Sunday, November 25, 2012

Strange Bedfellows: Reflections on Nietzsche as Miroslav Volf's evening devotional

Who reads Nietzsche for devotionals?! The famous Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, for one.
Volf surprised and shocked us during his recent visit to campus when he shared this personal tidbit with the faculty and students at Seattle Pacific University. He told us that for ten years he kept Friedrich Nietzsche at his bed-side as devotional reading.

Strange bed-fellows, indeed! Why would Miroslav Volf—who has written profoundly and passionately of the power of the cross and his personal struggle to live with the call to reconciliation as a “follower of the crucified Messiah” — read the antagonistic atheist Nietzsche for devotions?“You find that [Nietzsche] is an amazing thinker. All wrong, but still deserving honor and deserving respect,” Volf said. “Deserving to be read. Deserving to see what truth can come from his writing.”

Can truth really emerge from such anti-Christian rhetoric as that propounded by Nietzsche, the intellectual who declared “God is dead”? I have to agree with Volf here—yes, truth can and does shine through, even though a darkened, arrogant mind of a nihilistic philosopher. The truth has a way of shining through the cracks in every earthly edifice. This is the lesson we hear in the Good News of John 1:5—the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
It’s a paradox, but the truth can and does shine wherever it wills, even in the darkness of unbelief. That’s why devotional inspiration can come even while reading Nietzsche, not because his philosophy expresses any universal principles, but rather because in the reading Nietzsche we encounter another human who, whether he knows it or not, is seeking after something bigger than human experience, something too mysterious for words.

In Nietzsche’s case, his seeking falls short an encounter with the living God. But just as a man digging a dry well bears witness to his thirst and the hope of finding water, so do the efforts of this nihilistic philosopher bear witness to the shared humanity of despair in another human soul. There’s something about making contact with another person’s innermost thoughts and glimpsing his despair that brings our own thoughts and beliefs into sharper focus.

This reminds me of my encounter with a bright young man a few years ago who was wrestling with faith as well as with his choice of college major. In a risky moment of inspiration I gave my best pastoral advice: I asked him to read The Fountainhead, by the atheist Ayn Rand. Praying that I not lead him astray, I had the same inkling that I suppose led Miroslav Volf to keep Nietzsche on his nightstand. How better to confront our doubts, than by facing them head-on? The truth—living Truth, that is—will not be overcome by darkness; but rather, it will shine through the darkness when we seek and truly long for the only source of hope that does not disappoint.

When we approach doubt or conflict with this sense of hope, we are empowered to see truth even in places where the revelation of God is ignored or denied. Here’s the lesson we can learn from so-called ungodly philosophies—we can learn to trust God’s grace and truth to shine anywhere. This is what Karl Barth was getting at when he recognized the capacity of God to reveal Himself even through the darkness of skepticism and the thought processes of “the worldly sphere”:
How many signs He may well have set up in both the outer and inner darkness which Christianity has overlooked in an unjustifiable excess of skepticism, to the detriment of itself and its cause! We are summoned to believe in Him, and in His victorious power, not in the invincibility of any non-Christian, anti-Christian or pseudo-Christian worldliness which confronts Him. The more seriously and joyfully we believe in Him, the more we shall see such signs in the worldly sphere, and the more we shall be able to receive true words from it.

There’s a lesson here for understanding our Christian call to reconciliation. In confronting another person who seems antagonistic to our own faith or point of view, we need not remain stuck in the mindset that we are dealing with someone who is merely “wrong”. Nietzsche for example is not merely “wrong”; he is also brilliant, a seeker with intellectual integrity and a certain respect for the essence of humanity. The categories of right and wrong become unhelpful when deployed as superficial labels; that is, as categories that label rather than explain. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore our responsibility to discern right from wrong, but neither should we miss the opportunity to see God’s grace revealed in even the most unlikely circumstances. Superficial labels betray our worldliness and distract us from the greater reality of living Truth. The crucified Messiah calls us to seek and find God’s truth shining through somehow, even when obscured by worldly conflict or confused by paradox. Thus, we are called to learn from strange sources, and to share the hope that empowers us to listen to others, and to see the eternal light that shines through any darkness.

Rev. Dr. Bruce Baker teaches on ethics, leadership and the theological foundations of business and economics at Seattle Pacific University. His research explores the intersection of the modern moral imaginary with our business-driven culture. His Ph.D. dissertation— “The Transformation of Persons and the Concept of Moral Order”—examines how epistemological presumptions regarding human nature affect our understanding of moral responsibility, with crucial implications for teaching and moral discernment. He brings broad experience to these studies, having pursued a career as an entrepreneur, scientist and businessman, before embarking on his advanced studies in theology and ethics.