Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Twilight of the Idols: Thoughts On a Haunting Passage

One passage from Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols really struck me as I was reading this evening:
Nothing seems rarer to me today than genuine hypocrisy. I greatly suspect that the soft air of our culture is insalubrious for this plant. Hypocrisy belongs in the ages of strong faith when, even though constrained to display another faith, one did not abandon one's own faith. Today one does abandon it; or, even in either case one remains honest. Without a doubt, a very much greater number of convictions is possible today than formerly: "possible" means permissible, which means harmless. This begets tolerance toward oneself.
Tolerance toward oneself permits several convictions, and they get along with each other: they are careful, like all the rest of the world, not to compromise themselves. How does one compromise oneself today? If one is consistent. If one proceeds in a straight line. If one is not ambiguous enough to permit five conflicting interpretations. If one is genuine.
I fear greatly that modern man is simply too comfortable for some vices, so that they die out by default. All evil that is a function of a strong will- and perhaps there is no evil without strength of will- degenerates into virtue in our tepid air. The few hypocrites whom I have met imitated hypocrisy: like almost every tenth person today, they were actors.
Conviction is a word that rings in my ears and sits in my gut. For me, its tie to religion is almost palpable. However, conviction, so I have had to teach myself, is not a word that can be hijacked by religion alone. Conviction is something that is deeply human; so much so that it quite readily reveals a person's true desire. I see, and I think I understand Nietzsche to see, that hypocrisy occurs when we betray our own convictions. However, the problem is that our convictions are not really convictions anymore as they have become diluted and surrounded by other supposed "convictions." It is equatable to spreading oneself out over five distinct jobs, rather than doing one job as well as possible. The work done on one job that retains a person's sole focus will be noticeably better than work done on five jobs by one person who is simply attempting to get them all done. Likewise, if we attempt to hold five convictions, all of which are actually in dissonance of one another, how can our convictions remain reflections of the part of each of us that we would suppose is truly "me"?

Nietzsche's writing that "this begets tolerance of oneself" is, much like his passage in which the madman declared the death of God, a cry to humanity that we are devaluing ourselves, and it is an inside job. What happens to a person who literally does not believe anything? This is not atheism. It has nothing to do with it. Much as total transcendence and total immanence are actually indistinguishable, so is holding convictions about everything in comparison to holding none whatsoever. What is more is that these diluted convictions create an avenue for the justification of everything, irrelevant to what is labeled right or wrong. Take for example Christian politicians who demonize the poor and pass laws to put the poor at a further disadvantage in society. Is this not in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus who sought to to uplift the poor and see them as blessed in the future for their poor hand in life? Why is this possible if not for the myriad convictions that we only hold when it is convenient for us? For Nietzsche, we have so devalued all our values that even hypocrisy is lost on us. Hypocrisy is not inconsistency, Nietzsche cries, life is now inconsistency. 

Is being genuine even possible, asks Nietzsche? One cannot live under the false ideal that it is possible to live a non-contradictory life. However, contradiction is not the point of Nietzsche's passage. Where does this end? Nietzsche charges that we have so little respect for life, for humanity, for being, that we undermine it at every turn. We have so disrespected what makes us human that even our convictions betray us as they become avenues for political statements rather than the concrete evidence of what we believe is worth sacrificing our own being for. Convictions cannot conflict and remain convictions, less they become ideals. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Doubting T(e)hom(as)

