“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time… But I say unto you..”
“Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment… For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name.”
Passages like those above seriously call into question the idea that “eternal laws” are ahistorical, self-existent or totally independent of God’s creative will. Indeed, scriptural support for such a claim becomes nigh impossible once we acknowledge that
- the council of the gods might be the source of any allegedly external laws, or
- the Lord, as a flawless self-legislator, is subject to the laws that He gives Himself, or
- calling a law “endless” or “eternal” does not necessarily entail their timeless ahistoricity.
It is within such a perspective – that rejects any timeless, self-existent laws before which each and every god must bow – that revelation becomes a process of – to borrow Joseph Schumpeter’s term – creative destruction. Nietzsche’s term for the person who embodies creative destruction is the “overman” – a man who is able to overcome the moral commands of those around and before him/her. In this post I will defend the idea that the church is itself (or ought to be) a collective overman of sorts.
First, I must briefly sideline a reading which Nietzsche himself seems to endorse with regard to the transgression of moral imperatives. He calls for us to disobey all moral authorities, even those that he teaches. Thus, if I follow his advice to the letter, I will simply begin by disobeying his call to disobedience, the same way that Descartes’ method of universal doubt should begin by doubting that I should doubt everything. In other words, anything more than a selective transgression of moral imperatives simply implodes upon itself since “there is no space in the which there is no (moral) kingdom.”
The gospel, I suggest, is not only compatible with, but actively prescribes the selective transgression of various moral imperatives. The question, then, becomes “Whose moral imperatives should we so transgress?” Nietzsche calls for us to transgress the morals of: (1) enlightened moral reason and (2) dead prophets. (He would also have us reject the commands of living prophets, but this – as I just argued – implodes upon itself. We all follow some living prophet or another.) I will thus address these two sets of people independently.
(All quotes are from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Hence, the title of the post.)
Enlightened Moral Reason
The moral reason which Nietzsche (and Kierkegaard) attacks goes by many names: public opinion, moral society, peer review, the public sphere, the Enlightenment, etc. Historically situating this enlightened moral reason helps to understand what, exactly, Nietzsche objects to. In a recent series of post, I provided a somewhat Schmittian history of the Enlightenment wherein
- the Nobles and Clergy of feudal society descended into civil/religious wars, at which point
- the absolutist state came into existence which demoted all religious and moral demands to the status of “private opinion” for the sake of ending bloodshed, after which
- a society structured around mutual criticism emerged within a newly created “Republic of Letters” in which every person’s life and deeds were subject to the judgment of “enlightened” reason, thus creating
- an Enlightenment coalition that sought to subject the state, religion and society in general to their “dictates of reason.”
By the mid to late 19th century, this public sphere of reason had achieved substantial influence within the state, religion and public society in general and Nietzsche (and Kierkegaard) hated it. Nietzsche’s disdain for equality, philosophy, democracy, the French Revolution, utilitarianism and every other Enlightenment value shines through in the following passages:
In the market place nobody believes in higher men. And if you want to speak there, very well! But the mob blinks: ‘We are all equal.’ … ‘You higher men’ – thus blinks the mob – ‘there are no higher men, we are all equal, man is man; before God we are all equal. (On the Higher Man, 1)
O nausea! Nausea! Nausea! That asks and asks and never grows weary: ‘How is man to be preserved best, longest, most agreeably?’ With that – they are the masters today.
Overcome these masters of today, O my brothers – these small people, they are the overman’s greatest danger… [O]vercome the small virtues, the small prudences, the grain-of-sand consideration, the ants’ riff-raff, the wretched contentment, the ‘happiness of the greatest number’! (On The Higher Man, 3)
Beware the scholars! They hate you, for they are sterile… Such men boast that they do not lie: but the inability to lie is far from the love of truth. Beware! (On the Higher Man, 9)
You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue. Aggrieved conceit, repressed envy … erupt from you as a flame and as the frenzy of revenge… When they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be Pharisees, if only they had – power. (On Tarantulas)
One day the rabble might become master and drown all time in shallow waters. Therefore, my brothers, a new nobility is needed to be the adversary of all rabble and of all that is despotic and to write anew upon new tablets the word ‘noble.’ (On Old and New Tablets, 11)
While Nietzsche despised the ways in which enlightenment thinkers and critics were attempting to legislate their own values within his own community, Mormons can similarly object to the ways in which these same values attempt to stand in judgement of and morally legislate the church and its leaders. (The very idea of “micro-aggressions” would have made Nietzsche feel sick to his stomach.) There are two ways in which this happens. First, we drag our feet and resist when our priesthood shepherds try to steer us down “unenlightened” roads. Second, we cry out “Oppression! Inequality! Irrationality! Hurtful!” when our priesthood shepherds steer us away from the paths toward which enlightened society beckons us. In more Nietzschean terms, we too often allow an all too trite conception of happiness, reason and justice to stand in the way of the greatness of the kingdom, a greatness that can only come through struggle, pain and leadership.
