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    What is morality?  A good definition is provided by Gert (1998) who says that "morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal."  The two essential parts of this definition are that morality applies to all rational persons and that morality provides a system of governing behavior, which is also called a code of conduct.  The object of morality being good over evil is NOT an essential part of the definition, although some (e.g. Warnock 1971 and theologians in general) would disagree and argue that the object, or purpose of morality always matters.  When you attach an ultimate object or purpose to morality, you have entered the realm of APPLIED ETHICS.  Criminal justice ethics is an applied ethics (as well as a professional ethics), and in criminal justice ethics, we often substitute the words "right and wrong" for "good and evil."  With an applied ethics, we are usually concerned with the outcomes of decision-making or judgments that incorporate some pre-given duties or values (Pollock 2004).  With ethics in general (I hesitate to call it pure ethics), we suspend judgment about the ultimate purpose of morality to better get at the role of morality in formulating ethical systems.


    Again, the important parts of the definition are that morality is public and morality affects others.  This idea that morality is public and applies to all rational persons is called the "normative" (as opposed to the descriptive) approach.  You may or may not remember that the word "normative" derives from the sociological term "norm," and "norms" are those parts of our culture which contain the mostly unspoken, yet commonly shared expectations about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.  Norms are the building blocks of social group formation (and what a sociologist might say holds society together), since, within limits, norms define the boundaries of what constitutes conformity and what constitutes deviance.  Remember, norms are expectations not behaviors.  Norms are the mental expectations that people share about the acceptable range of behaviors, not the behaviors themselves.

    The normative approach to morality is also called MORAL SKEPTICISM, which denies that there is an objective basis to truth, honest differences of opinion are possible, and there are multiple ethical theories each deserving of separate study.  If you make too much out of the part of this which says that there is no truth (and nothing is inherently wrong), then that is called MORAL NIHILISM.  No academic expert that I know of advocates moral nihilism.  Skepticism is a less extreme position than nihilism, and in many ways, skepticism is just keeping an open mind.  For those interested in learning more about moral skepticism and the possibility that good, evil, right, and wrong can never be known for certain, read Mackie (1977). 


    On the other hand, if one follows the "descriptive" approach to morality, instead of the normative approach, this is called MORAL RELATIVISM because what you would be doing is describing either a person, society, or standard, and comparing or "relating" it to all other persons, societies, or standards.  There are different varieties of moral relativism.  A focus on individual persons and whether or not they live by their own principles is called MORAL SUBJECTIVISM.  A focus on any particular society or culture as the dominant one which should serve as a guide for the rest of the world is called MORAL ABSOLUTISM, which also refers to the idea that there exists just one moral principle from which all others derive.  Most moral relativists hold to the idea of MORAL OBJECTIVISM, which is that there exist a set of fundamental moral principles (perhaps as many as ten or so) that are not so fundamental as to be overridden by other moral principles in cases of conflict.  When analyzing societies via the descriptive approach, it is important to make sure you are describing morality, and not the laws, customs, etiquette, and folkways of a people.  Moral does not mean legal.  Laws and customs, it is true, affect others, but in searching for morality, we are looking for the fundamental rules of behavior that transcend person, place, and time.  Some examples might include: Do not kill innocent people; Do not torment others for fun; Do not cause unnecessary pain or suffering; Do not cheat or steal; Do not deprive another of their freedom; Do good whenever possible; Keep your promises; Tell the truth; Help other people; and Seek justice in all things.  A sociologist might call these fundamental principles "mores," and an anthropologist might call them "proverbs," but the correct, philosophical term for them is "morality" or moral principles.  They are the basis for ethical systems.


    The phrase "ethical system" refers to when you have worked out such a clear, coherent, and consistent set of moral principles that they not only don't conflict in most situations, but it can be said they not only tell you what to do, but what you need to be.  It's fine to just develop moral principles that one can put in a rule book and say dutiful behavior consists of following those rules, but it's a bigger and better thing to say that you are personally affected by those moral principles, and that they serve as a guide for the whole kind of person you're trying to be.  We sometimes refer to this state as when a person achieves "integrity," gets their values together, or lives a "virtuous" life.  In philosophical terms, it's called "virtue" or "moral character."  An ethical system is a system precisely because the moral principles or rules it puts forward have significant and practical meaning for our character, our personalities, and our everyday life.  It's not simply that we feel emotional about our morals as a nice set of virtues to strive toward; that would be called having an ASPIRATIONAL ETHICS, or believing in things so high and mighty that the best we can do is aspire to its calling and hope to be like that one day.  Moral character is likewise not too concerned with REGULATORY ETHICS, which set a minimum standard for common morality, like Thou Shalt Not ....   Instead, the trick is to come up with something above the ordinary, not too high and mighty, and prescriptive as well as proscriptive. 

