In a previous post a commenter named Query asks a question. Is it possible, Query wonders, for there to be a phenomenon of the sacred in the modern world? After all, the notion of the sacred with which we are most familiar involves a universal commitment to a single, unique characterization of the good. Even if this universal commitment was never actually achieved, the claim to it nevertheless stood as a motivating norm in the culture. The monotheistic notion of the sacred that was evident in the pre-modern age stands as our model for the phenomenon. But in today’s more liberal world a universal claim to the single right way of living a life seems more like fanaticism than anything else. So what notion of the sacred is available today?
The answer, naturally, must depend upon what one means by the “sacred”. The definition I prefer is related to one that Nietzsche proposes. Nietzsche says that the sacred is whatever it is in a culture at which one cannot laugh. It seems to me obvious that there is no single practice or set of practices in our culture – and in general no single way of living a life – at which the majority of the culture agrees one cannot laugh. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to me there is the demand in the culture that there should be such a single right way to live. Quite the opposite. The demand in the culture instead, it seems to me, is the demand to recognize that even those who do not share your way of life might nevertheless be living lives worthy of your admiration. This is a dramatic departure from, say, life in the Middle Ages, and this is at least one sense in which God is dead. (It is related to what Charles Taylor identifies as the kernel commitment of our Secular Age.) In short, there is no universal agreement about – or even demand for universal agreement about – what the basic social practices are on the basis of which one can live a life.
That said, it doesn’t mean that we can’t, at times, have the experience of the meanings in a situation being – at least for a time – completely genuine and real. And this experience need not be an illusion; it might get the situation absolutely right. There are, after all, moments in a life when it is completely and absolutely clear how one must go on. One finds this kind of certainty often, for example, among masters working within their domain of mastery. The pianist who forges ahead with confidence in his performance of the piece, and who is convincing in his interpretation in part because of this confidence, is not always bluffing. The skilled carpenter or writer or philosopher or surgeon may recognize genuine distinctions of worth in a situation. And just because those without his skill cannot recognize these distinctions doesn’t mean that he hasn’t revealed something really there. This kind of mastery is hard won, of course. And it is in no way universal. There may well be a whole panoply of genuinely good ways to go on in a domain. But that doesn’t mean that each of them is not genuinely good. The sacred is multiple when we achieve it in this fashion.
There are other ways to experience a kind of certainty as well. When experiencing the greatness of another – a great athlete or performer or speaker – one sometimes finds oneself rising as one with the crowd in spontaneous celebration of the greatness of the act. In moments like this it is absolutely certain how to go on as well. This is not always a good thing. Presumably the participants in a 1930s-style fascist rally had this sense of certainty, and we are right in recognizing the need to reject their commitment. But just because it is not always a good thing doesn’t mean it is always a bad thing. If the crowds gathered around Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Mall in Washington D.C. had not been taken over by the power of his rhetoric, the world we be a poorer place today. So we need a skill for recognizing the distinction between those situations in which it is appropriate to allow oneself to be swept up by the perceived greatness of an event, and those situations in which it is not. And what counts as genuinely great will always be tied to the particularities of the social situation at the time. But again, the fact that we can be deceived about this kind of greatness, and the fact that it is only local and situational instead of universal and atemporal, in no way dilutes the kind of certainty that it generates in those situations when it’s the genuine thing.
So yes, there is a phenomenon of the sacred available now. It is hard-won through the development of genuine skills in a domain, or it is easy to come by (but dangerous) in the social recognition of those skills in another. But in either case it is situational and temporary and multiple – a polytheistic notion of the sacred of the sort that both Homer and Melville called us to. But for all of that it is no less real. And for all that it is something worth aspiring to.
I’d like to add a friendly amendment to Sean’s remarks. The sacred to a first approximation is a property of norms, things, and persons. Not any property, however. It’s the morally and culturally dominant property that reflects the distinction and superiority of what’s sacred in relation to everything else—the profane. Important, it now comes in two versions, the rightful sacred and the graceful sacred. It commands respect in its rightful version and devotion in its graceful version. Before the birth of modernity, the sacred in its several places was one. Its division is the defining event of the modern era. How the divided versions are related to each other is a contentious issue in political ethics.
