Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism: The Root of the Human Disease

The shared context and perspective of 2nd century Gnosticism and modern existentialism has been pointed out by Christopher Lasch, Eric Voegelin, and most brilliantly by Hans Jonas.  The dualism, the antinomianism, the individualism, but most starkly, the sense of alienation, arising from the Roman disestablishment of traditional religion and modern disenchantment, gave rise to thought and religion steeped in and ultimately dependent upon a radical dualism. The individual alone in a hostile or indifferent world finds herself abandoned and helpless before the laws of fate or nature. The world is a horror; the laws of the universe a tyrant under which the individual is crushed and helpless. There is order, but it is an order of absolute law which leaves the human alienated, imprisoned, and alone. To acknowledge this incomprehensible darkness and alienation is the beginning of freedom. The realization of the sickness contains the negative knowledge giving rise to the will to defeat it. To be integrated into or reconciled with the world is to be ruled by ignorance and it is to squelch the inner spirit which is by definition transcendent. The power of the cosmic laws felt in total alienation is the dark truth which points to the inner spark and possibility of freedom.

The climate of moral confusion in which old faiths were dying, gave rise to a new imperialism, the spread of education (aimed not at mastery and mental discipline but at utility), as rapid circulation of goods and ideas created a new cosmopolitanism which would throw off the former provincialism. In this world in which the old myths could no longer be directly believed there was an effort to reinterpret them, not in order to believe but in order to surpass belief and regain the enchantments/insights and vigor of a former time. In Lasch’s description, it “was a time when the accumulation of wealth, comfort, and knowledge outran the ability to put these good things to good use. It was a time of expanding horizons and failing eyesight, of learning without light and great expectations without hope.”[1]  In the depiction of both Jonas and Voegelin, the overlapping context produced an overlapping turn to “salvational knowledge.”

It was the overlap of the times and thought that drew Jonas deeper into his lifelong study of Gnosticism. He found in his study of Heidegger and Gnosticism a “dimly felt affinity” which “lured” him on into examining Gnosticism, for at the base of both he began to uncover what he would identify as a shared nihilistic element.[2] Jonas turns to Pascal, whose description he claims was the first to face the frightening implications of modern cosmology. Rather than finding himself at home in the universe, Pascal describes the early tenets of an existentialism, which both in its Christian and atheistic manifestations, speaks of a profound alienation. God has been set at such a distance, he had absconded (Deus absconditus) and therefore is fundamentally unknowable (according to Nicholas of Cusa, John Calvin, and Martin Luther). Pascal would take up the notion, as did the Jansenists to whom he had converted and become an influential member. This notion accentuated human loneliness in the unfolding perception of modern cosmology (the notion of a world machine governed by immutable laws).

 Pascal speaks of a fundamental fear: “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened.”[3] As Jonas notes, it is the indifference in the imperception (the not-knowing) of the universe that gives rise to the feeling of insignificance and loneliness. The universe is blind to man, so that just as his being can be attributed to a blind accident, so too his destruction is of no consequence. Yet, unlike any other part of the extended universe man is a thinking reed. The world is all res extensa (as his contemporary, Descartes had taught)– it is all matter and extended magnitude and only the human knower stands out as a thinking thing. But this very thought alienates, separates, and brings the awareness of being easily dispensable. His consciousness is alienating, marking the “unbridgeable gulf between himself and the rest of existence.” [4]  Alienation, foreignness, estrangement, is the very substance of reflection as the mind does not work to integrate but in thinking separates itself. That is, Pascal, as in mathematics so too in religion and philosophy, is ahead of his age and recognizes what Descartes did not: the thinking thing is lost in the universe.  As Pascal notes, “I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”[5]

Pascal continues, “I am frightened and amazed at finding myself here rather than there; for there is no reason whatever why here rather than there, why now rather than then.”[6] In more settled times the cosmos may have been felt to be man’s natural home, now, according to Pascal, man should “regard himself as lost” locked away as he is in the “prison-cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the (visible) universe.”[7] Telos has been lost as the “utter contingency” of existence gives rise to the feeling of being out of place. The Copernican universe captured an understanding of the mathematical gears but has knocked man from its center and denied him any sense of an intrinsic teleology or meaning.

