The Necessity of Nietzsche: An Apocalyptic Philosophy for an Apocalyptic Theology

One’s philosophical orientation and preferences are reflected in their theology and vice versa but it may be that a particular theology inevitably requires or depends upon its philosophical expression, apart from which the theology would not exist. Whether one is Platonic or Aristotelian (in Nietzschean terms they are both fallen post-Socratics) may make a slight theological difference but the presumption is that “ordinary avenues of philosophic reason” are adequate for Augustinian, Thomistic, or certain Protestant theological leanings. One may need to tweak his Plato or Aristotle but the presumption is that the philosophy and theology are more or less interconnected if not exactly interchangeable. There is no questioning of reason, language, or human psychology, at least not enough to bring the enterprise to a halt. Thus, the Augustinian shift is guided by Neo-Platonism (Augustine equates Plato to Moses) in the same way Thomism is Aristotelian (for Thomas, Aristotle is “the philosopher”). Anselm of Canterbury, in both his philosophic arguments and his atonement theory, is the proper father of scholasticism in his pure distillation of a theology guided by Platonic philosophy. Modern philosophy and theology, in its Cartesian presumptions, will follow a predictable, interlocked pattern (Platonic and Anselmian). So too, Nominalism might as well name both a theology and philosophy as the theology is determined by the philosophy.

It is only in recognizing that theology and philosophy became inextricably interwoven in shared presumptions and foundations (summed up in the term “ontotheology”) that Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God can be taken as both theological and philosophical. For Nietzsche Christianity was “Platonism for the masses,” so his pronouncement is prophetic (the spirit in which his Zarathustra makes it) of the coming collapse of Western thought and religion. The demise of the God of the philosophers is implied in the demise of the Christian God, but the death of God is not simply a metaphor for Nietzsche. This death simultaneously points to the role of Platonism and Platonic Christianity in its denial or obscuring of the role of death.

The death of God in Christ on the Cross was, for Luther, the point for challenging scholasticism (the fusion of Greek and Christian thought) and what Luther called “the theologians of glory.” Hegel will take up the Lutheran refrain, not simply as a challenge to the Aristotelian God of pure thought, but also as a new founding moment in the understanding of how God and those created in his image must take up death in the founding of an authentic subjectivity. Hegel’s tarrying with the negative is a zeroing in on the Lutheran challenge to the God of the philosophers but it is also a challenge to modern (Cartesian) notions of an ego-based reason and subjectivity. Nietzsche takes the refrain one step further to declare God and the philosophy and morality attached to him as dead. As with Hegel, his is a call for a new form of radical subjectivity.

There is a shared recognition of the orientation to death that is thematic in Hegel and his heirs. Though Nietzsche is often pitted against Hegel – Hegel is philosopher of the system and Nietzsche is anti-system – yet they share reaction to Kant and the uncovering of a new form of subjectivity centered on the exposure of mortality and death. In the end, Hegel and his disciples (Marx, Freud, Lacan, and Žižek) are the arch-conservatives who brilliantly recognize the darkness of nihilism and imagine its mechanisms can only be manipulated (death drive – the real can be toyed with but must ultimately be submitted to) so as to provide a less painful outcome. Nietzsche names the nihilism and calls for a new religious order – a new myth. Where Hegel and his followers will privilege philosophy and presume it takes precedence over religion, Nietzsche shares with Kierkegaardian existentialism and theological apocalypticism the recognition of the need for the breaking in of a new world order.

His depiction of himself as the singular Antichrist, the marker of a new age on the order of B.C. and A.D., may not be accurate in his sense that he was alone but the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, (the French postmodern turn) but also of Martin Heidegger, all take their inspiration, if not their existence, from Nietzsche. He considered himself (as depicted in his autobiographical work Ecce Homo) philosophical dynamite:

I know my lot. One day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous—to a crisis like none there has been on earth, to the most profound collision of conscience, to a verdict invoked against everything that until then had been believed, demanded, held sacred. I am no man, I am dynamite.

