Tag Archives: Friedrich Nietzsche

In a Nutshell

I conclude my conversations with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel by summing up what I’ve learned. All of them were lights in their time, and each one spoke out of – and to – his particular cultural context. My re-reading of these authors has opened up a new insight, however, with regard to their respective places in human history. Whether they were German Lutheran, Anglican beatnik, or Hasidic Jew, these three thinkers have become portals of a new vision for humanity. Something deeper underground than what is specific to any given cultural moment breaks to the surface in their writings. Here are the main ideas.

We live like fish submerged in an unfathomable mystery called reality. Each moment offers a fresh experience of the ineffable wonder of being alive and part of it all. Humans have evolved an ability to reflect on our experience, to pull out the patterns – or put them in – in order to make sense of what’s going on. This business of meaning-making is our chief preoccupation as a species, and the products of our effort – identity, value, significance, and purpose – are vigorously defended as truth-itself.

In fact, for the longest time humans were not self-aware in this construction of meaning. That is to say, we were unselfconscious creators: the projections just came spontaneously out of our deeper imagination in the form of dance, art, symbol, poetry and myth – forming the web of meaning we call culture. We saw ourselves in these projected patterns of meaning, but we didn’t consciously recognize the intelligence “looking back” at us. In the ensuing dialogue of cultural development – over many millenniums – we have come to realize our role in all of this.

One place where our evolving intelligence looks back at us is in the mythological god. This term refers to the key figures of early narratives who are depicted as the primary agents in the creation, supervision, intervention and redemption of the world – focused mainly on the local worlds of the tribes that recited and passed on the stories. As we stretch out the history of mythology we notice that god has evolved over time, beginning as the intention within the forces of nature, becoming more interested in the moral foundations and government of tribal society, and eventually ascending to an absolute position outside the world-system as “the one in control of all things.”

A mythic-literal reading of the sacred narratives is confronted with this personal development in god, which is difficult to accept since god is supposed to be outside of time and essentially perfect. But what if, following the theory that the mythological god is really our own developing consciousness looking back at us, we use this growth chart as a leading indicator of human evolution? The evolution of our body is on a very long trajectory reaching back millions of years; but our ego development correlates exactly to the career of the mythological god. Coincidence?

The rise of ego (self-) consciousness begins in the visceral urgencies of biological life. Under the influence of the drives and reflexes that have secured our survival for countless generations, the infantile ego is powerless to resist. But over time and through the disciplines of tribal morality, “I” (ego) takes its place at the table as a civilized – Nietzsche would say, domesticated – member of the herd. At this point, our focus of value and concern has shifted from the biological imperative of survival to the task of maintaining a social identity, with its driving need to “fit in” (belonging) and “stand out” (recognition).

Remember that all of this world-construction activity is taking place on the ego, by the tribe, and under the divine supervision and final judgment of the mythological god. This gearing-together of who I am, who we are, and who’s in control of it all makes for a very captive audience. Once the doors are locked it’s nearly impossible to manage an escape – but who would want to leave anyway? Our god is the true god, we are the chosen people, and I will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven for being good (that is to say, obedient).

Remember, too, that all of this construction is taking place outside and around the present moment, where our soul swims in mystery. The erector set of culture makes for an exceedingly interesting, developmentally necessary, and magically entrancing game of distractions. Nietzsche wanted to pull it all down and clear the path to a higher humanity (Ubermensch), beyond good and evil. Watts taught that we can see through the cultural facade and step out of the role-play that is currently holding us hostage; we can wake up from the trance and find wisdom in our insecurity. And Heschel challenged us not to rest in this illusion of security, but rather to use the leverage-point of personal (ego) freedom to leap for the ring of responsibility.

This leads us back to “now” – which we never really left, nor can we. Having arched out of and away from the real presence of mystery and through our self-spun webs of meaning, we arrive once again in the living moment. Our awareness has been opened up and the focus of our attention now sees through what we once took as real. The seeds of creativity, compassion and wisdom, once the special possession of the mythological god, have begun to take root in their proper ground.

We are still becoming. The future is already being felt in the contractions. Don’t be afraid.


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Waiting Around

Nietzsche: “In every corner of the earth there are people waiting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting but even less that they are waiting in vain. Sometimes the awakening call, that chance event which gives ‘permission’ to act, comes but too late – when the best part of youth and the strength to act has already been used up in sitting still; and how many a man has discovered to his horror when he ‘rose up’ that his limbs had gone to sleep and his spirit was already too heavy!”

It may be that culture invented philosophy in order to catch the impulse of change and involve it – or tangle it up – in a web of commentary and subtle qualifications, to the point where it is rendered numb and disoriented. Our species is top-heavy, with this big brain wobbling atop a spindle of delicate bones. We often sense and feel the galvanic force of evolution surging out to our working muscles, but then rein it back to the counter for more deliberation. Of course, we don’t want to act prematurely or thoughtlessly or recklessly, or “merely” on the prick of inspiration alone – so we fiddle and futz, weigh the benefits against the risks, and end up throwing it back into committee.