Pascal may be the first to feel himself left unsupported by the inherent ontological frame. There are no values and the self is, in Jonas description, left unsupported and thus “thrown back entirely upon itself in its quest for meaning and value. Meaning is no longer found but is ‘conferred.’ Values are no longer beheld in the vision of objective reality, but are posited as feats of valuation. As functions of the will, ends are solely my own creation.”[8] Vision is displaced by will and the temporal can no longer contain the goodness of eternity, as the first hints of an overt nihilism begin to surface. As Nietzsche will poetically phrase it (in Vereinsamt): “Now man is alone with himself. The world’s a gate to deserts stretching mute and chill. Who once has lost What thou hast lost stands nowhere still. . . Woe unto him who has no home!”[9]

Pascal has faith in God, but this faith and this God are no longer the outgrowth of or connected with the natural world:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.[10]

God is unknown and unknowable and the universe does not reveal the creator’s purpose but only power, immensity and will – God’s will and power and human will. The reason for the universe eludes man and the question is beyond answering. “The deus absconditus, of whom nothing but will and power can be predicated, leaves behind as his legacy, upon leaving the scene, the homo absconditus, a concept of man characterized solely by will and power—the will for power, the will to will.”[11]

The nihilism kindling early theistic existentialism will become the key pole characterizing the dualism which will become primary in both theistic and atheistic existentialism. Nothing, death, darkness, and absence will inform something, life, light, and presence. The turn to the individual and the will to power, whether of the Hegelian or Nietzschean form, will characterize the modern.

There is only one other example, according to Jonas, in human history in which “tarrying with the negative” or the overt embrace of nihilism is recommended. Jonas suggests that the only other epic which compares to this “cataclysmic event” is the rise of Gnosticism as a distinct religion. “That is the gnostic movement, or the more radical ones among the various gnostic movements and teachings, which the deeply agitated first three centuries of the Christian era proliferated in the Hellenistic parts of the Roman empire and beyond its eastern boundaries.”[12]

Jonas gathers under the name gnostic a highly diversified and widespread phenomenon which is distinctly not Christian but which is feeding on the same cultural disturbances that mark the rise of the Christianity. The various forms of Gnosticism appearing in a variety of places and in many languages, share the “radically dualistic mood which underlies the gnostic attitude as a whole” constituting it a unified system or systems. “It is on this primary human foundation of a passionately felt experience of self and world, that the formulated dualistic doctrines rest. The dualism is between man and the world, and concurrently between the world and God.”[13]

Jonas locates the impetus behind arcane gnostic doctrine in the same feeling of alienation which characterizes the modern. The “absolute rift” between man and the world and the feeling of alienation is projected onto a God, who is by definition, alien to the world and has no part in the physical world. True deity is beyond the world: “Unknown, the totally Other, unknowable in terms of any worldly analogies.”[14]

The principle or law bringing forth the material world might be attributed to some lower deity or personal agency, but this agency is subject to a deeper “impersonal necessity of dark impulse.” No allegiance is owed to this demiurge as the laws it serves are beneath the spirit or divine spark within humankind. The passion, ignorance and blind force which brought forth the world is without knowledge or benevolence. The world only sets forth a negative knowledge, that which is sick, unenlightened, ruled by necessity and power. But it is in the face of this dark power that man recognizes his true essence, found in knowledge of self and of God: “this determines his situation as that of the potentially knowing in the midst of the unknowing, of light in the midst of darkness, and this relation is at the bottom of his being alien, without companionship in the dark vastness of the universe.”[15]

It is not that the world is chaotic, rather it is a cosmos of order “but order with a vengeance, alien to man’s aspirations.” The universe is a complete and orderly system but the law that orders the system would and has dominated humankind under the guise of logos or reason. “But cosmic law, once worshiped as the expression of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition, is now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom.”[16] Man is counted out of the necessities of the universe. Fate, misidentified by the Stoics as providence, is a tyrant. The supposed providence, once attached to the power exercised by the stars, is nothing other than law, order, and fate which stands opposed to human freedom.

