Posts Tagged ‘Nietzsche’

According to George Barna, a religious statistics expert on contemporary American religion, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs—our clothing, our food, our education”—and our religion. In 1991, 49% of American adults attended religious services in a six-month period and 35% said they accepted Jesus and expected to be saved. Twenty years later, the regular attendance figure had dropped to 40% while those accepting Jesus had “risen” to 40 percent. How can these apparently contradictory trajectories be explained?

One could point to the fundamentalist or evangelical movement, which was growing during the twenty years. Such believers tend to be non-denominational and less liturgically-oriented than Roman Catholics, for instance (for whom the Eucharist is central and necessarily liturgical). An evangelical Christian would be likely to point to his or her belief in Christ and relationship to Jesus rather than to attending church as decisive for faith. For example, the prosperity gospel holds that right belief—not necessarily regular church attendance—is rewarded by God in terms of material riches.

The advent of “rock-concert-like” evangelical services has probably tempered the trend of the evangelical movement distinguishing church attendance from believing in Jesus. The “dead” quality of mainline denomination services, on the other hand, has likely contributed to the decline in regular attendance. I attended a Methodist service in 2010, for instance, only to wonder if the audience was still alive. I was informed that Methodists are about “method” so they don’t like change. Such an approach, while typical in my small-minded (yet never wrong) hometown in the Midwest, does not bode well for the spirit breaking free from the strictures of the letter. It is as though typical Christian liturgies were designed expressly to cut off religious experience—being more about a bunch of things put into a program (with the vested interests, of course) than opening a time for transcending devoid of distractions.

According to Cathy Grossman of USA Today, “Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, ‘Jesus is the answer. . . . People end up bored, burned out and empty,’he says. ‘They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died for this?’” Barna reports that as a result, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’” In other words, denominations are fracturing.

It is perhaps worthy of note that the New Testament has Jesus saying that he came to teach on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God—the Father’s realm—and how we can more fully realize the Kingdom of God within. Simply saying, “Jesus is the answer” stops at the means. I once heard a priest preach, “Jesus is above me, Jesus is below me, Jesus is to the right of me, Jesus is to the left of me, Jesus is in front of me, Jesus is behind me.” At the time, I thought of George Fox’s “empty form,” here verbal form. In other words, has institutional Christianity gotten caught up on the nature of the religious object, which is by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, at the expense of religious experience? Has that which Jesus is portrayed as preaching—how to get into the Kingdom of God—been eclipsed by a fixation on the messenger himself?

In general terms, the constriction of canonical Christian dogma since the first century of Christianity and the fixation on Christology may be why more Christians are splitting off. To be sure, “I believe whatever I want” has a ring of childishness and selfishness to it and a lack of boundaries (e.g., I decide what is good for me, with a result being that I come out good). Religion reduced to the path most convenient is essentially a form of self-idolatry. I witnessed this from someone at a Bahai service. As a scholar of comparative religion, I sometimes attend services of different religions to expand my knowledge of the phenomenon of religion.

After the service, the topic of which was love in the various religions, a woman referred to a certain religion from the Middle East as “of peace.” A man cited a few verses from that religion’s scripture advocating the killing of neighbors who refuse to convert rather than risk the chance that they could pollute the beliefs of the faithful. The woman insisted that the man simply interpreted the passage as not being of peace. It occurred to me that she may have been imposing a value or ideology that is salient in Bahai on the religion in question, with the result that anything in religion at odds with peace is ignored. Religion itself becomes peace—a human moral system essentially limiting that which is divine. The woman’s religious idolatry (i.e., worship of a human conception of peace as a religious object—her conception as the conception) seems to have triggered or involved cognitive distortion without any recognition of possibly being wrong. Her dismissiveness itself evinced the power of self-idolatry—the “I believe whatever I want”—in religion. Lest the phenomenon be thought to be a function of individualization of religion, self-idolatry can also be found among church authorities in the history of Christianity. Such idolatry can go a long way in accounting for the decline in attendance and the fracturing of sects to accommodate the inherent diversity of beliefs, values and approaches within the human family—and even the Christian family.  

To assume that one size fits all—that uniformity is necessary for (rather than adverse to) authentic unity—in matters of religion discounts or ignores the nature of the human spirit as well as the phenomenon of religion. Furthermore, constricting an entire religion to one’s own interpretation is dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) and essentially self-idolatry under the subterfuge of leadership. The process of canonicalization of scripture, which included a willowing-down or narrowing of acceptable religious writings, can be viewed as laying the seeds of the religion’s downsizing by making otherwise viable alternatives extrinsic and even heretical. In other words, the canonical process would have been more credible had the chosen texts not been those favored by the deciders. To be crass, the ensuing religion can be said to be that of the deciders—essentially, “I believe whatever I want” and (literally) to hell with those Christians who favor other texts (e.g. the book of Q—sayings absent the supernatural narrative—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Thomas). It is ironic that a religion of convenience within the Church provokes religious convenience as a reaction. For a religion wherein God is agapé (selfless love) seu benevolentia universalis (or, universal benevolence), self has been rather prominent, even if apparently hidden under a “self-effacing” subterfuge.