Let’s face it, change is not always welcome. In fact, we embody a survival intelligence that has changed very slowly over the course of evolutionary history. It (Id was Freud’s term) operates according to a “logic” which says, “I’m still alive, so something is working. Let’s hold on and see what happens next. [Time passes] Ah, still here. Keep up the good work.”

End-time Christianity is perhaps the poster child of those who wait. In its early days, the cultural atmosphere was such that things really did seem about to end – at least for those of the dispossessed underclasses, such as the peasants and day-workers initially attracted to Jesus’ message of debt forgiveness and liberation. His gospel of freedom was quickly taken up into pre-existing apocalyptic eschatologies (views of the finale to “this present evil age”) and became something very different from what he probably intended.

The Fourth Gospel (John) was one of the last New Testament attempts to redirect this preoccupation with the end. But no matter how profound and provocative its language was – and obviously still is – the effort to bring Christians back to the present task of living out the spirit of Jesus was pushed to the side and tabled. Cultivation of a more mystical (deeply this-worldly) spirituality lacked attraction for a generation whose existence in the world was toilsome and perilous. Escape – or deliverance by intervention of a savior – was seen as the only way out. And so Christianity underwent an identity change of the first order: from an underground conspiracy for world change, to an orthodox membership club waiting on heaven.

Lately I’ve been feeling the urgency of our present cultural situation, especially as it concerns the spiritual direction of humanity and the decreasing relevance of religion. In their attempts to stop the slide and revitalize our churches, some leaders are advocating a “back to basics” reform or a return to first-century Christianity. Maybe it’s all the theological complications and moral compromises we’ve made along the way; let’s clear the table and get refocused on the fundamentals of our faith. What this really means is a further tightening of the bolt that binds together metaphysical realism, mythological literalism, biblical inerrancy, and infallible authority – that is to say, more of what has gotten us here.

As I see it, organized religion (all religions) is only a stage along the path of our spiritual evolution as a species. It occupies the same tier of human development as ego, tribe, morality and the mythological god. It’s not bad, and I don’t believe it is our destiny to one day live as fully enlightened beings without egos and the rest. These are necessary components of the longer trajectory and larger picture of what we are and where we’re going. But they are relative, not absolutes, and the next phase of our evolution requires that we leap from this platform and into the farther reaches of our human nature.

But the leap doesn’t project us into a new age without religion. The platform provides context, support, orientation and the resources of our various wisdom traditions that can aid us in leaping. A Christian leaps from a Christian platform, a Buddhist from a Buddhist platform, a Muslim from an Islamic platform, each using the leverage and guidance of their distinct traditions to engage the mystery and live more meaningfully in the world. Leaping out, we transcend our ego, let go of god, and learn to live beyond good and evil.

Those preparing to leap should expect a pull-back from the tribe. “What are you doing?! We’re supposed to stay here and wait! How can you just turn your back on us like this?” Such is the last task of ego – to take leave of your attachments, turn toward the mystery, and open your arms to fly.

The waiting is over.


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Will to Power

Nietzsche: “Everywhere one enthuses, even under scientific disguises, about coming states of society in which there will be ‘no more exploitation’ – that sounds to my ears like promising a life in which there will be no organic functions. ‘Exploitation’ does not pertain to a corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will of life.”

Nietzsche’s “will to power” has been taken as a ruthless pursuit of superiority, as the drive to overcome, dominate and subdue others. It’s probably this idea of his, more than any other, that encouraged many to see in Nietzsche a kind of pre-endorsement of fascism and inspiration of Hitler. But, once again, this represents a gross mis-reading of Nietzsche.

True enough, he was scathingly critical of those Christian utopians who foretold a future where all people would live in happy equality and perpetual peace. What would happen if we smoothed down all differences, every more-or-less, and were able to remove the friction, tension and conflict that characterize so much of our interpersonal relations? Nietzsche was not a fan of equality – or democracy, insofar as it insists on the principle that everyone is equal.

He even seems here to affirm and encourage exploitation. Isn’t that evidence enough that Nietzsche is against Christian morality. Oh right, we already determined that. But against moral decency? Ah, true again. He’s a “nihilist,” then, a moral anarchist, proto-Nazi and antichrist. Well, not really.

The straightforward definition of exploitation is based on the verb exploit, which simply means “to utilize, advance or promote.” Granted, it’s more about your advancement than someone else’s, but that doesn’t have to make it greedy or vicious. Perhaps we’re dealing here with something more analogue than digital, a variable range from too little to too much, rather than a simple “on” or “off.” The Christian morality that Nietzsche was reacting to tended (and still tends) to be digital – it’s either a virtue or a vice, praiseworthy or condemnable. Such a digital value system plays out and produces a dualistic worldview (good versus evil) as well as bipolar personalities that are unable to absorb and modulate the emotional complexity of experience.

