A very significant mistake that Christianity has consistently made is the propagating of theologies that inadvertently, or sometimes intentionally, discourage the celebration of the body and the embracing of the joys of human experience. Life as it is, just as it is, life under the sun, has many simple pleasures, the simple pleasures of experience. To embrace life is to celebrate discovering an idea, falling in love, running on the beach, crying at a funeral, smiling at a wedding, your honeymoon, caring for your elderly parents, watching TV with your dad, waking up early, sleeping in, dancing with a partner, dancing alone, arguing politics, seeing your kids born, rock and roll, getting drunk, experimenting and taking risks, failure, being human. The early asceticism of the church was certainly a mixed bag at best and then came Augustine. Augustine was certainly a mixed bag as well. Augustine was a great intellect, but he made a few serious blunders. Now is not the time to critique Augustine, but it is time to deconstruct the theologies we inherit that do not allow us to truly love life as it is and ourselves as we are. Let’s just say that in a great deal of the language of 21st century evangelical practice, I observe a lot of self-loathing.
Sure, Christianity gets a ton of things profoundly correct, but, when it comes to the realists’ embrace of life as it is and the joy of simply being a flesh and blood human being, Christian theology can become and has historically been somewhat toxic.
The essence of this mediation is an exercise in embracing some very insightful and profound ideas of people who are ideologically adversarial toward Christianity and, often, religious faith in general.
Just 10 minutes ago, I was walking down a hall at work and considering whether to have a discussion about strategy with the owner of our company. He was on the phone and appeared to be in the middle of a rather lengthy conversation, so I decided that I would wait for another opportunity to talk. As I returned to my office, I paused for a second and thought, “What is beautiful about this moment?” Nothing in particular other than likely making the right decision to not impose on my boss. Then the thought came to me, “I’m back.” This “I’m back” is a recurring and very loaded phrase for me. It means I am back into a place of sensing God in the present and savoring the present as an end in itself. It is also a place of heightened impulse control. My energy is lower. I am less hyper-active, more reflective, and, certainly, very happy. I have a little saying that “if for 2% of my day I am in this place”, then I am “walking on water.” To me this is “revival.” It doesn’t really get much better than this. If as John Lennon says, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans,” then I have ceased making plans and, thereby, entered into actually living life. This is what Nietzsche meant by his thought experiment of “eternal recurrence”, and, though I am not a Nietzsche scholar, I think this is what he meant by declaring “God is dead.”
So here is a paradox, “Is it possible that what I experience as the presence of God is similar, in some respects, to what Nietzsche was getting at via considering the implications of the death of god?” Let’s begin this query by considering Nietzsche’s thought experiment of eternal recurrence.
The Thought Experiment of Eternal Recurrence
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proclaims “existence begins in every instance.” This idea of eternal beginning or that existence is beginning ever anew is identical to embracing the present, the challenge of the reassertion of greatness or perfection. But, it is also simultaneously the reassertion of our liberty and a resolution to absolute acceptance. It is an utter rejection of moralism and guilt and shame. To allow existence to begin in every instance is strangely, in its rejection of moralism, a rejection of the moralistic god and an embrace of the God of the I-Thou embrace. Thus paradoxically, it is both an embrace of God and the death of god. It is an absolute acceptance of all of oneself, one’s past, one’s hateful episodes and loving episodes, one’s wasted moments and one’s redeeming moments. To embrace life, one must escape the hand wringing moralism of religion. When, I accept not speaking to my boss as a good thing, I am accepting how weak I am and that the projection of my self in relation to my boss might or might not be a good thing.
In the eternal recurrence, Nietzsche’s asks his readers to consider the following scenario.
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or 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 question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
Life comes to us in the moment. We are who we are with all our memories and histories. To joyfully and adventurously embrace life on life’s terms in the immediate present just as it is without some corrective action necessary as a prerequisite to embracing the moment, we need to become “well-disposed” to ourselves and to life in order “to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.” Nietzsche’s description of the demon’s proposal of eternal recurrence is an experiment to determine if we are psychologically capable of embracing life as it is, the present. Is it possible, dare I say, that this description of a full embrace of life as it is in the immediate present is experientially similar to the embrace of the God of grace and the acceptance of the eternal resounding washing away of all guilt and shame in Christ? Are these just different ways to describe one vital aspect of a spiritual awakening? Mind you, the totality of Nietzsche’s spirituality cannot be the same as that of the enlightened Christian, but what Nietzsche is describing as the orientation toward life and self necessary to embrace life “fervently”, is also necessary to what Christians call practicing the presence of God. Furthermore, what Nietzsche is critiquing is the debilitating toxin often administered through Christian theology that disables the human capacity to embrace Being as it is.
To embrace the present in this full bodied embrace is the embrace of both the responsibility that we are who we have made ourselves and the embrace of the reality that certain aspects of life happen to us, our fate. We have regrets as a result of our decisions and suffer injustice at the hands of cruel people and cruel fate. Yet, all this life-stuff must be accepted. I am who I am. I must courageously and honestly accept all that was, for it all is. Such acceptance is a prerequisite if I am to move into the present joyfully. All else is a rejection of either life or self. This process of acceptance of all that is requires a process of rigorous honesty and can take an instance or a lifetime or somewhere inbetween. We might think we are embracing life, but we have yet to accept ALL of who we are. We are suppressing these truths. We lack the courage to face that we both broke ourselves and have, to some extent, been broken by others. But this is what is. All that comes into this moment cannot be changed. All psychological self-loathing must be revealed and discarded, and the sources, the moments and history that created this self-rejection, must be embraced, accepted, and loved if I am to accept life as it is. I am the only subject that moves through this moment. The moralistic god must die, and the God of love and grace, of the cross, must rise in our consciousness if we are to embrace life.
I was a pastor once. Needless to say, I wasn’t good at preaching the party line. I developed a saying. I like sayings. The saying was as follows, “Bad religion is worse than no religion at all.” The sociological, political, ethical, psychological chasm between moralism and the religion of the God of grace is as wide a chasm as imaginable. In fact, Nietzsche is closer to the God of grace than the moralist, who judges himself, others, and the world according to a moral code that is ultimately life-rejecting. The moralist is constantly making plans for himself and others, placing moral prerequisites upon life that disqualify himself and others from actually living. Against this religion, this bad religion, I often find more camaraderie with Nietzsche than my fellow Christian confessors.