[For Nietzsche t]he Overman or post-human animal is he who freed himself from those forms of sham religion known as Nature, Reason, Man and Morality. Only this audacious animal can peer into the abyss of the Real and find in the death of God the birth of a new species of humanity. As with Christian faith, the only place to begin is with a confession that our hands are steeped in the blood of divinity. Man, too, must be dismantled, in so far as he is modeled on the unity and infinity of the godhead. He is defined so completely by his dependence on his Creator that the two must fall together. There can be no obsequies for the Almighty without a funeral ceremony for humanity as well. The death of God must herald the death of Man, in the sense of the craven, guilt-ridden, dependent creature who bears that name at present. What will replace him is the Overman. Yet in his sovereignty over Nature and lordly self dependence, the Overman has more than a smack of divinity about him, which means, ironically, that God is not dead after all. What will replace him continues to be an image of him.
That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine, a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware. The Incarnation is the place where both God and Man undergo a kind of kenosis or self-humbling, symbolized by the self-dispossession of Christ. Only through this tragic self-emptying can a new humanity hope to emerge. In its solidarity with the outcast and afflicted, the crucifixion is a critique of all hubristic humanism. Only through a confession of loss and failure can the very meaning of power be transfigured in the miracle of resurrection. The death of God is the life of the iconoclast Jesus, who shatters the idolatrous view of Yahweh as irascible despot and shows him up instead as vulnerable flesh and blood. --Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God
It's clear to me, anyway, that our life here on earth has a purpose, and that the future of the earth is central to that purpose. And yet it's clear that for most Christians this history, or any sense of humans being part of an evolving historical drama, has little to do with their understanding of who they are, where they came from, and where they are going. I think there is a mythopoetic narrative possibility here that awaits its moment to emerge into a legitimate space that has not yet been prepared for it. We live now in a time when all grand narratives are suspect, but that will not always be true. It's just a sign of the temporarily decadent stage through which we must pass in our time. We are at a historical low slack tide now, and soon enough we will be dealing with the flood and its aftermath.
In the meanwhile, the default Christian mythopoesis about history seems to depend strongly on the "exile" model--history is jail time: we do our time on the earth following the rules as best we can so that we can get out of jail on good behavior and go to our heavenly home in the spiritual pleroma. This model, in my opinion, is more Buddhist or Hindu than Christian. In such a model the earth is a prison to be escaped. I think of the earth rather as our ailing, semi-comatose mother whom humans must find a way to nurse back to health.
And so the exile model also enervates rather than energizes progressive political action by focusing on goals to be realized in eternity rather than in history. The Enlightenment idea of historical progress has likewise suffered enervation. Like all grand narratives, its assumptions have been debunked by postmodern deconstructive skepticism. And so the secular Left, because of its now postmodern assumptions, has no plausible narrative of human progress that it can embrace unironically, and so has become feckless in the face of threats from a more robust, grounded, regressive Right. At its energetic best the postmodern secular Left musters something like Occupy Wall Street, but because of its anarchic, foundation-less ethos, it has no ground to stand upon and so to sustain itself. The Enlightenment model, including its Marxist offshoots, was always flawed because too dependent on a flattened understanding of the human being and its aspirations, and it is hard for me to see any plausible sustainable resistance to the Right that is not grounded in an imagination of human possibility that is deeper and richer than the flattened model of the human to which the secular Left currently subscribes.
But because the Enlightenment narrative for human progress has failed does not mean that another narrative of human progress cannot be framed. And I would argue that once there is a broader willingness to recognize that Christian ontological foundations can legitimately provide a framework for its development, Christian thinkers and activists can play a pivotal role in shaping such a future narrative. That foundation is already there; it always was. The Enlightenment narrative grew from a reductionistic misappropriation of it. We are clearly not at a point where the broader culture and its public intellectuals are willing to recognize that fact, but it's interesting to me that a Marxist like Eagleton seems to be working his way toward it, and that is perhaps a harbinger of things to come. Maybe, maybe not. Eagleton, at least, understands the terms of the problem.