A Note on Criminal Justice Codes of Ethics

     Every criminal justice profession and association has "codes" of ethics, "canons" of professional responsibility, "statements" of values, "principles" of conduct, "standards" of practice, and "oaths" of office, along with "pledges", "vows", "maxims", "credos", "prayers", "tenets", and "declarations". Some are directed to God; others to superiors or the profession; and still others to society as a whole. Some are regulatory and others are aspirational; but they all make promises that people commit to keeping as a standard of performance. If a code of ethics must exist for criminal justice, it should set a standard above ordinary morality. Otherwise, there's no need for a code of ethics at all. This is especially relevant when dealing with unscrupulous characters, where it's going to take more than just a commitment to being an ordinary, decent human being. Further, it's going to take being a user of the code, not just being a promiser.  Such a code would lead to unmistakable integrity, and living up to the principles would not be difficult, puzzling, or impossible. Nothing the moral character in criminal justice does would come as a surprise to anyone. They would conduct themselves, as August Vollmer once said, in ways that make it impossible for anyone to make a joke about them.  And even if all the political leaders turn out to be a bunch of bunglers, and even if all society becomes a Sodom and Gomorrah, this becomes no excuse for the moral character in criminal justice to abandon or revise their ethical system. Their commitment to an ethical way of life is unconditional.  After all, the true test of character is keeping your faith in the face of adversity. 


    Not to put too fine a point on it, but it should be clear that ethics is about rising above what is normal and common.  The choice is between believing in what you are or believing in what you can be.  "Does your ethical system fit your life, or does your life fit your ethical system? Did you begin with your interests, desires, and prejudices and then justify them with tailor-made ethics?  Or, did you try to life your life based on your ethical beliefs?" (Halberstam 1993).  If it all fits too neatly and conveniently into what you believe already, then you practice a form of common morality known as PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM, which is characterized by self-serving ethics and the idea that they've got it all figured out by being "realistic."  Let's take a look at some mistakes of common morality that consist of well-worn clichés which provide bad advice to live by.

  • What goes around comes around -- The fact of the matter is that this never happens; it's wishful thinking; and bad things happen to good people all the time, and vice versa; there are no guarantees in ethics.

  • All's fair in love and war -- The truth is just the opposite of this saying; as there's no better time for fairness than during these critical times of life; ethics is not about justifying unethical behavior.

  • There are two sides to every issue -- This saying reflects a basic lack of inner conviction, and there's nothing more important, especially with moral issues, than taking a stand and having the courage to accept responsibility.

  • It's best to be morally neutral -- There really is no neutrality on moral issues since somebody, somewhere probably feels that what you think is a good moral choice is the most immoral thing ever; ethics is conflict.

  • You can't teach someone moral values -- The problem here involves giving up any effort at trying; there's always teaching by example and opportunities for responsibility; ethics is about growth and maturity.

  • All people are the same underneath -- Like its counterpart saying, All religions are the same, this is a false and demeaning statement that reflects misunderstanding; ethics is about diversity and understanding.

  • Just follow your conscience -- There is no magical source of morality like a conscience to rely on; there's only the hard work of figuring out what you should do, and doing it because you ought to; ethics isn't easy.


    People have usually fallen into a bad ethical system not because they had bad parents, bad teachers, and no religious upbringing (these things certainly matter), but typically because they have experienced one or more significant life events we call ETHICAL DILEMMAS.  An ethical dilemma involves a decision-making opportunity in which there seems like there is no right choice to make.  These "damned-if-I-do; damned-if-I-don't" situations are extremely important shapers of life, which along with ETHICAL ISSUES (the same as social issues), pretty much determine a person's ethical system.  Ethical dilemmas tend to involve behavioral choices (not just opinions) where the resolution or decision affects others as well as the self.  Not everyone resolves ethical dilemmas the same way, or in a moral way, and this diversity is called ETHICAL PLURALITY.  From a theoretical point of view, plurality exists because there is a large divide between the theories of decision-making and the theories of moral development.  From a practical point of view, plurality exists because few people agree on everything that constitutes right or wrong.