Nietzsche, for example, writes in the second essay of his Genealogy of Morals on the religion of convenience of priests, who yearn so much to dominate their flocks in spite of voluntarily weakening themselves (e.g., impotence). The aggressiveness—even intentional cruelty—involved in such dominance is particularly dangerous because the priests (and bishops) having the instinct have tended to be oblivious to it even while under its spell. In the midst of a narrow-minded yet judgmental priest, it is perhaps only natural to retort, “I believe whatever I want.” Essentially, both the priest and the reaction are gripped with self-idolatry in the name of religion. The priest, however, is far more dangerous even if under the subterfuge of selfless love.

In short, trends in American religion (which has been dominated by Christianity) can be interpreted as manifestations of self-idolatry all around in the name of religion. Religion may be far more about us than we realize. If so, we may be taking it far too seriously even as we do not hold it sufficiently accountable. Sadly, religious experience and agape seem relegated or lost amid the power-struggles of self-idolatry imposed through a fixation on religion as belief. Little attention is given to freeing ourselves from the grip of religion in our own images. So little freedom must surely snuff out what little spirit manages to manifest within or between us. It is no wonder that more people are heading for the exits. The wonder may be that even more have not left. What is needed, Nietzsche avers, are more free spirits. Such spirits seek to overcome the power of their own most stubborn instinct—which may be the urge to follow the route of least resistance rather than the road less traveled.


Cathy Lynn Grossman, “More Americans Customize Religion to Fit Their Personal Needs,” USA Today, September 13, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-09-14/america-religious-denominations/50376288/1

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On September 30th, I was watching the news of the tital wave in Samoa from an earthquake.  Someone took video footage that was played on the news.  On the footage, a guy is saying “please Lord Jesus Christ…give me strength to accept this…please Lord Jesus Christ…”  He was referring to the temporary river then going by his building.   The invocation of a lord something struck me as odd…and the implications as troubling.

The sheer act of asking an external agent to give one strength makes one a passive recepticle that is itself a state of weakness.  The asking outward, in other words, makes one weaker, making it more difficult, not less, to achieve the strength desired.  If the entity being summoned does not exist (or can not be known to exist), the added problem of appealing to an imaginary friend would also point to an underlying weakness.  Specifically, it seems rather pathological to me–like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey having  an imaginary friend that he talks to in spite of never hearing any voice from the other–no real evidence of the bunny’s existance.  …an imaginary rabbit.   …maybe this is why the easter bunny has has had such traction.  It is astounding to me how social legitimacy can make something seem real even though there is no evidence of its independent existence. 

That people would reduce themselves to passivity on the premise that an imaginary benefactor exists does not bode well for the human condition or the individuals themselves, particularly as they want to gain strength.  Their means, in other words, is inherently counterproductive to the end, and yet the subterfuge of religion can make an entire society blind to the underlying feckless nature of the illusion (and its participants).  

 For those who would retort: what if there really is a Lord Jesus Christ existing “out there” in a resurrected condition that transcends the bounds of our perception and cognition, I would counter that God as (an) intelligent being could not be expected to set us up to engage in anthropomorphic (i.e., self) idolatry.  God as  it is understood cannot be sin.  Nor do I think it in God’s nature to set us up to be passive and self-ashamed rather than instantiating what strength we are capable of.   Moreover, were there there such an entity as an eternal Son of God, it would be at best a cruel joke were “he” to have kept himself from presenting himself to all of us externally (i.e., as a real being)…an “internal voice” being possibly one’s own.  As Nietzsche wrote (and was stated at his funeral), “Save us from the redeemer!”  That is to say, save us from the illusion perpetrated by weakness under the guise of strength.  If such a dynamic is in the nature of truth, perhaps we need to re-conceptualize our notion or content of truth.  

Ironically, Jesus’ inner strength in the story of his death–in facing adversity in standing up (with arms out-stretched) for one’s principles is so utterly at odds with “Save us, or give us strength…”    The humility ascribed to the figure is so utterly at odds with the presumption of those who claim to follow him and tell the rest of us what we should believe–indeed, the presumption to call on such a being as they have invented for themselves.  A Catholic priest once said in his homily: “We have the truth; we know this.  We can therefore be thankful.”  Translated: “We have defined truth and feel no hindrance in imposing it on others. We can be thankful for what we have decided is truth and not have to consider that we could be wrong.”  Such a stance belies the substance of faith, which by definition goes beyond what is known. 

To presume knowledge of the truth and go on to impose it on others as if one’s own ability to know truth is somehow superior to other human beings are to take a matter of faith for that of knowledge…and thus to have little faith and much self-love.   Self-emptying, in other words, involves riding faith of presumed knowledge and therefore to be agnostic to the essence of things as they really are.  Faith is a transcending glance rather than an exposition on the nature of that which transcends the limits of our conception and perception.  As Joe Campbell once said, the conception one has of Christ is the final obstruction to the religious experience. 