Rather than seeking to integrate the self into this law, like Pascal and Heidegger, one should feel frightened: “Dread as the soul’s response to its being-in-the-world is a recurrent theme in gnostic literature. It is the self’s reaction to the discovery of its situation, actually itself an element in that discovery: it marks the awakening of the inner self from the slumber or intoxication of the world.”[17] The knowledge (gnosis) thus gained will liberate from servitude to the law, to “providence,” to seeking to be integrated into the cosmos. Where the Stoics pursued freedom through consent to the law, the Gnostics would overcome the law through the power of gnosis (power against power). There is no longer the presumption of finding significance in the whole (e.g., the city, the empire, the cosmos) or the law of the universe or cosmic destiny.

Though the arguments and theories of Gnosticism and existentialism in regard to the law may be vastly different, nonetheless they share this antinomian tendency. Nietzsche can declare “God is dead” and in Gnosticism “the God of the cosmos is dead” but in both instances a nihilistic vacuum is created in which “the highest values become devalued.” This nihilistic conclusion is the impetus behind the abandonment of transcendence in modernity and to the positing of a radical dualism which does not allow for any intelligible connection in Gnosticism. The gnostic God is completely unknown (the absolutely absconded) and the “known” is primarily negative. As Jonas puts it, “this God has more of the nihil than the ens in his concept.”[18] He is totally different, hidden, and beyond. Just as hidden human nature (spirit) is revealed in its alienation, the divine counterpart is posited primarily as an absence. In practice, there is not a lot of difference between the denial of transcendence and a transcendence removed from any normative reality. There is no law, no sign, no value attached to human action in either instance. Existential man and pneumaticos man do “not belong to any objective scheme, is above the law, beyond good and evil, and a law unto himself in the power of his ‘knowledge’.”[19]

As a formula from the Valentinian school epitomizes gnosis: “What makes us free is the knowledge who we were, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth.”[20] This “thrownness” is fundamental to Heidegger, and may echo Pascal’s “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces,” but Jonas claims its origin is gnostic: “In Mandaean literature it is a standing phrase: life has been thrown into the world, light into darkness, the soul into the body.” [21] It denotes an original violence and the necessity of a certain helpless passivity as one “speeds” from “who we were” to “what we have become” and the only element left out is the present. One is caught between the poles of past and future – one is born and one dies, and as in Heidegger, all major terms are determined by past and future. “Leaping off, as it were, from its past, existence projects itself into its future; faces its ultimate limit, death; returns from this eschatological glimpse of nothingness to its sheer factness, the unalterable datum of its already having become this, there and then; and carries this forward with its death-begotten resolve, into which the past has now been gathered up.” There is no present but only the crisis between past and future in which the between continually eludes and fades. In other words, what is lost is eternity, real presence, the essence of God and the essence of reality.

Jonas is not only describing the modern discovery of the shared darkness, the explicit deployment of darkness as a means to the light, that Hegel will call the dialectic, which Freud will refer to as death drive, but he is also depicting what Lacan and Žižek locate in Paul’s encounter with the law. Paul and John are countering the false teaching which will become Gnosticism. It is precisely this existential sort of gnostic nihilism that the Word become flesh defeats. Eternity has intersected time and the light has overcome the darkness and darkness and death are not determinative. The Gospel and Epistles of John explicitly describe the developments of this proto-Gnostic thought as relying on the dualism between flesh and spirit and depending upon a series of dualisms, which Jesus, in John’s depiction will defeat by collapsing the poles upon which they depend. Jonas’ insight into the modern and ancient predicament, which he sums up as nihilism, seems to describe the fundamental human disease.[22] Gnosticism and existentialism partake of the overt form of nihilism which absolutizes nothing as its realization of something (what the Bible calls idolatry).

[1] Christopher Lasch, “Gnosticism, Ancient and Modern: The Religion of the Future?” Salmagundi, No. 96 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-42. Available online at

[2] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, Third Edition, 2001), 320.

[3] Blaise Pascal Pensees, ed. Brunschvicg, fr. 205. Quoted in Jonas 322.

[4] Jonas, 322.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 24.

[6] Pascal Op. cit. fr. 72. Quoted in Jonas 323.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonas, 323.

[9] Quoted in Jonas, 324.

[10] Pascal, English, 20.

[11] Jonas, 324-325.

[12] Jonas, 325.

[13] Jonas, 326.

[14] Jonas, 327.

[15] Jonas, 327-328.

