Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nietzsche's critique of conceptual idolatry...

In "Twilight of the Idols", Friedrich Nietzsche - one of the most virulent opponents of Christianity in the modern age - makes the following observation regarding the tendency of philosophers and thinkers to separate ideas from their historical and sensible existence, turning them into abstract concepts:

"They think they are doing a thing honour when they dehistoricize it... when they make a mummy of it. All that philosophers have handled for millennia has been conceptual mummies; nothing actual has escaped from their hands alive. They kill, they stuff, when they worship, these conceptual idolaters - they become a mortal danger to everything when they worship...

Now they all believe, even to the point of despair, in that which 'is.' But since they cannot get hold of it, they look for reasons why it is being withheld from them. 'It must be an illusion, a deception which prevents us from perceiving that which is: where is the deceiver to be found?' 'We've got it,' they cry in delight, 'it is the senses! These senses, which are so immoral as well, it is they which deceive us about the real world.'"

What is Nietzsche's point here? Essentially, he is arguing that the tendency toward philosophical abstraction leads to a denial of this natural, historical, sensible world, in favor of an abstract world which is nothing more than an idolatrous form of worship, a religious (rather than a properly philosophical) stance that N. finds abhorrent. He would rather that people begin by trusting their senses, and believing that the real world is the one in which we find ourselves.

But, I wonder, is there an implicit criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity, here as well? Knowing N.'s general disdain for the Christian faith (in spite of his respect for Christ as an outstanding human), it would not be unreasonable to assume such a criticism. And what might that look like?

I suggest that N.'s criticism is actually worth taking quite seriously from a theological angle, and has the following form: The tendency with Christian theology, particularly philosophical theology, to frame all discussion of the faith around abstract metaphysical ideas and logical theorems about God, or conceptual descriptions of deep doctrinal questions, does indeed create a sort of "mummification" of Christianity for many believers (and non-believers).

As a counter-measure to such conceptual idolatry, a continually renewed emphasis on the real, historical person and work of Jesus Christ, and the actual call to transformative discipleship in this world, have to be given a higher priority within the theological setting. Doctrinal issues must be discussed, and metaphysical questions are worth pondering, but the real value in the Christian faith lies in its ability to make a real difference in our sensible reality, in the potential to actually create little "pockets" of reality that actually provide a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

Now, this is not a new idea - it has been articulated in one way or another by theologians from the Apostle Paul to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But it seems to me that, perhaps because there is already a sub-discipline of this type, that often such ideas are relegated to the realm of "practical theology", and philosophical theology passes by these questions of how to properly articulate the reality of Christianity in this world in favor of questions that tend toward the abstract. It seems to me that this is out-of-balance and ought to be remedied ... any ideas on how that might take place?


BenMc said...

This is kind of off the wall, but I immediately thought of Rich Mullins' Jesus album (his last unfinished one), which I think was trying to do just that.

N's quotes are amazing. Obviously idolatry is a big concern of the Bible (of the OT and I'd argue of Jesus and Paul as well). I never knew it was a concern of N's!

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