“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”~2 Corinthians 7:10
Unforgiven. Not just a song by Metallica, but also a worry of many of us who have sinned deeply against God. This is a big one for me. There is a pull inside me to say: “Screw it. I am going to live a Nietzschean life since there is no hope for me anyway.”
But according to Catholic theology, such an attitude would be the sin of despair, a sin which can lead one to final impenitence. Why are we not to despair? Because the Lord is able to heal us.
It is not easy for me to believe that, since I have scandalized so many people by my public doubts and anti-Christian statements. If anyone deserves to be cut off from the Lord, it is I. But it would be a sin-on-top-of-sin to think that I am so far gone that the Lord cannot forgive me. He can forgive even those who repudiate him intentionally, like me and other men and women like me.
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Why is it that I do not go to confession? Because I am at war with myself! The battle rages between two fundamentally divergent paths: the way of Nietzsche and the way of St. Thomas.
Nietzsche represents the will to power – the proclamation of myself as the master of myself. Thomas represents the proper ordering of all my goods and talents to their fitting end: the one true God.
I have a feeling that the battle between these two voices will never cease in my head. But I must choose one side and make war against the other. To do nothing is already a decision in favor of Nietzsche, albeit in a watered-down and self-deceived manner.
One of the things that makes it difficult for me to return to the Catholic faith is the shame – the scarlet letter type of shame. Perhaps many lapsed or apostate Christians feel the same way. Facebook makes it all the more interesting, since the question emerges: What does that mean for all of those who have defriended us, perhaps understandably?
The only thing that makes me have any hope of returning to the Catholic Church is the sacrament of confession. That is sort thing that can alleviate the fear of wearing a scarlet letter. That said, it is appealing for a sinner to live a life of acceptance amongst secularists rather than risk being given a scarlet letter.
Ultimately the decision rests solely upon that singular question: to follow Christ or not? In some senses, I sort of wouldn’t mind wearing the scarlet letter if I returned to Christ. If he is the Lord, then I deserve the shame that is justly applied to those who shut the door on him.
Evil is perplexing. It entices us because it can get us some of the things we want: power, revenge, status, or even necessary goods. But the way-of-evil is ultimately one which only terminates in the death of all living things. Craving power, for instance, cannot be satisfied until one rules the entire world, and once one attains that feat, then one must continually strive for greater control and mastery until one takes everything from one’s victims, including their lives.
What is the end game for someone like Palpatine, or Littlefinger, or Walter White? They want to continue to gain more and more power. When will the be satisfied? If they are truly evil, then they can never be satisfied. They must expand until they rule over everything, and then they must rule with an ever increasing degree of control. Note: when I say evil is stupid, I do not mean that evil acts cannot be done with great craft, industry, and even a certain intellectual mastery. I am referring the logical consequence of opening the door of evil, which is not the slippery slope argument, but rather an exposition of the inner dynamics of evil actions.
The most evil people in history have had no friends. They trust no one but themselves, and manipulate everyone else like pieces on their chessboard. When we ponder the allure of evil, it is always good to look up and see the destination that such a road will take us. But here is the kicker: if there are no objective moral values, then the quest for absolute power is just as “good” as anything else.
I have to confess that without Thomism I have no philosophical basis on which to judge Palpatine or Littlefinger. You might recognize the irony in this statement, since I am a bad Catholic who walks more of the way of Nietzsche than Thomas. So I must be honest and recognize that my sense of morality is either: (1) simply an emotional impulse useful for survival and reproduction (in which case I can ignore it without being evil), or (2) something that does have an objective basis, which seems impossible to me apart from something like Thomism.
Lots of people are joining the chorus in praise of doubt. Their point is that doubt and faith go hand in hand, and that doubt is a sign of an “authentic” Christian faith. I have had many battles with Thomas Aquinas (most of which I find myself losing), but I have always agreed with him concerning faith and doubt: they are incompatible. Faith is a type of certain knowledge, whereas any belief mixed with doubt is only an opinion. (ST II.II.Q.1.A.4-5)
Every day I wrestle with a haunting choice: to repent and turn again to Christ and his Church, or to do something else, most likely to press toward that eschatological goal of becoming an Ubermensch. But I do not fancy repentance as simply a change of opinions. Repentance is an act of both the will and the intellect, a cleaving with certainty and assurance that the Messiah is Jesus, that he is the Lord of all gods and devils.
The people who praise doubt do not make the distinction between the effects of doubt and the ontology of doubt. All Christians should admit that doubt can have a good effect upon us, in as much as God can bring a good result out of our evil. But the ontology of doubt is uncertainty with reference to beliefs or relationships, something that is incompatible with faith: which is a form of certain knowledge that Jesus is Lord.
