Modern Theological Markers: Nietzsche and Darwin

I have chosen Nietzsche and Darwin as modern theological markers: Nietzsche of nihilism and its accompanying despair and Darwin of the “becoming” of life and hope.

For Nietzsche, the core of Christian and Judaic religions was “life denying” because of their conception of a god, “out there.” That is not to say that the purpose of life is limited in Nietzsche’s view to one’s self interests. He acknowledged that individuals have a social responsibility. For Nietzsche, the source of redemption for the human race was to be found in aesthetic expression, as represented by Greek tragedy, as personified in the cults of Dionysus and Apollo. In Greek thought, the god, Dionysus, represented the emotional dynamic of life, the desire of the individual to escape the sense of loneliness and separation through drunkenness and surfeit indulgence. Nietzsche recognized the destructive power of excessive self indulgence and isolating pleasures. In Greek culture the individual also needs the restraining influence of Apollo, or reason. Even Epicurean philosophers of Greece recognized that not every pleasure should be insatiably indulged. Sometimes, individual pleasures must be rejected for greater pleasure, such as preparation for a career requiring advanced education, or that required for a successful venture; or social values in which the individual with others have an interests. That is particularly true when the individual must rely upon others because it requires the participation of many. The “self-sufficient person is a fiction; we rely upon the contribution of others whether we are raising a garden, buying a car which is produced on an assembly line with parts manufactured in innumerable factories, “growing an economy,” or buying products “made in – – – .” Greek tragedy helped Nietzsche to understand that Dionysian (ecstasy, or just plain emotion) and Apollonian (reason) elements must be brought together for the best interests both of the individual and of society, upon which the individual depends.

Part of the basis for Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian and Judaic values was Nietzsche’s division of morality into two camps: one, the master morality, and the other, the slave morality. The master morality recognizes humankind creator. As Samuel Stumpf refers to it in his book, Philosophy: History And Problems,

His morality is one of self glorification. This noble individual acts out of the feeling of power which seeks to overflow. He may help the unfortunate: not out of pity, but rather from an impulse generated by an abundance of power.

The other side of human morality, Nietzsche held, is slave morality. It is on that basis that he objects to both Christianity and Judaism: they look to a power outside human existence and experience, out of dependence upon some notion of a God created in the image of humankind to which the individual becomes subservient. The “good” person operating under a slave morality does that which is beneficial to the weak; on the other hand, the master morality projects power and generates fear in the weak. In Nietzsche’s words, slave morality is, “the will to the denial of life, a principle of dissolution and decay.”

Nietzsche fails to see the power of truth as revealed, not in creedal statements, but as a way of life, as Tolstoy presented Jesus’ teachings, and as later demonstrated in the civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

It may seem odd that I classify fundamentalists (as Jimmy Carter defined it) of any religion, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims, or any other religion, in Nietzsche’s category of “life denying.” I see Nietzsche as life denying because, although he sees the value of the supra- individual, or social, life, he would seem to deny that there is anything innately sacred about human life, individually or socially, On the reverse side of the “same coin” I see the risk fundamentalism as denying the sacredness of physical life, reducing its significance to a “vehicle of the soul,” and that, the individual’s soul. In modern fundamentalist Islam it may be expressed in the belief that one who dies in Jihad shall be rewarded with innumerable virgins in the “real” life hereafter; or in fundamentalist Christianity it may be expressed in the belief in a promised reward of spending eternity in the presence of God, “praising Him.” Samuel Clemens thought ironic that Christians hoped for a life “beyond,” when they would ascend into the clouds where they spend eternity praising God, but couldn’t sit an hour on a Sunday in a church pew.

I must here note a distinction between the Jewish view of eternity in the life of the community after death, whereas Christianity and Islam focus on the individual soul after death. For the fundamentalist Protestant Christian, that is expressed in the key salvation statements and questions: “I have “confessed my Lord, Jesus Christ, as Savior. I have been born again. Are you saved?” From my Christian perspective, to demean any natural part of life,whether body or the spirit (by that, I do not assume any particular form or description of the spirit) is to deny the truth of the Genesis account that humankind was created in the image of god, i.e., it is sacred. (I do assume that if “God” cannot be captured or defined in any physical, nominal, or conceptual representation, neither can the human spirit which “is created in the image of God.” I use the latter phrase as a means of reference or orientation, without intending to limit its possibilities of becoming” or evolution.

I see Darwin as a marker of a different sort than fundamentalist Christianity has pegged him. I see him as marking a new view of life: recognizing its “becoming.” It is not created once, for all time; rather, it is dynamic.