Is a healthy human society entirely free of exploitation, competition and self-interest? The early Christian communalism as described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles is frequently referenced as an ideal, and we know that Karl Marx envisioned a society where every talent would be harnessed, every need satisfied. But that was a fantasy. In the meantime, exploited proletarians need to muster themselves and pull down the bourgeoisie system of privilege. Sounds like exploitation just running in the opposite direction, doesn’t it? And what about those primitive Christians? That model quickly fell apart as real life seeped in and a politics of entitlement took over.

Exactly, Nietzsche would say. The drive to utilize resources, advance the quality of life, and promote the fulfillment of its own deeper nature is written into the genetic code of life itself. Efforts to push it down and put it out are really just another form of exploitation, which prompts the question of whose interests are being served in our moral repression. The “will to life” naturally arises in every living thing as it seeks its own foothold in the universe, struggles to satisfy its basic needs, and strives to actualize its true nature.

If we should remove all obstacles and flatten out all uprisings; if we could somehow assuage every hint of discontent and anesthetize the energizing nerve of our innate selfishness – would the result be a healthy society and genuine community? No. Instead we would end up with such an inertia of mediocrity and laziness, that our very survival would be in jeopardy.

Nietzsche wasn’t in support of pushing down your neighbor and sticking it to the poor. His ideal was not just another aristocracy based on the golden rule of a rogue capitalism – “The one with the gold rules.” Nor was he an advocate of a ruthless antagonism where individuals and classes are consumed in their schemes to ruin each other. He believed that our better days are still ahead, but not in a utopia where everyone is equal and all adversities have been neutralized.

We need to get along, but each of us must also get along – that is, we need to go forward in our own development and evolution as human beings. An important part of that development involves our relationships with others in society, but we must be careful not to cut the root as we cultivate the flower.

An illustration from the vineyard. Vines that are grown in super-rich soil where every emergent need of the plant is instantly and abundantly provided for don’t have to “strive” as diligently to produce fruit. As a consequence of this “privilege,” the vines will put out lazy grapes – berries that are bloated and tasteless, lacking in complexity and depth. Wine made from lazy grapes is characteristically flat and uninteresting, winding up as cheap jug wine. The overly providential vintner, by removing adverse conditions and anticipating every need, thereby enfeebles the plant’s innate “will to power” and compromises its natural intelligence.

Nietzsche might say that our culture is  bringing forth “lazy grapes,” individuals lacking the complexity of character, inner fortitude and passion for life that our species requires for the next phase in our evolution. Though he waxed prophetic over the “superman” (Ubermensch) of the future, this apparent recession of the human spirit made him wonder whether our opportunity has already passed.


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Learning to Dance

Nietzsche: “There are sufficient idiotic friends and corrupters of woman among the learned asses of the male sex who advise woman to defeminize herself … and to imitate all the stupidities with which ‘man’ … is sick. Almost everywhere her nerves are being shattered … and she is being rendered more and more hysterical with every day that passes and more and more incapable of her first and last profession, which is to bear strong children. There is a desire to make her in general more ‘cultivated’ and, as they say, to make the ‘weak sex’ strong through culture: as if history did not teach in the most emphatic manner possible that making human beings ‘cultivated’ and making them weaker – that is to say, enfeebling, fragmenting, contaminating, the force of the will, have always gone hand in hand.”

The rise of human culture is the story of how a primate animal nature was gradually trained into a well-behaved and proper civilian – or maybe we’re  not quite there yet. At any rate, an evolutionary perspective regards human civilization as a long series of negotiations with our instinctual intelligence – our impulsive tendencies around selfishness, sex and aggression. I’ve already noted how Nietzsche speaks against the general opinion that sees this cultivation of our animal passions – in a word, culture – as the proper end-point of human evolution. Instead he regards it as a staging area or transition space between our (animal) past and our (spiritual) future.

Of course, our animal past is still with us, as body; and our spiritual future is already present, as soul – and both are under the tyranny of that control freak called ego. This dynamic tension in human experience between body and soul, animal and spiritual, where we’ve been and where we might be going on this long arc of evolution, is the seedbed of magic, metaphor and mythology. Whereas the religious aspiration of ego – as revealed in tribal orthodoxy – is commonly to leave the body behind and live forever as a soul in paradise, the reality of our experience is this tension and its inescapable ambiguity. Our primary task as humans is not to become escape artists, but amphibians.

The thought and writings of Nietzsche spring directly out of his creative imagination, from that part of the mind the psychologist Carl Jung later called our collective unconscious. The images that emerge from this mental underground represent our earliest and most basic impressions of reality; Jung named them archetypes (or “first forms”).

