Friday, April 15, 2011

The Measure of Modern Morality

The world, as seen through the lens of the news media, seems to be playing itself out like a parable written by Nietzsche. War, abuse of power, betrayal of the innocent by wolves cunningly disguised as sheep, whether these wolves are politicians, clergy, bankers, generals… It seems like one bad joke that keeps playing itself into deeper and deeper territory. What was once faintly amusing amusing and treated as cliché (e.g., “death and taxes…”) now is far past its pall, and the thoughtful person reckons that the horrors of division that we see, playing themselves across all boundaries and senses, prove that Shakespeare was all too insightful about human nature when he has his character Hamlet observe that customs are “More honour'd in the breach than the observance.” What we see played out now is mostly breach, and little, if any, observance. Apparently, the breachers rule!

Surely, this is what Nietzsche meant when he emphatically stated “God is dead!” This statement was used as a battering ram against Nietzsche, of course, who was treated as a pariah by the academic establishment and the church.

It is very interesting that people judged Nietzsche based on that single quip, out of its context.

Here is more of the passage from The Gay Science:

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment.

The passage was spoken by a madman—perhaps this is Nietzsche being tongue in cheek about himself; only a madman could make assertions that turn the world of the worldly upside down by stripping the worldly of their illusions. Nietzsche is the most famous pariah ever, for his polemics against the Christian Church Universal, of which this passage could be thought the crowning statement, if only by those who have not read Nietzsche’s oeuvre in the way Nietzsche himself read all the works that informed him; he called this way of reading lento—Italian for slow. Slow reading for maximum absorption.

Nietzsche was excoriated for reporting the truth of he saw about the way people act. Ironically, the seer actually did go mad, and died before his mature thought could be completely developed.


The Church Universal is an interesting institution. It claims to ground itself in the teachings of Jesus, but patterned itself as a hierarchy in the image of Roman Empire. And so it is an Empire, one that has, over two thousand years, controlled kings and billions of average people, the very slaves that Nietzsche identified in his writings. Of course, Christianity has splintered itself off into denomination after denomination, sect after sect, starting since well before the Councils of Nicea. Each sect has defined and controlled the masses according to its own version of the truth and moral code that it claims to pattern after the very simple commandment of Jesus. The Roman Church has deemphasized women and marginalized quite a lot of diverse interests and ethnicities and thought by using morality and fear as swords and cudgels. Countless innocents have been given the sword or the fire, or some other ultimate punishment for their declared “sins”. There is no peace on earth because religions and governments are continually at war, in an endless effort to command power.

In the modern era, the moral authority of particularly the Roman church has never faced so many challenges. Two of the biggest have to do with the marginalizing of women and homosexuals. Sex scandals continue to rock the faithful, as well they should. The church has fought on this battleground for generations, by primarily using the tool called denial, and by sweeping all transgressions under the carpet. Women and children have suffered abuse of priests who have all taken oaths to uphold and maintain holiness and sanctity in all interactions; the church denied claims, until they could be denied no more; and has finally tried to sweep it all away by sheltering and shuffling the offenders through the Empire, rather than by handing them over to the law. Now, in the U.S., Ireland and, most recently, Belgium, cases are being settled and priests are being defrocked. But there are some wealthy, conservative Catholics (who can afford to take out full page ads in the New York Times, no less) who continue claim that the victims are the ones to blame, not the clergy offenders or the church. Homosexuality is to blame. Women are to blame. Children are to blame. Abortion is to blame. According to the conservative line, the church should not have to bear responsibility for the sins perpetrated within its hierarchy, and its moral authority must not be questioned.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. wrote in his book “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:

Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all.


In Daybreak, Nietzsche speaks Moral Authority in the following manner:

Thus commands the authority of morality: an obscure fear and awe are at once to direct mankind in the case of precisely those actions the aims and means of which are least immediately obvious! This authority of morality paralyses thinking in the case of things about which it might be dangerous to think falsely—: this is how it is accustomed to justify itself before its accusers. Falsely: here that means ‘dangerously’—but dangerously for whom? Usually it is not really the danger to the performer of the action which wielders of authoritative morality have in view, but the danger to themselves, the possibility that their power and influence may be diminished if the right to act arbitrarily and foolishly according to the light, bright or dim, of one’s own reason is accorded to everybody: they themselves, of course, unhesitatingly exercise the right to arbitrariness and folly—they issue commands even where the questions of ‘how am I to act’ to what end am I to act’ are hardly possible or at least extremely difficult to answer. — And if the reason of mankind is of such extraordinarily slow growth that it has often been denied that it has grown at all during the whole course of mankind’s existence, what is more to blame than this solemn presence, indeed omnipresence, of moral commands which absolutely prohibit the utterance of individual questions as to How? And To what end? Have we not been brought up to feel pathetically and to flee into the dark precisely when reason ought to be taking as clear and cold a view as possible! That is to say, in the case of all our higher and weightier affairs.

Rather a frighteningly accurate description of the state of moral authority, as it was in the 1880s and even to the present day.

So we have this doctrinal hot potatoes constantly tossed at us—free-will and sin are juxtaposed to one another. We are offered the assurance of permanent lodgings of our eternal soul in Hell if we do not bow as slaves to the will an institution that is ancient, not modern.

Lost in all of this is the central teaching: Christ died for all.  Here is what Paul said in the first letter to the Corinthians (15:1-3):

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…

What Paul tells us is that we have all been saved, and that we are free. Then we are sent on to preach this release from the bondage of sin by proclaiming the gospel, loving God and cherishing our neighbors as we cherish ourselves.

But ever since the day that the Church patterned itself on Empire, we have been told that we have not been saved, but continue in sin, and further that we can only be saved if we follow the arbitrary doctrines of people who live in the world but are not of the world, and don’t feel bound to adhere to civil law or even their own arbitrary doctrines!  Many of which doctrines are not at all in keeping with the teachings of Jesus during his ministry!

Mark 2:27:

(Jesus) said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

The Roman Church, and not this branch of the Church Universal alone, and not even just the Christian Church, has been acting as if this were the other way round, for far too long.


Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Let us recall that in Baptism we enter the new life. The prisoners are free, the blind see, the oppressed are released from the bondage of authoritarian rule. This, and every year, is the year of the Lord’s favor.

Let us pray that all may be reacquainted with and reminded of this simple and humbling truth, that we may live lives of goodness and compassion because we have been freed to do so, in unity with our neighbors, eschewing the lies of power and arbitrary authority.


Holmes, Sr., Oliver Wendell. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. H. M. Caldwell Co., 1900, p. 129.

Nietzsche, Friedrich; Hollingdale, R.J., translator; Clark, MaudeMarie and Leiter, Brian; . Daybreak, Cambridge University Press, 1997. p. 62: 107. Our right to our folly.

Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica Inc., 1973; various passages.

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