I noticed that I have been unfairly critical of Christianity, probably because that is my own background and the tradition to which I have the closest relationship. But that is not ethical. So as I explore things from now on, and engage in the quest for truth, I will try to be less critical and one-sided. I am not a model Christian by any stretch, since I have not only opened myself to possibility of other beliefs, I have also nurtured my doubts. Furthermore, I have been too critical of my tradition. Many of my Christian friends have been making a lot of sense in their interactions with me.
Many are aware that there is a pastor from Seattle called Mark Driscoll, a pastor who has said some very ugly and demeaning things about women. He doesn’t do this directly necessarily. But when he speaks about how men should be there is an implied slander and prejudice against females. For instance, in a pseudonymous comment that Driscoll made in 2000, Driscoll wrote:
It all began with Adam, the first of the pussified nation, who kept his mouth shut and watched everything fall headlong down the slippery slide of hell/feminism when he shut his mouth and listened to his wife who thought Satan was a good theologian when he should have lead her and exercised his delegated authority as king of the planet. As a result, he was cursed for listening to his wife and every man since has been his pussified sit quietly by and watch a nation of men be raised by bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers.
Notice that Driscoll wrote this comment under the name William Wallace II. Because he never used such language in the light of public, it makes one wonder whether the extremes of his chauvinism were secretly encoded in his public messages.
Wise readers will note that Driscoll does not represent all or most evangelical Christians when it comes to his demeaning views. The fact that a number of his close friends have kicked him out of their church network bears witness to this. But before these comments came out, many of his friends did not take issue with his views about femininity and masculinity. They accepted what he said as biblical. We might never know how much of Driscolls chauvinism has been delivered to his hearers. Perhaps the coded way in which he phrased his words in public disguised the same philosophy he espoused in private, a philosophy that was bizarrely demeaning to women.
I fear that Driscoll’s demeaning view of women opens the door to other things, to various kinds of social, emotional, and physical violence against women. Added to that, his views are an offense against the truth, the truth that women are equally suited to being pastors and theologians. Driscoll’s harmful view toward women is not scientifically or biblically credible. Only the person who wants to be forever ignorant – or who has some sort of a desire to see women marginalized – would sit and learn from men alone. This is not an exaggeration. Driscoll is part of a network of church leaders who do not allow women to teach men theology or scripture. To me that prohibition is so bizarre and inhumane.
Driscoll does not represent the best of religious attitudes toward women. Perhaps he should expose himself to learning from women, of being under their authority. When I was at Gordon Conwell, I had the opportunity to study with some great female scholars, and had numerous conversations with women who were preparing to be pastors and scholars. I can honestly say that the growth I experienced from my conversations with female theologians was the most significant thing I learned at Gordon Conwell. It really is amazing how those conversations formed habits in my soul, habits that led me to ask a lot of questions about the Catholic view on femininity. We can learn from Driscoll’s mistakes so that we do not repeat them.
One of the worst things a movie can be is inauthentic. This is one of the reasons why so many of the so-called Christian movies are not very good, nor are movies that have overt political agendas from either the right or the left. The best movies reflect the difficult ambiguities of real life, what Aristotle called mimesis. And one of the marks of the U.S. cinema in recent years is its inauthenticity with reference to the population of the United States.
The United States is far more dynamic than the movies suggest. In order to be authentic, we would need to see more Asian, Black, and Hispanic leading men and women. Some people might fear that this would lead to the political correctness of the cinema. Perhaps that is a danger. But surely it is possible to hold two things together: (1) more leading roles for people of color and (2) authentic storytelling.
My opinion is that until the U.S. film industry begins to promote more actors of color in leading roles, then there will be an inauthentic strain that runs through its films. I am not merely trying to be politically correct. The goal of film is to capture the truth, to tell a story that portrays the essence and the moment of a particular time and place. So then why are the stars in U.S. films disproportionately white? What we need is more authentic stories that capture the essence of the multicultural time and place in which we live, stories told from the perspective of the various colors and genders represented in this society.
I have heard great things about Mark Smith’s historical explorations into the very beginnings of biblical monotheism, but I have not studied his writings in any depth. I can already sense a problem however in his book, a problem that seems common to all historians who have to reconstruct theories in the iron age. The historical reconstructions rest upon small fragments of evidence, lots of intuition, and very small sample sizes. What that means is that “consensus” in this branch of historiography is not as meaningful as consensus in some other branches.
