Saturday, 2 May 2015

Nietzsche becomes a Christian? The assumption that faith is passive obedience may be a significant obstacle to the Christian conversion of creative people

My impression is that one reason why Christianity is often rejected, almost axiomatically, by creative people who are deeply interested by personal development, spirituality, philosophy, higher needs... is their perception that to become a Christian is essentially a matter of passive obedience to a great mass of dogma, doctrine, theology and what-not.

So the convert goes to someone, gets some books, attends some sessions and gets instructed in all the stuff they now need to know, to affirm, to live by; and is supposed to accept this lock-stock-and-barrel! The irritating inconsistent gadfly is supposed to become a steady, solid ox.


This person, for whom life has been a spiritual struggle to discover-for-themselves, creatively-to-appropriate, is (or at least feels they will be) catapulted into a world where they must adopt a passive and receptive attitude, and where their main life effort is to align with a predetermined set of demands.

It would be hard to exaggerate the alien-ness with which this strikes a spiritually-seeking, creative, habitually striving kind of person - a person of broadly the same kind as Nietzsche, for instance - and the visceral revulsion which may be elicited (which of course Nietzsche expressed vigorously!).

This is, indeed, one of the Good (i.e. not covertly sinful) reasons for the 'anything-but Christianity' view which has dominated high-level intellectual life for about 250 years in the West.


Of course, there are also those who find the idea of setting-aside striving, seeking, grappling to be a most welcome idea - they want to get-on-with living, and are grateful for a framework within which to do this. They are grateful for the systemic nature of theology, for the distilled traditional wisdom of life-rules, demands, prohibitions...

But I am not talking about these people; I am talking about the people who are repelled by what they perceive to be the demand of 'organized religion' for passive obedience as the primary requirement.


Is this repulsion based on reality? Yes, to some considerable extent - this is the way the world is, mostly - because religions cannot effectively be organized around the needs of a small minority; and a structure of rituals, rules, knowledge etc is exactly what is needed-for, and what is best-for, most people most of the time.

But since Christianity is true, then there cannot be any ultimate contradiction between the human nature of the spiritually striving and seeking creative individual and Christianity. There is no reason why the seeker cannot bring his seeking into Christianity. No reason why, say, someone like Nietzsche, could not become a Christian in a complete sense; and every reason why they should become Christian - even if they are then at-odds with the mainstream of The Church, as they always have been at odds with the mainstream of Society.


If Nietzsche became a Christian, while remaining the essential Nietzsche, then he would-not and could-not (and, in a sense should-not) be expecting or expected to become a passively obedient, well-adjusted, model citizen. Christianity should be trouble and struggle for Nietzsche; and the Church should expect trouble and struggle from converting someone like Nietzsche.

I don't mean that this trouble and struggle should take the form of public conflict - a clash of will, each trying to change the other. That is an intolerable situation for any effective Church, and it is a kind of suicide for a Church to tolerate members to act to erode or dismantle it from within. A Christian-convert Nietzsche would have to forgo completely any polemics against the Church, forgo any attacks-on or undermining-of the complacency and passivity of the majority of the faithful!

But at the psychological level it should be accepted on both sides that a Nietzsche-type will probably always be struggling with something. That kind of person must and will always (or mostly) grappling-with, exploring, dismantling and reassembling, adding-to and subtracting-from, trying to live-by, expressing and extrapolating in various forms...


The fact is that Christianity (being true, being everything) naturally does have a place for someone of the striving, seeking, creative, discontented Nietzschian type; and if any specific Christian denomination cannot not, or will not, tolerate such a person; then there may be others who will, and there is the possibility of a non-Church-Christian life.

Nietzsche was, to put it mildly, 'not a joiner' of human society - and as a Christian it would be unsurprising if he still was 'not a joiner'.


The Nietzschian-type will, usually, be told that he needs to change first, before he becomes a Christian - that his job is to conform himself to the demands of the church and to affirm the check-list; but this demand must not be believed, must not be taken to express the necessary essence of Christianity, must be subjected to the same kind of critique that the Nietzschian would apply in other domains and situations.

(Just because somebody says a thing, just because they believe it, just because many people say and believe it - does not prevent them being mistaken. Maybe they haven't considered it deeply enough? The Nietzschian needs, viscerally needs, to find-out for himself, experience for himself, in his own way.)


In sum, the Nietzschian must simply remain what he is, and have faith that because Christ is for everyone Christianity is also for him; and stubbornly but immovably refuse to be put-off or deterred by those who try to insist that he check-in his turbulent, tormented, questing intellect as a condition of conversion, before he becomes a Christian.

