1888 was Friedrich Nietzsche’s last year as a writer, and was his most productive. He suffered a mental breakdown on January 3, 1889, while attempting to stop a man who was beating his horse. He is said to have collapsed with his arms around the horse’s neck and he never returned to his former self, though he lived on for another decade.
If I had to choose one source that precipitated my departure from religion more than any other, it would be the writings of Nietzsche. I am not alone; many throughout the last century have found Nietzsche as the catalyst for their departure from traditional forms of religion. (It is also important to note that many, past and present, have used Nietzsche to attempt to reform Christianity from within. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen recently published an intriguing book that documents the history of Nietzsche reception in America.) He is a writer I have returned to repeatedly for the simplicity with which he expresses the contingency of modern belief, specifically the problems of Christianity’s role in European culture. If before I thought of Christianity as a largely exclusive sphere within Western culture, it was Nietzsche’s writing that exposed the proliferation of Christian ideology and morality far beyond its bounds into political and cultural spheres where Christians and secularists misrecognize it.
Nietzsche wrote Twilight of the Idols in this last year, just before the more well-known Antichrist. The former, relatively short work is written in the short aphoristic style for which he is famous. The second aphorism in the text has become a motto of sorts for me: “Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.” The short statement expresses how reluctant we are to challenge the “truths” that we hold closely, even when part of us “knows” that they are contingent, based only on our own particular context and not on any universal truth. As Nietzsche expressed elsewhere, there is only a perspective “knowing,” so the “already know[ing]” he talks about is not another universal, but instead recognizing the limitations of ourcontingent knowledge
I’ve had this quote listed as the subtitle of this blog, but the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I am retitling my blog “Even the Bravest…,” and wanted to (briefly) explain why. The decision is largely a political one, the ramifications of which I will be able to explain in much greater detail in the coming months. In short, though, although I thoroughly enjoy the title “Exiting Christianity,” and although it expresses the continuing nature of my own experience studying the tradition that I grew up in, it may give the wrong impression to casual readers. My goal is not to deride all that is associated with the Christian tradition; as I’ve mentioned before, I remain intrigued by the history of Christianity and the extent of its effect on present culture
There exists a certain amount of duplicity in the non-sectarian study of religion. The constitution of Religious Studies as a field is dependent on an unbiased approach. Religious Studies is not theology, in other words, because it does not assume the truth of any religious practice or belief. In its purest forms, it is supposed merely to document and compare religious traditions. People do not usually study religion, however, as one studies the objects in a museum. In my experience many people involved in the study of religion hold particular stancesregarding the traditions they study, whether for or against them, yet they separate those from their scholarship. While this increases the potential reach of their work, it is what we might call withholding information relevant to the case. The “objectivity” inherent to scholarship is uniquely problematic to the field of religion because religion assumes complete adherence, whereas fields such as history or psychology do not. For me, the discord between personal and professional approaches to Christianity was untenable, forcing an eventual reckoning.
All that is to say that I want to be as forthright as possible in my approach to religion, but I also want people to interrogate religion more deeply than they have, particularly those who have grown up in the Christian tradition. To prevent people from making a hasty dismissal of my assessments and critiques from the title of my blog alone, I’ll make it slightly more difficult to nail me down (but not too much).
In short, nothing much has changed. However, I’ll have more to say about Nietzsche in the future.