Persons and perhaps nature embody the rightful sacred. I agree with Sean that there are subdivisions of the graceful sacred and would add that the pluralism of the graceful sacred is both distinct from and complementary to the rightful sacred. The rightful sacred is well-understood in contemporary culture, and it requires us to meet the demands of social justice and of environmental stewardship. The graceful sacred is a much more difficult and subtle phenomenon, splendidly recalled in All Things Shining.
Your comment that the defining event of modernity is the split of the rightful and graceful sacred really interests me. Is this a different way of interpreting the modern age than the nihilistic one painted by All Things Shining? One way of putting the picture painted there is that we’ve lost any collectively orienting value or commitment after “the death of God”. If I understand your comment and your paper on the web correctly, the rightful sacred DOES continue to provide a shared, orienting commitment to modern liberal societies. And I would tend to agree. Despite this orienting commitment, though, the marginalization of the graceful sacred leaves us feeling empty and disenchanted despite our orienting commitment. Is this how you understand things? If so, it seems like the challenge would be less how to find orienting commitments again and more how to reconcile or get into the right relation our orienting commitments to the rightful sacred with the calls of the graceful sacred. Is this the idea?
What? The sacred is nothing more than that which must necessarily be preserved. Nietzsche rightfully proposes that the sacred is that which one is not to mess with (being polite).
The criteria for what must be preserved is that which defines what should appear in the present. The sacred exists in the praesens where the pre-sending exist before being projected into the now. It has a past-like quality because it embodies cultural practices which are always historical, but it is not temporal. It is pre-time, just as gods are not bound by time. The sacred allows time to be formed and that being within it to transcend. The sacred it related to Dasein in that it gives the how for Daseins concerns. The sacred is the possible that is most in harmony with the resident frequency of the now. The sacred is real but not actual.
For present day, in human terms, technology is the sacred.
“In short, there is no universal agreement about – or even demand for universal agreement about – what the basic social practices are on the basis of which one can live a life,” you say.
Because there is no universal agreement, nor demand for such, then we are in universal agreement. It’s universal dogma that is lacking –– too much thought and too little proclamation.
There cannot be universality because being is always in transcendence. Being has a dynamic Guassian curve in which the outliers represent waning and emerging practices. The apex of the curve is what is considered standard practice. Standard practice occupies a single point that is not stationary. So in the dynamic system, the apex is a point through which they system passes through in its transcendence and the system never really achieves the standard. It is like being on a train that is moving in an infinite direction, never stopping at any station. If you were headed towards New York, you never disembark, you just see it through your window as you pass it.
Loved the NYT article. Two of my literary-philosophical lights, Nietsche and Melville, thoughtfully reflected as limning a way forward to nontheistic, but not nihilistic or amoral life. Aside from the many and great unexpected pleasures of meeting the world on its own terms, there is always the possibility of regarding the configuration of matter that can look at itself and beyond as a great gift, wondrously, if randomly bestowed by the stuff of the universe. The “on average” cold emptiness can laugh, smile and weep on occasion.
Well, I was interested in your piece in the NYTimes, “Navigating Past Nihilism” and particularly your discussion of the knowing, experiencing, or sensing the sacred in a secular and pluralistic society as we live in today. With all due respect and as one who was a philosophy major myself in college years ago, your discussion for the general public seems entirely abstract and perhaps only understood by other philosophers, maybe… and on the whole not very promising or even satisfying. I would suggest that the search for the sacred today begin again in Harvard Yard with a gaze of the “John Harvard” statue and its motto “Veritas” (“Truth”) and while standing there, maybe try to envision the original motto, “Veritas pro Christo et ecclesia” (“Truth for Christ and his Church”) which was there, and maybe contemplating that the search for the sacred may not be far from the truth that that original motto spoke of. Now I realize that you will probably think, “how narrow, obscurantist, and limiting that suggestion is.” but it might be a whole lot more fruitful. If you are successful, that is discovering the sacred with “the truth about Christ,” you may even still be able to publish in philosophy journals and gain the respect of your peers, maybe, but probably not.
