come to a place of commitment to or rejection of Christ. J. Kellenberger puts it in broader terms when he writes of indirect communication as taking place within the realm of subjective reflection, with the aim of securing personal appropriation of a given text or idea. (34) As such, Kierkegaard’s hermeneutics of indirect communication can be considered as a way of encouraging active participation in the world behind the text. This technique is at times confronting and almost always disorientating. This is an intentional strategy of Kierkegaard’s, as he acknowledges in Training in Christianity:

‘Another example (of indirect communication) is, to bring defence and attack in such a unity that none cannot say directly whether one is attacking or defending, so that both the most zealous partisans of the cause and its bitterest enemies can regard one as an ally- and with this to be nobody, and absentee, an objective something, not a personal man.’ (35)

Meaning is therefore elusive, able to be grasped only through a process of reckoning with the text for oneself. Indirect communication is both similar and dissimilar to the postmodern tendencies of later philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, who emphasised a subjective responsibility when creating meaning. Of course, Kierkegaard would have dismissed the claim of postmodernity that there can be no overarching metanarrative through which life should be lived, but he certainly pre-empted the postmodern idea that the individual had a creative role to play in acquiring meaning. The key difference for Kierkegaard was that the meaning to be discovered fond its origins the crucified and risen Christ.  

Conclusion

Kierkegaard’s legacy continues to be felt throughout the worlds of theology, philosophy and literature. Kierkegaardian scholarship itself forms an entire academic industry, with the eccentric Dane’s vast corpus being the subject of ongoing criticism and praise. In spite of this, Kierkegaard’s contribution to theological hermeneutics has traditionally been less understood, although the tide appears to be turning in this respect. When one becomes acquainted with the specifics of these hermeneutical approaches, however, it becomes clear that Kierkegaard’s writing had a missional emphasis. There is a calculated strategy operating behind the words themselves, and this strategy is designed to speak to individuals, and to cause them to reflect on their own relationship with God and the world. As noted in my introduction, Kierkegaard’s entire life as a writer was dedicated to the task of expounding the heart of genuine Christianity for the world of his own time- one marked by blandness, trivia and an insipid form of cultural ‘christian’ community. Yet Kierkegaard is anything but an historical curiosity. In our own technological age, the temptation to outsource our thinking to the collective remains an ongoing temptation. We are united in a globally connected community, but in the process we have lost the ability to stand alone and think for ourselves. The phantom menace of ‘public opinion’ has paralysed us into inaction. Our self-identity too often comes from our associations with communities and institutions, not from our standing before God. Kierkegaard’s hermeneutics, therefore, continues to challenge us to boldly claim our personal identity in response to the suffering and risen Christ.

 

Endnotes

  1. Soren Kierkegaard. The Point of View for My Work as an Author: A Report to History. Trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 5-6.
  2. For a review of Kierkegaard’s relationship to literary genres see: George Pattison, “Kierkegaard and Genre,” Poetics Today 28:3 (2007): 475-97
  3. See: Rebecca Skaggs, “Kierkegaard’s Hermeneutics,” The Heythrop Journal, Vol. 55/5 (2014): 817.
  4. Kierkegaard’s first and most famous work, Either/Or, is a pseudonymous reflection on two stages of life: the aesthetic and the ethical. Throughout, Kierkegaard refrains from using his pseudonymous characters to advocate for one position or another, but does subtly hint at a third category: the religious. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. Trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1992)
  5. See: Mark C. Taylor, “Retracings,” in The Craft of Religious Studies. Ed. Jon. R. Stone (London: MacMillan, 1998), 258-76.
  6. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 335.  
  7. See the Introduction to Jolita Pons. Stealing a Gift: Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms and the Bible (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004)
  8. ‘The so-called historical Jesus and the biblical Christ.’ (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1956)
  9. See the introduction to: Walter Burkert. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Trans. John Raffan (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1987)
  10. See: Adolf Harnack. Das Wessen des Christentums (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrics, 1902), 18.
  11. See: Hugh Anderson, “Existential Hermeneutics: Features of the New Quest,” in Interpretation 16:2 (1962): 131-55.
  12. Rudolf Bultmann. The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014)
  13. See: Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer & Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (London: Pearson, 1989), 1118.
  14. See: Paul Tillich. Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 5.
  15. As quoted in John D. Caputo. How to Read Kierkegaard (London: Granta, 2007), 13.
  16. See Jon Stewart’s excellent treatment of this topic in Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  17. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. Eds. Stephen Evans & Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 46.
  18. Ibid, 56.
  19. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Journals and Notebooks Vol. 4. Eds. Niels Jorgen et. al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 252.  
  20. Fear and Trembling, 24.
  21. For a development of this theme, see the introductory notes to: Friedrich Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith. Eds. H.R. Mackintosh & J.S. Stewart (London: T&T Clark, 1999), 3-93.
  22. Fear and Trembling, 55.
  23. Ibid, 14.
  24. Soren Kierkegaard. Stages on Life’s Way. Eds Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)
  25. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Either/Or. Eds. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 351.
  26. Ibid, 20.
  27. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Journals and Notebooks: Vol. 4 NB-NB5. Eds. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn et al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 212.
  28. Either/Or II, 254-55.
  29. Either/Or II, 163-4.
  30. See: Anthony Rudd. Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 59.
  31. For an in-depth analysis of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, see: Katalin Nun & John Stewart (eds). Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms: Volume 17 (Ashgate: Farnham & Burlington, 2015)
  32. Point of View, 49. Contemporary theologian Miroslav Volf has developed this theme into his own concept of ‘double vision,’ in which the individual learns to understand themselves through the perspective of another. See: Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 250.  
  33. See: Paul Tillich. Theology of Culture. Ed. Robert C. Kimball (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 89.
  34. See: J. Kellenberger, “Kierkegaard, Indirect Communication, and Religious Truth,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol.16/2 (1984): 153.
  35. See: Soren Kierkegaard. Training in Christianity. Trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932 3rd Edition), 132-33.  

     

     

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nietzsche’s Hermeneutics: Chaos, Morality and the Future World

Of all the influential philosophers to have graced the 19th century European intellectual landscape, Friedrich Nietzsche rates as one of the most profound and controversial. Nietzsche’s influence towers over the Western philosophical tradition, and his concepts continue to inspire rigorous debate. However counter-cultural his ideas may have been at the time of his writing, the persuasive force of Nietzsche’s polemical style cannot be denied, and the insights he had into the nature of Christianity as both a psychological and social force in the world need to be reckoned with by any serious student of theology.      