All of this is important for understanding Nietzsche’s references to “man” and “woman” throughout his writings. As a creative philosopher, he was not so much commenting on individual men and women of his day – though he did some of that as well. Man and Woman for him are archetypes, first forms or basic patterns in the evolution of our species. They are present in each human individual as propensities in our development, expressing in powers and qualities that are more or less masculine and feminine.

For Nietzsche, Woman is part of a cluster of associations including Nature, Animal, Body and Time; Man is included in the cluster of Culture, Person, Ego and Space. Think of a ‘T’ where the ascending energy of the first cluster is capped and splayed out horizontally into the second cluster. We could add further polarities, like passion and reason, feeling and thinking, instinct and conscience, organismic and mechanistic. These terms are not intended to be seen as mutually exclusive opposites, but instead as complementary and creative counterparts in a higher dance of sort. Only as we identify exclusively with one or the other, do they become antagonistic and competitive.

We should remember that culture for Nietzsche is not the end-point of human evolution. The “cultivation” of our animal passions in the obedient morality of tribal life involves too much denial, repression and condemnation of our most important drives – “making them weaker” on their way to becoming more domesticated. Archetypally, Man has made too much an end-game of harnessing and controlling the powers of Woman. As the personal Ego caps off and flattens out the creative life of our animal Body, the intended channel of our higher progress as a species is blocked. Man-against-Woman is an endless conflict and waste of energy. According to Nietzsche’s vision, if we can’t get past this battlefront it will also be our tragic demise.

What’s beyond this point? If it’s not Man holding down Woman, Ego managing Body, Personal values overriding and repressing Animal drives, the rational mind over the passionate heart, then what is the frontier of the human spirit that patiently – but not indefinitely – awaits our foreground squabbling and wrangling over opposites?

Just as in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, Man and Woman are reconciled only as we are able to shift focus to a point “above” the apparent conflict. This does not mean that the opposition is neutralized in an agreeable blend of powers – this, too, would represent a tragic end for Nietzsche. Rather, Man (Chinese yang) and Woman (yin) must be comprehended as necessary counterforces of a dynamic interplay (swirling together as in the yang-yin symbol). The “T” must break through and transcend the intersection of either/or.

This is the domain of Soul – not apart from and outside the perpetual struggle of Ego and Body, Man and Woman, but inside-and-beyond it. Each must contribute its (his or her) primary power to the dance, if the dance is to continue. And we will only break through and ascend to authentic life as we are able to keep dancing.


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Frontier of the Future

Nietzsche: “Actual philosophers are commanders and law-givers: they say ‘thus it shall be!’, it is they who determine the Wherefore and Whither of humankind, and they possess for this task the preliminary work of all the philosophical laborers, of all those who have subdued the past – they reach for the future with creative hand, and everything that is or has been becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is – will to power. Are there such philosophers today? Have there been such philosophers? Must there not be such philosophers?

I’ve already commented on Nietzsche’s self-appointed role as advocate of the body and its animal drives. He felt that morality and “the herd conscience” effectively block our path to a higher human actualization by condemning, censuring and repressing the life impulses that have served our evolution for millions of years. What should rather happen, as he saw it, is that these drives are channeled and guided to the fulfillment of human nature, not extinguished (which isn’t possible anyway) or domesticated (which only makes them docile, weak and skittish).

The model of self that I’ve been working with identifies three centers of experience connecting us to three distinct aspects or dimensions of reality. Physical reality is experienced by the body which has both an inward orientation (to an internal state) and an outward orientation (to the sensory environment). Social reality is experienced by the ego, and it too has an inward orientation (me-identity) and an outward orientation (other-object). Spiritual reality is experienced by the soul, also with an inward orientation (to the ground of being) and an outward orientation (to the unity of existence).

Again, we don’t have a body, ego, and soul; we are these. Our “real self” is not a metaphysical and immortal subject underneath or above them, but is rather their evolving relationships and dynamic interplay over the course of our lifetime.

Prior to the construction of ego, it seems reasonable to suppose that an individual’s experience of reality is a two-way flow: down through the internal state of the body and into the soul’s ground, and also out through the sensory pathways of the body and into the universal whole. As ego becomes more defined and established as the center of our personality, this spontaneous flow of experience is interrupted by commentary, judgment and belief – in short, by meaning-making.

Ego isn’t performing this work alone, however, but is supported, instructed and supervised by the tribe. The individual’s need for belonging (to fit in) and significance (to stand out) is manipulated by the tribe to ensure moral compliance – to make the individual into “one of us” who thinks and behaves according to the rules.

Stepping back a bit from this model of self, we begin to see the thresholds and potential conflicts of development. As our life energy gets generated in our cells and organs, the animal intelligence of instinct coordinates the urgencies, reflexes and drives that keep us alive. As a member of the tribe, however, you cannot be allowed to gratify every impulse, so the rules and expectations are gradually instructed into you (internalized) as the moral intelligence of conscience.