Of course, my reflections here are those of a person limited cognitively and in perception.  That is to say, my argument is made by a human being, and therefore cannot be taken as truth.  Rather, it evinces a passion for transcending that which may be a misleading and weakening subterfuge.  The content of truth itself is beyond the grasp of even faith in human terms.  So a reader could justifiably fill his or her cup with my argument, then just as easily pour the quickly-stale liquid out and fill up again somewhere else.  I would like to think that there is some accumulation of progress in such a process, but this could just be human hubris too.  Perhaps the process itself is useful in human terms if ridding the world of arrogance and conceit is of any value here.  We, as humans, may be presuming much too much for ourselves, given how we are hard-wired, and yet in presuming we overlook (or presume away) the sheer possibility of it!  Ironically, perhaps in looking internally for strength we might downscale that which we presume to ask for.

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This morning while I was stopped at an intersection in the bike lane of a major street, a Gideon stepped into the lane to hand me one of his little bibles.   Sensing that he was so preoccupied with saving me–the Gideon website refers to the aim of reaching “a lost world with the saving message”–I decided to point out to him that he was breaking the law by entering the lane as a pedestrian.   Assuming the persona of a sergeant in a matter-of-fact tone, I said, “Sir, please remove yourself from the bike lane as it is illegal.”  He was undaunted so I repeated myself…again in an official rather than antagonistic tone.  Finally he backed up and resumed his sales pitch from the sidewalk.  

In assuming that I was “lost” and he had “the saving message,” he was not looking at his own falling-short.  He felt himself entitled not only metaphysically, but legally as well–as if to say, “the law doesn’t apply to me because I’m saved.”  …but Jesus is said to have said he came to fulfill rather than break the law.   I have no problem with Jesus’ teachings…in fact, I value them more than the ways of the world.  This does not mean, however, that claim a superior or false entitlement that gives me license to impose my agenda on others…even breaking the law to do it.  What is the expression…clean up one’s own house before breaking into another to tell another that his or her house is dirty and needs to be cleaned in a certain way?   The irony is that the one doing the p0inting is the lost one….the lapses in his or her imposing being lost to him (or her).  

In discussing the ascetic priest figure in Geneology of Morals (section III), Nietzsche characterizes them as being essentially weak yet not letting that get in their desire to dominate others.   Imposing one’s presumption that the other is lost and is in need of one’s own “saving message” evinces the sort of weakness that seeks to dominate.  When Christianity was the dominant religion in the West, such weakness was not transparent.  Now it is…increasingly so.   The passive aggressive aspect of the imposing can be recognized and put back in its place.  My “official” speak is an example of passive aggression being used to counter the passive aggression.   The Gideon probably felt my reaction as passive aggressive (certainly not friendly), though I doubt very much that he recognized his own.  The breach of personal boundaries, such as by a stranger assuming that he is welcome to discuss religion with me, is itself a form of passive aggression.   I suspect that modern society is blind to many forms of presumption…hence we don’t tend to call the perpetrators on it and return passive aggression in kind.   Instead, we feel guilty in not reacting as the Gideons would like.  The guilt, or self-shame, is a form of weakness, according to Nietzsche, which the weak have been able to convince the strong to take on.   The weak take advantage of the strong’s vulnerability…the weak always have their advantage on their minds, whereas the noble strong do not.  I suspect the power of the strong is in recognizing or making transparent the fecklessness and presumptuousness (as well as the passive aggression) of the dominating weak.   I think a better way of responding to them than “officialism” would be to simply draw attention to the subterfuge being used to dominate.   However, I suspect that like a cat around tuna, such transparency would make little or no difference to one with the imposing agenda.  In away, evangelicals are not far removed from merchants.  Neither group is likely to be free spirits.  Hence my attention is on how we may be freed from them.  What is that about knowing or seeing the truth will set you free?  Let me see, and therein be free of, the true nature of truth-imposers!   We need truth-seekers rather than imposers.   I am assuming that we are all human beings…that no one of us has a monopoly on knowing the truth.   Save us from the redeemers! 

Perhaps the question is: is there any salvation from arrogance?  …which is perhaps in the human condition…all of us being innately presumptuous.  A “saving message” that is accompanied by this quality belies itself.  Invalidating such a message and messenger is not sufficient however, for one to be a free spirit–free of even one’s own internal obstacles. For this, one must face and overcome one’s own arrogance….the presumption in my own “official” warning this morning.   This is not something that can be subcontracted in a bike lane.  The self-emptying of arrogance is not something that is accomplished merely by having the “correct” cognitive metaphysical belief (unlike in Buddhism and Christianity).  Neither can it be done by another who is driving to save others (under the presumption that he or she is already saved).  

I believe we would all be doing modern society a huge favor by concentrating on recognize our own arrogance and presumption.   I think this can be done on an incident by incident basis, generalizing from them to see how these qualities reside in our own personalities and related world-views.   Secondarily, it does not hurt to learn to recognize the sordid qualities in others who profit on them remaining hidden, though “secondarily” because the sliver in another’s eye is difficult to see but for removing the plank in one’s own.  Still, the protection of personal boundaries is a matter of social justice, and therefore justified (though here on the world’s terms) in order to restore the natural equilibrium of mutual rights from the encroachments by some.

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