Yet Nietzsche’s ideas are also liable to caricature and reductionist interpretation. The tendency to isolate Nietzsche’s thought into easy-to-digest, self-contained categories easily overlooks the threads of commonality that weave their way throughout Nietzsche’s entire corpus. If we were to agree with Hendrik van der Breggen’s assertion that Nietzsche can be defined merely as an ‘anti-God, anti-truth and anti-democratic’ philosopher’, (1) then our understanding of the man and his ideas will be deeply diminished, if not outrightly false. Far from being little more than a cantankerous cynic who was obsessed with doing away with religion, Nietzsche held the miracle and phenomenon of life in extremely high regard. The sense of awe one should have before the gift of life permeates his writing, and as such the concepts of liberty, imagination, joy and beauty are held dear as some of Nietzsche’s most fundamental values. (2) Seen in this light, Nietzsche’s contribution to philosophy can be interpreted in a more holistic and positive way.

This is particularly the case in terms of Nietzsche’s complex relationship to Christianity. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s work has often been co-opted by those who use him to support their arguments for the undesirability of religion- as if he was little more than an eloquent atheist determined to stamp out religious influence in the West. (3) In this context, Nietzsche is seen as an anti-religious hero who bravely defied the archaic Christianity of his day in order to consider what life would mean in world that was increasingly irreligious. Yet the nuances of Nietzsche’s relationship to religion are far more layered and subtle than what has often been depicted in the public consciousness, and it is the task of this essay to explore this relationship in a way that attempts to draw out the heart of Nietzsche’s opposition to Christianity with reference to his unwavering passion for life in all its abundance and sufferings.  After exploring Nietzsche’s context within the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ tradition, I will discuss his interpretation of Christianity using the categories of creation, morality and the future (eschatology) as theological concepts that offer a fruitful framework for understanding the religious concerns of his philosophy. I will conclude by suggesting that Nietzsche offers a harsh but necessary critique of the phenomenon of Christianity.  

Nietzsche’s Place Within the Hermeneutics of Suspicion:

According to systematic theologian Alexander S. Jensen, the philosophy of Nietzsche is to be ranked alongside that of Marx and Freud as representing an interpretive methodology that’s come to be known in the 20th century as the hermeneutics of suspicion- a term originally coined by Paul Ricoeur. (4) Jensen discusses the hermeneutics of suspicion as a development unique to this trio of German thinkers, and in a formal sense this is correct. However, the use of suspicion as a premise for interpreting texts has been a feature of hermeneutics throughout the history of Western philosophy, with Aristotle’s On Interpretation offering an early example of a hermeneutical approach that took the important role of suspicion into consideration.  (5)

This particular approach toward the hermeneutic task begins from an entirely different set of assumptions than those of as those of thinkers like Schleiermacher, for whom it was theoretically possible to arrive at the meaning of a text with greater clarity than its original author. This possibility is anathema for those operating through the lens of suspicion, as the written word will always betray drives, influences and biases that operate on an almost unconscious level. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is perhaps the most pertinent example of one who sees in the human psyche compulsions and urges that drive one to think and act in ways that are as much a result of the subconscious as they are the fully cognizant mind. Hence he can write that ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.’ (6) The task of interpretation within this framework was less about the text itself and more about determining the psychological forces at play behind it. As I will discuss later, Nietzsche’s treatment of Christianity is primarily concerned with the underlying forces at play within its theology and social manifestations, and therefore considers meaning as lying beyond the text. The use of suspicion as an interpretive tool, therefore, does not assume that the author knows exactly what they are trying to say, and entertains the possibility that the author maybe speaking from the perspective of a ‘distorted ego.’ (7)

For Nietzsche, the main psychological and biological force driving humanity was what he called the ‘will to power.’ According to Jensen, Nietzsche defined this concept simply as the idea that what motivates individuals is the desire to assert their own strength and domination over others. (8) The reality is slightly more complex, however, and Bernard Reginster highlights the three central ways in which the ‘will to power’ concept has been interpreted within the world of Nietzschean scholarship. These include understanding ‘power’ as relating not only as domination over others but as self-control over one’s own actions, the mastery of inner drives and creating the capacity to achieve one’s ends. (9) Each of these interrelated categories deepens our understanding of the notion of the often misrepresented ‘will to power,’ and each are present in Nietzsche’s literature. Therefore, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the ‘will to power’ was the central, driving idea behind Nietzsche’s entire corpus, and it certainly shaped his interpretation of Christianity significantly. Nietzsche saw in Christianity a response to the notion of ‘the will to power’ that sought to contort the experience of powerlessness and weakness so that they somehow became virtues. He referred to this contradictory phenomenon as ‘slave-morality,’ in which the weak become strong and the strong become weak. One might consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians as exemplifying this idea: ‘Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’

Despite its clear influence on the hermeneutical tradition, the hermeneutics of suspicion is not free from internal contradictions. One of the problematic areas within this approach to interpretation is that it is invariably outwardly focused, and thereby has a tendency to overlook the underlying assumptions and drives within its own interpretative framework. In other words, the hermeneutics of suspicion never appears to be suspicious of its own viewpoint. This means that an interpreters exploration of meaning can easily overlook the limitations imposed by their own subconscious drives. So, despite his categorization within this particular hermeneutic methodology, it is clear to see that for Nietzsche there are core convictions and assumptions within his philosophy that he appears to accept a priori. Once these inner convictions are identified and critiqued it becomes easier to explore the heart of Nietzsche’s interpretation of Christianity, and to propose some alternate ways of addressing his particular grievances.     

Christianity and the Suppression of Creation:

For Nietzsche, the cosmic order is a balancing act between the forces of order and chaos. Indeed, this is the theme of his first work of philosophy The Birth of Tragedy, which posits the dichotomy between the ancient Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo as the source of this conflict. In Greek antiquity, Dionysus represented all that was indulgent, chaotic and instinctual about humankind. As the God of wine, theater and religious ecstasy, Dionysus represents those elements within each of us that long for pleasure, emotional fulfillment and creative expression. Left unrestrained, however, the Dionysian instinct can result in disorder, anarchy and endless consumption. (10) Because of the potential for such disaster, the Dionysian instinct needed to be tempered by a more moderate and structured impulse, which found its expression in the god of Apollo. Apollo’s attributes included being the god of truth, knowledge and healing- each of which present a marked counterpoint to those of Dionysus. Although opposing forces by nature, the two instincts can be considered related in their dual function of spurring humanity on to ever greater feats of artistic and intellectual achievement. Although either impulse may temporarily achieve greater influence, ultimately each has an inner balance and self-limiting element that will remain faithful to the natural ebb and flow of life, preventing things moving too far in either direction. The truly beautiful aspect of the conflict finds its ultimate expression in the form of Greek tragedy, which Nietzsche viewed as the highest form of art ever created.

