FROM LUTHER'S THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS TO NIETZSCHE'S PROBING FOR THE ÜBERMENSCH: GROWTH IN THE MODERN RHETORIC OF SELF-DOUBTING INTIMIDATION
Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 304–309, March 2009
How to Cite
MADIGAN, P. (2009), FROM LUTHER'S THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS TO NIETZSCHE'S PROBING FOR THE ÜBERMENSCH: GROWTH IN THE MODERN RHETORIC OF SELF-DOUBTING INTIMIDATION. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 304–309. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00410.x
- Issue published online: 16 FEB 2009
- Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
The last phrase in the title refers to an authorial strategy or rhetorical trope by which the reader is induced to question traditional beliefs or personal convictions through the implied charge that the psychological force leading us to accept them in the first place was not rational insight or mature persuasion, but fear before possibilities we would find psychologically intolerable. Of course, this strategy has never been entirely absent from world literature, but in the pre-modern period it was recognized, by Plato among others (who spoke in the Republic of a ‘true lie’ or being deceived as ‘a state which gods and men abhor’ 382a-b) to be of considerable psychological power, but not as the soundest on which to construct an adult literary, political, or philosophical structure. Like ‘horror stories’ in the tradition of Poe and Hoffmann or rollercoaster rides in amusement parks, such a strategy provides ‘thrills and chills’ but not a long-term satisfaction, and above all not wisdom, primarily because it is not based on experience but on the imagination. Because of our boredom with routine and craving for variety, tales of the ‘marvellous’ and ‘exotic’ have been popular in all Western literatures; the ‘novel’ (or in the Latin-based languages ‘roman’, with connotations of urban sophistication and the exotic) have exercised an attraction for breaking the monotony of season-based agricultural life, providing distractions from an unwavering diet of the same. The power of the marvellous is used in children's fairy tales where it is often attached to social or moral lessons, and in boys' adventure stories, where it can be used to inculcate virtues like courage, loyalty, patience, and endurance.
In the modern period, however, something changed. The artistic and literary sailing galleon tilted to the other side as the wind began to blow from a new quarter, and the vessel turned on a new tack. The reasons are as many as those accounting for the birth of ‘modern’ philosophy – the replacement of Greek-based natural philosophy by the new mathematical methods, the regression of ‘wisdom’ as an agenda item behind the rational control of nature, the discovery of unsuspected parts of the globe not represented on earlier maps, etc. The Reformation is an ambiguous cultural event; parts of it were rebellious and novel, other parts authoritarian and conservative. The call to remove ecclesiastical intermediaries in favour of direct and immediate inspiration by the Holy Spirit as each person read scripture led, once this process became secularized, to the Enlightenment, while an equally powerful strand led into intolerant and reactionary fundamentalism.
The part of the Reformation to which I draw attention in this note is Luther's so-called ‘theology of the cross’, which he opposed to what he called a traditional ‘theology of glory’, with which he taxed the wealthy and corrupt Renaissance papacy and the institution of Western Christianity in general. Behind this charge were the long-standing calls for reform of ecclesial offices from contamination by political power and for a return to the imagined simplicity of the pre-Constantinian church. There was something deeper and more serious, however, in Luther's ‘theology of the cross’, something allied to the reformer's charge that the ecclesial institution had kept the scriptures from the devout by disallowing vernacular translation; as a consequence the people had been duped and deprived concerning the very foundations of their faith. By not having independent access to scripture, they were prevented from comparing what the latter said to what the institution was saying and doing. This had to be corrected; and when it is, said Luther, the faithful will see that the scriptures (chiefly St. Paul) preach a ‘theology of the cross’ that is different from the traditional ‘theology of glory’.
In other words, a charge of distortion and fraud was laid at the Church's feet. As with Plato's earlier view encouraging the guardians in his ideal Republic to promulgate deliberate lies (notably concerning a ‘marriage lottery’ to conceal a calculated plan to produce the healthiest offspring), and Kant's definition of ‘Enlightenment’ as man's ‘release from his self-incurred tutelage’, there was some suggestion here of compassionately protecting young people from confrontation with a reality for which they were not as yet ready, for their own good. There is no disguising the equally strong suggestion, however, of manipulation, adulteration, and the ‘toning down’ of texts to conceal a conjured ‘stark reality’ for which the perpetrators thought their audience would never be ready. The implied challenge to the reader who is being informed (and inflamed) that he or she has been deceived is this: are you prepared to demonstrate these people wrong? Are you strong enough to turn to face a reality that may be more disturbing than you previously conceived? Can you take it? The challenge will evidently be more a test of our courage and intestinal fortitude than of our epistemic faculties. Who could resist or fail to respond affirmatively to such a challenge? Luther's ‘theology of the cross’ supplies the ‘button’ that many characteristically ‘modern’ authors will later ‘push’ to elicit the same reaction. So begins the modern self-questioning rhetoric of intimidation.
