The “Kantian” and “Nietzschean” threads of evangelical piety

There are certain rhetorical moves that evangelicals make in their arguments to “out-pious” their interlocutors. For example, if you can find a way to say that the other person is talking about everything except Jesus while all that you’re saying is “It’s all about Jesus,” then you win the argument. The evangelical market never runs out of room for books by celebrity pastors whose thesis is “Nobody has done this before, but I’m going to share with you a gospel that is 100% just about Jesus.” Another tactic evangelicals use to win arguments is to claim that the other person is being “anthropocentric” (man-centered) while you’re being “theocentric” (God-centered). I have been tickled to see Doug Campbell turn this tactic on its head in his take-down of “decision for Christ” soteriology in The Deliverance of God. But for this rough draft of a piece, I’m particularly interested in examining what I would call the “Kantian” and “Nietzschean” threads of evangelical piety about God’s nature. These aren’t threads which I could trace historically to the thoughts of Immanuel Kant or Friedrich Nietzsche, but they definitely echo instincts that are representative of their respective thoughts.

Immanuel Kant is what I would call the father of modern objectivity (or at least his name has come to function as a symbol for modern objectivity in my mind). The idea of “Kantian” objectivity is that truth can only be apprehended accurately in the absence of emotion or subjective personal investment. Obviously there is a lot of soundness to this. If I have a vested interest in believing something to be true or false, I can be deluded by confirmation bias. And strong emotions are going to skew my ability to think clearly.

But what if I try to say that whatever is unattractive to me must be true, because of the converse claim that if I rationalize an idea since it’s attractive, then I’m probably not thinking rationally about it? Must the truth be sufficiently unattractive in order to prove that it’s not the product of projected wish-fulfillment on the part of the believer? In complementarian evangelical circles, questions of gender get involved. While women have a tendency to succumb to “emotions” and “sentimentality” when talking about difficult topics like God’s wrath, men are able to dispassionately describe “the truth” (which is measured in direct proportion to its unattractiveness).

In classical Western discourse, there have always been three supreme measures of worth: goodness, truth, and beauty. But when this sort of popularized “Kantian” objectivity becomes the hidden presupposition, beauty ceases to be a legitimate measure of value, because beauty is measured intuitively and subjectively rather than by dispassionate logical deduction. A gospel that is beautiful must be false because it’s attractive and thus can’t be trusted not to be a product of the believer’s “feelings.” Thus, the more pious evangelicals are, in this regard, the uglier a gospel they should be expected to share, so that no one can say that they’re talking about the Jesus they “want” to believe in.

Now there’s another dimension to evangelical piety that echoes the instincts of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thought could be described as a rebellion against the banality of the liberal German Protestantism of Adolf Harnack and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Nietzsche describes Christianity as an effeminate religion of the weak with virtues like meekness, humility, gentleness, kindness, and so forth instead of the “masculine” heroic virtues of classic pagan civilization like pride, courage, and leadership. Nietzsche considered himself a champion of what he called the Dionysiac wild side of human nature, named after the Greek god Dionysus who was the god of wine and revelry. Greek mythology is filled with stories of Dionysus wreaking havoc on overly prude kings like Pentheus of Thebes. In Euripedes’ Bacchae, when Dionysus enchants the women of Thebes to join him on a hillside orgy and Pentheus sneaks up on them, Dionysus causes the women to rip Pentheus’ body apart and play soccer with his head.

There is a dimension of Dionysiac wildness to evangelical Christianity especially among those with a “cage fighter Jesus” theology. This makes pretty good sense since evangelicalism is a mostly suburban phenomenon, and suburban people are generally stuck (at least from my experience) in pretty banal, tedious lives, whether in the office, on the freeway, at the department store, or in the Little League bleachers. So why shouldn’t church be a place where you go to get a euphoric rock and roll experience and hear a message about a God who’s going to kick some !@#$%^&*? I think it’s the allure of the Dionysiac that causes evangelicals to scapegoat the “domesticated Jesus.” I’m not saying it’s entirely a straw man (though I will say it can be). I have encountered plenty of Christians who aren’t comfortable with the fact that Jesus bled real blood on the cross and who don’t like it when I use phrases like “the fear of God.” But I have also encountered a zeal for making Jesus barbaric that goes far past merely having a sense of integrity.

It’s this same kind of feeling that makes a lot of evangelicals fantasize on their facebook pages about the world ending hopefully very soon. They aren’t actually thinking about the horrific implications of their Armageddon lust. It’s more a need for something significant and earth-shattering to happen so that business as usual cannot continue since we live in what feels like the most anti-heroic time in all of history. It’s a need for the eschaton, the new era that Jesus proclaimed, which itself is entirely appropriate. It’s very hard to live in the new (though 2000 year old) kingdom that Jesus created. The powers and principalities of suburgatory are so suffocating and strong. So I can appreciate the yearning for a wild biker Jesus who crashes through the gates of our sheltered lives. Just don’t hate on the Beatitudes.