Nietzsche reflects at length on the symbolic role of both Dionysus and Apollo in the formation of a human consciousness. What is ultimately important for Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy is to illustrate that despite how we might feel as individuals toward the realities of suffering and evil, it is precisely the presence of these things that spur us on to higher achievements. Without in anyway downplaying the suffering caused by violence and injustice, Nietzsche maintains that the truly evolved human is one who is able to embrace and celebrate these elements without seeking to avoid and limit their influence. As a way of coping with what can be considered an ultimately nihilistic existence, Nietzsche maintains that the creative life of the artist is the ultimate expression of humanity’s affirmation of the fullness of life. He writes of ‘the artists buoyancy and creative joy as a luminous cloud shape reflected upon the dark surface of a lake of sorrow.’ (11) For such an artist, the presence of suffering is as much a source of inspiration as the beauty of nature or the physical human form, and the ability to transform pain and chaos into beautiful art is as close to transcendence as humanity is likely to get. In the music of German composer Richard Wagner, for example, the younger Nietzsche (prior to his break with Wagnerism) saw an artistic genius whose symphonies embodied the ideal of life-affirmation in a way that was exemplary of the philosophy outlined in The Birth of Tragedy.  Music itself was for Nietzsche the primary medium through which Germany was going to give birth to a new awareness of myth and legend based on the drama of the Dionysian/ Apollonian synthesis.           

Given Nietzsche’s understanding of life as being an unfolding drama between chaos and order (with each being necessary and beautiful in its own right), it is perhaps inevitable that he viewed monotheism as the embodiment of an offensive ideal that was utterly anti-life, and whose presence in the world marked the beginnings of an instinct that attempted to repress the natural forces of creation and the primeval urges of humanity. As a result, the psychological health of the individual was damaged through the designation of our natural instincts and desires as being somehow corrupt and contrary to the will of God. The effect was a life spent at constant war with oneself. The sexual drive, desire for revenge and the longing for power are each examples of core features of our humanity that, for Nietzsche, should be embraced rather than repressed. Yet the extent to which monotheism impacted individuals is a lesser concern given the inability of Israel to coexist peacefully with its polytheistic neighbors. In these conflicts the the most tragic feature of monotheism is realized: its tendency toward conquest and expansion. This is understood by Nietzsche as representing the repression of universal progress. (12) Armed with the definitive revelation of Divine truth, monotheism expressed itself through the wholesale slaughter of Canaanites and the violent seizure of foreign territory (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-18). (13) Somewhat ironically, Nietzsche fails to see that the story of Israel’s experience of conflict and peace with surrounding territories might reflect his ideals of chaos and order as outlined in The Birth of Tragedy. In any case, its the teachings of Jesus Christ in the first century that represented the ultimate perversion of life, and its toward this that Nietzsche reserves most of his polemical venom.

Earlier in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche had clearly surmised his position on Christianity as a phenomena in the world, remarking that it ‘spelled life loathing itself, and that loathing was simply disguised, tricked out, with notions of an “other” or “better” life.’ (14) Nietzsche had arrived at this conclusion largely through his observations relating to so-called Christian morality. It is to this topic that I now turn.    

Christian Morality through Nietzsche’s Eyes:

The idea of a single deity whose existence and proclamation was the source of ultimate truth (monotheism) naturally lent itself to the development of a morality that sought to reflect the exclusionary nature of the first commandment. The idea of a covenant relationship between God and the Israelite’s is the most significant theological theme in the Old Testament, and it is within the concept of a covenant that we see the birth of a moral framework that was distinctive within the ancient near east. Aside from the rather revolutionary idea that Yahweh was the only true God, the codified nature of the commandments given to Moses at Sinai established a requirement for Israel to morally conduct themselves in a certain way if they were to enjoy the blessings of God. If this moral conduct was to be found wanting, curses and destruction would surely follow. Leviticus 26:14-46 provides a template for the inevitable disaster that Israel would face were she to turn her face away from YAHWEH. Expected punishments include disease, defeat in war with foreign nations, and the destroying of crops leading to hunger and eventual cannibalism if the rebellion continued. It is clear that in this early period of the unfolding Israelite story fear was a significant motivator used to ensure compliance to Divine writ. For Nietzsche, a God who must rely on the threat of punishment in order to achieve fidelity from his people is not a God worthy of serving. It is within this sphere that Nietzsche finds his initial impetus for rejecting Jewish morality. He writes, for example, that ‘the history of Israel is invaluable as a typical history of an attempt to denaturalize all natural values.’ (15) The Hebrew Bible is of course a somewhat easy target, and Nietzsche would hardly be alone in condemning its God for perceived injustices against humanity. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an early influence on Nietzsche’s thought in this regard, and wrote himself that contrary to polytheism, intolerance was a trait essential to a monotheism that would not ‘allow another to live.’ (16) For Nietzsche however, the ultimate target for the criticism of religious morality was the New Testament, and specifically its injunction to accept weakness and servitude as virtues.

Nietzsche’s vitriol toward what he understands as the demeaning nature of a specifically Christian (as opposed to Jewish) moral framework can be found throughout his entire corpus. The most detailed treatments of Christian morality as a phenomenon, however, are his works On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic and Daybreak. Within these texts, Nietzsche explored the formation of the dual concepts of good/evil and good/bad. What may appear to contemporary readers as self-evident categories (i.e. different ways of stating the same polarities) are shown by Nietzsche to have historically represented two distinct ways of thinking about the problem of morality. Nietzsche understands the good/bad distinction as the normative ideal. In this category, the realm of the ‘good’ corresponded to nobility. The nobility represented power, life-assertiveness and discipline. Within this definition of ‘good,’ the understanding of what is admirable and desirable in terms of moral conduct is not shaped by arbitrary prohibitions but by living a life based on an autonomous expression of the so-called ‘will to power.’ The corresponding category of ‘bad’, therefore, was the opposite all things noble. It is to live a life of meekness, submission to the status quo and the humble acceptance of the claim of others over one’s own life. The noble (i.e. good) approach to life is therefore the preferable one, and Nietzsche concludes that ‘every aristocratic morality springs from a triumphant affirmation of its own demands.’ (17)