In one sense, this is simply a variation on Socrates' psychology of education. Socrates thought all education was really ‘recollection’, and that the key to educating anyone was to remove the massive prejudice each person carries that they are already in possession of the truth. By artful questioning, Socrates would disabuse a so-called expert of this belief; this is a delicate and dangerous business, because so powerful is the psychological drive to be ‘protected’ by the truth that, once this conviction is pried loose, not only does the individual immediately rush headlong into a passionate search on their own (which actually brings about the ‘education’), but they are equally likely to act on the psychological pain and embarrassment this revelation has caused, and end by ‘killing the messenger’, or the person who helped them by rescuing them from this most lamentable of conditions. They are not simply ignorant, they are deceived. Ignorance self-aware cures itself. Deception unexposed is incurable. Deceit is being ignorant while thinking you have the truth; the latter trait seals the condition against a cure. It is the worst of all conditions, one even the gods abhor.
This psychological backlash is now unleashed by the rhetoric of self-questioning intimidation in Luther's ‘theology of the cross.’ The later is not simply another theoretical interpretation or neutral hermeneutic proposal set next to others in a dispassionate survey of possible approaches to scripture; it is a deliberately provocative challenge delivered at the personal, social, and even national levels, arousing additional energies as it touches one after the other. I propose this as the literary ancestor for subsequent ‘modern’ rhetorical postures and authorial strategies to arouse energies to uncover, and to turn to face, progressively more disturbing or horrible ‘truths’ from which those to whom we have been entrusted for education have instead kept us distant. The terror one feels before the suspicion of deception inflames the subject with the psychological energy to sweep it away. The force Socrates relied upon for a constructive enterprise in discrete areas of investigation is provoked in us at increasingly encompassing levels by the fear of having been taken in, duped, and deceived on fundamental issues. Do you want to stay children? Or do you want to rip off the mask of hypocrisy, the skein of lies, conventional platitudes and self-serving distortions that have kept us down? The dawn of the age of revolution mobilizes and then canonizes this rhetorical trope, moving it from the periphery to its unrivalled position at the centre of the characteristically ‘modern’ era, where supposedly opposed positions turn out upon examination to be variations on this common theme. Even those who would oppose it must do so by incorporating it into their rhetoric, if they are to speak persuasively to this age.
What is Luther's ‘Theology of the Cross’?
The two terms ‘theology of the cross’ and ‘theology of glory’ are tools of Luther's call for reform of the Western Church. Their first application is social or moral, pointing out that the motivation behind the vocations of some contemporary churchmen had little to do with following Christ more closely in renunciation and self-sacrifice, and more to do with ambition for political recognition, honour, wealth and security. As such, they retain a permanent relevance regarding the criteria against which candidates who present themselves for church office should be scrutinized. In a second application, however, they go deeper and touch theology proper. Specifically, they relate to Luther's offence at the doctrine of ‘indulgences’ by which the faithful could merit a reprieve from a certain amount of the punishment due to sin by prayers, penances, or charitable donation. His offence at the practice led to his extreme anti-Pelagian position of justification through faith alone (against ‘works-righteousness’), his narrowing of the salvific significance of Jesus from a moral teacher to his ordeal on the cross, his reciprocal insistence that guilt was fully discharged and salvation secured by Christ's sufferings (as St. Paul says, ‘we preach Christ, and Christ crucified’ 1 Cor 1:23), and his heightening of these sufferings beyond physical torment by saying the Father inflicted on Jesus the full weight of mankind's sin together with the Father's anger against this disobedience. Luther goes so far as to say (following St. Paul who said ‘Jesus was made sin for us’ 2 Cor: 5:21) that so closely does Jesus identify himself with the sin of humanity as scapegoat or substitute victim that the Father in a sense confuses Jesus with sin, and treats him as if he were himself sin or guilty of the sin.