24 thoughts on “The “Kantian” and “Nietzschean” threads of evangelical piety

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  3. A formal syllogism should have a major premise, minor premise and conclusion.

    Here is a common Augustinian syllogism:

    Major: All men are sinners.
    Minor: Babies are human.
    Conclusion: Therefore, Babies are sinners.

    The obvious problem with it is that the major premise is not worded properly. “All men are sinners” should have been worded “All men if they live long enough, will sin,” and this would have cut off the possibility of the conclusion which is clearly erroneous.

    Syllogisms are generally based on faulty or imprecisely worded major premises.

  4. In all this interesting discussion, I see one neglected factor: The Truth is Jesus Christ, not a syllogism or a sentiment. Both left and right have seriously abandoned this foundational reality of the Christian faith. Unless we wrestle with it, we will never move past the old battles of rationalism into Kingdom life.

    • Sure. But I do need to name that you’re playing a pretty common rhetorical card here (it’s all about Jesus; you haven’t dropped his name enough in what you’ve written; therefore I don’t have to engage anything you’ve said directly). I believe that the truth is Jesus Christ because he’s the logos theou and the one from whom all reality originates. I also believe that I have no idea what I’m saying when I say Jesus is the truth and that you have no idea what you’re saying when you make that statement either. When Jesus says, “Eimi aletheia,” is he referring to the lack of hiddenness in the Greek conception of truth (a + lanthano — to conceal) or is he referring back to the Hebrew amanah in which truth and faithfulness are synonymous? Two very different evocative conceptions of truth between the two languages! Or do you think that all that exegetical mumbo-jumbo is irrelevant to the conversation? What if part of worshiping God and marveling at His truth consists in “making things way too complicated” and asking these kinds of questions? The Jews think it’s supposed to be an endless conversation. I’m not sure why so many Christians want theology to be a reductionist enterprise.

      In any case, what concrete aspect of the observations I’m making in this piece suggests to you that I “have seriously abandoned this foundational reality of the Christian faith” that Jesus is the truth? Sorry if this is prickly but I needed to call your bluff and I tend to be somewhat of a smart-aleck.

      • I enjoyed your response. I do not want to be reductionist, nor do I wish to short circuit the discussion of the significant theological issues that you raise. My point is that if we take seriously that Jesus is The Truth in which one or more of these meanings pertain, then we are placing the rationalistic discussion inside a rather different context than we do otherwise–and I would argue that this is a problem for both left and right in the church, who have adopted a faith in reason, rather than a faith in a person/God.
        The Jesus is Truth context requires us to view our syllogistic reasoning from additional angles that include the fact that the Truth is a characteristic of God which is never to be completely separated from the essence/Being of God in Christ, a Being that is not really comparable to the being of the created order, William of Ockham notwithstanding. We then face our syllogisms with a humility that we must have before the mystery of God. Our truths then must point to the mystery of God in Christ Jesus without pretending to define, limit, reduce him as some do when they make Jesus fit their tight systematic theologies on the evangelical and left sides.
        I realize this is not well put or sufficiently developed, but it is a point of departure that is different from Kant or any nihilist. And, I would suggest that our apprehension of truth must involve person to person relationship with Christ, and hence our sense of truth would be more akin to love than abstract reason.

        • Okay this is embarrassing. Explain the term syllogism. I’ve read plenty of books where I’ve seen it used and usually I get it from the context but I’ve never been given a precise definition for it.

      • Syllogism is where you make one point, consider it established, and use it to make the next point, and it keeps going from there….like the Pauline epistles basically. So if howerw3 is arguing that the truth is Jesus (i.e. the gospel of Matthew) rather than ‘syllogisms’ (i.e. the Pauline epistles), I’d say I agree. But I doubt that’s what he/she means.

  5. Pingback: Don’t disdain the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel « Mercy not Sacrifice

  6. “Must the truth be sufficiently unattractive in order to prove that it’s not the product of projected wish-fulfillment on the part of the believer? In complementarian evangelical circles, questions of gender get involved. While women have a tendency to succumb to “emotions” and “sentimentality” when talking about difficult topics like God’s wrath, men are able to dispassionately describe “the truth” (which is measured in direct proportion to its unattractiveness).”

    Good grief, this sounds exactly like the theology I grew up with in hyper-conservative Lutheranista-dom in the 1960s. Think God is calling you to be a teacher? Obviously not. If you think that’s God’s call on your life, then that’s proof positive that it’s not. Are you a woman? Think that a little kindness wouldn’t hurt every now and then? Obviously, you’re hysterical and probably mentally ill, like most women. Emotions can’t be trusted; they might lead to illicit sex.

