Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Miroslav Volf on Nietzsche's "Superhuman Forgiveness"

Having recently relayed some different "takes" on forgiveness I thought I'd return to the theme today with another. In the literature regarding the practice of forgiveness it is often described as an internal switch of mind in which the person is able to "let go" of or "rise above" an offence, experiencing personal therapy and opening up a social high road (which may or may not be travelled by the other party involved). Sometimes Christians will advocate such internalized forgiveness by saying that the forgiver is to act "as if" the offence had not occurred. This may have some credence on some levels, but seems an inadequate account of forgiveness, as is illustrated in the following assessment of Nietzsche, given by Miroslav Volf:

 "In The Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche advocated a version of 'as-if-not' attitude toward transgression .... an attitude toward transgression untouched by concerns for justice as desert. He writes:

Friedrich Nietzche
'To be unable to take his enemies, his misfortunes and even his misdeeds seriously for long--that is the sign of strong, rounded natures with superabundance of a power which is flexible, formative, healing and can make one forget.... A man like this shakes from him, with one shrug, many worms which would have burrowed into another man; here and here alone is it possible, assuming that this is possible at all on earth--truly to 'love your neighbour.''

Such sovereign disregard for injuries from others demands extraordinary strength, almost that of an übermensch [superman].... [However], his example of the 'virtuous' [man] could not forgive because he had forgotten!... Nietzsche had little positive to say about [forgiveness] and tended to replace it with 'forgetting.'"

To my mind this seems largely inadequate for another reason, which is that it expects superhuman strength precisely from the one who has been victimized. Add it up and Nietzsche's sort of forgiveness is more like an argument for the politics of disregard, supporting the sequestering of power by those who are able to transcend their situation and carry on in the repression of others undaunted. In other words, it is the stuff of violence, and not of grace. We should watch that our Christian accounts of forgiveness do not take this form.

- See Miroslav Volf, "Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Justice," 
in Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Templeton, 2001), p. 36-38, and 
Nietzche, On the Geneology of Morals (Cambridge, 1994), p. 23-24

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jason Good on Parenting

I sometimes wish I was more capable of blogging about parenting in a way that truly captured the paradox of its horror and humour, pain and epiphany, perplexity and poignancy, plodding challenge and surprising reward. Thankfully there is Jason Good, a comedian who happens to manage it quite well. I can't promise everyone will be happy with his language from time to time, but this list of things parents never thought they would do is still one of the funniest things I've ever read. Slightly less outlandish, but all the more accurate a depiction of the experience of parenting young twins, is this elaboration on the phenomenon of playing cheerleaders to their every escapade.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Tree of Life: A Moving Picture

We watched Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life last night. It is a beautiful moving picture, managing to be both subtle and immense. It is visually and thematically ambitious, and enjoyable for this reason alone. The opening monologue sets it up well, as a story of nature and grace. Through this lens we see shots of the universe in all its natural glory, from macrocosm to microcosm. We also see a family, seemingly divided down the middle between the "way of nature" and the "way of grace". As the voice over tells us: The one "only wants to please itself, to have its own way," and the other “doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries." Then we hear the suggestion that "no one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end”--even though this is exactly what is being called into question throughout the film. These are incredible themes to base a film around, and it is evocatively done. For doing that well it has my applause.


I'll agree with this reviewer, who voices some disappointment that the theme of grace seems mostly passive and might have been portrayed with more complexity (i.e., grace in the form of a courageous self-giving). However, it is not like the portrayal is shallow. We see the tension in the characters themselves, and even see the two most willful characters come to a point of confession between them. We see both the beauty and horror of nature -- with the former writ large and the latter haunting the whole -- like a National Geographic film except with a full dose of self-consciousness about the questions of meaning. When it comes to the human narrative I suppose I was wishing for was a truer picture of the (seemingly foolish) courage of grace. But I suppose one can't fault a film for not having a full-blown Christ figure. In fact, if it had one, we might be criticizing it for spoon-feeding us instead of leaving us with the longing. Perhaps what the reviewer is on to -- the concerting thing about the film -- is that it is so realistic; nature does always seem to have the upper hand. But even with its harder edges, it looks gorgeous.

For me this film was an 8/10 (which for me means it was very good), and I wouldn't fault anyone for giving it full marks.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Karl Barth, About Himself, On Video

Having read him for years now, and seen a few scattered pictures and heard some fleeting words, I just saw Karl Barth on video for the first time in my life thanks to kbarth.org (follow the link to see more videos and a host of other great stuff, compiled by his great grand-daughter).