This distinction must be situated within Luther's radical separation of the inner-Trinitarian life of God as he is in himself, and as he is ‘for us’, as revealed in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Embracing a sceptical nominalism, Luther repudiates any knowledge of how God is in himself. The attempt at such knowledge is hubristic and ‘puffs up’; it is at best a distraction. All that concerns us here is how God is for us; this is revealed in Christ's passion. Whereas the Nicene Creed asserted that the Son became ‘like us in all things but sin’, Luther heightens the attachment and engages in paraenetic hyperbole, asserting that the Son ‘assumed’ not just our nature but our sin as well, which he overcomes through his ‘perfect obedience’. Not only did he not enjoy the consoling knowledge of his Father's presence and approval from Gethsemini onwards, but he is the ‘heavenly image who was forsaken by God as damned’; he incurs rather the ‘wrath of God’ and the ‘hell of God forsakenness’. In his heightened association with sin and his exaggerated emphasis on Jesus' sufferings, Luther is not less ‘medieval’; he is more medieval and less orthodox than his more traditional opponents. As he writes to console the dying:
In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them and renders them harmless to you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and make them harmless and bearable.' (LW 42, p. 114)
Without going further into Luther's theory of atonement, I wish only to point out a psychological aspect or rhetorical dynamic that accompanies his proposal as it plays on the reader (for it is very much the ‘reader’, or potential reader of the scriptures, that he has in mind and to whom he is appealing as his intended audience). The truth is more sombre than you have been led to believe. Ecclesial authorities have softened the severity of the scriptures' teaching on the atonement for their own self-interest and to make it more palatable, but in so doing they have kept you at a distance from the deepest plank of your faith. We have been deceived about this most fundamental doctrine – which raises questions about whether we are saved at all. As a consequence of this malformation, the truth is more disturbing than we currently conceive it; only the toughest – an elite – will be able to stomach it, for it is ‘strong meat’ indeed. Are you one of this group? This is no idle question or casual issue, for it touches the foundation of faith, whose correct understanding is crucial for salvation. Are you capable of giving up your childhood understanding and of rising to full adulthood? As St. Paul says, can you put away the things of a child and demonstrate that you have taken on your majority?
In this rhetorical pattern, what the ‘truth’ is remains mysterious, inchoate, something to be uncovered and worked out in detail later. What is planted in the reader's psyche is the insinuation that he has been lied to, been deceived. It is this burning suggestion that triggers the imagination into activity to fend off whatever dangers may be circling us as a consequence. It is not a doctrine but a suspicion that is the enduring legacy of Luther's ‘theology of the cross’, together with the strenuous effort to staunch or remove it. In such a situation it is safer to err on the side of greater suspicion, for excessive scrutiny or precipitate urgency in the enterprise to root out deception and correct fundamental error is not possible. There is nothing more important; all our energies and faculties should be bent thereto.
It is disputed whether ‘modern’ philosophy begins with Descartes' decision to heighten scepticism to its maximal degree through the spectre of an all-powerful but deceptive ‘malign génie’, whose predations must be overcome through a blinding ‘clear and distinct’ idea that cannot be doubted psychologically, or with Hobbes' speculation on the human condition in a state of nature as a ‘war of all against all.’ In any case, both methods involve turning away from historical experience to an originary, vigorous exercise of the imagination to conjure a ‘worst possible scenario’ which, if covered, will shelter us against the suspicion that in the past we have been deceived by underestimating the seriousness of dangers that threaten us. Although by all evidence a devout Catholic, Descartes was clearly trying to bring about a ‘reformation’ in traditional philosophy, and his ‘methodic doubt’ transfers the reformation's anxious uncertainty, outside the sacramental system, about one's state as saved or damned to the philosophical question of whether one is in possession of knowledge or error. John Locke attempted to limit the effects of the new scepticism to metaphysics, invoking the ‘association’ of ideas, but David Hume turned his defence against him by conceding that we may indeed be powerless to resist a particular association, but this is no guarantee of its truth; we are, in effect, simply the pawn of a more subtle ‘deceiver’ which is now our own mind. Our situation is more parlous than we have previously imagined. Roused from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ by Hume, Kant expended a vast intellectual effort to safeguard ‘the starry sky above and the moral law within’; his continued allegiance to a ‘spine’ of mathematical rationalism, however, injected a fatal ambiguity into his deepest commitment. Merely one evil act by the ‘phenomenal’ will sufficed to disclose the ‘noumenal’ will as timelessly and permanently fallen, a consequence Schopenhauer uncovered and threw in the face of the more optimistic Idealists who were commandeering the Critical tradition. From this point the artistic imagination is enlisted and formally commissioned to put together the pieces of our phenomenal world in strange, a-typical, and contradictory motifs, to trip, hamstring, ‘deconstruct’ and reverse the ways we now suspect our psychological faculties jump the gaps and paper over abysses to fashion an ‘as if’ world we can tolerate but which is our own subjective construction. Our only hope of escape is to counter the now-recognized direction of distortion, to bend the imagination to the opposite extreme, the one that causes pain, so that we can not possibly be indulging an unconscious wish. At this point the progeny of Luther's ‘theology of the cross’ become a multitude; a genealogy may be drawn from the anonymous Die Nachtwacht von Bonaventura of 1804 (only in the 20th century discovered to be by E. A. F. Klingenmann) into the full light of popular success with E. T. A. Hoffmann and Poe and the entire Kehrseite der Romantik, or ‘dark side of the Romantic movement’. In contemporary art this influence continues as a steady bass tone in works that shock through a sense of unspecified menace, metaphysical unreliability or surprising and unsuspected corruption, as with Arthur Schnitzler, Edvard Munch, René Magritte, Salvator Dali, Edward Hopper, Lucien Freud, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Philip Pullman, and David Lynch.