Darwin was not an atheist. In fact, his education began in a school that was taught by a Unitarian minister. His parents were doctor;, but Darwin had no desire to pursue that career. Rather, he pursued a Divinity degree at Christ College, Cambridge University. While there, he met various people, and was introduced to ideas and books that influenced him. As he expressed it,

During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. This work, and Sir J. Herschel’s Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.

As I began to consider the writing of this particular post, I articulated a connection which I have previously assumed, only. I had long ago rejected a notion of the separation of spirit and matter. Now I have became aware of the connection between philosophy and science. Charles Darwin was not, as we use the term today, a philosopher, although he was often so described during his lifetime. No one can do science without some basic philosophical assumptions. Nor can one do science without impacting those assumtions and intimating more assumptions. addresses of the observational and philosophical aspects of Darwin’s research:

The combination of meticulous field observation, collection and experimentation, note taking, reading and thinking during what turned into the Beagle’s five year journey through a very wide cross-section of the earth’s environments was to set the course for the rest of his life. During the voyage he read and reread Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology, a three-volume work that articulated a philosophical vision of rigorously empirical historical science, oriented around five key ideas:

The geologist investigates both the animate and inanimate changes that have taken place during the earth’s history.

His principal tasks are to develop an accurate and comprehensive record of those changes, to encapsulate that knowledge in general laws, and to search for their causes.

This search must be limited to causes that can be studied empirically—those ‘now in operation’, as Lyell puts it in the sub-title of his Principles.

The records or ‘monuments’ of the earth’s past indicate a constant process of the ‘introduction’ and‘extinction’ of species, and it is the geologist’s task to search for the causes of these introductions and extinctions, according to the strictures note in 3., above.

The only attempt to do so according to the idea that species are capable of ‘indefinite modification’, that of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, is a failure on methodological grounds. All the evidence supports the view that species variability is limited, and that one species cannot be transformed into another.

I find it interesting that throughout the 20th century, beginning before the time of the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” to the present, 2013, the Darwinian theory of evolution has been attacked by Christian fundamentalists as contrary to the Bible, relegating it to a lesser position as “secular.” Darwin discovered the dynamic nature of life on the earth, rejecting the notion of it as static, once created “6000 years ago,” for all time. I find that Darwin’s notion of the dynamic nature of life as expressed through evolution, biologically, socially and theologically, is quite consistent with the ancient Jewish perception of God, not as ” I am,” but in a dynamic sense that cannot be captured by a single name or a single book, not even the Bible: “I live, I am becoming.”

Our perception of the life process of becoming is somewhat like the old cellophane movie reel: it consisted of a series of individual frames, which are merely a means to create a story or experience: individually and collectively they create the impression of a story, event or experience. That representation is not, of itself, reality. The frames and the possibility of manipulation and editing them are merely tools for creating an appearance of reality. The same is true of modern videography; it just has different materials and tools.

Henri Bergson described human logic as a tool, by which we may recall and examine experiences or events, “as though” they had an existence frozen in time. Jerome Frank later described it in the context of the law: we must engage in “as if” thinking, but we must remember that it is merely a model by which we access meaning in our existence. Even what we believe we see, hear, and feel, must, to be mentally cognizable, and run through the filter of some physical sense; that must, by its physical nature, bear the imprint of the physical sense that permits our brain to interpret it as a meaningful perception. As sunglasses affect our view of objects depending on whether the object is in or out of sunlight, so our other senses and sensual experience be affected by the nature of that sense, by the environment of that object, and by the mental impression and our interpretation of that impression.

My father once expressed it best, I think, when he wrote to me, “Many Christians think that the whole purpose of Christianity is dying and going to heaven. I say, ‘No!’; it is living a life of eternal significance.” That requires faith that life is more than that which appears on the surface; that it is more than a sum of processes; that it is more than a set of right beliefs. In part, at least, it is about living attentively and bearing good fruits.

I will next consider the contributions of the philosophers, Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, who built upon the contributions of Darwin at the beginning of our era. Although each contributed to metaphysics, which is too often associated with the notions of existence “out there” rather existence “within.” I am drawn to each of these philosophers because of their ability to connect faith, perception, thought, and action in the dynamic becoming of the world. Rather than the bad rap that evolution has received from fundamentalist Christians, as the gateway to a “godless world,” I believe that evolution as declared by Darwin, perceives this world as part of a dynamic process of becoming. It refuses to assign that wonder to an objectified notion of God, whether derived from the words of the Bible or expressed in any statement of “right belief.” I see Henri Bergson, as philosopher, exploring the implications of the theory of evolution for the world that we live in: it cannot be random; but, as he described it, there is some organizing principle giving meaning, or functionality, to the confluence of evolutive changes. He gave it a name: the elan vital, or, vital principle. I see Alfred North Whitehead as carrying forward Darwin’s notion of a world in process, of becoming.

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