[16] Jonas, 328.

[17] Jonas, 329.

[18] Jonas, 332.

[19] Jonas, 334.

[20] Clemens Alex., Exc. ex Theod., 78. 2. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[21] The Mandeans are the last surviving Gnostics from antiquity. Quoted in Jonas, 334.

[22] The nihilism may be explicit, as it is in Gnosticism and existentialism, or it may be implicit as it is in idolatry.

Abba – Father as Fulfillment of Cosmic Incorporation

“What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart – that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love.” Ludwig Feuerbach – The Essence of Christianity

Ludwig Feuerbach’s notion that God is a projection of human values and needs is a key modern theme. Nietzsche maintains God and religion are a product of the resentments of the weak; Freud teaches us that God-language is really about sex; Marx teaches us that it is an instrument of economics, and Carl Schmitt teaches us that God-language is the structuring principle of the state. Psychoanalysis, atheism, Marxism (Communism and Socialism), fascism, and nationalism, all turn theology on its head, claiming that the theological and divine are really about the human.

The proper theological move is to turn theology back round by reclaiming secular insights: instead of God language being for the weak, weakness is really about God and how God comes to us; instead of God language really being about sex, sex is really about God – the erotic is not over and against agape love but is woven through it and indicates its proper end; instead of religion being an opiate to numb economic oppression, economics and economic justice is all about God; instead of allowing for the modern theory of state to occupy theological concepts and structures, the theological must challenge the sole sovereignty of the state.

This final point, Schmitt’s recognition of the sovereign as the exception which establishes the law and the order of state power, pinpoints the unified theme underlying all of these realms. In each instance, God was marked out as a point of exception, the means of escape, the point of oppression, a tool of legitimation, so that the transcendent concept of God came to occupy the supreme place of power, emptied out of immanent categories and these categories were then turned, in secularism, against his transcendence. “God is dead, and we have killed him,” is not an admission of defeat but a claim of power. The power of state, the power of sex, the power of money, the power of the human psyche, each unleashed from its sun have proven deadly and out of control. Capitalism, nationalism, the state as sovereign, sex as an identity, or simply the manipulation of psychic categories, each have claimed their own legitimating frame in pure power, but in their own way each realm has bottomed out. Which is to say God cannot simply be dropped back into the formula as a continued resource for exploitation. Inasmuch as the God of modern religion is a stop gap, a legitimating source for state power, the exception which establishes the law, the gold standard of capitalism, modern religion is atheistic in its practice.

To truly believe in the Trinitarian God, the Abba of Christ, and the Spirit of love, has economic, sexual, ascetical, psychoanalytic, political, and environmental requirements. God With Us, comes to us in and through the realms of the world and where deity has been evacuated from these realms both God and world are lost for us. Where there is no horizon beyond the economic, the sexual, the ascetic, the psychoanalytic, the political, and even the environmental, this becomes sole horizon. There is no proper ordering of these realms, no telos, but only a random groping as in each instance in money, in sex, in the psychoanalytic, etc. we live and move and have our being and this is not a realm apart or a distinct entity in our life but is our life. On the other hand, to picture God as accessible apart from these realms is not to elevate God, but is to demean him to a projection, an instrument, a justification, an opiate, an abstraction who leaves the world to our power.

The point is not that we understand God on the basis of the categories of the world but the categories of the world are mediated to us on the basis of our understanding of God. For example, we do not understand God as Father on the basis of human fatherhood, but we grasp the meaning of human fatherhood as it mediates to us the Fatherhood of God. But, of course, it is not simply fatherhood per se that pertains to recognizing God, but all things, all categories, all ordering of the world, must pertain to being able to rightly realize the identity of God. We understand what children are, what fathers are, what sex is, what a healthy psyche is, what a proper politic is, and what love is on the basis of rightly integrating God and world in Abba (as in Ro 8:15 and Gal 4:6). I presume the realization of this truth of God and world integrated, is what is conveyed in the proper name given to God, communicated by his Son, and realized through the Spirit. God is integrated into our lives and world, not on the basis of the world but on the basis of who he is in Christ in the world, and it is also on this basis that we receive the world. In the incarnation we receive God in the world and the world and all of its categories are transformed in light of Christ. The world is not too low for God; the womb is not beneath God; eating and working and growing tired and living and dying are transformed by Christ. All that is of the world is taken up by Christ and through the world we are now given divine insight.