This strikes of the arbitrary and amorphous. I might wonder if that concept is the under-girding principle of what we now find sacred. If we determine that the Sacred is an ever changing set of principles, we’ll never escape nihilism unless the concept in itself is that which is sacred.
Perhaps, more astutely, this is a spiral one must eventually descend unless, as you suggest, one finds meaning in the continuum of being.
why go with Nietzsche on the sacred rather than the pragmatists?
I experience the sacred in the benefits of successful medical research. I have a wonderful son whose life has been saved by the discovery of insulin by Banting and Best. Was their research motivated by mere curiosity or were they inspired – as in “breathed into”? There must be a thread that runs through us all that tugs us (or some of us) toward The Good, that fights through the presence of war and the abuse of power and the indifference to suffering – conditions humans have known throughout time.
As an English grad, your piece “Navigating Past Nihilism” made me wonder: how does the presence of Queequeg and his worship of Yojo fit in with proposed religious dialogue in Moby Dick?
The responsiveness, the respons-ibility, to a “call” is becoming more sacred. We hear stories about people suddenly having the desire to just leave behind their old styles of living, their old worlds, and taking a leap into something new. A call profoundly interrupts their regular activity and they authentically/responsibly respond. Our culture approves of this more and more as the decades proceed. It reveals that we are becoming less and less the autonomous, Kantian agents we presumed ourselves to be, and moving more towards being open, receptive, responsive beings. If all is leveled, then how can we possibly laugh when someone decides to pursue a “calling?” Ultimately, we respect it.
It doesn’t exactly coincide with Heidegger’s hyperbolic nostalgia for the Greeks, but it’s a step in the right direction. We’ll never have a unified style again, but this is a good thing! Now we can realize that there is only the unique situation before us! The activity itself isn’t of highest importance, as, with bold moves, the consequences are often other, beyond our immediate perception. The definitive relationship lies (in)between the call and the response- the space we occupy – presupposing the leap into the flux.
While I agree with much of your description of our culture’s lack of a need for an overriding singular morality–and I greatly appreciate your inspiring (in the sense of breathing life into it) use of polytheism as a term of art–I wonder at your identification of the sacred with a single unique characterization of the good. One of the profound insights of the ancients was that the sacred and the good were not the same thing. The sacred, for the ancients, at least Biblically, was a place that was also dangerous. One who drew near was killed. Living the good life was a separate venture. One venerated the sacred but worked towards the good. Mixing these two categories is problematic and can be dangerous, as when the high priest is summoned by the Sanhedrin or the king by the prophet or when rapturous togetherness is harnessed to National Socialism. The sacred is always socially constructed in minute choreographic detail (which does not necessarily diminish its “ontic” sacrality) and (and this is the point) always remains amoral. However the good and, perhaps more urgently, the just is arrived at by discursive reason and must also judge the morality of the sacred.
Surely Melville’s world is presided over by the Whale, the great symbol of Nature; Captain Ahab’s ruin, and I daresay ours as well, is somehow bound up in mankind’s narrow desire and obsession with revenge and the triumph of the will. Words can only approximate nature. Silence cannot be described in words. However one must try to express the inexpressible. God is at once changeable and immutable, finite and infinite.
A working premise is that God is all. That being the case, who are we? There is One Holy Book, the sacred manuscript of nature, the only scripture which can enlighten the reader, according to Sufi Inayat Khan (1882-1927). Perhaps Melville was on to something.
I’ve just read your piece published in The New York Times. Thank you for your thoughts.
The urge to categorize, to know, to judge is strong. But perhaps there is also value in resisting these urges.