Whether or not he was the match, the fuse, or the beginning of the explosion, (or is he only, as Bertrand Russell portrayed him, a literary figure) there is no question that the modern world begins to come undone in his wake. It is not just his appropriation by the Nazis, but he is linked with a new form of thought – apocalyptic in its import – (an ironic characterization as he sees religious apocalypticism as the problem). It is this apocalyptic element (the world unchained from its Sun and the need for a new religious myth) that distinguishes him from the mainstream of post-Kantian thinkers.  

What he calls “Socratism” is the refusal to deal with human finitude and his return to mythology, his uber man, his will to power, and especially his myth of eternal recurrence are his attempt to recreate the pre-Socratic dynamism. He recognizes that the success of human artifice – the Apollinarian (culture, art, literature, science) is in direct proportion to its direction and control of the Dionysian (passion, tragedy, emotion, revelry). The rise of the Over Men must freely move “beyond good and evil” with its notion of an objective or divine standard. Violence may be a necessity but the goal is that these new heroes, by whatever means, must lead humankind into accepting they are free spirits who can, of themselves, create a new order.

In his return to Dionysus, obscured by Plato, Nietzsche presumes the Platonic project to control the passions through reason is squelching the power of creativity. The Greek tragedian’s full acknowledgement of the Dionysian was an art form that gave inspiration to the shining light of Apollo. Plato’s reason repressed the tragic Dionysian truth (that we live to die) and simultaneously dismantled the Apollonarian manner of dealing with it in human culture.

Plato pictures passion as a black horse, which the charioteer or reason is to subdue by teaming with the white horse (spirit), the very imagery Freud will deploy in his depiction of the tripartite psyche:

…in its [the ego’s] relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who hast to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces (e.g., the superego). The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.

 Freudian psychoanalysis is founded upon the notion that the ego, as the center of reason, can gain control over the passions of the id. Though Freud grows less confident in his belief that his “new science” can control the unreasonable idic forces, nonetheless his enterprise of psychoanalysis is dedicated to the prospect that the drives can be manipulated if not subdued. Lacan and Žižek, in this sense, are the true arch-conservative Hegelian-Freudian thinkers as the real of death drive is the final power of good and evil. The emptying out of the Cartesian subject in Marx and Freud takes on a laborious technical odor of politics and the clinic, while Nietzsche represents the call for an apocalyptic break beyond good and evil.

In this he represents the break that inspired the last great metaphysician, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger too presumes authentic existence has to confront the negating power of nothingness and death with a new power of freedom.

Anticipation…unlike inauthentic Being-towards-death, does not evade the fact that death is not to be outstripped; instead, anticipation frees itself for accepting this. When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped. Anticipation discloses to existence that its uttermost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence one has reached.

Facing the fact of death is transformed by Heidegger into its own metaphysical freedom, which in his taking up of National Socialism demonstrates the bloody aspect of the Nietzschean enterprise he saw Hitler achieving. The Dionysian forces require sacrifice – and as Freud, Lacan and Žižek recognize and Heidegger did not, the rider of the black horse ultimately takes his orders from his mount. I would prefer, if these were the only choices, the more or less self-conscious nihilism of the latter thinkers to Heidegger’s enacted naïve nihilism, which brings us back to Nietzsche’s perception of his project as a resolution to nihilism.

Ironically, Nietzsche located the heart of this nihilism in what he perceived as the apocalyptic approach in Western religion, which set its hope on an ideal world to come or on the otherworldly heavens. For Nietzsche, apocalyptic Christianity was Platonic and he did not know of a Christianity focused on the redemption of this world. But as I have described it (here) this is the very definition of what is now called apocalyptic theology. With its inaugurated this-worldly eschatology, its deceived law of sin and death, and its recognition of God breaking into the world so as to give his own person, in Christ, as the subject of knowledge, apocalyptic theology is now anti-Platonic. Part of this apocalyptic understanding is the recognition that death denied is definitive of sin, and this is the power Christ has come to defeat. The point of this revelation is the realization of freedom from slavery to the controlling principles of the human order. God has invaded the world, not to eventually abandon it, but to reclaim it.

In other words, Nietzsche in his recognition of the pervasive nihilism inherent in Platonic and modern thought, in his focus on the Platonic/Christian obscuring of death, and in his recognition of the need for an apocalyptic break from the prevailing orientation, represents the shift that would give rise to a return to the original New Testament notion of apocalyptic salvation.  