God has poured himself into the world and into human experience due to his yearning and love, and he draws all things back into himself through this same yearning. So, for example, we can say with Dionysius, that human desire originates in divine yearning and that the basis and end of eros is agape: “let us not fear this title of ‘yearning,’ nor be upset . . . for, in my opinion, the sacred writers regard ‘yearning’ (eros) and love (agape) as having one and the same meaning.”[1] The desire of love pertains to ultimate reality, to God himself, as source and substance (as I have described it here). But this is an understanding that opens up every phase of human subjectivity and experience. The erotic or embodied as agape points to the deepest and earliest phases of human subjectivity as the groundwork of the divine. Just as the erotic rightly ordered is the root of agape, so too all unconscious/conscious origins of development, though we may know only of their disorder, must serve as ground and structure of divine love. As Dionysius puts it, through excessive yearning of his Goodness he is transported outside Himself “to dwell with the heart of all things”:

hence this universe, which is both One and Many; the conjunctions of parts together; the unities underlying all multiplicity, and the perfections of the individual wholes; hence Quality, Quantity, Magnitude and Infinitude; hence fusions and differentiations, hence all infinity and all limitation; all boundaries, ranks, transcendences, elements and forms, hence all Being, all Power, all Activity, all Condition, all Perception, all Reason, all Intuition, all Apprehension, all Understanding, All Communion—in a word, all, that is comes from the Beautiful and Good, hath its very existence in the Beautiful and Good, and turns towards the Beautiful and Good.[2]

All perception, all intuition, all development is in and through and drawn toward His goodness. It is only where this flow and development is stopped short or stunted that the disorder of sin enters in. This principle of sin, a misorientation toward the law, would interject law in place of God and might be described as a misperception of God’s fatherhood. God or the law is pictured as a delimiting factor or a point of proscription. The law is taken as an end in and of itself and God perceived through this law does not beget, desire, or engender but forbids and disrupts. Just as rightly ordering the world is summed up in the realization of Abba-Father, so too the disordering of sin is summed up in the failed orientation of perceiving God through the law.

Without recounting the details of this failure, I presume this stands behind Paul’s culminating point of the Gospel found in the name Abba. The realization of God as Father puts right, not simply the failure of earthly fathers and mothers, but it completes compliments and teaches a true form of subjectivity by locating the human subject in the Trinitarian Subject. Just as Christ calls God “Abba,” we take up this relationship through the Son and the Spirit and this relationship re-appropriates and fulfills the worldly order. This order displaces the monism and pantheism of the world as mother (the law of oneness), and it escapes punishing patriarchy (the binary law of difference). It is in the Trinity, in the place of the Son that brings out the cry “Abba,” through the Spirit. This is not a law-like relationship imposed from outside but describes an interpenetrating realization of true subjectivity. Kittel notes, “Jewish usage shows how this Father-child relationship to God far surpasses any possibilities of intimacy assumed in Judaism, introducing indeed something which is wholly new.”[3]

As John explains, No one has seen God at any time but God the only Son who abides in the bosom of the Father has made him known or explained him (Jn 1:18). As both Galatians and Romans explains it, the Son is born under the law so as to deliver the future sons and daughters from enslavement to sin under the law. In both Romans and Galatians, the shift from slave to adopted child is realized in the heart cry induced by the Spirit: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6-7). The explanation and the adoption accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in Paul’s explanation, confronts the lie of sin in regard to the law and defeats the enslaving death dealing orientation. The Abba relationship to God involves all of the work of Christ but it must also involve every aspect of human subjectivity. Paul pictures it as involving the conscious and unconscious self; it addresses the punishing and enslaving aspect of the law taken up into the self and replaces this form of subjectivity with one who is able to imitate Christ.

The Abba relationship and naming of the Father is specific to the work of the Son and the fulfillment of the Spirit, such that to change the name (for example, to Mother) would seem to miss both the universal father problem of the law and the cosmic answer to this problem found in Christ. To erase, evade, or change the name would seem to create the danger of falling back into or failing to be extracted from the original predicament. This in not to occlude the feminine characteristics of God, as it is precisely where we encounter the mothering, birthing, nurturing images of God in the Holy Spirit that the Abba relationship is made possible. This Abba relationship must be a fulfillment of the child’s early concept of mother/father as the unified source engendering one’s individuality. The child’s development is not unlike Paul’s depiction of the Spirit’s (feminine) engendering of sonship as enabling the Abba relationship.