    The field of criminal justice comes close to being a field which claims to have reached agreement on everything that constitutes right and wrong.  Criminal justice also claims a type of legitimacy such that citizens are obligated to obey it, not just forced to do so (Leighton & Reiman 2001).  The force of this obligation is the RULE OF LAW, and it works when people realize that the power behind this force comes from the public trust, not some source of private power.  However, law is not the same as morality, and disagreements, diversity, and ethical plurality are bound to exist.  As far as possible, a criminal justice system must accommodate all the diverse ethical systems that exist among the citizenry.  It cannot impose the values of some citizens upon others, and when it comes to "justice," we must recognize that there are many types of justice (Crank 2003).  The accommodation of ethical plurality is the first special challenge or demand faced by those who work in criminal justice.

    People "obey" authority (not just comply with the second-best strictness of clear-cut rules) because they have reasons to believe that they "owe" obedience and are not just being pushed around.  Each law should protect something of value to every citizen.  When punishment is needed, the law should also provide for the most morally acceptable PUNISHMENT possible.  The role of criminal justice as the final arbitrator of punishment makes for another special challenge or demand.

    Criminal justice also faces a third demand -- social justice.  The simple fact is that criminal justice cannot be more just than the society it protects (Reiman 2001).  If injustice prevails within a society, the options for criminal justice are limited.  For example, if there is widespread social or economic injustice, then the criminal justice system will become nothing more than a "clean-up" detail that is trying to rectify the underlying problems of social injustice.  Nonetheless, criminal justice THEORY has always risen to this challenge, especially theory using a more philosophical approach.  Those familiar with criminology will know that there is a long tradition of theory with a reform agenda, the most notable example being the so-called "classical" school.  Theory is lacking in criminal justice, however, but a number of recent books address the subject (Braithwaite & Petit 1990; Duffee 1990; Kraska 2004).  Theory in social justice (or distributive justice) has a longer history, and there are several most well-known books on that subject (Hobhouse 1922; Rawls 1971; Elster 1992; Miller 1999), as well as a growing interest in global justice.             


    There are many criteria for evaluating whether an ethical system merits the status of "theory" or "philosophy."  Surely, there are "theories" that we think we all have, as when we say "I have a theory about that," but when something consistently provides us with a reasoned guide to good judgment and decision-making, we're talking about theory with a capital T.  Philosophies are sets of principles or beliefs that constitute a worldview (or paradigm) which allow us to understand how the world is constructed and how we ought to live in it.  For practical purposes, theory and philosophy are interchangeable terms in criminal justice.  Harris (1986: 33) defines a MORAL THEORY as "a systematic ordering of internally consistent moral principles that are consistent with generally held beliefs and possess a type of moral common sense."  Baelz (1977 further adds that moral theories have the following characteristics:

  • They are prescriptive, not proscriptive.  In other words, they tell us what to do by spelling out the positive things we ought to do, not by denouncing the negative things we do.

  • They are authoritative.  They are not subject to debate because once completely formed, the framework or paradigm of a moral philosophy is beyond question.

  • They are logically impartial or universal.  They apply to everyone and are not based on favoritism or egoism. Relativism has no place in a fully developed ethical framework.    

A Glossary of Ethical Terminology
Encyclopedia Article on Moral Skepticism
Ethics Resource Center
Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics
Institute for Global Communications

Gregg Barak's Internet Home of Criminology
Lecture Note on Moral Skepticism and Moral Relativism
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics & Decision Making site
Prof. Bernard Gert's Homepage at Dartmouth College
The Generalized Structure of Ethical Dilemmas

Baelz, P. (1977). Ethics and Beliefs. NY: Seabury Press.
Baier, K. (1958). The Moral Point of View. Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ, Press.
Braithwaite, J. & Pettit, P. (1990). Not Just Deserts: A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice. Oxford: Clarendon.
Brandt, R. (1979). A Theory of the Good and the Right. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Crank, J. (2003). Imagining Justice. Cincinnati: Anderson.
Duffee, D. (1990). Explaining Criminal Justice: Community Theory and Criminal Justice Reform. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Elster, J. (1992). Local Justice: How Institutions Allocate Scarce Goods and Necessary Burdens. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Foot, P. (1978) Virtues and Vices, and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Berkeley: Univ, of California Press.
Frankena, W. (1980). Thinking about Morality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Gert, B. (1998). Morality: Its Nature and Justification. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Halberstam, J. (1993). Everyday Ethics. NY: Penguin Books.
Harris, C. (1986). Applying Moral Theories. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Hobhouse, L. (1922). The Elements of Social Justice. London: Allen and Unwin.
Kraska, P. (2004). Theorizing Criminal Justice. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Leighton, P. & Reiman, J. (Eds.) (2001). Criminal Justice Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. NY: Viking Press.
Miller, D. (1999). Principles of Social Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Moore, G. E. (1993). Principia Ethica. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Pollock, J. (2004). Ethics in Crime and Justice, 4e. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Reiman, J. (2001). "Criminal Justice Ethics." Pp. 1-18 in Leighton, P. & Reiman, J. (Eds.) Criminal Justice Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Sidgwick, H. (1981). Methods of Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
Wallace, G. &Walker, A. (Eds) (1970). The Definition of Morality. London: Methuen.
Warnock, G. (1971). The Object of Morality. London: Methuen.

