Monday, May 18, 2009

A Reply to David Deane's Response to My Discussion of His Book

My thanks to Dr. David Deane, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax for his response (see the last post) to my discussion of his book Nietzsche and Theology: Nietzschean Thought in Christological Perspective (Ashgate, 2006). He is a conservative Roman Catholic who likes Karl Barth. I am an Evangelical Protestant who likes Barth, but John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI as well. I am criticizing him for being insufficiently Catholic and he is responding by trying to get me to take Barth more seriously! What fun! The dialogue continues. If you can get your hands of a copy of his book, by all means do so. It is excellent.

First of all, I would like to say that I don’t think we are as far apart as it might appear – and I don’t think Benedict is as far from Barth as it might appear. Benedict stands in a tradition shaped by Lubac and Balthasar, who surely learned much from Barth’s criticism of 19th Century Liberal Theology and his Christological concentration. Surely Benedict, like them, transcends the worst of Enlightenment rationalism. And everyone named in this post (including you and I) fancies himself an Augustinian of one sort of another.

As for First Things, it should be noted that that journal does not have a single position in the sense that one could convert to it – it is too eclectic for that. It brings together voices from Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions to converse in such a way that no one is forced to leave behind his own set of philosophical/theological presuppositions. I see it as being valuable especially insofar as it provides a place for dialogue between Paleo-conservatives (like me) and Neo-conservatives.

Secondly, to get to the substance of the issue, David, you say that you can’t agree with Benedict because you believe that “only the presence of the Holy Spirit (who is inseparable from the Word) can make Reason possible.” You also say:

“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.”

I think I have read enough Barth and postliberal stuff to understand you here. But where I get confused is when you go on to say: “I recognize the Nietzschean story in scripture and tradition.” You elaborate as follows:

“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!".”

So does that mean that Nietzsche has the Spirit? How can Nietzsche have a true vision of the human condition if what you say is true when you write: “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.”

My question is “does Nietzsche see the human condition clearly or not?” It seems to me you are trying to have your cake and eat it too. If Nietzsche can see sin clearly, but not redemption, that sounds pretty much like what Aquinas thought was often true of pagans. The Reformed traditon accounts for things like this with its notion of common grace. The light of natural reason is not pure darkness, but it isn’t sufficient to find our way out of the labyrinth of sin and error either. Salvation requires grace. I can’t imagine what part of this Benedict would have a problem with. All he wanted to do at Regensburg is to say that recognizing that this world has a rational structure should lead us to realize that it has a moral structure and this moral structure, to the extent Christians and Muslims can agree on it, might give us the basis for world peace instead of the clash of civilizations. He certainly was not envisioning Muslims getting saved by reason.

And if Nietzsche offers us so much good insight into the nature of original sin – and I fully agree with you that he does – then why not call that the kind of dialogue that Benedict XVI was envisioning in his Regensburg Lecture? I think you and I would both want to say to Nietzsche something like: “Yes, that is true as far as it goes, but you know God has provided a way of escape from the tyranny of biological drives and if we look at Jesus Christ – really gaze on his beauty and goodness – we will find forgiveness and liberation.”

Thirdly, you write: “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.” But of course, the Holy Father is an Augustinian as well and I suspect that he would like your project with regard to Nietzsche. I don’t presume to speak for him, but as I read him and you and think about these issues, I don’t see any real conflict. It is a shame that he has never written the big book on sin that he wanted to do as his magnum opus.

The pope surely is well aware that, just because inter-faith dialogue on moral issues is possible, that does make it easy. Sin is a pain in the inter-faith dialogue rear end for sure. This may be why he has sought to shift the focus away from trying to find common ground on theology to trying to agree on a basic common morality (and I mean really basic – things like the right to life, the family as the natural unit of society and marriage).

Fourthly, when you talk about disordered desires as fundamental I am right there with you and want to endorse bringing eros into the discussion. But here, Benedict is way ahead of us. In Deus Caritas, after clarifying that love includes both agape and eros, he unites love of God and love of neighbor. Then, quoting St. Augustine, he writes: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.” Nietzsche could not see charity in the Benedictine sense and therefore could not really see the Triune God. Yet he saw some truth – truth with which we have to engage.


David said...


“It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.” Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address.

