Friday, April 25, 2014

"Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" Is it God who is dead or is it Nietzsche?

In my mind's eye, I envision a meeting of the New York Times editorial board on a fine spring day during the week before Easter. "Easter's coming up," I imagine the Editorial Page Editor saying, "and we need a Sunday op ed essay that debunks Christianity in a subtle and nuanced way."

"How about this?" one editorial board member suggests. " Let's find a professor to write an obscure, pedantic op ed essay on Nietzsche."

"Great idea!" the Editorial Editor exclaims.  "Let's do it!"

And so on Easter Sunday, the Times printed an essay by Simon Critchley, a philosophy professor at the New School for Social Research, entitled "Abandon (Nearly) All Hope."

Like so many New York Times op ed  writers, Critchley managed to be long winded and almost completely incomprehensible while using relatively few words.  His essay wandered about in a disjointed fashion, making references to Aeschylus, Rev.  Jeremiah Wright, Thucydides, Barack Obama, and Nietzsche.

But the heart of his essay is the argument that it is a bad thing to have hope that is not based on reason--an audacious argument to make on Easter Sunday. "Is hope always such a wonderful thing?" Critchley asks. "Is it not rather a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering?"

Critchley ends his essay with a quote from Nietzsche: "Hope is the evil of evils because it prolongs man's torment." Often, Critchley concludes, "by clinging to hope, we make the suffering worse."

Critchley does not attack Christianity directly.  He centers his criticism of unrealistic hopes in in the world of contemporary politics.  "When democracy goes astray, as it always will," Critchley argues, " the remedy should not be some idealistic belief in hope's audacity, which ends up sounding either cynical or dogmatic or both."  No, Critchley asserts, "The remedy, in my view, is a skeptical realism, deeply informed by history."

Whatever that means.

As I read Critchley's essay, I thought of all the Christians across the world who made critical decisions about their lives based not on skeptical realism but on hope.  Was it realistic, for example, for Saint Edith Stein to turn herself in to the Nazis and later be gassed to death rather than pursue the more sensible option of attempting an escape to Switzerland?  Was it realistic for Saint Maximilian Kolbe to give up his life on behalf of another in the Auschwitz death camp when he had a pretty good chance of surviving if he only kept his mouth shut?

And what about Pope John Paul II, who was wracked by physical pain during the last years of his life? Was it moral cowardice for him to live in hope?  Didn't he just prolong his own physical suffering by continuing to live? Wouldn't it have been more sensible for John Paul to have submitted to euthanasia?  For, as Nietzsche famously put it, "The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night."

Why does any Christian live by faith? Why do Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and maintain the childlike belief that they will be with God when they die? I think nonchristians regard Christians as intellectual cowards who cling to childish beliefs in life after death because they lack Nietzsche's supposedly cheerful resignation that when we are dead we are just dead. Period.

But of course, Nietzsche died a madman, and it is a bit silly to evoke him on an Easter Sunday in the Times.

That is not my point, however. My point is simply this. Christians live by faith that God is present in their lives and in the world around them. They believe they are in the arms of God from the moment of birth until they die and that they will continue to be with God after they die.  And of course Catholics are sustained by Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.

And whether we amass great riches in our lifetime and wield enormous temporal power or we die agonizing and obscure deaths like those endured by Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, we know God is with us.  That is what sustains us. That is the true audacity of hope.


Simon Critchley. Abandon (Nearly) All Hope. New York Times, April 20, 2014, Sunday Review Section, p. 8.

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