What if one were able to simply relax into the awe of not knowing what is? After all, what we know of existence changes every few years. If we know anything at all it is that what we now know will turn out to be false. With more data, our models fail, and we stop believing what we had once agreed to agree about. We then build new models, and life goes on.
I know you know this. 🙂 And although I am more curious than most, I also appreciate that rejoicing in my inability to know could be the lazy person’s way out.
As I age I find I am focusing a little more on my duty to family, work, friends, country, etc. Happiness is now a little less about what benefits me, myself and I than about what I can contribute in light of those obligations that seem to be on my plate.
I must be growing up. As my astonishingly serene 92-year-old mother who has Alzheimer’s says, “I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve never been this age before.”
Merry Christmas to you, Sean. And happy holidays to all of us.
I am more challenged to find the sacred in the grand or transcendent than in the mundane. I am well served by the sacred grace in the indentation on the side of my partner’s knee as she bends to buckle her shoe.
These philosophical wanderings – and in Alex’s case, failure to place his comment in quotation marks – are interesting; but I’m seeing excessive efforts to impress with vocabulary, and insufficient attention to the roles of science and skepticism in the modern worldview. I took up skepticism after a reverend told me I was an unbaptised sinner (ONE TIME I hit another kid!). Today, my only ventures into churches are for funerals, weddings, to deliver goods for the homeless, or use the restroom. If my fellow suburbanite, church-going friends are repelled by my unbowed head, they don’t show it. Perhaps there’s some advantage to having one’s feet in both worlds: Childhood Sunday school and early Methodist exposure (including pot-luck!) gave me a moral underpinning; becoming a journalist honed my ability to occasionally sort fact from falsehood, and to realize that there may be no afterlife…that what we have now is to be used wisely. Where do today’s youngsters get their ethics? Surely not from Melville, Nietzsche, Moynihan, or Lincoln…or from religious texts (outside SLC)…. but rather from video games, lazy parents who break their vows, Hollywood, overworked teachers, gangsta’ rappers, crooked bankers/politicians/athletes, and from the gotta-be-connected Borg Collective we call “social networking.”
If you think bending knees are sacred, crazy straws would blow your mind.
This piece finds a warm welcome, because it hits home to where I effortlessly find meaning everyday. Where I see in a ditch a patch of blooming weeds and wildflowers worthy of Cezanne , my church wants to mow it for the good of mankind. The sacred lies before us everyday, and we trample it on the way to a house of worship decorated with Gods that look, not surprisingly, just like us.
With all due respect, I wonder whether polytheistic is the best characterization. Poetic, as you described in your NYT piece today, is a better description for me. Your examples (situational, temporary, multiple) are Nietzschean and his definition of virtue is truly secular, in terms of his “immoral” case, critique of philosophy, etc.. I’m not making the case for atheism or nihilism. I’m asking whether the literary model be complete in itself?…Nehamas’ book (Nietzsche: Life as Literature) comes to mind. Excellent piece…I look forward to reading your book
@charlie why not Rorty’s “Romantic Polytheism”?
Yes, romantic utilitarianism works for me. I stand corrected!
If the consensus is finding the sacred in the mundane banality of the everyday…then we’ve strayed very, very far from Heidegger. Is this a result of placing too much emphasis on Section One of B&T? Possibly. During all periods of his thought, Heidegger, like Nietzsche, desired only the exceptional! The middle Heidegger demanded a continual revolution and an almost endless, disruptive line of questioning! The common was always too common, with a strong tendency to cover up and distort phenomena! Heidegger does not deny immanence, clearing rejecting any form or mutated strand of Platonism, but he does, however, deny/reject the insight of certain interpretations of being.
do we really lose anything if we follow James C. Edwards into an era of Ethics without Philosophy where we come to value the Plain Sense of Things?
Have you read Michael Gruber’s “An Unknown Destiny, Terror, Psychotherapy and Modern Initiation: Readings in Nietzsche, Heidegger, Steiner”? Very pertinent to this topic. A very good read, even better the third time through.
