Nietzsche in November

November 21, 2010

We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too.  Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.

Some people have a problem with that.

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.

This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him).  Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves.  If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth.  Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”

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Kierkegaard and why we need a Church

September 27, 2010

Over the past year in a couple of the classes I’ve taken, I’ve had the pleasure of dabbling is some of the middle and late works of Søren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard is a literary genius—passionate, ironic, employing different genres and pseudonyms to keep his readers always just a bit off balance.

Some of the characters he creates are Christians, others not, and it’s always tricky to figure out where exactly the writer himself stands in the midst of his literary labyrinths.  But by the end of his life, Kierkegaard was both writing openly as a Christian and saying some pretty challenging things about Christianity.

Kierkegaard is often associated with fideism and at times he seems to be arguing that Christians necessarily must embrace logical contradictions, which seems neither very Biblical nor very sensible to me.  But there are ways of talking Kierkegaard down off his fideistic ledge and separating what is profound and challenging in his work from what is rhetorical excess.  Not everything a character says, after all, should be attributed to the author.

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Tourists & Pilgrims

May 3, 2010

Instead of heading south for spring break this year, as most sensible people do, I went to South Dakota.  I didn’t go for the beaches, but instead to visit the Jesuit community on the Rosebud Reservation.  The cultural milieu of the “Rez” is fascinating, and the Jesuits who live there are fine hardworking men.

One conversation in particular got me thinking.  We were discussing the summer Sun Dances, native religious rituals in which men dance—sometimes for several days without sustenance—and pierce their skin as a way of offering sacrifice to the divine.  Someone remarked that at a Sun Dance he had visited the previous summer there were more German tourists than Lakota worshippers.

I found the incident disturbing in different ways.  Though obviously not a practitioner of non-Christian “traditional” religion myself, I couldn’t help but feel that the practices of those traditions had been somehow cheapened when reduced to a spectacle for tourists.

For me the more disturbing question, however, is what the phenomenon of the Teutonic Sun Dance says about the spiritual grounding of Westerners.  Is part of the reason so many German tourists find the Sun Dance so alluring the lack of spiritual sustenance in their own culture? Read the rest of this entry »