Monday, May 18, 2009

Guest Post: David Deane Responds to My Discussion of His Book

I agree with you, Craig, about the deficiencies in Nietzsche and Theology but I'd like to offer a properly Protestant caveat in relation to the kind of position Benedict models at Regensburg (and, indeed, that the RO people gathered in Rome last summer to advocate). As you note - we're through the looking glass here!

The word is that you have "gone all First Things"! :) Now I'm a very traditional Catholic. I see the "old Roman Rite" as the peak of our liturgical expression and a student claimed recently that, liturgically at least, if I was any more to the right I'd fall off the edge. But I also have a deep suspicion of the faith in human nature and reason that grows exponentially in Roman Catholic thought after, and in response to, the Reformation. I believe that reasoning properly is only possible when we desire properly and we can only desire properly when we can see objects for what they are; that is, qua God and not qua us. Doesn't this require a God's eye view? Yes, and so only the presence of the Holy Spirit (who is inseparable from the Word) can make Reason possible. I honestly believe that Fides et Ratio, Veritatis Splendor and Benedict's own pronouncements at Regensburg fail to pay due respect to this. My problem with First Things is that they too, time and again fail to pay due respect to the impossible possibility that is human reason and meaningful utterance. By “meaningful utterance” I mean the possibility of connoting that which is. In modernity we tend to think of meaning as the capacity for the transmission of opinion. If words allow an other to apprehend what we perceive to be the case then, we seem to assume, they mean. For the pre-moderns, of course, meaning is the capacity of a thing to re-present, and participate in, that which is. “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” are meaningful words, they have power and authority because they represent that which actually (albeit mysteriously) is. Such meaning cannot be “worked out” by us. It must be given to us by God in revelation. Only a Christian can know the meaning of, say, “power”, as only a Christian knows the power of God revealed most perfectly on the Cross of Jesus Christ. As such this “power”, power indistinguishable from servitude and sacrifice, renders our common uses of “power” to be meaningless, referring to nothing but the play of signifiers. First Things, like the Holy Father and the RO people, often seem to think that we’re engaged in a common pursuit of wisdom and we must out-narrate competing discourses. But in so doing they are failing to see that the question of reason is a question of mission! Only Christ renders the world meaningful and reasonable. If the one reasonable thing is God and Man, finite and infinite, impassible and nailed to a cross, omnipotent and crucified, the only righteous man and a criminal, dead and the only really living thing then we must acknowledge that we are being, at best, disingenuous when we pretend that we are involved in enterprises that are collectively “rational”. This point is what separates me from his Holiness’ position and I hope, will take more coherent form in what follows. I hope to explain that I differ from him because, unlike Milbank and Benedict, I think that Nietzsche is right about human knowledge and nature and, because of this, I see the overcoming of this situation only in terms of the action of the triune life. They speak in terms of Reason and dialog when the only philosophically responsible position is to speak in terms of salvation and mission. Let me explain[1].

While I did go overboard in Nietzsche and Theology it should already be somewhat clear “Why Barth?[2]”. But why Nietzsche? Nietzsche alone combines the worst of continental relativism and anglo-American biological positivism. The former is based in the latter. Because we are oriented by our drives toward self assertion we experience the world through selfish lenses. I mean this biologically. Right now I can see my one year old daughter Chora in the corner of my eye playing near the window. I note her green shirt but she's ill-defined. She's carrying something in her hand, it could be a block or it could be a peeled apple, I can't see it. Now if she was carrying a big sharp knife - I'd see it clear as day! Our brains are processing vast amounts of information right now, sounds are reaching your ears unheard, little aches and sensations going unnoted. But if our brain decides that such sounds are important, a baby's cry, an ache which indicates an illness, our brain will bring these to the forefront of our minds. Our basic sensory experience of the world, let alone our filtering of this data into concepts and beliefs, are determined by our biological drives.

So Nietzsche grounds the 'fact of relativism' in our biological nature and this, as an Augustinian Christian, fascinates me, why? Because Augustinian Christians do too.

Milbank et al respond to this Nietzschean vision and I'm with them 100% about modernity. But Barth is preferable to Milbank for me as a respondent to Nietzsche and especially his two step-children - postmodern relativism and biological positivism. Why? Well, the first reason is the "Qua" question. The Nietzschean story qua... what? For Milbank it's the Nietzschean account qua a different, possibly more coherent and certainly more beautiful story. Ok. For Barth though it's the Nietzschean account qua salvation. Salvation is the concept which frames the enquiry in Barth and this resonated far more with me. For Milbank the Nietzschean account is a story competing with other stories within the narratival carnival that connotes the now and the question for Milbank is "how can this story be out-narrated"?. From the Barthian perspective the question, to me, seems to be "do I recognize this Nietzschean self?" and if so, "what does God have to say to this through the man Jesus Christ?". This is the important question.