The real perversion of Judaeo-Christian morality came about through the emergence of the idea that the opposite of ‘good’ was in fact that which was ‘evil’. In the aforementioned distinction (good/bad), the concept of what constitutes ‘bad’ does not necessarily imply a corresponding measure of guilt for having transgressed a boundary set by external forces. The ‘bad’ can be considered in this sense to represent unhelpful decision-making rather than the more penal connotations usually associated with the term when used theologically.  For the Christian, however, the notion of ‘evil’ is that which runs contrary to the will of God, and therefore it carries a weightier, transcendent quality. Nietzsche frequently referred to this as ‘guilt consciousness.’ Within Christian theology, the dividing up morality into the categories of good/evil was a manifestation of the underlying spiritual battle taking place within the cosmic order. In the fourth Gospel John particularly emphasizes the dichotomy of light and darkness as a present reality on earth when he recounts Jesus teaching Nicodemus that ‘light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19). Jesus’ words clearly point toward the idea that morality can be understood as originating only in light or darkness. There are no grey areas. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ was responsible for bringing light into the world, what (or who) was responsible for the reality of darkness? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that Satan is the ruler of this world, thus testifying to the understanding of ‘evil’ as being the demonic.   

For his part, Nietzsche dismisses the idea of ‘evil’ representing anything requiring a divine cause. (18) Attempts at objectifying morality as the prerogative of God alone are understood by Nietzsche as a sneaky game played by followers of Christ in order to achieve two things. First, the idea of outsourcing the basis of morality to the initiative of a Divine being  assists in justifying the experience of weakness and powerlessness as part of a cosmic plan. To understand life as a series of unfolding events in the history of God’s self-revelation results in individuals becoming pacified and accepting of their own misfortune in the hope of some future liberation. Of this psychological rationale, Nietzsche writes that ‘this life is deemed guilty so that in heaven via a detour through hell there is the promise of a posthumous second innocence.’ (19) In reality, however, the world is marked by arbitrariness, brutality and chaos. Contrary to a life of meek piety, the task of the Übermensch (over man) is to claim one’s autonomy and assert one’s own will with as much power and creativity as possible.

Up to this point, Nietzsche’s view of Christian morality is fairly benign. It seems that Christians are to be almost pitied for their false belief in a better life in eternity. However, the second element of a Nietzschean approach to the problem of ‘herd’ morality has to do with its underlying longing for violence and vindication- or what Nietzsche refers to as the ‘revenge of humble, Christian-like souls who can do no more than creep through the world.’ (20) Not only do Christians repress their natural humanity, but they do so with the hope that those who are more powerful than them will meet with an eternity of punishment in hell. If this sorry state of affairs were not enough, Nietzsche sees Christian morality is being guilty of yet another sin: in order to motivate any kind of altruistic action, it must first appeal to the transcendent will of God before undertaking any positive act. This rather cynical interpretation of Christian moral theology allows Nietzsche to degrade the identity of Christians to such an extent that not even their good work in the world can be acknowledged as such.  

As is noted by Richard Schacht in the introduction to an excellent collection of essays reflecting on the impact and legacy of the Genealogy of Morals, (21) Nietzsche’s concern with this particular work was two-fold. Aside from offering an interpretation of the phenomenon of moral development and a fierce critique of the uniquely Christian approach to moral concerns, the question of what morality might look like in a world in which ‘God is dead’ is largely left untreated here. However, the absence of a detailed vision of what a post-Christian future may look like is not an oversight on Nietzsche’s part, but rather a deliberate attempt to prompt our thinking toward the creative possibilities of human potential without recourse to a deity. This aspect of Nietzsche’s thought will be addressed in the following section.

The Future World:

To summarize the key points of this essay thus far, I have shown that the origins of the created order are for Nietzsche best represented by the Greek Gods of Dionysus and Apollo. These deities represent chaos and order, and the tension between them is (according to Nietzsche) the natural state of the universe. Monotheism is an attempt to suppress these natural instincts in the service of the God of the Hebrews. I then explored Nietzsche’s understanding of Christian morality as a continued form of suppression of natural instincts through the theological justification of weakness and powerlessness. I also suggested that the absence of a detailed vision for the future of the world is a deliberate challenge by to Nietzsche’s his contemporary and future readers.

The task we are left with (providing we accept that ‘God is dead’) is essentially a creative one, and the responsibility for what we create as humans is solely our own. The world of the future is not part of any eschatological plan, but is inextricably linked to our own decision-making. This is one of the key themes to emerge in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. In this work, Nietzsche can been as expanding on the concepts outlined in the Birth of Tragedy and Genealogy of Morals, in the sense that the future world must be based on two premises. First, the future world of Man will need to acknowledge the essentially arbitrary nature of life (Dionysus), and face this immutable fact with boldness. Whatever controls and limitations we attempt to place on our existence will always be countered by recurring chaos. Second, the morality we have inherited, even if not consciously realized, reflects outdated European Christian dogmatism, and as such will no longer apply to the new world order.

On what moral basis then should the future world exist? Did Nietzsche imagine a harsh form of social-Darwinism, like the Nazis tried to suggest? (22) Do we even need morals at all? For Nietzsche, the solution to the problem of morality without God is to embark on a drastic reconsideration of the fundamental purposes of morality. On this point Nietzsche highlights the Christian tendency to interpret moral goodness based on its faithfulness to the transcendent will of God. This approach to morality is dangerous, and Nietzsche suggests here that the exclusive love of the God of the Bible- the foundation of all Christian morals- is a form of barbarism. (23) Instead, future generations will exist in a context for which traditional conceptions of good/evil are meaningless. In such a world, morality will be based on its usefulness instead of its religious origins. It must be remembered here that Nietzsche’s understanding of the chaotic forces of nature and his notion of the Übermensch prevent us from interpreting ‘usefulness’ as some sort of utopia in which all people and cultures share equal status. Unlike the leveling instincts of monotheism, the alleged ‘usefulness’ of morality will be different for different personalities and cultures. Nietzsche sums up this view of future morality perfectly when he writes that ‘in the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare.’ (24) There is a sense, then, in which Nietzsche imagines the post-Christian world as less of a fresh vision and more of a reversion back to our original state before the corrupting influences of monotheism and later Christianity. Still, a specific vision of what this reversion may look like is not forthcoming.

