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”