 In conclusion, the development of human subjectivity in all of its stages, known and unknown, along with “all Being, all Power, all Activity, all Condition, all Perception, all Reason, all Intuition, all Apprehension, all Understanding, All Communion” comes from God and turns all things toward God. This pull of divine desire is realized in the Abba relationship, a fulfillment of the specific work of Christ as it overcomes the universal problem (a perceived problem of father) in a cosmic and universal human incorporation into the family of God.    

[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, IV. 12.

[2] Dionysius, IV. 10.

[3] Kittel, G. (1964–). ἀββᾶ. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 6). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Reading Paul with Nietzsche

A key Nietzschean concept, which parallels the Apostle Paul’s picture of the orientation of sin, is ressentiment. With both there is the notion of self-deception in which there is an inversion of values and a resulting attack on the persons or power of oppression under the guise of morality. The Freudian notion of repression, which several scholars believe Freud adapted from Nietzsche, gets at the same structure. Freud’s denial of this borrowing may be a case in point of the phenomena itself – he repressed the fact that it was Nietzsche that coined the term das Es (the id) and that his own borrowing of the role of the super-ego and guilt feelings relied upon Nietzsche’s notion of resentment, bad conscience, and false morality. Freud and Nietzsche undermined any notion of stable subjectivity, intelligible knowledge, or accessible coherence to human experience. Freud’s talking cure and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence would prove incapable of overcoming ressentiment or the repressed forces which enslave. One always arrives too late, as their reaction to the powers that control are masked as a first order moral response but they are negative powers – a supposed humility, patience, and love that represses and produces a self-induced suffering. The resentment is, ultimately, directed against time and finitude so that one becomes morbidly obsessed with one’s own impotence in the face of death and this obsession amounts to its own dying. One pays for life with their own enforced dying and this acquiescence shows forth in a self-punishing payment.

Nietzsche’s reading of Paul follows the standard misreading, which pictures Paul’s motives in turning to Jesus as the result of sublimated ressentiment which needed relief from the crushing demands of God’s law. So, Paul projected his self-reproach onto Jesus, having Jesus accomplish atonement through his execution. The suffering deity found in Christ meets the need of attacking the oppressor – God. Nietzsche’s is a telling indictment of this standard Lutheran misreading of Paul.

Paul, in this understanding, suffers from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

But isn’t Nietzsche correct, that this puts on display a certain ressentiment against God and the law and isn’t the true depiction of Paul an overturning of ressentiment? The presumed access to a right understanding, present in Luther, and denied by Nietzsche is also overtly denied by Paul. Paul, with Nietzsche, presumes he was completely deceived.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. A deceived understanding is displaced. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings. But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. Not as Nietzsche depicts Christianity, as life-denying. Paul depicts the enduring goodness of the material world and God’s purpose is the transformation of the cosmic order, including the body.

Where for Nietzsche, the struggle is all there is, forever, for Paul to die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). For Nietzsche the only hope is to break through the unreality by continually going out in eternal return. Only through knowing and conquering fear of the abyss of suffering is there the possibility of realization of a break through. For Paul Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.

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.

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”

Two Concepts of Truth: Truth as the Power of Death or the Power of Life

Pilate pronounces what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “most subtle witticism of all time.” With his question, “What is truth?” Pilate “annihilated the New Testament,” according to Nietzsche.  The strong “revel in ambiguity” while the weak cannot “afford uncertainty and so demand a clear dichotomy.” The strong man must take a stand “beyond good and evil” and presumably Pilate, with his question ventures beyond mere morality and religion. The superman braves subtle shades of grey and refuses the dictates of a determinate notion of truth. Jesus, in Nietzsche’s scheme, is the subject/slave of truth – his life depends upon a determinate truth while the judge and executioner can allow for “subtleties” or “contingencies” in truth. Continue reading “Two Concepts of Truth: Truth as the Power of Death or the Power of Life”