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What the Heck is Wrong With Systems, Anyway, Part 2: Nietzche is Alive

October 7, 2013

“I distrust all systematizers and stay out of their way. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (Twilight of the Idols, “Epigrams and Arrows,” 6).

To get to the root of the hatred of systems that we looked at earlier, it is important to go back to the source. Friedrich Nietzche would not seem to be a friend of the Christian square-glasses crowd. However, both share a similar hatred of systems that I think is problematic. In this blog post, I will briefly explore Nietzche’s hatred of systematizers, and see how it can lead to some negative consequences.

The real reason Christian hipsters like Nietzche isn’t because of his ideas–it’s because of that sweet ‘stache!

Before I continue, I want to make an important admission.  I am not a philosopher. I am not even a philosophy major. My experience with Nietzche consists of reading Also Sprach Zarathustra, and snippets of his other works. In this essay, I will be cribbing a lot of the content from Bruce Ellis Benson’s excellent book Graven Ideologies: Nietzche, Derrida & Marion on Modern Idolatry. Given my relative inexperience in the world of Nietzche, I can’t be absolutely certain that my interpretation of him is correct (Christian Piatt is relieved). However, I will do the best I can, and I am open to criticism from anyone who understands Nietzche better than I.

Let’s begin with a famous Nietzche quote, from Beyond Good and Evil

Just suppose that the truth is a woman–what then? is not the suspicion well founded that all philosophers, to the extent they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the ghastly seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness by which they have until now approached truth have been inept and improper ways of winning a wench? Certainly she has not let herself be won–and every sort of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged. If it continues to stand at all.

Strong words coming from a guy who never had a girlfriend. Bruce Benson follows this up with some helpful commentary,

While his stereotypes of men and women are questionable, the contrast that he uses them to draw is clear in at least one respect. On the account he seems to assume here, women are far more complex and unpredictable than supposedly reliable, logical, and straightforward men. Thus, if truth is like a woman, then it is subtle and elusive. There is always something about truth that escapes our grasp, something we cannot categorize and arrange neatly in a system. And precisely because it escapes our grasp, we cannot draw a sharp line between what we do know and what we do not know (65).

In other words, if Nietzche was casting director for Philosophy: The MovieTruth would be played by Zooey Deschanel.

Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer

In “500 Days of Lent,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young Calvinist who falls in love with a beautiful free spirit. He later breaks up with her because she doesn’t believe in paedocommunion.

Nietzche’s concept of truth as “subtle and elusive” seems congenial to Christians. After all, we believe that truth is contained in a person (Jesus), and that not all truths can be or have to be proved “logically.” But, I think that Nietzche is offering up a dangerously deflated concept of truth. He has picked the wrong feminine stereotype. Truth isn’t so much a manic pixie dream girl as it is a nagging housewife. It is always telling us that we are wrong.

I may like to believe that two plus two equals five, but it doesn’t. There are truths in science that I don’t particularly care for–I think geocentrism is a way cool theory of cosmology–but I have to submit to their reality. As a Christian, there are things that I read in the Bible that I don’t understand or don’t want to understand, but if I am going to call myself a Christian. Truth tells us that we can’t eat as much as we want and not get fat. Truth tells us that calling our ex at two in the morning while drunk is not a good idea. Truth tells us that we are not as smart, tough, or sophisticated as we think we are. And that is an unpleasant message.

This confrontational aspect of truth can give rise to self-deception. This is an area that Nietzche knows well. He writes

I call a lie: wanting not to see something one does see, wanting not to see something as one sees it; whether the lie takes place before witnesses or without witnesses is of no consequence. The most common lie is the lie one tells to oneself; lying to others is relatively the exception (The Antichrist 55).

Nietzche correctly notes that we all try to avoid the mental confrontation that unpleasant truths thrust upon us. One way of avoiding this confrontation would simply be to ignore it. However, another way of avoiding this would be to try to downplay the idea of truth. Nietzche is very upfront about this–at one point in his writings he asks the question “Why truth? Why not untruth?” I don’t think that the Christian system-haters are deliberately trying to escape from what they know is true. But I do think that their devaluing of the idea of truth (and propositional truth in general) can at least facilitate self-deception, regardless of whether it springs from good or bad motives.

It is all well and good to say that you have no truth, you have no ideology, and you have no system. The problem is that devaluing truth or ideologies or systems doesn’t do away with them. Too often, it leads to a shadow ideology, an idea hidden under the disguise of neutrality or transcendence. For example, whenever someone claims that, politically speaking, they are neither on the right or the left, they are almost always lying–how many Republican policies have you seen Jim Wallis endorse lately? However, many of those people don’t even know that they are lying. They honestly think that they are occupying a higher dimension of political thought. This dismissal of ideology is a powerful weapon in a debate–I am only motivated by a concern for everyone’s welfare, while my opponent is working to promote narrow party interests.

Once you renounce systematic theology, you will be surrounded by thousands of tiny butterflies. It happened to Rob Bell. It can happen to you.

Tony Jones and Brian McLaren may decry propositional truths, but they both have propositional truths that they hold to, such as “Save the Whales.” Even the most stringent emergent has a dogma. One could easily come up with a systematic theology for haters of systematic theology. It matters very little whether one has a system or not–what matters is whether the system conforms to truth. The problem with fashionable system-hating in theology is that it opens the door to smuggling in ideas under the cover of “no-dogma,” regardless of whether the ideas are coherent or biblical. The supposed neutral zone presupposed by the hatred of systems doesn’t exist. We all hold to a dogma, and we all need to be on our guard, lest we lie to ourselves.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Troy Lizenby permalink
    October 19, 2013 2:31 pm

    Great article, and series! Nietzche, the proto-postmodern, in his pursuit of anit-foundationalism, alas, cannot escape the necessity of system. Man was created to rule God’s ordered creation, and sinful man with that marred though extant image cannot do otherwise than seek some system for ordering his world. In his effort to devise his own autonomous vision, principles and values, he ends up ruling over and constructing a system, a machine that is autocratic and will destroy or consume true humanity. Apart from God his system will implode. “Efforts to establish justice, right and wrong, apart from God ultimately annihilate justice and morality” – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.III, p. 158. Can I get a witness?

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