One of the things that history seems to bear out time and time again is that the unfolding of events is often not intuitive. Small changes here could have large ramifications there. One experience of an individual might make him unique in reference to his contemporaries. In short, intuition is often a misleading compass when it comes to the “seemingness” of what could or could not have happened in the life of a person and/or community.
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Some of us who have read Nietzsche have held secret thoughts of becoming like him, not in the sense of growing out a long mustache and mimicking his gestures, but in affirming ourselves in the way that he does. But there is a problem. His unique manner of self-affirmation is bound up with his philosophy – particularly with his view of truth and the real world, a view which can be summarized as “the celebration of anti-realism as if it were realism.”
There is a distinction, however, that can be made when it comes to self-affirmation. One can at least imagine a different type of self-affirmation, one that is consistent with humility, one that does not require us to write as if we were narcissists (i.e. “I am not a man, I am dynamite.”) In fact, it is possible that the best type of self-affirmation is available for those who have an honest estimate of themselves. But what might this type of self-affirmation look like?
My great hero is Don Quixote, or should I say, one particular interpretation of Don Quixote (a great thing about Don Quixote is the manifold ways in which he can be understood). I look upon Quixote as a man whose sense of self-affirmation is bound up with the respect he shows other people. To think of the Quixote as an elitist would, on my reading of him, be at most a half-truth. He was able to esteem in a sincere way many of those who were deemed shameful in his society. And he was unfazed by the ridicule that was heaped up upon him for living his life in this way.
Of course one could read him in a Nietzschean way, as the celebration of anti-realism as if it were realism, or one could read him in an altogether different way, as celebrating anti-realism because it is more desirable than realism (something odious to the Nietzschean or Platonic spirit I think). But I prefer to read him as a man with a conflicted sense of reality, someone who was aware of the evil aspect of the human character, at least subconsciously, but someone who nevertheless chose to live a life with a sense of dignity for himself and respect for other people.
It is my suspicion that the Nietzschean form of self-affirmation is a type of narcissism. I admit that I could be mistaken about this claim. But I want to know – honestly and sincerely – how I can live a life of Nietzschean self-affirmation without cultivating a devotion to myself – a cult of Doug whose temple is my mind. I don’t see how it is possible. Self-affirmation that is divorced from a realist notion of the human person (or at least open to the realist notion of the human person) seems to require a denial of the self (i.e. Buddhism) or a self-affirmation that is out of harmony with truth and being (i.e. narcissism).
To me it seems that the best way to affirm ourselves is to do so in a Quixotian way [Note: Quixotian does not equal Quixotic]. We should be happy with ourselves in relation to our pursuit of goodness and in proportion to the respect we give to other people. One enemy of this type of self-affirmation is narcissism – not only the narcissism of Palpatine or Petyr Baelish, but the narcissism of the over scrupulous activist or religionist, the type of person who views himself to alone carry the light of truth and morality, who labels everyone else as idolaters or compromisers, the one whose sense of self-loathing drives him to lock the bathroom door, to curse at his reflection in the mirror, to mutilate his flesh with razors, to flog himself while no one is looking with a whip or a belt. [Note: I am not pronouncing judgment on every person who has ever done such things, or even pronouncing judgment on those who view themselves to be the sole torch-bearers of truth. I am speaking to them in love and respect, since I realize that the things that drive people to do such things are often complex, and that it is best to find some way for them to dissolve their self-loathing without disguising it under the veil of activism or religionism.]
In short, perhaps the best way to affirm ourselves is to find a way to truly be humble – to look ourselves in the mirror and to accept ourselves for who we really are. [Note: self-affirmation does not in any way mean to celebrate our vices.] We should question whether our loathing for this or that person is really a form of self-loathing in disguise. To go on a quest for goodness and truth that is at the same time a commitment to respecting other people: this seems to me to be the best way to nurture and care for our souls, to accept ourselves as ourselves, and to affirm what we see in the mirror. The narcissistic form of self-affirmation seems to rest on the unstable ground of falsehood – an imaginary idea of ourselves which is suspended over nothing, destined to fall to the ground and shatter, or else to forever remain a form of escapism.
The man who truly loves himself is the man who does not fancy himself to be the man, the myth, and the legend. Such a person’s sense of worth is bound up with his acceptance by others. But neither does it seem good for our self-worth to be bound up with a denial of ourselves – the no-self doctrine of the mainline Buddhist traditions, whether one takes the no-self doctrine in a realist sense or a therapeutic sense. The best sense of self-worth seems to be bound up with a true estimate of ourselves and other people. To go on a quest to do truly great things, to live a truly great life, these things should be held together with a respect for other people, even when they do not respect us. I call this the Quixotian form of life, all the while acknowledging that my own reading of the Quixote is only one possible reading.
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