Nonsense! Nietzsche should be, should declare himself to be, a Christian now: exactly as he is - let come what may!



Heaviside said...

RE your last post on IPG:

"God too has his hell: that is his love of man"

To demand conformity to customs is just to demand unconscious agreement, because action is unconscious belief. The people who are satisfied with passive obedience are those who are satisfied with unconsciousness, whereas those who want more demand consciousness.

"What it really means is that humanity has elevated itself to the knowledge of good and evil; and this cognition, this distinction, is the source of evil, is evil itself. Being evil is located in the act of cognition, in consciousness."

Passive obedience gets a bad rap. All it means is that belief has retreated into the unconscious. I'm very glad that people in Japan still devote effort to maintaining the family altar even if they consciously very atheistic, because that means Spirit is still there, just slumbering. So Christians ought to consider the preservation of external forms of religion like rituals and architecture worth quite a lot.

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - Passive obedience does not get a bad rap from me! (At least, not in principle and in some specifics.) Nor from most people. But Nietzsche is one of a minority who essentially cannot accept PO for themselves (whether they want to or not- at least not without ceasing to be themselves)

My point is that one should become a Christian, even if one becomes a 'bad Christian'.

William Zeitler said...

I have always liked the 'metaphor' of John the Baptist vs. the cities. The cities represent the vast majority of people living by the rules, etc. And then there was wild John the Baptist out in the wilderness preaching his own counter-cultural (Nietzschean?) message. After all, every mainstream idea was once a minority view -- of perhaps just one person.

ted said...

I do believe once people explore all the various saints, practices, and theological expressions of the faith, they will find an idiom that they can identify. I know growing up I met many Christians who felt alien to me, which led me to Eastern teachings for a while. But lately I have journeyed back home because I allowed myself to be open to seeing that there is room for everyone in the Church (and it would not have survived otherwise).

ajb said...

Right - Christianity is essentially non-creedal, but most churches put (their own) creeds front and centre. It makes sense in terms of organizational cohesivity, but is a barrier for those who would benefit from a social organization.

A loop hole in this is those who 'officially' enter a church as children, say. They are now members, but can reject as many of the creeds as they like, while not going through a process of saying they agree with x-y-or-z to become an official member.

Of course, the church may then consider them to not be a member officially, but practically it doesn't seem to matter much nowadays in most churches. Don't say some creed while at a church service? They probably won't throw you out.

Adam G. said...

Most functioning organizations give a wide latitude to people who are eccentrics or otherwise unique. Certainly most churches I know do. Provided those people don't try to remake the organization in their image.

Modernity has a problem with imagining a real modus vivendi however, unless its formalized, which is what a modus vivendi can't be almost by definition. One might almost say that the definition of modernity is the exclusion of the middle.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Wise words.

@ajb - I agree, and perhaps this is of greater significance than realized in keeping people out of the churches.

By contrast, early Biblical accounts are full of almost-instant baptisms, eg. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Some modern evangelicals also seem to do this sometimes - I heard a sermon from Phil Robertson (Duck Dynasty) in which he had a long conversation with a man which culminated in baptising him in a nearby river.

Of course, churches differ on who has the authority to baptise and on what it means - and there are advantages in some kind of course of instruction prior to baptism.

But, on the whole, I feel that in many/ most churches the business of baptism is way too 'bureaucratic', too school-like, too drawn-out, too lacking in passion.

(It is weird/ wrong that so many will marry on an impulse and delay baptism when it should be the other way about!.)

I am also ever-more convinced that baptism ought normally to be by 'full immersion' (except in special circumstances) - and that it was a big mistake that baptism change (in most of the main churches) from putting the person in water (and coming out again) to putting (a little bit of) water *onto* the person.

But that's another topic.

Imnobody said...

To each its own.

Being the kind of person who you describe (although Nietzsche was a genius and I am not), I don't think obedience and intellectual quest are incompatible. At least, for me.

For me, Christianity (doctrine, devotion, apologetics, history of Christianity, not to mention analyzing society and history with a Christian lens) is so huge, so full of details, problems and apparent conflicts. As a result, there is no shortage for the intellectually minded to explore, learn and get to one's own conclusions. In fact, I would like to read and reflect about a lot of aspects but I don't have enough time for most of them.