We might hope that the deeper life energy of the body would move freely along these channels of morality, connecting us to each other in healthy and creative ways, but this isn’t the norm – at least as Nietzsche saw it in his day. Instead, our impulses get blamed and repressed. Pushed back and driven underground by the “herd conscience,” this animal instinct doesn’t simply dissipate or timidly obey. It will break out eventually, and when it does, the tribe is likely to push even harder and pinch the channels even tighter. For Nietzsche, this is where the human evolutionary journey meets its tragic end: with everyone well-behaved but energetically constipated, stuck on the wheel of chronic frustration and neurosis, dying before we even had the chance to really live.

What ought to happen – and if that sounds too much like a moral “ought,” then what needs to happen – is that the individual lets go of morality and proceeds to live “beyond good and evil,” on the far side of obedient conformity to the herd. This free range of the higher life is where Nietzsche’s “philosophers” live – or will live one day. As the “passionate pursuit of wisdom,” philosophy for Nietzsche isn’t about symbolic logic and abstract thinking. Wisdom is the spiritual intelligence of the soul. It involves an understanding of one’s place in the greater whole, orienting by the big picture and the long view. Wisdom is not about how smart we are, but whether we have a large enough vision and sufficient courage to live creatively into this moment.

When the social system of tribal morality, the personal ego and the mythological god can be transcended, the future of humanity will begin. The webs of meaning that we have collectively and individually constructed must either support this creative transformation or be torn down. If it served us for a while, giving us security and a sense of purpose, we have now reached the point where the box is too small, the cage too limiting.

It is time to cut the lock and push open the door. Can we trust ourselves?


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An Apology for What’s Next

Nietzsche: “When the highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out, carry the individual far above and beyond the average and lowlands of the herd conscience, the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, its faith in itself, its spine as it were, is broken: consequently it is precisely these drives which are most branded and calumniated.”

Nietzsche’s distrust of the social system is well known. As he saw it, our current cultural achievement as a species is merely a staging area for the next great breakthrough. What’s on the far side is creative freedom and a full understanding of our place in the universe. Where we are now, however, is caught in the collapsing frame of late-modern consciousness, what he elsewhere called “the twilight of the gods.”

Traditional society has several distinctive features. It is hierarchically arranged, with tribal authorities at the center and top of the social order who are regarded as enjoying a privileged connection to god. It is managed by an intricate network of customs (Nietzsche’s “morality”) that work to pull otherwise spontaneous, creative and potentially deviant behavior into conformity with the group. It is based in a system of stories (a mythology) that tie contemporary life to the sacred past and clarify a divine purpose for the future of the faithful.

So at the dusk of the modern era (late nineteenth century) when Nietzsche and others began to realize that mythology – not only other people’s stories, but our own as well – is a human production, the whole thing started to collapse.

If myths of revelation are actually fictional constructions, then we need to ask about the particular historical contexts that shape the storytellers’ worldview and way of life. Flipping the sacred stories of mythology on their head in this way – as coming “up” out of the human situation rather than “down” out of heaven – urged new questions about perspective, hidden agendas, and ulterior motivations of those who made up the stories in the first place, and of those who have a stake in telling them now.

Nietzsche was especially ruthless in his criticism whenever he spotted or got a whiff of moralism. He cautioned that we should always inquire into whose position in society is served as we stand together, with hands on our hearts, reciting the creed that supports the story that describes the world that humans built.

Instead of simply sweeping morality into the cultural junk bin, however, Nietzsche offers an explanation of its origins and why we (the tribe) protect it so fiercely. If we understand that mythology orients the tribe under the sovereignty of god, and that morality orients the ego under the rule of the tribe, then specific moral disciplines are how the ego manages the body – or better, how the tribe manages the body through the ego.

When you pull back on a particular urge out of fear of being caught, the “herd conscience” is controlling your behavior. For a long time such prohibitions were believed to come ultimately from god, and you don’t want to mess with god. So you do what is “right.” But why is that right? Or what’s the “wrong” that is being ruled out by your obedience?

Nietzsche’s reference to our “highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out” reveals his deep respect for the body and our animal nature. For millions of years the survival intelligence of instinct has been marvelously successful – at least as it concerns you and me – in keeping our ancestors alive, reproducing, and adapting to or overcoming the challenges of their environment. As society grew more complex and unstable, it became increasingly important to bring the body’s animal nature under control. The vital drives of instinct, which had served the advancement of human evolution so faithfully and for so long, needed to be domesticated and trained for life in the tribal role play.