    • “While women have a tendency to succumb to ’emotions’ and ‘sentimentality’ when talking about difficult topics like God’s wrath, men are able to dispassionately describe ‘the truth’ (which is measured in direct proportion to its unattractiveness).” It sounds like you read this as a way of thinking that I personally espouse, when I was actually naming rhetorical tactics that repulse me even though they’re never cast so nakedly.

    • Amazingly you proved the sterotype true for yourself at least. Your kneejerk emotional response shows you you are too emotional to even understand what an author is writing.

  7. Morgan,
    Aside from a couple little details, this is the kind of post on these strains of thought I’ve been thinking would be a good idea. You laid out what you’re talking about with unnecessarily linking various movements or figures, etc.

    As always, couple little push-backs:
    1. I think we need a term then for the positive Dionysiac/Kantian in the Biblical character of Jesus, the Aslan-like “He is not tame, but he is good.” The idea that God is good, not necessarily in ways that are immediately pleasant because he calls us to take up our cross to follow him, and sometimes permits us to suffer discipline out of love. Any ideas?

    2. I think we’ve hit the difference between our uses of the word “objective.” You’re talking about objectivity in the sense of personal involvement. Sometimes that legitimately can be a value, but that’s not really what I’m usually talking about. I’m talking about not-relative, not merely subjective, something taking place outside the subjective consciousness. So, when I’m talking about some kind of objective justice for God, really, it’s objective to us, but subjective to God. He’s involved with it, and it’s not dependent on how we think or feel about it.

    Good stuff, man.

    • Yeah I think there’s ultimately a constructive place for both of these impulses and there is obviously a legitimate critique of the banality of different facets of liberal Christianity, romanticism, etc. It was after all the same Christianity that Nietzsche hated which was so impotent in the face of the Holocaust.

      Regarding the “objectivity” question, I think what I’m opposed to perhaps for aesthetic reasons is the concept that there is an “abstract order” which supersedes God’s love, which is a different question than whether there is an absolute reality to God which supersedes our subjective apprehension of it. I want to be able to say that even if I can’t understand everything God commands us to do, it is for the sake of creating perfect communion with Him and humanity (either worship/loving God or hospitality/loving neighbor).

      I don’t think God needs to have commands that are strictly “because I said so” for the sake of His sovereignty. Perhaps I just don’t understand what the reformed folks mean when they say that God’s purpose is to “glorify Himself,” but that would be an example of abstraction that’s troubling to me. I would put that self-glorification inside of the greater telos of love. Insofar as it’s pastorally relevant to me and those I teach, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that God’s purpose is to “reconcile all things to Himself.” I don’t think I’m ever being untruthful when someone says, “Why does God tell us to do X?” to answer “Because he loves you.”

      • I can go with most of that. I certainly don’t think God’s commands are of the “because I said so” variety, although there are times when it might feel like that. Also, there is just this thing in me that feels like, “You know, screw it, he’s freakin’ God, quit arguing.” Mostly that’s because I know he’s good and I’m stupid, though. I’m still working through the “self-glorification” + “communion” relationship. The Westminster Catechism puts them both equally in the chief end of man. “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Piper goes on to say, “To glorify God by enjoying him forever.” In which case, yes, God’s commands are there because he loves us. I’d want to also say that the objective order is the order of his holy love.

        • Okay here’s what just came to me. The most loving thing that God does is to give us His beauty because that is the source of our lives’ meaning. To glorify Himself is simply to gleam more perfectly than the hottest diva supermodel in front of the paparazzi in a way that has integrity because He is beauty rather than being an imposter diva who thinks she’s a goddess for superficial carnal reasons.

          What I don’t think is that God’s glory is the hideous sublime of the infamous Jonathan Edwards’ sermon in which the elect are filled with ecstatic worship to watch the torture of the damned. I think it’s more pastorally responsible to narrate the ineffable reality of God’s presence analogically as an overwhelming beauty that will damn those who need to be divas and bless those who want to worship their Creator. The lake of fire describes the hate that an inherently subordinating and humiliating holy love is to someone who has to be the emperor of his own universe. The outer darkness describes the utter loneliness that a diva feels to watch someone else being worshiped and enjoyed forever.