“God is dead” is meaningless unless you define God. If you mean the Hebrew God of vengeance, it still thrives in the Middle East. If you mean the American God which loves war, and nation building, it’s thriving. Buddhism doesn’t even use the word. An artifact which organized religion (i.e. Christians) uses is a way to raise money. But truly, God is unknowable and beyond words.
Thank you for your editorial. It is good to get my mind spinning on a Monday morning. We live in an exciting time, having graduated from some constricting belief systems and gone on to investigate the constantly changing landscape of what we hold sacred.
I am in awe of the things that seem not to have boundaries. We haven’t discovered the edges of the universe, either the smallest thing possible or the largest.
To my way of thinking, the God that died was only our limited concept of God. “God is dead, long live God”. In other words, God broke out of the mold that society made for him/her, and now ….. Well now, that’s the exciting and unknown part isn’t it.
I loved your article in The Stone. Here at Brooklyn College there isn’t much philosophical discussion. Sad. Do you think that perhaps we are caught in a mesh of uncertainty? Nietzsche loved the horse because it lived purely. It seems as if those of us that are borne theist, and study philosophy often times become atheists only to go back to theism. Do we return because we need something to hold? I wonder if the lack of norms will lead to our demise?
We do philosophy for the same reason people sunbathe at the beach: It is enjoyable and it helps us attain our ideal.
I wonder too if the Disciplines separated over the past century are coming back together. It is exciting yet scary to think that future scholars will have to know everything. Really there are no separations. They all compliment each-other.
ReNietzsche & nihilism:
As Michael Scriven taught me at Cal, the meaning of life is the meaning we give it; each of us in our own lives.
all manner of things are sacred now
can we laugh at that?
For those who are theologically inclined:
The ens infinitum has as its essentia all possibilities because it is not limited. The infinite being (God) has as its essence all that is and all that can be, which according to Kant are one in the same. A possible thing is exactly the same as an actual thing, save, according to me, that one belongs to a world and another doesn’t. All “possibilities” must include duals and thus they necessarily cancel each other. So God is its own nothing as it is its own everything. For an actuality to be projected from an ecstatsis into the instant, which I like to call the kairos as it gives opportunity for a thing to appear, a possibility must make its way from probability to actuality. With each probability within the essence of God becoming actuality, the amount of possibilities within God diminishes by one. When there is a dynamic that moves towards the possibility of no more possibilities, that is dying. So, in order for the universe to live, God has to die. When there are finally no more possibilities, then there will be no more God and no more universe. Luckily, thanks to conservation laws, the final possibility is the possibility of another God.
I find it interesting that the Christians should have this dynamic embedded in their doctrine. Jesus dies so that we can live. I can go on, but it doesn’t interest me enough, so I will let Borgmann flesh this out.
I enjoyed your article in the Times, but take issue with a key premise in your thinking.
Sentiments like “a universal claim to the single right way of living a life seems more like fanaticism than anything else”, while couched in terms that reek of mere personal opinion, create a false dichotomy and serve as a means of absolving you of any serious theological thinking.
One can believe, for instance, in the universality of God and grace, want that same forgiveness for others, and still admire “polytheists” for their earthly accomplishments and their brilliance; for their skill and artistry.
You seem to propose that anyone who clings to the promise of the cross is a fanatic, and that is, of course, nonsense (as well as ironically intemperate). The “fanatics” I’m referring to value something far more fundamental than a life lived admirably. They value life itself – whether it happens to be admirable or, more probably, something far less.