I’ll take just three of what I regard as the more obvious of such survival drives to illustrate what I think Nietzsche is saying. If we soften our definition of selfishness to mean the driving desire to take what is needed to stay alive, then beneath all the social cooperation of this planet’s ecosystems, this impulse for survival is most basic. At least for long enough to make copies of your genes, which segues to the sex drive as second on my list. Any prehistoric individual who lacked one or the other of these first two drives either didn’t live long enough to reproduce, or didn’t care enough to try. Either way, the outcome was a genetic dead-end.

At a more distant third place, I would put aggression on the short list of “highest and strongest drives.” I don’t mean by this the urge to pick fights and make trouble, but rather the internal uprising of emotional energy that motivates the individual to confront a challenge(r) or persist in the determination to overcome an obstacle in the way of fulfillment. Higher organisms strive, struggle and compete to stay alive and protect their interests.

Tribal morality is uneasy with these behavioral impulses of the body. For the sake of propriety and the social order, it discourages selfishness (“Share your toys!”), regulates sexuality (“Wait till you’re married in this type of partnership”), and sublimates aggression (“Try to win, but play fair!”). And in a religiously moralistic society, as Nietzsche saw in late-modern Christianity, even the urges beneath these behaviors are “branded and calumniated” (falsely accused) as sinful.

But what happens when you try to repress the “will to power” of our animal instinct? Answer: It will get frustrated, amplified and perverted on its way back to the surface. Immorality is rarely due to a lack or ineffective use of social controls, but is rather the predictable outcome of an oppressive and puritanical morality. As the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, it works harder and turns the screw tighter on individual freedom, which only serves to further aggravate the frustration and exacerbate the problem. And so it goes.

Is there any way through it? The implied message of Nietzsche is that our future as a species will be determined by the degree to which we can relax into our bodies, listen to our deeper drives, and learn to trust the natural intelligence of our animal instinct. This also entails that we rediscover a very ancient talent which has fallen asleep under the trance of tribal morality – if it hasn’t already expired by asphyxiation: to live with respect for the body and its living ground.

If we could (re)learn this, there just may be time enough for the creative emergence of genuine freedom and community – on the far side of our present challenge.


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Breakpoint for Religion

Heschel: “You can affect a person only if you reach his [or her] inner life, the level where every human being is insecure and feels his [or her] incompleteness, the level of awareness that lies beyond articulation.

“The soul is discovered in response, in acts of transcending the self, in the awareness of ends that surpass one’s interest and needs.”

Insecurity has two very different meanings. For Watts and Heschel (and I assume Nietzsche would concur), it describes the fact of our existence – that our survival is not guaranteed, nor are the conditions always favorable for our personal happiness and fulfillment. That’s just the way it is. The grand adventure of life and its evolutionary course in time is inherently precarious, fraught with challenges, and dependent on environmental conditions all along the way. Some environments are hospitable to living things, and some aren’t. The fact that every living organism is to an important degree at the mercy of factors outside its control makes its existence “insecure.”

Watts, especially, uses the term “insecurity” to refer to a feeling that can overwhelm the human organism. When you feel insecure, you are anxious to the point of panic over the otherwise natural limits on your ability to control what’s going on. This anxious feeling may then motivate you to take control – keeping others at a safe distance, for instance, or imposing your will on them. You might take out a stack of insurance policies against any and all possible risks.

With Heschel, insecure describes our human condition. As creatures, we are dependent on conditions of reality over which we have little authority or control. Take, for example, our need for oxygen. We can’t make oxygen, yet we need it to survive. The metabolic process that supports life in our cells, tissues and organs makes us dependent on the supply of oxygen from outside ourselves. If it isn’t there, we will die. This may sound as if we are characterizing life as internally vulnerable and weak – and in a way that is important to admit, life is (we might say) naturally deficient. None of us is “complete,” self-sufficient, or fully adequate to sustain life entirely on our own.

At the developmental level of ego where the focus shifts from  survival to identity, human existence continues to be insecure. We need belonging and recognition, but the social reality that might provide or withhold these is also outside our control. Humans that have been deliberately (or experimentally) deprived of social interaction not only end up relationally stunted as a consequence, but also fail to mature and die far earlier than normal.

Heschel refers to our “inner life” as that place where our insecurity and incompleteness are most acutely felt, which makes it sound as if the soul is something less than the transcendental center of immortality that popular religion makes it out to be. I admit, it is tempting to put the spiritual life of the soul at a level high above the temporal conditions of body and ego. While these are dependent and conditioned, soul is independent and without conditions. While they are susceptible to the complications of life in time, soul is utterly detached and immune.

Here’s the beautiful paradox: It is at the point of our deepest need, where we are absolutely dependent on what is beyond us – that is, where our insecurity is most evident and inescapable – that we are also connected to a larger reality. Our Western system of values regards dependency as weakness, as a flaw or breakdown in our intended design as self-standing and fully liberated beings. And while it does represent a limitation against our absolute freedom, need is where our presumption of self-reliance must be dropped in order to open up and receive what is needed. Dependency is where our own incompleteness may be painfully obvious, but it’s also where the larger web of life is providentially present to us.