Conclusion:

For the Christian hermeneutician, the temptation can be to interpret Nietzsche primarily as an opponent. As Nietzsche makes no secret of his disdain toward Christianity, it is plausible enough to interpret him as no more than a philosophical challenge to be met by those with a more balanced and nuanced view of theology. As I alluded to in the introduction, the problem with doing this is that interpreters can become bogged down in responding to the various elements of Nietzsche’s arguments without considering his vision of the spirit of Christianity as a whole. Theologian Stephen N. Williams’ contribution to Nietzschean scholarship is therefore a welcome consideration of the German philosopher as a necessary dialogue partner for theological reflection. Far from seeing Nietzsche as a demonic attack on the integrity of Christianity, Williams writes that ‘what is distinctive in Nietzsche’s thought is what lies behind that error (Christianity), what constitutes its deeper nature, and what damage issues from it.’ (25) In other words, Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is best understood when interpreted as an argument against its cause and effect, not its specific doctrinal claims. In this mode of interpretation, the specific components of Nietzsche’s religious philosophy become less important than its overall phenomenology. Understood in this light, Nietzsche’s polemic against Christianity is of ongoing relevance for the theological task. As an example, one of the most important questions alluded to by Nietzsche relates to the complex theological relationship between culture and revelation. Nietzsche’s treatment of Christian morality, for example, forces readers to consider whether certain moral features of Christianity are justified theologically, or if they are instead a deification of certain cultural norms reflecting the interests of a given community. This is certainly one of the dominant themes in On the Genealogy of Morals. In addition, Nietzsche’s passionate portrayal of the tension between the influences of chaos and order within the cosmos are a direct challenge to theologies that arrogantly seek to advocate for a radically interventionist God whose primary purpose is to maximize human happiness. Unfortunately, God’s ultimate sovereignty does not remove the arbitrary, complex and messy realities of life. Nietzsche reminds us that any attempt to systematize or manipulate the created order are destined to fail.   

Ultimately, however, Nietzsche’s real value for theological discussion lies in his fierce defense of the integrity of the individual, which he understands as being degraded by the monotheistic and religious ‘ideal.’ This aspect of Nietzsche’s thought is, in my view, particularly pertinent for theological reflection in the Western theological tradition. There are rich sources within theological history that offer a different perspective on the nature of Christianity, especially as it relates to the integrity of the individual believer. These sources go a long way toward countering Nietzsche’s view of the essentially totalitarian and uncritical nature of faith. Far from being thoughtless consumers of pre-prepared dogma, many of the earliest incarnations of Christian communities highly valued the confronting task of faith as a journey that needed to be undertaken individually. (26) The apophatic tendencies within writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross, for example, point toward a rich understanding of faith as an individual process rather than a instantly received conversion. St. John’s poem Dark Night of the Soul in particular is a beautiful reflection on the mystical duality of faith in an ultimately unknowable God. By the time of the European Reformation also, the question of the place of the individual will in relation to God was one of the key theological issues. Martin Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will takes seriously the question of individual autonomy, but unlike Nietzsche suggested that the real oppression of the individual spirit comes from a predisposed inclination toward evil. According to the Reformers, the freely offered grace of God is the only power capable of breaking the cycle of selfishness and abuse of power. (27) Had Nietzsche developed his own vision for a future governed by the will to power ideal, he would surely have needed to reckon with the ideas of Luther (and others like him) who understand humanity as being prone to limitations by virtue of its inclination toward greed and self-serving action. Christian theology refers to these limitations as having their origin in the idea of sin. Other traditions, such as Marxism, understand evil as being the result of economic and institutional oppression. Whatever cause to which one attributes the reality of evil, Nietzsche’s relative silence on the subject is a significant weakness within his own hermeneutical approach. Additionally, Nietzsche says nothing about how individuals exercising their ‘will to power’ are to co-exist with a sense of collective responsibility toward others. In our own largely multicultural contexts, this question is even more significant.   

The breadth of Christian experience and traditions suggest that Nietzsche’s hermeneutical approach to Christianity- for all its insights and genius- was too generalistic and fails to fully grasp the underlying rationale and psychology of theological nuances. Instead of viewing  Nietzsche as an infallible guide to the question of religious interpretation, we should understand him as offering an ongoing reminder that absorption into a community of faith should not devalue individual identity and uniqueness. The genuinely religious life is one of ongoing wrestling with ideas and transcendent realities that our finite minds can scarcely comprehend. To embark on this journey takes courage and resilience, not weakness and mediocrity.

 

Endnotes:

(1) See: Hendrik van der Breggen, “Awakening from the Nightmare: A Critical Overview of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy,” Christian Research Journal, 34 No. 1 (2011): 38.

(2) So he writes: ‘We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.’ Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1974), 56:23.

(3) Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists commences with a discussion of Nietzsche’s death of God philosophy, and argues that Nietzsche heralded the the second most important blow to Christianity after Darwin’s Origin of the Species. See: Peter Watson. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live After the Death of God  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 1-33.

(4) See: Alexander S. Jensen. Theological Hermeneutics (London: SCM Press, 2007), 109-11.  

(5) On this point see: David Stewart, “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Literature and Theology Vol. 3/1 (1989): 269-307.  

(6) Sigmund Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 570.

(7) Jensen, 112.

(8) Jensen, 110.

(9) See: Bernard Reginster, “The Will to Power and the Ethics of Creativity,” in Nietzsche and Morality. Eds.Brian Leiter & Sinhababu (Oxford: Clarendon, 2007), 32-34.

(10) For a full treatment of the concept of the Dionysian see: Claudia Crawford, “The Dionysian Worldview,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, No. 13 (1997): 81-97.   

(11) Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Francis Golffing (New York: Anchor, 1956), 63.

(12) See: Friedrich Nietzsche. The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.20.

(13) This phenomenon is discussed more thoroughly Patrick Madigan’s convolutedly titled “The ‘Curse’ of Monotheism; Or the Search for a Logical Justification to Support it, Given the Heavy Social and Psychological Price We Pay For It,” The Heythrop Journal, Vol 50/6 (2009): 1003-5.  

(14) The Birth of Tragedy, 11.

(15) Friedrich Nietzsche. The Antichrist. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1990), aphorism 25.

(16) See: Arthur Schopenhauer. Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays. Trans. E.F.J. Payne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 358.

(17) Friedrich Nietzsche. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Eds. Maudemarie Clark et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), aphorism 10.

(18) Ibid, aphorism 19.  

(19) Friedrich Nietzsche. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Eds. Maudemarie Clark et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 129.  

(20) Ibid, 323.