          There is not somehow a greater integrity in narrating this scene as Edwards does just because it scratches our Kantian/Nietzschean itch by being politically incorrect and abominably distasteful. I don’t think I compromise anything essential by telling the story as I have. I’m unconvinced that there are valid reasons to cling exclusively to the juridical metaphor when in our social context a judge signifies a figure whose hands are tied by mandatory sentencing guidelines and is anything but sovereign over an impersonal legal code to which s/he must submit. God’s law is subordinate to God’s person. Jesus rebelled against every impersonal, “objective” application of the law that was abstracted from love of God and neighbor. God’s subjectivity supersedes God’s objectivity. He is the king who has the right to say to His vassals, “You failed to do what we agreed so I’m going to do it for you to show my perfect righteousness.”

          • Various points which I will not explain, simply bullet:
            1. Edwards also wrote sermons entitled “Heaven is a world of love.” Also, in context, he wasn’t scratching a Kantian itch. He just lived in a culture more okay with hearing about judgment.
            2. I’m find with your first paragraph except for the word diva, but that’s just a personal thing. That’s actually a quite Edwardsian point.
            3. Our social context demands that we explain the juridical metaphor more properly, not abandon it. God’s fatherhood is troubling in our context, but we need it all the more.

          • “He just lived in a culture more okay with hearing about judgment.” Really, so falling on the ground to worship God over watching somebody else’s torture is only repugnant to me because I’m not mature enough to consider the sobriety of God’s judgment? We have to be able to call that sadism, or else that same theology can be used to justify an ethics which has nothing to say against genocide if a really holy person like Cotton Mather declares that the ineffable will of God to massacre the Iroquis has been revealed to him.

            Please just say that sermon is indefensible. It doesn’t discredit the whole of Edwards’ corpus of thought by any means. I realize that it’s unfair that all the public high school kids read that one sermon and the Scarlet Letter and that’s what Puritanism is to them. But there is nothing godly about worshiping torture. Period. If I can’t make that assertion, then Christian ethics has no meaning.

            You’re exuding here exactly what I’m talking about with Kantian rhetorical piety by the way. Take a look at how you claim the higher ground with the rhetorical moves you’re making.

          • Morgan, I would never preach it. I don’t believe it. Yes, I think it’s wrong and I’ll say that, but part of my reaction your constant picking at historical theological giants is to push back and say you have no idea what theology you’d come up with at a different time and place as you sit here in judgment. There’s an element to all great historical figures that you look at and say, “Well, he was a man of his times. It’s wrong, but given that period, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have fallen prey to it myself.” I’m glad to hear you say that it doesn’t discredit the entire theological corpus, because usually that’s all I hear with these sorts of, “Well, you know Calvin, bla bla Servetus blab la I don’t have to listen to him.” I mean, yes, Servetus, that’s a big deal. Totally, Luther’s anti-Semitism. Definitely MLK Jr’s selfish adultery that almost pulled down the Civil rights movement, etc. I dunno, I guess I just get a little defensive because sometimes the comments seem so needless.

            And if I’m exuding this piety you’re talking about well then I need to think about that. I really do. At the same time, I ought to come up with some suitable term, a Foucaldian and I don’t know what other name, for the rhetorical moves you’re always making to claim the higher ground in the opposite direction. Claiming to present the truly “loving” option, the less petty, the one that doesn’t fit in with the bourgeois mentality of mainstream Evangelicalism that you’ve escaped because you’ve seen the light, the non-fundy, non-hateful God, etc.– moves that gain applause in other emergenty, liberalish (though I’m not calling you a liberal) wings of the church. See Morgan, you do the same damn thing only you play to a different crowd—the crowd that sees it as a badge of honor to feel like you wouldn’t fit in at the Gospel Coalition.

            Well, as always, I love man.

          • We all have our own “pieties.” I think that’s the term I’ve decided to use for the rhetorically sneaky moves that we make to take “higher ground” falsely. Certainly my tendency is to go for deconstruction often using the -isms of identity politics rather than the objectivity of modernity. We need to be able to call something wrong even if it happened at a different time, but not then make the follow-up move of discrediting a thinker categorically for being a product of his/her time. Augustine is still a genius today even though it’s okay to say that he was an imbecile on infant baptism.

            I think what I most want to affirm in general is a place for the pragmatic and the aesthetic within discourse about the gospel. We’re not just looking for the most accurate way of telling the story. We’re also looking for the most beautiful way of telling the story given whatever appropriate boundaries need to be set and the way of telling the story that results in the most fruitful response. I think I’m going to make a really short blog about that right there.

          • I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been convinced more recently that we need to strive to present a beautiful Gospel. That’s what I tried to convey to my kids last night. The Gospel is news that brings joy–the song of the heart. (Honestly, I can’t think of a better definition that doesn’t just verge into ‘happiness’ simpliciter.) The Gospel should make your heart dance, clap, and sing with Joy like Psalm 98 talks about. Sometimes the background of the Gospel, sin, death, etc. is a bit of a shock, but only to set up the greater shock of the joy of grace, forgiveness, self-giving, pure love.

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