True enough, I can simply “take” what I need and fail to respond in faith, wonder and gratitude. In all my self-preoccupation I may never become aware of my place in the grandeur of being. I need air, I need love. What’s in it for me? The rest be damned. But then, tangled up in my own insecurities and failing to respond, soul goes undiscovered.

The revolution begins tomorrow. I’ll feel better then.


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What Would Nietzsche Do?

Nietzsche: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”

Given that Nietzsche titled his book Beyond Good and Evil, we can assume a higher importance in his mind for what he connects to this phrase. But … love? Really? Nietzsche? Didn’t he espouse the obliteration of all values, despise the Jews and inspire Hitler’s holocaust campaign against humanity?

Surprising answer to all three parts: No. In fact, it was his sister who took charge of his estate and collected his papers after he died; she began spinning his reputation in a direction that agreed with her husband’s antisemitism. (Nietzsche actually condemns it in different published works.)

“Good and evil” in Nietzsche’s thought refers to morality. These are not things in the universe, but values ascribed or attached to things – or rather, to the actions of things (specifically people). While metaphysical realism holds the separate and absolute existence of good and evil (personified in gods and devils), a thorough-going constructivism regards them as values (not entities or supernatural forces) that humans project onto reality. It’s an important part of “world-building” whereby we construct a secure and meaningful habitation in which to live.

In order to get along together, we early on assigned value to certain kinds of social behavior – proper and deviant, right and wrong – and then invented superhuman realities (“good” and “evil”) to anchor them down with authority. Morality, then, is about how human behavior conforms to the standards of right and wrong, as these are customized in a given society (recall that mores are customs).

There’s no indication in Nietzsche’s writings that he preferred social chaos to civil order. His aspiration was for a humanity not tethered to moral standards of good and evil. For the rest of us tribe-bound, people-pleasing and self-interested egos, all this talk of “overcoming morality,” the “death of God,”  and living “beyond good and evil” sounds a lot like mustering for a planetary free-for-all. Did he really believe that living without values would be a good thing? Therein lies the paradox.

No, it would not be “good,” for that just pulls us back into the problem. And what’s the problem? That we can’t live creatively and spontaneously so long as we are measuring our actions against the conventional standards of our tribe (however large). Wanting to do “good” is already qualifying human freedom by appealing (read: submitting) to the judgment of someone else – be it the social majority, a dictator, or the mythological god.

Imagine living with such present mindfulness, with such profound awareness of what’s really going on right now, and fully grounded in the “one life” of which you are a part, that your action flows spontaneously and unselfconsciously to the critical point of creative transformation. Thinking as the universe, you know immediately what is needed in the moment and, without pausing to consider what it will cost you or how you could benefit personally from the outcome, you are like a catalyst of transforming change – and simply make it happen. Who did that? Was it an ego, an extension of the tribe or an agent of another will?

No, it wasn’t an “I” (ego). It was The One – Life itself, the creative will that moves the evolutionary process. You weren’t “commanded,” taken over by a higher power or alien force. You (but not ego you) are the will-to-power, the moving energy of creative change. Your actions cannot be validated or disqualified by any standard of right and wrong, for you are a breaking wave of energy on the ocean of reality. You are, in that very moment, beyond good and evil.

This is love, according to Nietzsche the proto-Nazi nihilist. Ah, and I suppose that’s the point. All along we’ve been judging his vision by how it would work out for the rest of us. Not very well – at least, not as long as we’re hunkering down (or trapped and blinded) in the moral kingdom of good and evil.

Love, for Nietzsche, is not an affection, a feeling, an attachment or even a passion. It is doing the creative thing, not because it has to be done – it’s not an obligation, either –  but because this is the moment. If we are alive, we must live now.

Step into the current and see where it takes you.


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From Having Answers to Having to Answer

Heschel: “How to save the inner [life] from oblivion – this is the challenge we face. To achieve our goal, we must learn how to activate the soul, how to answer the ultimate, how to relate ourselves to the spirit.”

The cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, as it relates to religion and spirituality, was galvanized by the rediscovery of Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death – of the mythological god, that is. Major global conflicts, anxieties over communism, and the escalation of racial tensions at home left many utterly disillusioned over whether God was looking out for his favorite nation – or if he even really existed. Speaking through the madman of his parable more than a half-century earlier, Nietzsche realized that his message had been delivered to a generation not ready for it; the 60s were ripe.

Abraham Heschel was a path-breaking proponent of what he called “depth theology” – reconsidering the nature and meaning of God not from the high perch of religious myth and orthodoxy, but out of the deeper ground of the human spiritual experience. As other so-called “neo-orthodox” Christian theologians were working hard to repair the metaphysical realism that Nietzsche had torn down, Heschel was participating in a new wave of religious reflection. These thinkers were really, as I see it, moving Nietzsche’s program into the next step. If he had said “no” to (the mythological) god, they were exploring whether there was any validity to saying “yes” to God-beyond-god.