You’re right Craig. The differences I flag are differences of emphases. They are important though as, for me, illicit emphases can inadvertently keep the liberal project on life support. If someone told us that Goethe had written the quote above I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Are we all grappling in the dark, picking up the scent of the divine? Do we all have an incomplete but no less true concept of the sacred? Will our shared dialog help us all to get there? Of course I know that Benedict would say no to these suggestions (at least 2 of them!), but Regensburg was not as clear about the nature of knowledge and the status of Universities’ approaches as I think it should have been. Knowledge of the real is an ontological issue, only in right relationship with the triune God can we have it. Benedict has been great elsewhere in reminding theologians that we must live and worship rightly if we are to reason rightly in our theology. I tell my students, if I am living in a way that evinces a lack of relationship with God then don’t listen to what I’m telling you in class.
But this of course introduces your second point - if knowledge of what is is based on relationship with what is, and only God is, then how can Nietzsche know what is? Here I must apologise for my terminology earlier. Nietzsche describes the human condition outside of relationship with the Triune God, accurately. But he does not know what is (the truth). He does not know that what he is depicting is a humanity ruptured from our true selves. He doesn’t know that what he is describing is a creation groaning for salvation. His knowledge is useless to him. It gets him no closer to “the truth”. And here I agree with JP II and Benedict, getting closer to the truth (read ‘relationship with the Triune God’) is what the quest for knowledge is actually for.
But like Nietzsche I didn’t know that my fight or flight response was impeding me from being what I am called to be until I knew Christ. I knew my basic reflexes, but I didn’t know what they were qua my relationship with God.
It’s a bit like if Brother Francis in A Canticle for Liebowitz found an iphone and noted how wonderful the back of it was for spreading butter on bread. He is not really knowing the iphone in terms of what it’s for, but he is describing one of its properties perfectly. He is perfectly accurate in his description of the iphone. Nietzsche is a bit like Brother Francis in this example. He is describing the human condition perfectly, but not understanding the human person qua God is a bit like understanding an iphone qua butter spreading.

Nietzsche’s error is to think that he is describing a power when he is describing a lack of a power. He is describing a self without its biological propulsions being properly directed through relationship with God. He sees an abstraction and so assumes that the will to power is an active agent rather than a lack. Its a bit like something naturally held in perfect tension by a magnet such that its own magnetic pull is seemingly neutral. Out of the right relationship with this pull it’s own pull exerts a 'natural' influence. From Nietzsche’s point of view this is its nature. From the Christian point of view this is a lack, a privation and is simply manifesting itself as a drive.
So Nietzsche is accurate about the human condition, but he never tells the truth about it.

Your third point begins to expose me as the odd ball I really am! I’m pleased if someone is against abortion because their God or fortune teller told them to be, or even if they lost a bet and had to become pro life as a means of paying up. But in being pleased about this the Church must be aware that it is called to, fueled by the Spirit, proclaim the Word and hope that such people can be restored to right relationship with God. In my opinion the majority of Christians in the world today, and certainly the majority of ordained priests and nuns in my Church have no interest in mission and proclaiming the Word. As long as someone is “good” that’s enough. This is philosophically and theologically nonsense, it’s killing the Church, impeding Christ’s mission and should be opposed.

Look, Aquinas is right about almost everything. I know that it is good if people build houses and vineyards, I know that we can know something of God and the good without knowing Christ. But such knowledge/relationship is very limited. The Holy Father should encourage dialog but, aware of the anthropological reality and cogniscent that western mainstream Churches will die unless they respond more coherently to Christ's charge to proclaim the kingdom, he shouldn’t risk perpetuating the accepted wisdom in the RC Church that God can be known just fine through creation.

Benedict knows this of course. You’re right and I’m overreacting :)

Your final point too is 100% right. Deus Caritas Est is a triumph.

My curmudgeonly point is that if we see us all moving toward the same end, hoping to place a paternal hand on our interlocutors shoulder and, correcting them, leading them closer to the truth we all seek, then our vision is hazy.

Thanks again Craig :)

Craig Carter said...

Would it be too far-fetched to detect in your quote from the very end of Benedict's Regensburg Lecture, a hint of an evangelistic call to conversion, as well as to dialogue?

Having read this response, I think more than ever that we are close on all these issues. I no more than you want to "inadvertently keep the liberal project on life support." The main reason I don't react against the Reg. Lecture is that I trust Benedict XVI so much to be orthodox and biblical in his theology. If he wants to dialogue, we can be sure it won't amount to a reprise of the liberal correlationist project. For him it will be a genuine two-way dialogue in which modernity will be often criticized and sometimes praised, but never bowed to.