Owen Barfield in his book Saving the Appearances provides a mythopoetic way to think about the Christian meaning of history that I, at least, find compelling. For me its a heuristic device, a provisional way to organize and hold random things I believe together until a better way presents itself. Barfield understood the problem of modern cultural decadence in much the same way Nietzsche did, but he frames it as a necessary, if risk-fraught, middle phase in the unfolding of a larger historical drama. This drama extends back in the evolution of human consciousness to what he calls Original Participation and forward to Final Participation, i.e., from the metaphorical Garden of the beginning times to the metaphorical New Jerusalem of the far-distant end times, from the participation mystique of totemic and animistic peoples, to the communion of saints envisioned in Revelations.
These ideas are similar to Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary mythopoesis regarding the movement of history from the Alpha to Omega, from creation of the cosmos to the true telos of history at which point all things converge in Christ. Both Barfield and Teilhard take evolution seriously, but in a way that hearkens back more to Hegel than to Darwin. (See comment 1) The mechanics of Darwinian biological evolution are mostly accepted but subsumed into a larger movement that is geist-driven, i.e., spirit or mind driven--or, as I would put it grounded in an understanding of how the world is dynamically grounded in the Logos.
Like Nietzsche, Barfield agrees that the modern era has been a time in which the last vestiges of transcendent meaning as a 'given' in the world have disappeared—transcendent meaning is no longer something a truly modern consciousness experiences as coming from out there. Moderns experience meaning partly from acculturation, but while that provides the scaffolding, the most intense experiences of meaning are subjective and constituted from within. But with this enhancement of subjectivity comes social fragmentation, anomie, fecklessness, enervation--and with it the progressive undermining of the cultural scaffolding that has brought us to this postmodern moment. So the solution must be to awaken capacities in the human soul and the soul of the earth (which are the same thing) in order that meaning in the world be reconstituted. The movement toward Final Participation is a movement toward an intersubjective communion: the alienation of the subject-thing rift is repaired, all beings become Thous. The lion lies down with the lamb, and swords are refashioned into plowshares.
For Nietzsche this reconstituting project assumes a world without grace and without the possibility of communion--it is radically individualist. If there is any meaning to be created it derives from the ontologically groundless uebermensch and his will to power. For Barfield's postmodern Christian the reconstituting project derives from an ontological grounding in the Logos that dwells in the depths of the human soul and the soul of the world. For Barfield it is possible, indeed essential, that meaning be constituted by a different kind of ‘overcoming’ man, not Nietzsche's uebermensch, but rather the Logos bearer, the man or woman in whom the shattered or broken image of the Logos in whose likeness they were created can itself be reconstituted: awakened, healed or reintegrated into a joyful communion with the cosmos. Whether currently believable or not by most non-believers, this narrative opens up human possibilities rather than closes them off, and it provides a frame that helps to shape a humanity enhancing political agenda. The bigger problem as I see it is that most Christians done't even believe it because they are still locked in the Exile model. If Christians don't live it, or something like it, they offer no real alternative to the prevailing narratives of the secular Left or the inflamed Right.
If for the postmodern Christian, meaning is fundamentally subjective, that does not mean it is arbitrary or ungrounded. It just means that the grounding is intrinsic, and lies within the supple, grace-inspired, logos-grounded human heart rather than in the cultural nomos, or the externally imposed law, or even in objective, empirical truths. We are still in a fraught intermediary stage insofar as we still feel compelled to privilege objective truth as real truth, which we still see in the vestiges of in positivistic science. But the understanding of truth as subjective to which Kierkegaard pointed, and then later Nietzsche, directs us to an understanding the rest of us have to catch up to. For both the postmodern Christian and Nietzsche truth is not static and timeless; it's creative, dynamic and evolving, but if for Nietzsche it is basically stuff the "post-human animal" makes up as he goes along, for the postmodern Christian it is deeply grounded in a creative, evolving understanding of the Logos's awakening in history. It is, therefore, about discovering depths and potentialities in the Logos-grounded human heretofore unrealized. For Christians the image of those potential capacities fully realized is the risen Christ.
An epochal shift occurred on the first Easter that has not yet been fully accomplished. The nature of this shift didn’t manifest itself broadly in the West until the time of the Renaissance and the dawn of the Modern period when individual inwardness and the autonomy of the thinking self became more broadly experienced by humans for many reasons, not the least of which was the broadening of literacy after Gutenberg. Modernity has been very much the Age of the Eye; whatever we're moving into now will involve a different McLuhanite ratio of the senses, and with it a corresponding shift in consciousness that is even now underway.