(21) Richard Schacht, ed., Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

(22) Readers interested in this complex and interesting topic should consult Weaver Santaniello’s excellent Nietzsche, God and the Jews: His Critique of Judeo-Christianity in Relation to the Nazi Myth (New York: University of New York Press, 1994)

(23) See: Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil: A Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future. Trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 67.

(24) Ibid, 43.

(25) See: Stephen N. Williams. The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 91.

(26) For an insightful assessment of the formation of a distinctly religious mode of individuality in antiquity, see: Jörg Rüpke & Wolfgang Spickermann (eds.). Reflections on Religious Individuality: Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian Texts and Practices (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012)  

(27) So Luther can assert that ‘the help of grace is given, because “free will” can do nothing.’ See: Martin Luther. On the Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 270.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Keith Moon- A Short Tribute

I am certain that if Keith Moon were alive today he would be the subject of intense interest for psychologists. I don’t know whether the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the 60’s and 70’s included provision for whatever Moon’s precise condition was, but in today’s terminology one might classify the The Who’s eccentric drummer as suffering from (or enjoying?) some kind of bipolar or mania related affliction.

Not that it matters overly much to me, for it is as a musician that Moon has most influenced my own musical development. Whilst it’s perfectly natural that Moon’s bombastic personality and antics were (and remain) the focus of so much attention, Moon’s star was at its brightest as a drummer. The cacophony of raw power emanating from Moon’s drum set at times sounded like he was offering a personal challenge to his listeners to stay with him until such time he decided to end a drum fill. I remember Moon once saying in an interview that at Who concerts he gained an almost sadistic glee from singling out a fan in the front row and concentrating his facial contortions on the unsuspecting concert-goer, defying them to look away. Eyeballing the poor sod with his own unhinged intensity, Moon would put on a performance seemingly just for them. I can only imagine that the resulting feeling for the fan was one of elation and fear in equal measure.

Leaving aside his on-stage theatrics and personal eccentricities, Moon’s drumming was so undeniably free that it continues to inspire and confound musicians and fans to the present day. In a sense Moon was guilty of a form of percussive heresy. He ignored many of the established techniques of drumming and challenged the orthodoxy surrounding a drummers rightful place in a band. To take just one example, Kenny Jones- Moon’s eventual replacement in the Who- once said that Moon’s style was marked by a willingness to embrace mistakes as part of the performance. More often than not, Jones continued, these mistakes ended up sounding good. This improvisational tendency within Moon’s drumming led to a sense of excitement and danger that is sadly lacking from contemporary approaches to drumming, which are so risk-averse as to be sterile and clinical. Curiously, Moon’s understanding of where to place a drum fill was at variance with the rock and pop genres established traditions. As Roger Daltrey himself once noted in an interview, Moon liked to play an extended fill over the top of the vocal performance- precisely the time within a song that drummers are urged to back-off and allow the upstart up the front the illusion of control. Moon ignored such stifling convention and used Daltrey’s vocal passages as an opportunity to flaunt his commanding presence within the band, only returning to the familiar timekeeping territory when Townshend’s riffage kicked back in. Such an approach to percussive composition is a complete reversal of everything drummers had done before or since. In this respect Moon was more like a jazz great such as Roy Haynes or Elvin Jones. Instead of laying down the foundations for everyone else’s indulgence, Moon hovered over the surface of the music, creating a dynamic range that was equally responsible for the Who’s sound as anything Townshend or Entwistle ever did. Free from the conventions that consign most drummers to the humble role of timekeeper, Moon placed the rock drummer at the centre of the action, treating his drum set as a lead instrument in the band.    

Irrespective of one’s opinion on the merits of Moon’s technical ability, what cannot be denied is the sheer humanity that Moon brought to playing drums. His sound was totally unique, and this is because his drumming was an extension of his person. Listeners are not just hearing the sound of drums, they are hearing the personality of Moon himself. There are very few drummers distinguishable in this way, and no matter what his technical flaws as a musician might have been, Moon’s legacy lives on as the spirit of true rock and roll greatness.   

 

   

  

 

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The Souls Need For Silence

In the early 18th century the brilliant yet cantankerous German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer penned a scathing indictment of the way in which the abrasive noise of modern society had shattered his sense of inner peace and diminished his ability to concentrate. Even by his own grumpy standards, Schopenhauer’s brief essay ‘On Noise’ is a particularly sarcastic diatribe against the needless ‘knocking, hammering and tumbling’ that marks an age obsessed with growth and ever-expanding construction. (1) Dripping with rhetorical venom, Schopenhauer describes the normal sounds of everyday life- hammering, dogs barking and children crying- as both ‘abominable’ and ‘the most impertinent of all interruptions.’ Understanding himself to be in the tradition of great German thinkers such as Kant, Goethe and Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer identified intrusive noise as being the enemy of intellectual achievement. It was one thing for noise to be frustrating, but its truly insidious nature was ultimately revealed by the way in which it distracted one’s attention from important tasks requiring sustained feats of intense concentration. For Schopenhauer, an especially infuriating interference was the sound of whips being used on horses in the streets surrounding his home, which he depicted as ‘infernal’ and the ‘most unwarrantable and disgraceful of all noises.’ One shudders to think how Schopenhauer might have responded to the sounds of Sydney traffic, council works and apartment construction.

However tempting it a may be to dismiss Schopenhauer’s words as those of a grouchy philosopher and aloof eccentric, to do so would be to miss the underlying point of what he is trying to say. Although autobiographical, Schopenhauer’s On Noise is not simply an expression of his own discontent. Rather, Schopenhauer is saying something important to us about the nature of the human mind and the destructive role that noise plays in preventing the mind from reaching its full potential. Like Nietzsche so forcefully argued several decades later, the human spirit is indeed capable of much greatness, but to achieve these so-called feats of personal heroism one must be able to rise above the distractions that infiltrate our lives. (2) For Schopenhauer the chief distraction was noise, and the tragedy was that we had little say in how much noise we are exposed to. It is largely out of our control, and we are seemingly unable to do anything about our condition.   