"A Canticle for Liebowitz" references are always welcome. I would propose another one. When Abott Zerchi (I love him because he is a pacifist who punches the euthanasia doctor in the nose!) opposes euthanaisa he is acting in a tradition that goes back some 5500 years or so at that point in history (or 7400 or so if you go back to the 10 Commandments) and yet the moral truth is still the same (and the heresies are the same too). But I would be quick to add that the reason the truth has endured so long is the community of monks who guarded it during the long dark ages, the rennaissance and the rise of a new modernity. The Church is crucial -and it is formed, of course, in the Benedictine tradition by prayer.

Your point about the lack of mission in the RC Church is well taken, but it is the same in too many Protestant Churches as well. JP II and BXVI are not the problem here, of course, but part of the solution. It is rather the Rahners, the Kung's, the Guttierez's et. al. who don't think we need mission and conversion because they are too busy being converted by the world.

On abortion, I think its evil can be known apart from revelation if we believe that the evil of murder can be so known. If one can't be known then both can't be known. Does our culture only know that murder is wrong because of Christian influence on Western culture? I don't think so, although I admit that, apart from revelation, the culture does fully know what murder is nor why it is so wrong.

Final Point: The reason the Church must be proclaiming the Gospel and calling the world to abandon the culture of death is not only so that converts will be made, but also because in some mysterious way known only to God, He uses this proclamation and prayer to keep the world from falling into chaos.

David said...

"Would it be too far-fetched to detect in your quote from the very end of Benedict's Regensburg Lecture, a hint of an evangelistic call to conversion, as well as to dialogue?"

Not at all, I think this is right Craig. I should say though that one of the few things that really impressed me in Alain Badiou's little book on St Paul was his noting that even the language of conversion might not be going far enough. We may have to actually take our scriptural and liturgical language literally! For Badiou it's insufficient to speak of a 'conversion' of Saul. He is re-oriented ontologically to such an extent that it is no longer appropriate for him to be named Saul, he must be named anew as he is a new being. In my opinion we should risk thinking of this materially. Right now my daughter's brain is far smoother than mine is. But every thought and experience sends little electrical charges through it. These charges make grooves and over time these groves link up making new thoughts and experiences possible. The life in the Church you mentioned in your last post is designed to re-shape a brain in a similar fashion, neurological grooves get made, new concepts become thinkable and new experiences possible.
In the RC baptismal rite we speak of new life, the infant is (re)named (as Saul was) their future is committed to the church which will shape it's brain, we (the body of Christ) stand and promise this. The hegemony of sin is ruptured in this, the child's trajectory is wholly altered and only a (new) naming can do justice to what has taken place.

Anyway, my point is that a more philosophically responsible way of speaking about knowing and speaking will also re-invigorate a more traditionally biblical way of speaking about it.

I suppose though, in a sense, I've just agreed 110% with you, Milbank and Benedict haven't I? :)

Craig Carter said...

You know we Protestant fundamentalist types have a lot of problems, but taking Scriptural (and liturgical) language literally is not one of them! :)

I cannot ever remember not taking being "born again" in an ontological sense. My sins were literally "washed away" and Jesus actually came to live in my "heart." All that literal, bodily language comes naturally to Evangelicals. The idea that salvation does not change one's lifestyle is a gnostic idea more appropriately laid at the door of liberal Protestantism. We Evangelicals are (obviously) not perfect (i.e. saintly), but we feel in our bones that we ought to be. The lack is not in Divine grace or Divine will, but in us.

You have agreed with Benedict and me, but I'm not so sure about Milbank. Don't forget, I agreed with you that Milbanks' strategy of defeating N. was insufficient.

David said...

"I cannot ever remember not taking being "born again" in an ontological sense. My sins were literally "washed away" and Jesus actually came to live in my "heart." All that literal, bodily language comes naturally to Evangelicals. The idea that salvation does not change one's lifestyle is a gnostic idea more appropriately laid at the door of liberal Protestantism. We Evangelicals are (obviously) not perfect (i.e. saintly), but we feel in our bones that we ought to be. The lack is not in Divine grace or Divine will, but in us."

And this is why I'm so excited about ecumenical dialog with your Spirit filled community - we RC types (and, dare I say, others even more so!) have a lot to learn from you. Thank you for this conversation Craig, I have learned a lot from it and been very much edified by it.
Thanks again,