I recognize the Nietzschean story in scripture and tradition. Babel, as Derrida knew well, said all that Derrida was to say about the state of our signs and the impossibility for communicating using them. This impossibility is based on a biological state that is inaugurated with our fallenness. We do not do what we want to do, it is sin that dwells within us that orients us. It forces us to see the world in terms of our own utilitarian necessities. If you strike me adrenaline courses through me causing me to take flight or fight, I am not biologically oriented to turn the other cheek[3]. And with such hormones and neurotransmitters screaming though my cells how can I see you as someone to be loved as am I intended by God to love you?

I can only love you if I can somehow see you as you are, loved by God and because of this having dignity. Your dignity is not based on your intelligence, sentience or your capacity to survive unaided outside the womb. Your dignity is not about who you are in ways I can discern, it’s about God’s love for you which is not based on things I can discern or things that affect me or “my body”. In modernity though we actually prohibit such an understanding! Rather, from Kant on, my perspective on you will be determined by how you are qua me, the very mode of thinking which is, in nuce, the epistemology of our fallenness. The self marked by original sin Kant affirms as the epistemologically normative self - bracket das ding in sich as things can only be understood qua me. Our fallenness becomes epistemologically normative in modernity! And so yes, I agree with Milbank and Benedict that we must outnarrate this. But we didn’t “start” to view objects qua me in modernity. In modernity we simply gave up the hope of viewing them any other way. But beating modernity will not overcome the problem that we do, innately, view objects through our own “selfish” neurological lenses. And so beating modernity will not solve the problem. If it would then we should view the problem, as Milbank and Benedict tend to, in terms of reason and dialog. But only transforming the self can solve the problem and therefore we must see things in terms of salvation and mission!

When people talk about my book they wonder why I find Nietzsche "helpful" or how I'm trying to "beat" or "outnarrate" Nietzsche. The first thing to say is that when I read Nietzsche's depiction of knowledge (babel) and the self (Eden) qua salvation I say, "this is true!". Not ‘helpful’ or ‘rhetorically useful’ or any other category we've used in academia in the last 50 years, but "true" as in, "the case". Nietzsche's concept of the human person and human capacity to know and the relationship of our signs to that which is, is, well, true.

But only true of the human being without the Word, without Wisdom, without the Triune God calling out to it and weaving us into relationship with Him.

Benedict talks about "Reason", but I'm with Gene Rogers and Bruce Marshall and others, Aquinas himself cannot envision the self seeing the real as it is without the presence of the Holy Spirit (who is not separable from the Word). Reason is butchered by sinfulness and only Grace can restore it. Nietzsche cannot see the world for what it is because he is not in relationship with and being conformed to Christ.

And so what my book hopes to do is say, “yes” to Nietzsche. Milbank and Benedict say, “no”. But Nietzsche is right. Our biological nature makes experiencing and thinking outside of selfish categories impossible. Only through a re-orientation of this biological reality through relationship with Christ by the presence of the Holy Spirit can this be altered. Let me say again, the question of “Reason” is most honestly understood as a question of mission. Our reasoning is contextual, only if our context is life in the triune God[4] can we perceive, desire and reason coherently. If when Benedict says ‘dialog’ he really means mission, then I agree with him. If not then I think that we must all re-read Nietzsche and ask ourselves - do I recognize this account of the self? Because if it’s true we can only be converted, not convinced.

What my book most lacks is an account of desire. How desire without the activity of the Spirit cannot be other than lust, lust for persons, for objects, as lust cannot be avoided if we look at things qua ourselves. As Kantian modernity refuses to speak of knowing except by understanding all objects qua ourselves then it forces lust as the only possible form of desire in modernity. Any other form of desire becomes epistemologically impermissible!

Only the Spirit can cause us to look at objects in the world qua God and therefore qua their own intrinsic dignity and so our desire can begin to be re-ordered. Once this is in place then we can reason about the objects in the world having begun to experience them as they are. Without the agency of the Spirt whose word is the Word (the Spirit has no other word to speak) perceiving, desiring and reasoning is illicit and doomed to affirm only the world of which Derrida and Dawkins speak. Speaking about this as a problem of dialog and reason and not a problem of mission and salvation is a misconstrual of the reality of the situation and this is why I’m not entirely with Milbank and the Holy Father in this matter.

[1] You see, I am indebted, at least rhetorically, to Milbank.

[2] I agree that De Lubac, to some extent, and certainly Von Balthasar could have been useful for this. Barth though is perfect. Nietzsche offers “Dionysius versus the Crucified” and Barth concurs. The “truth” of the world is the survival of the fittest for Nietzsche and for an ever increasing number of our young people. Barth’s doctrine of the Royal Man is so clear about what he calls, teasing Nietzsche, “the transvaluation of all values” where the last are first and the first are last where the poor He hath filled up and the rich He hath sent away empty. This radical juxtaposition appealed to me greatly. The radically and beauty of the Christian vision was made clearer in Barth in dialog with Nietzsche than it would have been if de Lubac or Von Balthasar had been the dialog partners.

[3] Which I know in Christ as being that which I am called to do, that which I am intended to do.

[4] For there is no other

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