my parents were very catholic but none of us kids are so. most of them are secular. my sister, toni, is interesting, she is a peds nurse and she said she stopped believing in god when she saw all of the horrible illnesses and terminal cancers and diseases that the children in just that hospital were subject to. however, she crochets 50-70 warm lap blankets a month for the hospice unit that took care of our parents and she does innumerable quilting and sewing projects for the kids on their unit, whatever poor child is unlucky enough to be there. so, her life is very full. and someone who did not know that she no longer believes in god would consider her very christian. we live in an age where we are more empowered to comfort others than at any other point in time. people work and can provide for their own sustenance and those of others, if they wish to. and they can identify items of need or special meaning and inspiration and fill that gap. so, in a way, we are gods to each other. we answer each other’s prayers. the mormons do believe that they will one day become gods. which stands to reason if you believe that you are children of god, eventually, you do grow up. it’s easier to grow up now than before, i think the role of submission to a god was particularly damning. i don’t think that is god’s intent, that is man’s law and the law of the patriarch, a man’s society. i think the only thing that matters on this planet is that we are all in this together and to lift the sorrow, the pain/suffering from a fellow traveler will only get us across that dreaded valley of the shadow of death quicker. there is something on the other side, i believe, my sister is happy to just live for those sick children. and i am happy to be patient and take each day for what it is worth so as not to miss out on any points of enlightenment. heaven only knows that there is enough obvious synchronicity going on in everyday life today, courtesy of our age of telecommunications and the mnemonics of the retail industry that the inter-connectedness of a holistic whole starts becoming apparent very quickly. and, certainly, we must be using at least 15% of our brain now, up from the supposed 13%. i would say that god is not wasteful, someone else would say that nature is not. it doesn’t matter, but the gray matter does matter and most of it is as yet NOT TURNED ON. i am sure our gray matter is loaded with universal receptors. genesis receptors. if you add 1/3 of a fertilizer stick to a tomato plant, lo and behold, it starts producing a bumper harvest. a universal factor is feeding the human brain, maybe it’s god, maybe it’s just nature, but i would consider either sacred. spend 2-3 months tutoring a struggling student and you are going to see results. and i have a funny feeling that the results of all of this input that comes from being human and living our little daily lives with our gray matter are going to be quite substantial. i plan on hanging around for a good while. i read a bit about thomas paine the other day and he ws the forerunner on people having a pension, what social security is today. financial support for that time when they didn’t work, but all of these baby-boomers, living their daily lives in the manner of their own choosing without an 8-5, i really do think that we are producing higgs bosons in some higher realm and moving mass and dark matter. the new city of zion, if you will, the new jerusalem, if you will. the promised land, if you will. our combined cranial energies are building something. a new place where we can BE. what you believe doesn’t matter, keeping your brain healthy DOES. the god spot, whatever you want to call it. your sense of purpose, your sense of self, your sense of worth. they’re important and vital to the progress of being human. we have not stopped evolving. our brain produces brainwaves and magnetic fields, you call it a mood. i call it excited electrons. i call it god. it doesn’t matter what i call it, it’s sacred. it is life. and when one of us is down or ill, someone will give into that void. through the synergies created by the human capacity for giving, we are creating an artistic masterpiece, literally. halleluia.
What about Mircea Eliade? What about Shopenhauer? I don’t quite understand this abstract desire or statement about some kind of “universal” sacred. To aspire to some kind of “universal” sacred just sounds naive and idealistic to me.
As for the sacred and laughter, I completely disagree with Nietzsche. What about the heyokas and other “sacred clowns” of tribal religions? This blog post’s entire premise of what defines the “sacred” seems rather off and a bit convoluted.
Being has in its nature “totality”, otherwise there would be an “outside” which leads to a subject/object paradigm. The universal sacred is a goal that Dasein must achieve in order for it to satisfy its primary concern which is itself.
The clowns are sacred. You can’t mess with them and that practice.
Read Aristotle and Nietzsche to prep yourself for Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The rest are mostly unnecessary.