Nietzsche's Testing for the Übermensch
It would be natural to add Nietzsche and Freud to the list of those who stand in the legacy of Luther's theology of the cross; since Freud is in some ways a naturalized version of Schopenhauer, there is some appropriateness to rounding off this note with an indication of how Nietzsche extends and intensifies the method of self-questioning intimidation in his figure of the Übermensch; in fact, the latter functions as a kind of bookend that complements and completes Luther's theology of the cross by taking its novel methodical thrust towards a limit, so that it is difficult to imagine a further extension.
The common ground of post-Kantian German philosophy is competing scenarios for a philosophical eschaton, the final stage of human history when the noumenal ‘core’ will have attained adequate and complete phenomenal expression. Against the Idealists, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche agree in identifying the ‘Will’ as this noumenal core, but Nietzsche criticizes Schopenhauer's speculating that in the final stage, the Will in the phenomenal embodiment of the artist is able to turn and face itself in a work of art as in a mirror, is repelled by this vision, and thereby undergoes a radical transformation, almost a new creation, to become a ‘will-less subject’ who disavows and reforms its earlier rapacious forms of behaviour. This is contradictory and unduly ‘optimistic’ (for the vaunted ‘pessimist’) says Nietzsche, for how can the Will cease to be Will? Further, he implicitly accuses Schopenhauer of a ‘weakness of will’ or ‘failure of nerve’ at this point, the last stage of his philosophy, when he apparently capitulates before his audience's (and perhaps his own) desire for a ‘happy’ ending to history. He should instead have had the courage to persevere with his convictions and follow his thesis to its final conclusion, come what may. Thus Nietzsche insinuates the notion of a ‘gradation’ in the power or intensity with which the noumenal ‘Will’ expresses itself in its phenomenal manifestations. The will cannot disappear or deny itself; the only ‘end’ to be sought in history is through its complete or maximal manifestation; for after that, there would be no further to go, nothing unfinished still to be accomplished.
Nietzsche began not as a philosopher but as a classicist and culture critic who was disturbed by what he esteemed weakening tendencies in Western culture during the past 2000 years. Socrates and Plato, long considered among the high points, were for him the start of decline. Nietzsche wanted to arrest the downward spiral, reverse this process, and if possible lift man to new and unprecedented levels of strength. There is a puzzle in Nietzsche's philosophy that parallels the one in Schopenhauer's over how the Will could cease to be Will: for how could the Will to Power cease to rise to greater levels of strength? Nietzsche was scandalized by this discrepancy and presented himself as a cultural therapist with a prescription on how to close the gap.
There had been progress in scepticism since Socrates (by the 19th century Nietzsche believed that ‘God is dead’), but simultaneously a growing power of the ‘herd’ of weaker specimens over the inherently stronger; there was no such thing as ‘human rights’ or ‘moral law’, but these illusions had been foisted on the stronger by the multiplied resentment of the weaker in modern democracies. In an evolutionary context, we must work for the appearance of stronger specimens by kicking out the crutches and attacking the illusions by which the weak insulate themselves against unmediated confrontation with a reality they find intolerable. Since error has infected our very perception, we must enlist the imagination to present a vision which questions these assumptions and troubles our comfort by going counter to our most powerful unconscious longings. At the limit of this exercise in self-questioning suspicion or intimidation, the Übermensch is conjured as one who will go beyond Nietzsche himself in being able to do without the deepest of the modern anodynes, the belief in progress, and the last illusion, freedom:
The Greatest Stress
How if some day or night, a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small and great in your life must return to you – all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a dust grain of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you ever experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly!’ If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this once and innumerable times more?’ would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?
The Cheerful Science, #341 (author's trans.)
The way to alter the direction of world history and to produce the highest specimen is to embrace a vision that attacks this longing at its root by denying its possibility; expressed differently, the Übermensch will be the individual who demonstrates his greater strength by steeling himself to relinquish the condition of his own appearance.
We reach a limit in Nietzsche's paradox, a maximal extension of the motifs of suspicion of deception and vigorous response to protect against a mysterious or unspecified danger felt threatening as a consequence – motifs mooted over four centuries earlier in Luther's theology of the cross. It is difficult to see how there could be an innovation that is not merely one in vocabulary; in this sense the career of this dominant rhetorical trope in the modern period appears to have reached its culmination.