The Jews were the "Chosen" people because they were "given" the Law on Mt. Sinai. If at first the law was given extrinsically on slabs of stone, for the last 2000 years it has been gradually awakening in the depths of human souls so it is known intrinsically or intuitively in the heart in whom the Logos has awakened. The Logos sings the secret song that the entire cosmos sings; we hear it with the grace-transformed heart--the conscience--and the more developed the conscience the more clearly heard the song. The condition of being fallen is the condition of not being able to hear the song.
The great saints sing this song and dance spontaneously to its rhythm. But all humans of good will, believers or unbelievers, hear it to some degree whether they recognize its source or not. Christians are those who identify it as the Logos and who believe that the human capacity to hear his song at all depended on the events we celebrate this Easter weekend. It is therefore something that is extra-subjective, in the sense that it is the song of the Cosmos, but our way to it is by first awakening to its sounding within. And as it sounds in one heart it has the power to awaken its sound in the hearts of others, and eventually it will be a song heard and sung everywhere and developed everywhere. That's my image of Final participation, the Omega point, and of how we are to find our way to it.
For Barfield these changes in human consciousness during the modern period have not been spiritually regressive despite the secularism and materialism that have accompanied them. He recognizes that for the educated urban dweller in the West, religious language and ritual have lost almost all of their sacred power as something given to us from a meaning world out there. But that does not mean that what comes to us as given from the tradition is therefore untrue or unbelievable as atheists insist. Does that mean, then, that rituals like the Catholic mass because they confer no external meaning should be cast off as meaningless. No, because the mass is the celebration of the central event on which all history pivots, and as such the moment when the song of the cosmos dies into our subjectivity, so that it might rise again in our human singing of it and in doing so awaken one another and eventually our semi-comatose mother, the earth. The mass is that song, and to participate in it is to sing it whether we experience the full significance of its meaning or not.
And right now the Christian imagination of the future is not very robust because it is still hamstrung by its premodern self-understanding. The exile model--the heaven as final destination model--still plays too powerful a role in the Christian imagination of history. The idea that the goal and purpose of human existence is to get off the planet and into some spiritual pleroma can no longer be embraced; too much is at stake, and it makes too easy a blindness to our responsibility for future generations who will live on the earth.
There is indeed a spiritual pleroma, and it is the source of all life and all goodness, but our job is not to get off the planet and into it, but to be the infusion point through which the spiritual pleroma, the Logos and its song, can be injected into the earth thus effecting its transformation. We humans are the infusion points through which the Logos lives into our death and thus ebables us to renew the face of the earth.
This is a big, big task, and we are only at the beginning of our understanding how to do it, because we are only at the beginning of understanding how radically things have changed in the last five hundred years. We are only beginning to fathom the massive. unprecedented responsibility that human beings have now assumed for the future of the earth.
I believe this wandering in the wilderness, this cultural winter through which we are now living, is a cultural dark night of the soul, a collective Good Friday moment through which we must pass in order for a cultural resurrection, a renaissance, to occur. It is a transitional experience, but the outcome is not certain. We have the choice either move back into Egypt or forward into Canaan. Nazism was Germany's hearkening to a neo-pagan song, a song that awakens a nostalgia for totemic embeddedness. That tendency is an ever-present temptation for all decadent western cultures. Nostalgia is the siren song to which the Right hearkens, and we should never underestimate its power to enchant.
Over the years I've written extensively about my fears that the attitudes that lie behind the political popularity of movement conservatism are rooted in this nostalgia for lost embeddedness and with it the lost sense of the sacred. It was a terrible loss, and it is cruel to adopt an attitude of contempt toward those who feel the loss most acutely. But you don't win these people over politically by debunking their beliefs, but rather by offering them something better. And the Left in this country is not offering anything that satisfies the ontological craving that those on the Right feel. If the cultural Left believes it has has adopted a more grown-up understanding of how things are in its refusal to believe in spaghetti monsters or however they callowly reject a deeply complex and interesting religious tradition, they will soon discover that they will be overwhelmed by religious forces that are not so complex and interesting. Going forward the argument will not be between the forces of irreligion and religion but between good religion and bad religion. Good religion hears the song of the Logos, bad religion the enchanting, demagogic songs of the anti-Christ.