Nietzsche, then, has just as much contempt for attempts at disguising authoritative leadership in the moral language of the popular masses as Zion does for Babylon’s pretensions to moral authority.
Nietzsche has just as much disdain for any sort of static universalism by which the living might be burdened with the dead weight of the past under the guise of timeless rules and formulae. It is at this point that my introductory rejection of ahistorical or “natural” laws becomes relevant:
Evil I call it, and misanthropic – all this teaching of the One and the Plenum and the Unmoved and the Sated and the Permanent. All the permanent – that is only a parable. (Upon the Blessed Isles)
‘At bottom everything stands still’ – that is truly a winter doctrine, a good thing for sterile times, a fine comfort for hibernators and hearth-squatters. (On the Spirit of Gravity, 8)
The good must be Pharisees – they have no choice. The good must crucify him who invents his own virtue… ‘Whom do they hate the most?’ The creator they hate most: he breaks tablets and old values. He is a breaker, the call him lawbreaker. (On Old and New Tablets, 26)
It is worth pointing out at this point that while Nietzsche (and Kierkegaard) hated the Christians he saw around him for his entire life, he would, towards the end of it, develop a sort of respect for Jesus as a smasher of old tablets (the law of Moses) and a creator of new. Nietzsche thus takes Jesus’ words very seriously when the latter contrasted the heavy burden that the Pharisees and scribes had placed upon his audience with the light and easy-to-carry burden which he had to offer. It was this – by very definition – immoral rejection by Jesus of the written laws that led to his crucifixion.
The same could be said for Joseph Smith’s rejection of the creeds and traditions of ethical monotheism and Christendom in particular. A telling illustration of how Joseph subordinated the doctrines of the dead to his own, living teachings lies in his utterly immoral, “new” translation of the Bible. The most offensive of his teachings, however, were those which very closely paralleled Nietzsche’s own rejection of ethical monotheism: By bridging the metaphysical gap between earthly beings and heavenly beings, between earthly existence and heavenly existence, Joseph Smith clearly distanced himself from the other-worldly asceticism and the “No!-to-this-life” that Nietzsche had also detected and detested in most religious doctrines.
God, indeed, was dead, but Joseph Smith had resurrected Him!
Some things are morally mandatory, while others are morally prohibited. It is our duly ordained priesthood leaders that define these limits within their proper stewardship. Between the limits of the prescribed and the prohibited, however, lies a vast territory in which the false gods and modern Pharisees of moral reason would seek to bind us. The faithful Nietzsche within us thus cries, “Let us transgress all such false boundaries and smash these false gods as Jesus himself once did!”
Jesus came to smash the old tablets – the old laws of dead prophets who lay lifelessly upon our tired shoulders. The load of the living, however, is light and easy to carry. We claim to want new life, new light, new movement, new revelation, but at the same time we drag our feet through the swamp of moral reason and burden our priesthood leaders under the weight of the dead. We want new prophets, but will not allow our priesthood leaders to act as such.
We act as if we will only be given more when we live by the old, but this is not what the scriptures say! Rather, we will only be given more revelation when we live by that which we have been given today. The living prophets will lead us once we free them from the weight by which we ceaselessly shackle them. Away with the orthodoxies of the dead that would over-determine our lives with fine-grained and legalistic trivia! Let’s smash the rails of “moral reason” by which enlightened society attempts to lead and regulate us.
Priesthood authority is the power of God, the living authority to create new values within the righteous limits of our appointed stewardship. It is an honor that is not to be trifled with! Thus, when we are told that “[a]ll truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also,” the faithful Nietzsche would ask:
Can you compel the very stars to revolve around you? … Can you give yourself your own evil and your own good and hang your own will over yourself as a law? (On the Way of the Creator)