Last updated: 08/07/04
Syllabus for Ethics
MegaLinks in Criminal Justice


Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche

By David Loy

Asian Philosophy
Vol. 6, No. 1 (March, 1996)
pp. 37-58

Copyright 1996 by Asian Philosophy



p. 37 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)


In what ways was Nietzsche right, from a Buddhist perspective, and where did he go wrong? Nietzsche understood how the distinction we make between this worm and a higher spiritual realm serves our need for security, and he saw the bad faith in religious values motivated by this need. He did not perceive how his alternative, more aristocratic values, also reflects the same anxiety. Nietzsche realised how the search for truth is motivated by a sublimated desire for symbolic security; philosophy's attempt to create the world reflects the tyrannical will-to-power, becoming the most 'spiritualised' version of the need to impose our will. Insofar as truth is our intellectual effort to grasp being symbolically, however, Nietzsche overlooks a different reversal of perspective which could convert the 'bad infinite' of heroic will into the good infinite of disseminating play. What he considered the crown of his system -- eternal recurrence -- is actually its denouement. Having seen through the delusion of Being, Nietzsche still sought a Being within Becoming. Nietzsche is able to affirm the value of this moment only by making it recur eternally. Rather than the way to vanquish nihilism, will-to-power turns out to be pure nihilism, for nihilism is not the debacle of all meaning but our dread of that debacle and what we do to avoid it.



Buddhism already has -- and this distinguishes it profoundly from Christianity -- the self-deception of moral concepts behind it -- it stands, in my language, beyond good and evil. (The Anti-Christ) [1]

Although Nietzsche viewed Buddhism as superior to Christianity, and went so far as to call eternal recurrence "the European form of Buddhism", he considered both religions nihilistic. Buddhism, which fights ressentiment, was a convenient whip for Christianity born out of ressentiment. Inasmuch as Buddhism attempts to view the world as it is, without the distortions of metaphysics, Nietzsche believed that it offers no moral interpretation of the suffering that necessarily attends the human condition: no one is responsible for that suffering. Yet this did not amount to a recommendation, for Buddhism is nonetheless a religion for the end and fatigue of a civilization, the consolation of weary spirits longing for a dreamless sleep. [2] Sakyamuni Buddha was not an Ubermensch.

    Such a conclusion is not surprising for someone who learned his Buddhism largely through Schopenhauer: But we have learned much more about Buddhism since Nietzsche's day, enough to consider a Buddhist response: in what ways was Nietzsche right, from a Buddhist perspective, and where might he have gone wrong?

    The answer is complex, of course, and there is much that Buddhists can learn from Nietzsche, the first post-modernist and still the most important one. In order to reach that answer, however, it will first be necessary to gain some understanding of anatman,



p. 38 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

the 'no self' doctrine central to Buddhism and to the still-widespread misunderstanding of Buddhism as nihilistic. Of the various ways for us to approach anatman, one of the most insightful is through modem psychology. Buddhism anticipated its reluctant conclusions: guilt and anxiety are not adventitious but intrinsic to the ego. That is because our dissatisfaction with life derives from a repression even more immediate than death-terror: the suspicion that 'I' am not real. For Buddhism, the sense-of-self is not some self-existing consciousness but a mental construction which experiences its own groundlessness as a lack. On this account, our most problematic dualism is not so much life fearing death as a fragile sense-of-self dreading its own nothingness. By accepting and yielding to that groundlessness, however, I can discover that I have always been grounded, not as a self-present being but as one manifestation of a web of relationships which encompasses everything.

