Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nietzsche, Christianity and Jesus – An Unholy Triangle?

A serious and thinking Nietzsche profile

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of all times, is most famous for his statement that “God is dead” (Gott ist tot) and his theory about the “√úbermensch” – a kind of superior almost god-like human being. He most vigorously attacks Christian religion in his book The Antichrist. However, when it comes to Jesus there seems to be a certain hesitation or ambivalence on Nietzsche's part to condemn him fully; one cannot shake off the feeling that in his writing there is some admiration implicit for Jesus as a groundbreaking rebellious figure. 

I believe that the English translation of “Antichrist” is actually misleading. This term is often equated with the diabolical opposite or arch-nemesis of Jesus himself. However, “Christ” in German also refers to Christians in general, so the “Anti-Christian” would be a more suitable title in my view. What Nietzsche does attack with furor and vengeance is the Christian tradition, not so much the philosophy that Jesus proposed or stood for.

According to Nietzsche, from the onset and spread of Christianity there was manipulation and dishonesty at work. The Apostles were weak and spineless creatures who probably did not really get what Jesus was all about, and they even changed some of his teachings to fit their own ambitious agenda.

Christianity, in Nietzsche's view, became a favorite religion among the poor and the oppressed who felt resentment towards the elite, the higher noble and educated classes. They followed what the German philosopher calls a “slave morality.” They simply do as they are told and infect others with weakness and lies, the biggest of which is the "deceit" of and about the heavenly afterlife.

To Nietzsche this proposition of salvation in the other world is simply false and even vicious because Christians wanted to control masses and to some extent bring down the noble classes to their level. The Christian faith is anti-nature and anti-life since it prohibits exactly what makes us most human. The body is not a prison to the soul; in fact, Nietzsche valued very highly the natural impulses that we have, especially our passions.

Nietzsche says that we should be like artists creating and modeling our own morality and that any strong emotion, be it anger, hatred, love, is in itself good and commendable. Christians who believe that sexual impulses are bad or try to discipline themselves with reason are “sick” and “broken” people; they lack will of power and confidence and will never amount to much.

Furthermore, Nietzsche sees Christianity as an infection that spreads and weakens people. The doctrine that all are equal is false and harmful, in his view. It cripples those with ambitious drives and limits their course of actions. In order to become a superior person, it is necessary to both create and destroy, to give and take life.

Where does Jesus fit in all this? In fact, Jesus was a very strong and determined person who fought against dogmatic high priests, the Roman guards and who tried to defeat them with a life-affirming philosophy. He was one of the few people who was fearless and intended to pave the way for many others to follow him, not only through his teaching but by his way of life.

The obsession of Jesus with the “Kingdom of God” was something that Nietzsche resented, but we should keep in mind that Jesus might have been alluding to the power within each of us and not a separate place for the afterlife since he actually says that this kingdom is within us. As such, it would conform to this drive for power and perfection that Nietzsche is so fascinated with.

Say what you may about Christianity as a religion or tradition, Jesus is, without doubt, an exceptional figure. He is accepted as a prophet in Islam; he was said to be imbued with Buddha Nature, and he was a social revolutionary who fought for the common people and for freedom from repression. He rejected slave morality by creating his own and paved a narrow path for the few who really understand his message. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Jesus taken serious by the many, Jesus taken joyous by a few.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is Ignorance really Bliss?

Poster of the boxer movie "Rocky"
Painting of young Russian woman
Mostly when we talk about ignorance, it has a negative connotation. Despite the saying that “ignorance is bliss,” in the end, what we are alluding to is a kind of concealment or indifference. It is a person who does not pay attention to what goes on around them or in the world and, as such, leads lives within an illusory protective shell. Ignorance can be equated with a lack of knowledge and is in direct juxtaposition to the other saying that “knowledge is power.”

It is interesting to consider the verb “to ignore” here. In this case, the person becomes more active and basically chooses not to see or refuses to take into account certain facts or people. However, the original meaning of ignore was more closely related to the French understanding of the word. In French “ignorer” means the absence of information, not knowing or being unaware, and is less willful and directive as in the English sense of the same verb.

But how does ignorance influence one's life, and is it a recommended action to undertake? Ignorance does definitely limit one's options. When we have knowledge, we are aware of alternate plans and decisions, but not knowing about them means those other viable options are out of our sight and, as a result, do not exist. 

Yet the problem goes much deeper and is much more complex than that. There are many educated people who in my mind are actually ignorant. Knowledge does give you an edge over others, but when it comes to problem-solving, we have to be able to use it wisely. 

