Christian response

Can Christianity respond to a critique of this kind, a critique which reduces it to suspicion and lies? We return to the points made earlier on how suspicion can engender dialogue.

We noted firstly that dialogue stems from the logic of suspicion itself, from what I have called a ‘logic of implication’. This arises from the fact that suspicion is chiefly concerned with truth and with truthfulness in so far as it is driven by the desire to unmask what is false and inauthentic. If the author of suspicion seeks to expose the ways in which religion functions ‘both to mask and to fulfil forms of self interest which cannot be acknowledged’,[20] he or she must also accept their own vulnerability in this process. They must accept that the evasiveness of human consciousness extends to themselves. No one can claim self transparency and anyone is a potential target for unmasking.

This logic of suspicion unites and elicits insights which are both theological and philosophical. Christian biblical and theological thought does not hold back from pronouncing on the human capacity for self deception and the folly of any pretensions to self transparency. Foucault resonates with this awareness when he says ‘it is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous’.[21] And because of this there is always work to do in challenging pretensions to truth. This point of mutuality is rare in philosophy of religion but it is a good basis for dialogue, especially if it is framed by the sense of fragility of truthfulness which Foucault suggests.

The theologian, Karl Barth recognised the constructive role which suspicion plays against spiritual idolatry. He said that idols are ‘No Gods’ which trade the voice of truth for domesticated versions of it and arise from our desire to be comfortable and safe from the challenge of truth. The more domesticated and familiar, the less recognisable they are as idols. Barth therefore argued that Christians must listen to those prophetic voices from outside our comfortable spaces because they can reveal our idolatry and ‘[t]he cry of revolt against such a god is nearer the truth than is the sophistry with which men attempt to justify him’.[22]

Secondly, suspicion can challenge religious believers to respond in a way which deepens their self understanding. As John Caputo writes, such penetrating critique can serve a prophetic purpose, by ‘holding the feet of religion to the fire of faith’.[23] In that sense, suspicion reminds religion of itself and of its prophetic potential.

In what follows, I will consider some areas of Christian theological thought which can be deepened by Nietzsche’s profile of the Pharisee. Here, Nietzsche shows how self loathing feeds self deception and self enclosure. Imprisoned in his good conscience, the Pharisee creates a world impervious to challenge. The relationship between religious conviction and epistemic closure is indeed corroborated by what one finds in religious fundamentalism, but there are countervailing religious ideas on the issue. For example, the philosopher Kierkegaard was at pains to point out that faith is not epistemic certainty but an orientation of the self toward eternity, a passionate decision in the face of ultimate concern.[24]

Perhaps one of the most pointed warnings against the danger of self enclosure is found in Coleridge’s well known aphorism. He writes: ‘He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all’.[25] This spiritual dynamic of faith is worth analysing. In the important distinctions that Coleridge makes between love of truth and love of Christianity and its specific forms, faith is clearly distinguished from idolatry. Further, according to Coleridge, faithfulness to truth must override faithfulness to Christianity because faith must be sought but never really found in the pharisaical sense. No Christian could claim that they ‘already know what is good and just’. Neither can they claim to ‘possess’ it. Further, it follows that faith is a process of learning and must be protected from idolatry by self reflexivity and by interior vigilance.

So much about the nature of faith, but what about the claim that all ‘the good’ are Pharisees and that all one’s efforts in the spiritual life are corrupted by instrumentality? This broad claim touches all spiritual aspirations everywhere. If the self is never free from itself then there can be no authentic spirituality. All religious devotion is sham and as Hume noted, worship is humanly impossible.

Yet, religion is not caught out by Nietzsche’s observation about the ubiquity of the self. Indeed, most religious traditions recognise that instrumentality towards the divine leads to servility of the spirit. As Thomas Merton writes,

If we remain in our ego, clenched upon ourselves, trying to draw down to ourselves gifts which we then incorporate in our own limited selfish life, then prayer does remain servile. Servility has its roots in self-serving. Servility, in a strange way, really consists in trying to make God serve our own needs...This fact of human nature is recognised and acknowledged at the beginning of prayer in order to rise above it.[26]

In the light of the above, Westphal points out that Merton’s profound spiritual insight can explain why across religious traditions, the spiritual life is protected from the corrupting effects of instrumental self interest by what he calls ‘terminal’ activities, such as prayer, worship and meditation. These spiritual practices are designed to resist instrumentality by celebrating what Westphal calls ‘useless (i.e. non instrumental) self-transcendence’.[27] They recognise Nietzsche’s insight from the beginning, that while the self is ubiquitous, there are ways and means for devotees to reach that place of freedom where instrumentalism does not have the last word.

To argue categorically as Nietzsche does, that human beings are incapable of non-instrumentality is to be bound to the ultimacy of this logic and to a restricted view of human possibility. This is perhaps not surprising, given that instrumentality lies deep within the way we think and live. But it opens up the conversation on views of human nature and of the possibilities of the spiritual life. The Christian contribution to this discussion would refer to the theological notion of grace, to address Nietzsche’s rich profile of the Pharisee who is forever weighed down by the exhausting project of inauthentic self representation. For as Jürgen Moltmann argues, grace pronounces ‘the demonstrative value of [our] being’[28] to release us from the ‘dreadful questions of existence’[29] that surround the instrumental approach to human worth.

However, suspicion can also divide the interlocutors. It can reveal the fact that they inhabit different worlds. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who read Nietzsche closely, bemoaned the prevalence of instrumental religion in the Christianity of his day. He identified it as the ‘cheap grace’[30] which trades self-serving religion for the radical experience of self-surrendering discipleship. However, while agreeing with Nietzsche about the lure of self-affirming illusion in religion, Bonhoeffer maintains against Nietzsche that true freedom comes from self surrender to God. In answer to Nietzsche’s analysis of the Christian life, Bonhoeffer puts forward the radical Christian understanding of power which challenges Nietzsche’s understanding, not only of freedom, but also of weakness.[31] Clearly sharpened by his engagement with Nietzsche’s psychological insights into the slavish uses of weakness, Bonhoeffer articulates a notion of ‘Christian weakness’ which is understood in relation to the imitation and discipleship of Christ. This ‘weakness’ is cultivated by the challenge of a courageous and robust character that constantly resists idolatry by self-reflexive learning. Thus Bonhoeffer starkly opposes a comfortable view of God with the Christ of the cross. He addresses Nietzsche’s contempt for Christian ideas of redemption and his rejection of ‘that wretched of all trees’ with this statement of Christian distinctiveness: he writes:

If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a [false] God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where He will be...that place is the cross of Christ.[32]