Interesting. I guess I just don’t agree with Nietzsche or Heidegger.
it’s science and it’s chaos theory, the universal theme. ‘when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world’ john muir
that native americans understand that, there is no death, yo merely go from realm to realm, but they still mourn their passing, you will not have access to those that have gone on. i wrote a paper about the pascua yaqui indians for an anthropology class. there is a book in the university of arizona’s little library where you can’t check anything out, you have to read it insitu, written by david molina, about the deer singers of the tribe. the singers rely on hypnotic repeat, repeat to achieve the altered state of consciousness. but the dead little deer on the indian’s shoulder is talking to himself/herself as the yaqui carries her home. she’s dead, but she’ not dead, in the realm of the conscious. i am part pascua yaqui, tarahumara and way back, aztec. oh, and apache. geronimo. at their easter ceremony, the yaquis open up ‘the yoania’, an abyss, and throw in all of the evil that they have collected over the period of the year. your soul can get sucked in by the yoania, you have to be very careful. hedonists live there. the yaquis combine their beliefs with the teachings of the catholic church, something i’m sure the missionaries weren’t crazy about, but that is there perogative. just as yours is to not believe nietzche and others. the universe is a big place, there’s room for everyone. take good care, blessings, anna martina
p.s. my grandmother was a famous curandera (healer) in agua prieta, sonora, mexico. when she passed, we found out how many people lived in agua prieta. people would come from hundreds of miles for help and healing, she grew an herb garden, her cure for chronic pain was crushed marijuana leaves mixed in vodka. on my paternal side, my great-grandfather trained to be a jesuit priest in sicily, took a year sabbatical, came to sonora, mexico, where father kino was, and married a full-blooded yaqui indian woman. i am disabled and go out only 2-3x a month, but in my little garden, invariably those things that i need to know show up, as if i was doing a ‘walk-about’, and the feral cats in the trailer park are very wise.
It seems to me that there is a ‘certainty’ vs. ‘clarity’ thing going on in the culture. There is a difference. The clarity one might experience listening to an extraordinary piece of music is difference that the certainty that one might experience listening to a Hilter speech.
The gods and art should reveal and uncover a world. Wagner and Hitler accomplished this. Things get “clearer” when they become intelligible within the referential whole. Certainty is achieved in the falling into the world/clearing that is lit by the world creators and their priests. So certainty and clarity coexist and function together. As a world/clearing is lit up, Dasein falls into it. (falling produces certainty as it commits Dasein to actuality through coping)
“If the faith of the Christian Church has grown weary and has forfeited its worldly dominion, the dominance of its God has not yet disappeared. Rather, its form has been disguised and its claims have hardened beyond recognition. In place of the authority of God and Church looms the authority of conscience, or the dominion of reason, or the God of historical progress, or the social instinct.”
– Martin Heidegger
I think you fail to see the ways in which liberal humanism is simply the old God in a new disguise. Nietzsche’s nihilism – when it gets interpreted your way – hasn’t stopped anyone from embracing the morality of secular humanism, nor has it discouraged a pseudo-Judeo-Christian morality of egalitarianism, democracy, anti-racism, etc. All of these things point to what Heidegger is talking about, but which you won’t recognize – the old God in a new mask.
“Modern rationalism rejected biblical theology and replaced it by such things as deism, pantheism, atheism. But in this process, biblical morality was in a way preserved. Goodness was still believed to consist in something like justice, benevolence, love, or charity; and modern rationalism has a tendency to believe that this biblical morality is better preserved if it is divorced from biblical theology. Now this was, of course, more visible in the nineteenth century than it is today; it is no longer so visible today because one crucial event happened around 1870-1880: the appearance of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s criticism can be reduced to one proposition: modern man has been trying to preserve biblical morality while abandoning biblical faith. That is impossible. If the biblical faith goes, biblical morality must go too, and a radically different morality must be accepted.”
– Leo Strauss
How can you discuss Nietzsche’s nihilism without looking at the “radically different morality”? it seems to me like you want to recognize nihilism, but preserve “goodness.”
Dear Prof. Kelly,
the sacred can be recognized in the situational, the temporary, and the multiple – that is right. However, the conclusion that this concept is polytheistic is not cogent. First of all there is Nietzsches statement in the Antichrist # 34 about God the Father and the Son. The examples you quite correctly put up point to Robert M. Pirsig’s (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”) concept of “Quality”, which seems to be a good generalization.