I suggest, however, that the concept of ‘noise’ in Schopenhauer’s essay can be extended and read as a general indictment against an age of distraction more generally. In our own age of mass media and internet-based technologies, a particularly sinister form of digital noise has radically altered our psychology so that our brains remain in a constant state of hyperarousal. Fuelled by an incremental addiction to dopamine, many of us obsess over the next Facebook like or Instagram update until our thoughts are unable to truly concentrate on any task for sustained periods of time. This form of ‘noise’ is constantly present our lives, but unlike Schopenhauer’s horse whips it is not necessarily something we wrestle with. Rather, we embrace the noise without being fully cognizant of how much it is taking from us; namely, our potential for excellence. In the context of their own time, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche argued that the resulting distraction of a ‘noisy’ life (with its corresponding desire to pursue comfort and pleasure at all costs) led to a culture of mediocrity in which the masses were content to consume any noisy distraction so long as it was both entertaining and pleasurable. When read in this light, Schopenhauer’s On Noise has less to do with the annoying nature of noise itself and instead relates to what noise actually prevents us from doing. Each individual’s potential will be expressed differently, but what is certain for all of us is that unregulated noise and distraction impedes our ability to strive for excellence. The quality of our work, projects and interests inevitably suffers as our focus is jolted by the trivial notifications coming from our smartphones. On Noise, therefore, is not only a lament for the loss of silence and space in our world, but is also a sort of philosophical pep-talk in which we can take inspiration from the concerns of one of philosophies greatest thinkers and the way in which he chose to cultivate a life that would allow the silence necessary for deep reflection and works of creative genius.   

Considering the problem of interruptive noise from a theological perspective, I am always struck by Jesus’ frequent retreat from the crowds that often surrounded him. Immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, for example, Jesus dismissed the crowd, sent his disciples out to sea toward Bethsaida and retreated by himself to a lonely mountainside in order to pray (Mark 6:45-6). There are two themes within the stories of Jesus’ retreat from the noise of life that I find particularly compelling. First, Jesus own sense of personal mission guided his ministry, so that distractions from his ultimate purpose were to be avoided. It would have been easy for Jesus to lose himself in the demands and adoration of the crowd, yet his decision to be alone pointed toward one who was aware of his own limits as well as the way in which constant immersion in adulation and clamour led to distraction and ineffectiveness. Jesus retreats were also a way for him to find his bearings amongst the often chaotic nature of his ministry. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington suggests that Jesus’ retreat into solitude for prayer is less about demonstrating God’s power (3) than it is about Jesus seeking guidance from his father. (4) This nuance is important, as it highlights the need for silence if we are to truly discern our path. Jesus knew that strength of mind and purpose could only come through extended periods of being alone. This self-knowledge naturally leads to the second theme, which is that Jesus’ desire to seek out space and silence carries with it the extra element of restoration. Unlike Nietzsche, whose own retreat from the noisy crowd was insular and claustrophobic, Jesus’ spent regular time alone so that he may fully give of himself to others.

What unites the biblical accounts of Jesus’ longing for silence with that contained in Schopenhauer’s essay is a sense that one must make an active decision to pursue solitude and silence. Whilst it is true that silence is not always possible amongst the noise and distraction of modern life, there are numerous ways in which we can cultivate a more quiet life no matter what our personal context. It could be something as simple as switching off the television or going for a walk. No matter how we go about this task, creating time away from noise will open up new possibilities for our individual potential. Most of all, creating silence in our lives allows us the space necessary to engage with the spiritual dimension of our inner lives. Like our physical bodies, our spiritual core needs maintenance and ongoing exercise. Silence and solitude offer us the means through which we can nurture this neglected element of our humanity.  In closing this reflection I share the words of author and theologian Henri Nouwen, who spoke truthfully when he wrote that ‘without silence words lose their meaning, without listening speaking no longer heals and without distance closeness cannot cure.’ (5)    

Notes:

 

  1. An online version of On Noise can be found on the University of Adelaide’s ebook reference page: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/pessimism/chapter8.html
  2. See: Leslie Paul Thiele. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 11-27.
  3. This is the view of Eduard Schweizer. See: E. Schweizer. The Good News According to Mark (Atlanta: John Knox, 1971), 142.
  4. See: Ben Witherington III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 221.
  5. Henri J.M. Nouwen. Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Notre Dame IN: Ave Maria Press, 1974), 14-15.

 

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Lorelei

I met Lorelei about seven years ago at a rundown waffle house in western Sydney.  

Lorelei was a friend of my then girlfriend, Sofia. They had first met at a support group for sufferers of Borderline Personality Disorder, and had managed to strike-up a close friendship over the years. Their shared experience of mental anguish and past trauma had bound them together in a unity of the similarly afflicted. They were both aged 25.  

Sofia invited me to stop by and meet Lorelei on my way home from work one brisk autumn afternoon. Lorelei was only allowed a certain amount of approved social outings from the mental facility in which she was housed, so those rare occasions in which she was able to physically meet were treasured by Sofia. No matter what her own plans were, she would drop everything in order to meet on the day and time Lorelei set. Thinking that Lorelei might enjoy meeting some new people, I accepted the invitation, keen to know more about the girl I had heard so much about.   

My first memory of Lorelei is that she was wearing a stained, grey Smurfs theme jumper. It’s the sort of thing one might see a toddler wearing, but Lorelei somehow managed to make it look both comical and weirdly cute. Despite not knowing her from a bar of soap, I felt as if I wanted to give her a reassuring hug. Actually, this would have been a potentially disastrous and insensitive move on my part. I knew that Lorelei had been sexually abused throughout most of her childhood by her own father, and that her mother had both known about it and refused to protect her. In fact, the mother had made things worse for Lorelei through verbally abusing her. Legend had it that Lorelei was once forced to eat dog food after being locked out of the house for coming home late from school. I found it hard to fathom how anyone could do this. When Sofia told me these stories it reaffirmed my own theological belief in the necessity of hell. To what other eternal destination can such heartless souls be cast?   

After coming to terms with the fact that the Smurf’s jumper wasn’t an hallucination, I looked directly in Lorelei’s eyes and introduced myself. She smiled warmly but guiltily, as if the very act of being seen in public was some sort of minor criminal act. Her soft, mouse-like voice told me that her name was Lorelei and that she was pleased to me me too. I remember that she had light brown hair, which was worn tied back save for the odd strand that had escaped the bun at the crown of her head in order to dangle over her brow. Her melancholy green eyes seemed to convey traces of the pain and sadness she bore, but there was a cheeky, playful quality to them that I liked. Nevertheless, I could tell straight away that she was frightened, and that the idea of social engagements was more than a little terrifying. I decided to put her at ease and tell an innocuous but funny story about a recent day I endured in which everything went wrong. It was a sort of real life episode of Fawlty Towers, in which my own role was that of the long suffering Hotel manager. I made it as slapstick as I possibly could without lapsing into excessive exaggeration, and generally painted myself out to be a bumbling idiot (not too far from the truth, according to the long-suffering Sofia). As Lorelei giggled wildly, I continued my performance by telling her how I came to be slapped in the face at Woolworths the week before. I had been quietly shopping when I was approached by a ropable lebanese mother insisting that I was the low-life drug dealer who had been supplying ice to her son. Confused, I repeatedly told her that I had no idea what she was talking about (this was true). She didn’t believe me. I insisted again that I knew nothing, but still she wasn’t buying it. The affair culminated with her calling me a ‘RUDE, RUDE LITTLE BOY’ and then slapping me as hard as she could across my left cheek. I mimicked the action in front of Lorelei, who by this stage was in absolute hysterics.