          The words of the much maligned apostle Thomas ring sharply in much of theology today, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20: 25 NIV). Though Thomas is of course referencing the supposed risen Christ, his words have become a universal apparatus for defining what it is like to be unfaithful to any part of Christianity. There is no doubting today for some Christians, so to do so is to be like Thomas, second only to Judas in weakness of faith. Though Thomas eventually regains his faith it is most important to see the manner in which it happens. It is only through affirming a negative that Thomas’ faith returns. Due to the crucifixion, the resurrection is an event of total negation. Thus, Thomas’ affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection is to confirm not that Jesus is alive (it is not that Jesus had been lost but was thought to possibly live), but rather to reveal that Jesus is not dead. It is through a similar mechanism that the process theology of Catherine Keller works in her theology of tehom in relation to God. I argue in this paper that radical doubt is the beginning of true Christian faith as it opens up one’s openness to the possibility of the impossible.
In Face of the Deep Catherine Keller approaches this topic specifically in her chapter Docta Ignoratia. What has resulted in the need for the dominant form of Christian faith to be interchangeable with the one word many fundamentalists fear? This word, of course, is “knowledge.” As Keller points out, the answer to this question is found in Sunday School: “God called the light ‘good,’ so the dark must be ‘bad’” (200). Through this oversimplification of what is “good” and what is “bad” Christianity becomes scared of the dark, so to speak. It will refuse to take on the questions that cannot be answered safely within the confines of Biblical literalism and simple minded appeals to authority. This is the experience of Thomas for the duration of humanity’s existence. Thomas is somehow a fool for wandering around in the dark. He is somehow a fool for simply admitting that he finds the story of the resurrection incredible. Derrida forgive me, but what lies outside the text of John is the fact that the rest of the disciples had their faiths confirmed (read: transformed into knowledge) by Jesus’ appearance to Thomas. What is lost within the common reading of Thomas, however, is the idea that it is only Thomas who can remain faithful (quite literally, full of faith) post-event to God, or more specifically, the possibility of the impossible.
The disciples, outside of Thomas, immediately believed the incredible and found it absurd that Thomas did not believe. What this means in my reading of the story of Doubting Thomas has key implications. The ten disciples (assuming Judas has not been replaced at that time) who did not doubt believe the absurd with nothing that tells them that they should. It is to believe a legend or an unfounded rumor. With Jesus’ revelation of his resurrected body to them their faith immediately is confirmed. The question I must now ask is this: is there any faith left with them? What is impossible? Nothing; and they knew it all along. What does one need overcome through faith when there can be no more obstacles? The disciples avoid the darkness. They turned on the lights in a room until Jesus said to them that it is okay to go outside in the sun. In contrast, what does this event reveal to Thomas? It reveals quite plainly the possibility of the impossible. We are not led to believe that Thomas did not want Jesus’ resurrection to be true, but rather we are led to see the painful doubt of Thomas as he would not create false light where there was only darkness.
Thomas can be seen very easily in Keller’s understanding of negative theologians: “These theologians of negation after all did not offer the truth of a sun beyond the delusions of the cave. They prayed for the darkness beyond the delusions of the sun” (202). The value of my retelling of the story of Thomas, I believe, is that it reveals what faith means when it is not knowledge. Post-event (meaning Jesus’ asking Thomas to place his hand in his scars), Thomas does not just expect the impossible. He must instead realize the possibility of the impossible. What is revealed as the thing which gives Thomas faith? It is an action. Thomas interacts with the impossible, restoring his faith. Never confirming it. Is this not precisely what Keller means when she states that “a theology of becoming may depend upon the apophatic gesture for any credibility of affirmation. For it would articulate a faith with which to face uncertainty, not a knowledge with which to eliminate it” (203). Unlike the other disciples, who when Jesus reveals his resurrection, receive a positive affirmation, Thomas’ faith is the direct result of a direct interaction with the negation of the impossible.
Thomas becomes the only disciple to enter into a Holy Saturday experience. Thomas leaves the light because it is taken away from him and he willingly engages the darkness of unknowing. It is only Thomas who experiences the radical doubt that can be associated with Christianity. It is only Thomas who can ask the question, “why do I believe what I believe?” and “Can I believe this anymore?” It is Thomas who now reveals to us that “the ‘darkness of our ignorance’ is not a fault or a sin” (205). Only Thomas can explore the depths of unknowing post-event. Thomas’ doubt reveals that for him God seems truly impossible to know. He does not pretend to think that anything is possible until he experience the action with God (the impossible becoming possible). Keller quotes Nicholas of Cusa’s hypothetical pagan questioning of Christianity to address this further:
            Pagan: What are you worshiping?
            Christian: God.
            Pagan: Who is the God you worship?
            Christian: I do not know.
            Pagan: How can you so earnestly worship that which you do not know?
            Christian: It is because I do not know that I worship. (205)
Christianity can be seen as the radical religion because it can be easily stated that Christianity desires to say “I do not know.” This is perhaps most obviously experienced with Jesus’ death on the cross, as he cries out, “Where are you?” It is not proper at some point to refer to Christianity as the religion of doubt?
            In Christianity nothing is static, but is rather dynamic, or “becoming” as Keller argues. This is exemplified wonderfully in Kester Brewin’s retelling of parable of the prodigal son in his book Mutiny!. To summarize, Brewin sees the parable from the perspective of the son. It becomes a tragedy. The son, wanting to become his own person, leaves his father’s house where he is taken care of. He succeeds in becoming his own person as he experiences the world for what it is. After a great famine he returns home, but not as his father’s son, but rather as a worker. This is to be compared to the experience of a child going to college and coming back home. Much like a conservative parent who does not want to confront the change within the child, the father runs out to meet his son, gives him a ring and a cloak, all while telling him not to speak. In this way, the son loses his own individuality and is consumed back into the home and nothing is changed. It is like nothing ever happened. Brewin, however, takes this parable and applies it to Jesus. Jesus leaves his home (an assumed Heaven) and enters the world. What happens when God calls Jesus back home, though? Something radically different than what is found in the parable. Jesus refuses to meet his Father and be subsumed back into his original home. He does this because something has to change. As mentioned above, Jesus then cries out “Where are you and why have you forsaken me?”  This reveals that Christianity demands change from everything, including God. Why is God not down here in the muck and the mud with us? “I can only answer thus: ‘I have no idea’” (212).
            It is seen now that the route to Christian faith is through both radical doubt and then action. Both the story of Doubting Thomas and Keller’s tehomic theology reveal the innate radicalness of Christianity. What is perhaps truly revelatory of both my reading of the story of Thomas and Keller’s reading of Genesis is the attempt to truly take the text at its word. One must avoid tehomophobia and recognize that the Judeo-Christian story is one that calls upon people to recognize the darkness. Perhaps it now makes even more sense why Jesus said to his disciples after his interaction with Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” for now we understand that it was obvious that they should first not see in order so that they could ever have faith in the possibility of the impossible.