Since I believe Christianity is true, I believe that my own explorations will take me to the truth so, while I have a lot of gaps that I keep on filling, I accept the dogma meanwhile. As you told me some years ago when I was not even a Christian, "Seek and you will find" (excuse me, but English is not my language so I don't know if it is the appropriate rendition).

Having a framework to explore reality has been useful. I have integrated the Christian framework with other things I know about science and history.

However relinquishing my intellectual pride, who comes from a very early age (I have always been praised because of my intelligence and insights about the world), has been a blessing for me. It is delightful to smash one's pride and for me, pride comes as intellectual pride. So submitting to a doctrine that comes from God and to what some other people have said and having the humility of accepting it without a full understanding (and without trying to know more than everybody else) has been a liberation for me.

In addition, I don't think joining a Church is incompatible with intellectual quest (or "struggling").

Being an introverted individualist, the loner, the brainy type, having some other people to share my faith has been a paradise. And I feel closer to God when I speak with other people about them.

This is not to contradict you, Bruce. I only wanted to explain another perspective. I started writing two lines and this has become very lengthy.

As always, your mileage may vary.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Imn - Somewhat aside from your remarks- Pride is a tough one to defeat, because humility must be unconscious; indeed I don't think humility is a positive virtue, but rather the lack of pride.

I think Pride is meant to be defeated by Love, not humility.

I would say that when someone sets aside his pride and obeys the (mystical) church, then this ought to be done from love of the church, and faith in the church. And that is a very good feeling!

This kind of love can only be for actual people, not for bureaucracies; I mean love for Pope, Patriarch, Prophet, Saint... a love that knows it is mutual - akin to the love in a real family.

Arakawa said...

Pointing out that submission is more meaningful to a person than a bureaucracy was a very serious observation. The person does not even need to be around for this to work. In the catholic denominations, for instance, there are a lot of long-dead saints who may be made the object of one's love if the living people one has available are disappointing examples. Love towards even one of the saints is tremendously clarifying in terms of one's moral boundaries, as certain behaviours would be an unambiguous betrayal of that love.

Submission towards a person can obviously arise from love; submission towards an idea or ideology, on the other hand, seems to be a cunningly disguised form of self-assertion. In claiming to 'submit unthinkingly', the person conceals the fact that he had to have thought and decided for himself in order to determine which ideology to follow; if asked "why do you submit to this idea and not some other one?" he has no serious reply. If his reasoning was wrong, he is incorrigible, because the underlying thought process is denied to have occurred and cannot be re-examined.

Whereas the one who follows a person may at least say without hypocrisy: "because so-and-so is my teacher". You would then be left to inquire his reasons for loving so-and-so, which are likely to be numerous and entirely situational and heart- rather than reasoning-based. Moreover, it is not easy to love a person; you must always stop and re-examine whether your actions are really loving towards the person understood correctly, or just a projection of your own ideas of who they are. Thus, one has to display both independence of thought and self-criticism, but directed to an intelligible goal rather than spiralling out into some void. Ultimately this must be directed likewise towards the person of Christ, albeit that Christ is significantly more inscrutable so one must be correspondingly more intent on scrutinizing one's actions.

That also pointed me towards why the brand of Orthodoxy represented by Seraphim Rose never appealed to me, in spite of having done my utmost to swallow it at one point. Can Seraphim Rose actually inspire people to follow his path out of love for his person? I never really saw my relationship to him or his work that way. Could I use him as an imposing authority to underwrite an intellectual framework, just like Fr. Rose himself seems to have done with people such as Averky or Ignatius Brianchaninov? Maybe. But there is very little love in such an arrangement. So if I approach Rose with that attitude, I have no way of knowing whether I am submitting to anything real or merely indulging my own perverse ideas of religion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Seraphim Rose himself said that he was to be interpreted only as a teacher making suggestions; and that the lineage of startsi had ended. That seems to be confirmed by what happened after he died (so far as I understand it). I see him as the end of a lineage, not the beginning of a new one.

But one major reason for my loyalty to the CJCLDS is that I feel an unforced, powerful and deep love for the church, and (several of) its leaders - and a confidence in their love; which is certainly not the case for any other denomination (although I did feel the same about Pope Benedict XVI; although nobody else I encountered in the RCC).

Robert Brockman II said...

Recall that Nietzsche did eventually "go sane" -- the incident with the horse, and later believing himself to be Jesus, Napoleon, Buddha, etc. Many similarities to Paul, and others who had a blunt force trauma experience with spirituality. Naturally he was locked up in an asylum, and was never able to update his books properly with his new insight.