If you would like to learn more register for our upcoming class (June 28th through August 20th), Philosophy for Theology, which will use my book, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, as the text.

Lessons from Canada’s Poet: How Cohen’s Beauty Outlasts Fear

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims. 

Canadians are in an uproar. Much to their dismay, Trump used their beloved Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah, twice over.  Leonard Cohen was a singer-songwriter and poet who died in 2016. I happen to be a huge fan of both his poetry and songwriting. He is a subversive figure who champions beauty. Trump is a divisive figure who champions fear. Cohen is an eloquent poet, Trump a brutish tweeter.

On Thursday evening of August 28th Trump’s campaign appropriated the lifegiving music of Cohen for the purposes of fear. The RNC used Cohen’s music to woo an audience and soften Trump’s rough image. The contradictory pairing of the venerated poet and Donald Trump calls for an examination of Cohen’s work. President Trump, his supporters and all of us would do well to learn from Canada’s muse.

The majority of Cohen’s songwriting is not explicitly subversive.[1] His honest beholding of beauty and pure expression of art, is itself, subversive to the powers.  He gently holds the beauty of humanity and of the created world while simultaneously witnessing the complexity of love’s suffering.

 Unlike the fast-paced consumption of modern media and politics, Cohen encourages somber yet pleasurable reflection. In the act of beholding beauty through poetry, our often-violent impulses for legal rights, guns, security and wealth dissolve. Marveling at beauty soothes us toward our more vulnerable selves. If society could simply be in awe of beauty, vulnerability might lead to compassion.

Imagery of Cohen’s “The Window” demonstrates the beautiful and vulnerable condition of humanity.

Now why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side?

And leave no word of discomfort
Or leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host, gentle this soul

The tension of beauty and pride, chosen love and frozen love, broken hearted and gentle soul evoke an exquisite tenderness for human suffering and love. Cohen is of Jewish descent and in several early writings he incorporated imagery of the suffering Jesus Christ. The first stanza brings to mind not only the spear in Christ’s side but also the spear in the side of the listener. For the spear “of the age” and the “powers that be” harm all of us in one way or another. 2020 is a stark reminder of how powerful entities harm people – black civilians, immigrant families, the poor. Cohen’s art touches the listener through beauty and inspires one to empathize with the wound in the side rather than extort it.

Works such as “The Window” cultivate empathy and reflection. Such practices are deeply needed in American culture. Cohen’s poetry stills the human heart and fixes our attention on beauty. His work calms fear and beckons our hearts toward peace. Like a mother gently rocking a baby to sleep, Cohen’s music woos listeners into a vulnerable surrender of beauty. The listener relaxes in a willing embrace. In contrast, Trump’s rhetoric to his base is like a parent exposing their child to a horror flick before bed time. Consequently, the child embraces the parent in white-knuckled fear.

One could say, “submission to beauty” is the power or spirit of Leonard Cohen. Evident in his poetry, written in “The Flame,” he submitted to beauty with raw vulnerability. This poetic spirit calls the listener, voluntarily, to bended knee before the sacred.[2] Conversely, Trump rhetoric orders people, often the marginalized, to bended knee via the smoke grenades of “law and order.”

During the convention Donald Trump and his political team, consciously or not, sought to harness and manipulate the spirit of Cohen – the power of submission to beauty – by using the song Hallelujah. Trump’s campaign emptied the meaning of Hallelujah by using it as a signifier or symbol for a faulty unity based on fear.[3]

The RNC used one of the most revered artistic songs of modern times, Hallelujah, and emptied it of its meaning by pulling on the spiritual strings of the conservative base. Consequently, a hollow Hallelujah becomes an empty signifier used for manipulation. The original song cues and signifies feelings of love. Unfortunately, the masses of the RNC mistakenly associate Hallelujah’s positive feelings with Trump’s spirit of fear.

The unparalleled beauty of Cohen’s melody disarms the hearts of listening Republicans and calls to the audience’s inner desire for beauty. Potentially, they opened their hearts with vulnerability and received not the healing of the artist, Leonard Cohen, but the poisonous lies of a con man, Donald Trump.