Heschel observed an emptiness in the inner life of his generation, a stagnancy and disorientation. Once we have let go of the mythological god – the one who created heaven and earth, freed the Hebrews from Egypt, spoke through the prophets and raised Jesus from the grave – are we all alone in a cold and indifferent universe? Some, like the existentialist writer Albert Camus, accepted this absurd condition as our true reality. But Heschel kept faith in God, not as one “up there” or “out there” – an ideal object to the possessive ego – but as a call to freedom and responsibility, coming directly to us from the heart of reality itself.

The mythological god is a character of story, a stage performer who plays to the detached and spectating ego. We read of supernatural acts accomplished in a time not our own, to people not our contemporaries. In our everyday lives we don’t encounter this god of word and deed; we don’t interact with a personality in the way we do with other humans. Put aside for the moment the question of whether miracles actually happened. The issue here is that they are described on the Bible page to a reader-observer: the ego. And in the choice whether or not to believe their veracity, ego is also judge. God is object – “my” object.

Heschel’s radical step was to turn the tables on religion. God is not my object, not one whose existence is to be decided on the basis of evidence, holy scripture, or wishful thinking. God does not exist as other things exist; God is not a thing.

Instead, God is an ultimate question addressed to the soul. In being addressed, the human senses an obligation to answer. This is not about what I believe or to what religion I belong. It is a challenge issued from beyond me; an invitation to authentic life, to sanctify this brief time I have by living fully in the moment. What are you doing with this moment? Where are you going with your life?

If I turn my attention to the emptiness within and listen – not look as an observer but listen in quiet receptivity – the question becomes easier to hear. What I do next is my true religion.


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Letting Go of God

Nietzsche: “Why atheism today? It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth – but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.”

Nietzsche is perhaps best known for his literary persona as the madman, who ran into the marketplace with his lantern looking for God. It’s in that parable that he makes the fateful statement that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” While understandable, it is also unfortunate that Nietzsche has gone down in history as an arch-atheist, an enemy of religion. The above quote makes it clear that he distinguished between theism and religion – the one needing to pass or be pushed into extinction, and the other innately present in human beings as an “instinct.”

Most of Western history has been dominated by a theistic model of religion, which is why Nietzsche’s three cheers for atheism has been heard by many Western readers as a categorical rejection of religion. But theism is only one model, and the evidence of cultural archeology shows convincingly, I think, that it wasn’t the first on the human scene. What I’m calling religion here is a more-or-less systematic way that Nietzsche’s “religious instinct” finds expression in the shared life of a community. The most primitive form of religion was likely some precursor of animism and magic, where natural forces and the rhythms of life were revered. This early religion had a primary correlation with the body and its mysteries.

But as familial clans of early humans diversified into more sophisticated societies, the focal point of human wonder and concern shifted increasingly to tribal dynamics of membership. This is the evolutionary stage where an individual’s identity, or ego, became paramount. Belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) were powerful preoccupations – just as they still are in the developmental stage of adolescence. The theory is that this is also the point in the history of religion when the mythological god was “born” – that is, when god was generated out of the creative imagination and projected into narrative constructs called stories, or myths.

Theism is a belief system organized around the presumed existence of the mythological god. As a literary product of the “religious instinct,” the mythological god exists only in myths – and then only as a metaphor of “the other” who sees me and knows me, who demands my worship and obedience. As my ego-ideal, this god also awakens my deeper potential and attracts my higher nature. So far, so good. But what happens when the mythological god fails to stay ahead of me, developmentally speaking? He becomes oppressive and an obstacle to my evolutionary advancement. God is moralistic and I remain mired in guilt. God is aloof and I am disoriented. God is jealous for glory and I must be nothing.

Obviously this theory of religion’s evolution leaves an open question: Is there a model of religion that might help us appreciate how the religious instinct finds expression at the level of soul? Unlike ego, soul is unconcerned over matters of identity. This spiritual dimension of human life is what opens us to the deeper ground of our being and the greater mystery of our place in the universe. What stands in the way of this expansion of awareness and experience of mystical communion with all things? Nietzsche’s answer is the ego; or rather, that co-dependent relationship of the ego and its mythological god.

If this god can die – if I can find the courage to let go of “my” god – then the possibility arises for the transformation of spirit into a form of religious life that is … Nietzsche called it “atheistic,” but perhaps the better term is “post-theistic.” Theism, along with the myths and the god who inhabits them, must be transcended. Maybe the first act of liberation is saying “no” to theism: The god of myth does not exist “up there” or “out there” separate from us. Only after we have sufficiently released this god – who has become largely irrelevant in our modern secular lives anyway – will we be able to catch a vision of the higher horizon that awaits.


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