Nietzsche’s statement that the sacred is that at which you cannot laugh is typically Nietzsche: an interesting idea, but with little relation to his real impression of the sacred (the vision he had 1868). As Rudolf Otto (“The Sacred”) and Karl Barth (“Letter to the Romans”) and Pirsig wrote the sacred is much more than that (or the summum bonum, for that matter): it is extremely dynamical (see Ezekiel’s vision of the Lord) and awe-inspiring (every appearance of angels in the bible is initiated with a “Fear not…”).
However, I look forward to your book with great interest.
Ernst G. Hof
I am reeling from the responses give thus far: how do we find our way? Obviously, we are lost. Where is Dante when we need him? Oh, at Harvard, of course. (smile).
Nihilism comes at every turn: where the old understandings fails and before a new understanding takes hold. This experience of “in-between-time” comes to individuals as they mature emotionally and intellectually, and to communities as they transition between economic, political, or other “works” through time where old ways fail and new beginnings restore an ordered structure. What is new is that these “in-between times” are coming faster and faster.
Change is coming so quickly, some will never catch their breath. (Going home to be with Jesus may be their only option!)
This general despair over the foundations falling away is not new or, for most of us, overwhelming. We have an emotional balance sustained by our relationships with significant others. Love makes the world go around, and as the world turns faster and faster, loving relationships (and a little extra money) make getting by, with a little help from one’s friends, possible.
On top of this reality one can apply a layer of religious language and symbol and metaphor; or not. If God is dead, the necessity of loving relations and poetry in our lives are not.
I would argue that the role of religion continues to play the role of centering “believers” on a commitment to love as the “right way to live” when all material things about them fall apart. While this organizing principle is not new, there has been a maturing understanding of how we talk, symbolize and express ourselves. (What else is new?)
One could ask: is it possible to center a “right way to live” that is dynamic, personal, described in ways that are not limiting of others, because we all are seeking our personal expression of ourselves in the world, free from religious baggage? Of course. But the reality is that love and relationships are what make us human; and happy or disconsolate. Talk about it however one chooses, the reality remains.
Some folks have difficulty with some of the stories in the Bible. We often forget that these stories were told to help people wake in the morning and “believe” that reaching out lovingly to those around them continues to be a worthwhile act. We all know it is stupid and reckless to give of ourselves in this way, yet some of us, especially mothers, continue anyway. We continue to deceive ourselves that these commitments to each other are THE “grounding for meaning in our lives.”
Maybe I got it wrong. Perhaps “the bed, the table, the [BMW], the fire-side, and [nationalism], “ are genuine meanings, but personally I will take the wife and heart. Best.
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The Middle Ages certainly laughed in religious contexts – this is the season of Boy Bishops and the Feast of Fools. Yes, solemn folk tried to put these down, but they always percolated up. Nietzsche’s definition doesn’t work very well for them.
Dont’t forget that Zarathustra called himself ‘the laughing prophet” and criticised the preacher who hated laughter:
“He – did not love sufficiently: otherwise he would also have loved us the laughers!”
Laughter itself is sacred for Nietzsche:
“I have canonized laughter; you higher Men, learn – to laugh!”
I think that the comment that Sean quotes is a sociological remark, “one ” is not allowed to laugh at what is considered sacred, but we should learn to laugh at the pretention of “higher” values to be universal and exclusive.
This laughter could well be one of the meta-skills that Sean advocates. Nietzsche called it “laughter of the heights”, a meta-laughter. Like the many gods who laughed themselves to death when one god declared “There is one God! You shall have no other gods before me!”
A question. Can anyone give me the text for Nietzsche’s assertion? For once, my seeking of Google’s counsel is failing.
Thanks much, and very nice work on Colbert last night, Dr. Kelly.
I wanted to add my request to David’s. I have Googles, looked through my Kaufman, and searched electronic copies of some texts, but can find nothing. I’m quoting some from ATS in my thesis and would appreciate knowing the source of Nietzsche reference. Thanks.
J. D. Salinger stopped publishing at age 46, it strikes me, for many of the same reasons that D. F.Wallace hanged himself.