Cohen’s song Hallelujah typically ends with listeners awed into a profound solidarity and reflective silence. Cohen teaches we are all lonely and we all love. We are not alone in the exquisite pain and joys of love. Trump’s performance ends with raucous applause widening the chasm of division. Teaching not solidarity in existence but wealth in division.

Unfortunately, for fear filled power structures a paradox remains. Trump’s appropriation of the music, in effect, propagates Cohen’s message of beauty. Playing the song deposits its truth in the subconscious of listeners. Cohen’s expression of pervasive beauty is subversive to power structures by simply being in existence and Trump’s use of Hallelujah perpetuates Cohen’s
healing work.

His poetry is detached completely from consumerism, patriotism and other forms of power. To be in awe of Cohen’s art is to temporarily experience freedom from struggle while beholding beauty. Unwittingly, Trump’s campaign further propagated the humble yet eternal truth of Hallelujah. Unbeknownst to them, as Hallelujah wafted in sound waves to the ears of thousands of people, it carried sacred beauty and it’s unifying elements. However long it takes, no matter the loss, the disappointment, the suffering, beauty and love will out last.

The oppressed, the suffering and wide eyed cross bearers can find solace and enduring beauty in Hallelujah’s final lines:

I’ve told the truth
I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah [Praise Yaweh]



[1] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018 Although his song Democracy is an explicit example of subversion: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cohens+song+onamerica&docid=607993096676966909&mid=4E E0A854F88A4B8CF3A74EE0A854F88A4B8CF3A7&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

[2] Paul Axton explains the coercive use of signifiers in his blog:Forsaking Chritian Ideology.
https://forgingploughshares.org/2020/08/27/forsaking-christian-ideology/

[3] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018

On Being White and Other Lies and Other Links

In honor of George Floyd and in support of bringing about reform and a more equitable and just society, in place of a blog, below are links which point to practical action and an article by James Baldwin.

https://8cantwait.org/?fbclid=IwAR31rG8tP4lj08Ttjx3IQ0JAQV7RnR2KoLW8d1ffCGRKhox8svkny5wGqck

https://www.google.com/search?q=James+Baldwin+On+Being+White+and+Other+Lies&oq=James+Baldwin+On+Being+White+and+Other+Lies&aqs=chrome..69i57.20198

Marginalization and Restorative Justice

Forging Ploughshares is offering a new course through our Ploughshares Bible Institute: Marginalization and Restorative Justice (Theo 250) will be taught and facilitated by Vangie Rodenbeck who has extensive experience in writing and teaching dealing with groups and individuals who are marginalized by society. The course will begin on January 20th and will run for 8 weeks until March 17th. The course fee is $150. Follow the link to register – https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings

Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death

One of the most interesting developments in recent theology is the renewed focus on the atonement or the meaning of the saving work of Christ.  There is nothing more basic to Christianity than salvation and many (I am thinking here of my experience with beginning theology students) seem to presume there must be absolute consensus. While there are a variety of biblical metaphors for atonement these are usually sorted out into the standard overarching theories: Christus Victor or Christ’s victory over Satan, satisfaction (which included particular readings of sacrifice and punishment) and the moral influence theory (Christ died to demonstrate the love or wrath of God). (Some would suggest that ransom constitutes a separate theory and note that divine satisfaction should be separated out from penal substitution.) More recent theories have evolved around Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory in which Christ as the last scapegoat undoes the scapegoating mechanism.  This fits well with development of nonviolent theories of atonement such as J. Denny Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor.  David Brondos sets forth ten additional soteriological models (e.g. redemption/recapitulation, theosis or the union of the divine and human natures, entry into the Kingdom, reconciliation, liberation, and proclamation).  One might term this a crisis in soteriology but, though there are competing models which contradict the others, the overall trend is toward a more participatory and transformational understanding of the death of Christ.  There is a gradual closure of the gap that is present in many theories between the benefits of the death of Christ (e.g. some reducing it to going to heaven) and living out the Christian life as a disciple (ethics).  Michael Gorman[1] suggests that all have fallen short (they are all stuck on the penultimate “how” and have missed the all-embracing “what”) in not naming “new-covenant” as the category under which all the others can be subsumed.[2]  Gorman is building on the shift to a more participatory understanding (entry into the Kingdom through living out a cruciform life) but the specific thing which this new-covenant brings about is peace (in Gorman’s explanation and in his exhaustive proof of this explanation from Scripture). What I would add to Gorman’s “new-covenant of peace,” which Gorman is far from alone in recognizing (though it may have gone unnamed as a theory of atonement), is that this “what” of salvation contains within it the very “how” he would set aside (the end or goal of salvation as the peaceable Kingdom gives us a direct insight into how it works as a displacement of a world grounded in violence). Continue reading “Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death”

Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ

The Netflix series Mindhunter dramatizes the beginnings of FBI profiling necessitated by, what would come to be called, “serial killers.”  Based largely on the work of John E. Douglas, who recognized that seemingly random murders often follow a pattern traceable to particular “psychological types,” the series illustrates Douglas’ application of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis to crime. Douglas brings psychology, and specifically the Freudian theory of masochism and sadism (death drive), to bear upon criminality so as to both identify the psychological make-up and experience of the killer and to predict future behavior. In the broadest terms, psychoanalysis is built upon the presupposition that the human disease (Freud was a medical doctor) is subject to prognosis because it follows regular patterns with identifiable causes and effects.  The more the disease – neurosis or psychosis – has a grip on an individual the more their behavior, thought, and personality, will follow a predictable (almost mechanical) pattern (the more the disease will “present” itself). In terms of destructive behavior and murder, the more the individual is given over to compulsion the more destructive and thus the more predictable their behavior. In this sense, a serial killer presents the perfect object of study as they have relinquished control (in their own description and as the series abundantly illustrates) to compulsions which are totally destructive.  Those who are most “out of control” better demonstrate the nature of the cause and effect power which animates their actions. The perfect presentation of the disease is to be found in pure death drive and destruction.   Continue reading “Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ”

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”

Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ

The New Testament understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ, reflected in the earliest theology, is that humankind exists under a delusion or a lie from which the truth of Christ redeems.  This is an understanding largely abandoned with the turn, worked out by Anselm, to the law as the final and full explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ. An aspect of the shift surrounding the atonement (from Christus Victor or its near equivalents to divine satisfaction) is that Christian truth was no longer counter to the truth of the principalities and the powers of this world. The era of Constantine, through Anselm, Calvin, and the modernist era are characterized by the development of a notion of secular truth which parallels the truth of Christ. The New Testament depiction of the truth of Christ is that it challenges the truth offered by this world and constitutes a new world and a new order of truth. Continue reading “Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ”

Roy Moore’s Gospel for Perverts

Are Roy Moore’s apparent moral failings one more example that Christianity has been tried and found wanting? Or is it as G.K. Chesterton would have it, that Christianity has been found difficult and not tried?  Is there perhaps a third option, a form of Christianity has been tried which produced Roy Moore and many like him? As a Judge he insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments, yet his accusers depict a predator, one of whom describes an attempted seduction under the auspices of his babysitting her when she was 14. His former West Point classmates remember a farm boy determined to succeed at the pommel-horse, who they admit, may have pursued virginal teenagers. Classmates Richard Jarman and Barry Robella describe a very serious and devout young man, “almost naïve about women.” If you’re from small town Alabama, Robella explains, it may be normal to ask out 14 or 15-year old girls. “His piety might have led him to younger ladies.”[1] Continue reading “Roy Moore’s Gospel for Perverts”

The Absurd Comedy of Andy Kaufman & Jim Carrey and Christ as a Joke

Chris Smith’s documentary, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton,”[1] captures Jim Carrey’s channeling of the comedian Andy Kaufman in conjunction with the filming of “Man on the Moon.” Carrey as Kaufman is frightening in that Carrey seems to have killed himself off, at least for the duration of filming, so that one worries for his continued sanity – which as Carrey tells it worried him also. As Carrey describes the process, he gave control of himself over to Andy Kaufman, “I decided for the next few days to speak telepathically to people . . . That’s the moment when Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Siddown, I’ll be doing my movie.’ What happened afterwards was out of my control.” Indeed, Carrey seems to have lost control as he stays in character – either the character of Kaufman or the character of Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, the aggressively insulting lounge singer, Kaufman would occasionally become. Continue reading “The Absurd Comedy of Andy Kaufman & Jim Carrey and Christ as a Joke”