This reminds me of when, after years of reading Chesterton, I sat in Prof. Sean Davidson's class and heard an audio tape of G.K.'s voice for the first time. It was very surreal at first, but after a while the echoes of that voice start to inform your readings, past and present, bringing to them a new sense of the person, and of their reality.

By the way, Barth's comments in this clip are fantastic insights into his approach to life and work. Based on his answer, the question seems to have been whether he had taken delight in provocation.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Karl Barth on the Apparent and the Living Church

Picture from 1953's WCC. Barth is third from the right.
"When the Church dies, the horizon does not become clear, of course: a simple vacuum is not the result. It pertains to the darkness of the threat and temptation which besets the Church (or seen in another light, of course, it is a sign of God's patience) that something which seems to be and look like the Church, though not deserving that name, remains on the scene. Even a dead congregation, or the dead element of a living congregation, is accustomed to have the form of 'Church,' 'Church' tradition, and 'Church' life....

In fact it can even happen that the Church might cease to be the Church and that then the thing which is still called 'Church' really comes to life and gains might, splendor, and significance in world history. It can happen that precisely the apparition of the Church or the apparent Church, the Church with the sleepy, squinting, or blind eyes, the Church in which the confrontation of God with people and people with God is no longer an event, but only an institution, dogma, program, and problem, can fall on especially good days in this age and may enjoy the special respect of society and the state. If the Church falls on such good days, then it has indeed cause to ask itself whether it might not be the Devil whom it should acknowledge and thank for the fact that it has long since become the apparent Church. But the other question is also not to be silenced: whether, when bad days come, it might not be God's well-earned judgment which sooner or later must meet it already in this age, since it has become only the apparent Church....

Dead congregations can only be divided congregations, only falsely united in such a way that at any minute they might break into open conflict with each other. But the matter is yet more serious: the fact that living and dead congregations live together more or less in peace in no way suggests that they might become a single congregation.... The living congregation is itself not infallible nor beyond danger, and its own danger will undoubtedly become greater by the fact that it has this dead congregation, this apparent Church next to it and cannot exist otherwise than in contradiction to it.

This means the temptation for it to conform" or on the other hand "to become presumptuous and callous," judging everything "on the basis of ecclesiastical opposition as though this were the source of the revelation which fed it. This is the temptation of ecclesiastical self-righteousness, the realization of which would mean the death of this congregation, its transformation into an apparent Church."

- From Karl Barth's paper at the 1948 World Council of Churches,
"The Church: The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ,"
published in God Here and Now (2003), pp. 72-75.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Vladimir Jankélévitch on Forgiving and Forgetting

Vladimir Jankélévitch, photo by Marion Kalter
This excerpt, originally from Vladimir Jankélévitch's 1967 Le Pardon, might make us think twice about the flippancy with which we sometimes treat the subject of forgiveness - perhaps concerning ourselves with its therapeutic usefulness, ascribing it a definition similar to forgetfulness.

"The sentiment that we [Jews] experience is not called rancor but horror insurmountable, horror over what happened, horror of the fanatics who perpetrated this thing, of the passive who accepted it, and the indifferent who have already forgotten it. This is our 'resentment' [ressentiment].

For ressentiment can also be the renewed and intensely lived feeling of the inexpiable thing; it protests against a moral amnesty that is nothing but shameful amnesia; it maintains the sacred flame of disquiet and faith to invisible things. Forgetfulness here would be a grave insult to those who died in the camps and whose ashes are forever mixed in the earth. It would be a lapse of seriousness and dignity, a shameful frivolity.

Yes, the memory of what happened is indelible in us, indelible like the tattoos that the survivors still wear on their arms. Each spring the trees bloom at Auschwitz as they do everywhere, for the grass is not too disgusted to grow in those accursed fields; springtime does not distinguish between our gardens and those places of inexpressible misery. Today when the sophists recommend forgetfulness, we will forcefully mark our mute and impotent horror before the dogs of hate; we will think hard about the agony of the deportees without sepulchers and of the little children who did not come back. Because this agony will last until the end of the world."

- Vladimir Jankélévitch, "Should We Pardon Them?" translated by
Ann Hobart in Critical Inquiry vol. 22, no. 3 (Spring 1996), p. 572.

(For more, see my essay on forgiveness and memory published here).