Within a split second, however, her smiles and laughter departed. Lorelei’s eyes- so full of happiness and carefree abandon just a moment ago- had transformed into the vision of a haunted soul. Her slight frame began to furiously shake as gushing tears streamed down her face. Lorelei curled up in a ball and began to rock back and forth, in what looked like a futile attempt at self-soothing.  I of course freaked out, not knowing if I had said something to trigger a distant memory from tragic past. As it happened I wouldn’t get a chance to find out. Sofia asked me to leave. She needed to try and calm Lorelei down and then take her back to the hospital. She was worried that my ongoing presence would cause further distress. I agreed and headed out into the soft, fading glow of a cold twilight. I would never see Lorelei again.    

 

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Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Ethical Vision

I present to you the following question for reflection: how would you define the essential difference between ethics and morals?

At first, the problem may seem straight forward. Many conventional interpretations often view ethics merely as a form of meta-morality, with the word ‘ethics’ being used interchangeably with ‘morals’ in order to point toward a morality writ large. (1) In some respects this interpretation is warranted. Indeed, the original Greek word for ethics (êthos) itself relates to the nature of moral character, and any faithful definition of ethics will give considerable impetus to its moral flavour. However, whilst such a definition is helpful as an initial starting place, it fails to treat both the scope of ethics and its particularity as a stand-alone subject. In fact, the subject of ethics as a self-contained branch of study is well attested to in the academic literature and represents one of the most dynamic and important areas of philosophical reflection within our own time.

My concern here, however, is to try and grasp the fundamental core of ethics. To put it another way: what are the unique elements of ethics that make it distinct in nature from morality? Leaving aside a time-consuming discussion of the various categories of ethical theory and practice, (2) it seems to me that what separates that which is purely ‘ethical’ from the punitive character of morality relates to the scope and grandiosity of the ethical vision. Morality, it is true, does make certain claims which can be said to be universal in nature. Most of us, for example, would acquiesce to the idea that murder is wrong. However, morality is also largely fluid and subject to the whims of cultural, political and societal shifts. It should not surprise us that at different points throughout history the moral customs and expectations within cultures have been in a state of flux and constant refinement. Ethics, by way of contrast, is about something far deeper than morality.

I would like to suggest that it is the job of ethics to both hold existing morality to account (in order to prevent it from becoming arbitrary and restrictive), as well as to offer us a general framework for developing moral actions and values that reflect that which is of ultimate ‘good.’ This task is of course highly complex and evolving, as testified to by the centuries of debate surrounding the nature of ethics and morality. I am certainly not informed enough to venture into this debate in any great detail, although I do believe that the best ethical approaches are ones based on something which have a transcendent quality and are deeply reflective the whole person, as opposed to a morality which can so easily compartmentalise actions and values into separate spheres.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a German theologian and philosopher who discussed these aspects of ethics at length. Concerned that historical treatments of ethics and morality had not done enough to unite and connect moral action with an underlying purpose or system, Schleiermacher’s ethical philosophy can be said to be an attempt to offer a vision of an all-encompassing ethical framework that is universal in nature. In a series of lecture notes compiled under the title Lectures on Philosophical Ethics, Schleiermacher develops his concept of an ethical reality that transcends the blandness of arbitrary morality and is instead based on a unity of desire and praxis. (3) This unity is derived from the centrality of feeling as a fundamental and shared element of human existence. Schleiermacher seeks to unite the disparate forces of human thought and action, and he finds their similarity in the realm of feeling and emotion. Both thought and action are derived from a set of feelings and emotional responses, and if these emotional drives can be aligned so that they are not competing with each other but are instead oriented toward the same goal then an internal unity of person is possible. On this point Schleiermacher writes that ‘absolute knowledge (the highest goal of ethics) is the expression of no opposition whatsoever, but only of absolute being, which is identical with it.’ (4) Here we can begin to grasp Schleiermacher’s commitment to a unity of spirit and body which forms the basic premise of all ethics. He continues to extrapolate this theme in a series of theses that gradually build to a sermon-like crescendo: ‘ethics must contain a form for all life’s occurrences which is able to express its highest character.’ (5) In other words, ethics represent the totality of life experiences, and there should be no segment of existence immune to ethical reflection and action.

Of course, there are glaring issues with Schleiermacher’s elevation of emotion and feeling as the grounding elements of ethics. Emotions are themselves liable to cognitive distortion, and the use of feelings as a framework for ethics needs to safeguard against its misuse. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Schleiermacher was strongly reacting against various aspects of the enlightenment period that extolled the virtue of abstract theory and cold reason detached from feeling. In response, Schleiermacher sought to infuse ethics with an emotional content that represented our deepest humanity.  (6) The most important point from the position of a uniquely Christian ethic, however, is the fact that Schleiermacher acknowledged throughout his life that the human soul is dependent on God for its fulfilment. For Schleiermacher, true ethics are possible only when we have received a second birth in Christ.  (7) It is this second birth (the popular term is ‘born again’) which gives rise to a dramatic ethical reorientation of our lives. This core change allows us to develop a morality which is not centred on the fragmented duality between spirit and flesh, but on the unity of the individual with Christ and all of creation. When this occurs, ethics and morals are experienced less as a series of rules, prohibitions or other compulsive actions that may conflict with our desires but are instead an extension of the inner freedom we find through receiving God’s grace. Conceived in the liberty offered to us through Christ, ethics is then experienced as a unity within ourselves and others.

 

Notes:

(1) See, for example, the definition of ethics in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Eds. John Deig & Robert Audi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

(2) Major strands of ethical theory include virtue, meta and applied ethics.

(3) See: Friedrich Schleiermacher. Lectures on Philosophical Ethics. Ed. Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

(4) ibid, 5.

(5) ibid, 4.

(6) KGA I.I, 450

(7)Friedrich Schleiermacher. The Necessity of the New Birth: Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher. Trans. Mary Wilson (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1890), 89.

 

 

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