Certain models can assist us and help us out. By that I include using religious figures or even certain fictional situations to base our own actions on. The famous phrase of “What would Jesus do” implies a certain knowledge of his life, teaching and philosophy, which could be applied creatively to one's present problem.

In fact, the more we read the more access we have to possible modes of action. This is the moment when we can draw on literary figures, and we can act, or, in some cases, choose not to act like them. We can avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of Anna Karenina and be able to dodge many problems, or we can choose the path of David Copperfield in life overcoming misery and working hard to fulfill our dreams. 

Even Hillary Clinton could not refrain from using the all-known example of Rocky when describing her feisty campaign. And everyone understood what she meant, as Rocky has become a symbol for the underdog as well as the never-tiring fighter. All those fictional characters can serve as a moral lesson and can help or inspire us in times of pain and distress.

I do believe that in our scientific world we have neglected many social, psychological, and interpersonal aspects of life. It is good to have technical, mathematical, legal, or medical knowledge, yet Arts and Humanities should not be undervalued and should be appreciated for the knowledge and foundation they provide to each individual's life.

If we feed and fill our soul or mind with knowledge and models to follow, then our world becomes vaster. Ignorance is not an excuse anymore. Everyone has access to knowledge and information one way or another. 

The Internet is a useful tool to learn about issues, to provide us with knowledge and possible solutions. Dusty and neglected books on your shelves and in your library are waiting to share their precious experiences with you. And one thing we can be sure of: Ignorance is deceptive and, in fact, the exact opposite of bliss.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

How a Baby Can Change your Life: A Recent Father’s Perspective

Sleeping baby boy wrapped up with ink footprints at his side

To Arameis Shahyar, the little hairy guy

It's a phrase I have heard many times out of the mouth of proud and gleaming fathers: “Having a child is the most important event in my life.” Last Thursday, I had this experience for the first time, when around 7 pm my son appeared on the world's stage, and I will try to put it all into words, to the best of my ability.

During the C-section in the operating room I was too preoccupied with various issues and worried about the health of my baby and my wife that I honestly could not tell there and then whether it was one of the best or worst experiences, especially seeing my wife all cut open the way she was. I had my digital camera at hand but too nervous and shaky to be able to handle electronic equipment effectively. I got a photo of my son's first contact with the world, one of his legs.

One of my colleagues and another fellow father had told me that when his son was born he had experienced the longest and probably most tormenting minute of silence in his life. When the baby finally cried he said he was greatly relieved; a heavy weight had been lifted from his anguished heart. Fortunately, in our case, I was exempted from such a heavy trial, and our son cried right away, his welcoming shout, his first enunciation and sign of life, a piercing heart-warming wail.

It took me a while to grasp the full complexity of the situation. It was my son I was facing and coming eye to eye with, a breathing being that had been hidden for over eight months in the warmth of my wife's belly. Tolstoy described some of those doubts and feelings in Anna Karenina through the eyes of a troubled and confused Levin: 

But the baby? Whence, why, who was he?... He could not get used to the idea. It seemed to him something extraneous, superfluous, to which he could not accustom himself.

It takes time to digest the experience. Here suddenly there is a creature and people present it to you, waving it in front of your face and telling you that this is your son. But how is that possible; where did it really come from? Flesh of my flesh, family, somebody who shares my genes and looks like me? This is really terrifying, and I am not able to comprehend it just yet, probably never will, so we call it the mystery or miracle of life.

Now many fathers claim children are part of one's personal success story. I doubt it simply because we cannot take much credit for it. Most of the pain and difficulty, the birth pangs are on the wife's part. We men are spectators who try their best to give a hand. Yet there is something that shifts and changes within you and makes you look at everything with different eyes once the baby is born.

My idea of success has endured some alterations over the past few days. Money and fame have somewhat gone to the background. One's focus rather changes, and it comes down to seeking success in the light of the new events, being able to take care of one's child, to become a responsible father. Everything that seemed important yesterday is getting blurry, while new challenges and hopes reveal themselves on the distant horizon. 

In a strange sense, time has seemed to stop as well. I felt that I was moving toward certain goals, but now I am living immobile in the present moment. I enjoy watching my son, talking to him and seeing how he responds to my voice, how it often calms him and how he pricks his ears and moves his eyes at the familiar voice he used to hear from the muffled inside of the womb. The fact that one day he might tell me that he loves me would be a feeling of pride and inexplicable joy.

Anyhow, life has become different, has changed me within the limited period of a few days prolonging into the wide unknown future. There is one thing LSD and having a child have in common: Once you cross the threshold, there is no way back. Nothing remains the same and everything will change, your perspective, your life, even your fears and dreams.