    What does this understanding of self-as-lack imply about ethics, truth, and the meaning of life for us? That is the question which motivates this paper, for to raise these issues in the Western tradition is to find ourselves in a dialogue with Nietzsche, whose own texts resonate with many of the same insights: for example, his critiques of the subject ("The 'subject' is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is." WP 481) and substance ("The properties of a thing are effects on other 'things' ... there is no 'thing-in-itself.'" WP 557). From this critique, Nietzsche also drew some conclusions quite similar to those of Buddhism: in particular, that morality, knowledge and meaning are not discovered but constructed -- internalised games we learn from each other and play with ourselves. Perhaps the history of his own psyche reveals how momentous these discoveries were; and inevitably his insights were somewhat distorted.

    Nietzsche understood how the distinction we make between this world and a higher spiritual realm serves our need for security, and he saw the bad faith in religious values motivated by this need. He did not understand how his alternative, more aristocratic values, also reflects the same anxiety. Nietzsche ends up celebrating an impossible ideal, the heroic-ego which overcomes its sense of lack, because he does not see that a heroic ego is our fantasy project for overcoming lack.

    Nietzsche realised how the search for truth is motivated by a sublimated desire for symbolic security; his solution largely reverses our usual dualism by elevating ignorance and 'untruth' into conditions of life. Philosophy's attempt to create the world reflects the tyrannical will-to-power, becoming the most 'spiritualised' version of the need to impose our will Insofar as truth is our intellectual effort to grasp being symbolically, however, those who no longer need to ground themselves can play the truth-versus-error game with lighter feet. Nietzsche overlooks a different reversal of perspective which could convert the bad-infinite of the heroic will-as-truth into the good infinite of truth-as-play.

    What he considered the crown of his system -- eternal recurrence -- is actually its denouement. Having seen through the delusion of Being, Nietzsche could not let it go completely, for he still sought a Being within Becoming. 'To impose upon becoming the character of being -- this is the supreme will to power' (WP 617). Having exposed the bad faith of believing in eternity, Nietzsche is nonetheless able to affirm the value of this moment only by making it recur eternally. In place of the neurotic's attempt to rediscover the past in the future he tries to rediscover the present in the future, yet the eternal recurrence of the now can add something only if the now in itself lacks something.

    Rather than the way to vanquish nihilism, Nietzsche's will-to-power turns out to be



p. 39 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

pure nihilism, for nihilism is not the debacle of all meaning but our dread of that debacle and what we do to avoid it. This includes compulsively seizing on certain meanings as a bulwark against that form of lack. If so, the only solution to the dread of meaninglessness is meaninglessness itself: only by accepting meaninglessness, by letting it devour the meanings that we use to defend ourselves against our nothingness, can we realise a meaning-freeness open to the possibilities that arise in our world.

    In sum, when the lack-driven bad infinite transforms into a lacking-nothing good-infinite, the dualisms of good-versus-evil, truth-versus-error, and meaningfulness-versus-meaninglessness are realised to be games. Do I play them or do they play me? As long as we do not understand what is motivating us, we play with the seriousness of a life-versus-death struggle, for that is what the games symbolise for a self preoccupied with its lack. We are trapped in games which cannot be escaped yet cannot be won, since playing well does not resolve one's sense-of-lack. When there is no need to get anything from the game or gain cloture on it, we can play with the seriousness of a child absorbed in its game. [3]


The Lack of Self

Existential psychologists such as Ernest Becker believe that our primary repression is not sexual wishes, as Freud thought, but the awareness that we are going to die. [4] This is closer to Buddhism, yet the anatman doctrine implies a subtle although significant distinction between fear of death and dread of the void: our worst problem is not death, a fear which still keeps the feared thing at a distance by projecting it into the future, but the more immediate and terrifying (and quite valid) suspicion each of us has that 'I' am not real right now.

    Sakyamuni Buddha did not use psychoanalytic terms, yet in trying to understand the Buddhist denial of self we can benefit from the concept of repression and the return of the repressed in symbolic form. If something (a mental wish, according to Freud) makes me uncomfortable, I can ignore or 'forget' it. This allows me to concentrate on something else, but what is not consciously admitted into awareness tends to irrupt in obsessive ways -- as symptoms -- that affect consciousness with precisely those qualities it strives to exclude. What does this imply about anatman?

    Buddhism analyses the sense-of-self into sets of impersonal mental and physical phenomena, whose interaction creates the illusion of self-consciousness, i.e. that consciousness characterises a self distinct from the world it is conscious of. The death-repression emphasised by existential psychology transforms Freud's Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project -- the attempt to become father of oneself, i.e. one's own origin. The child wants to conquer death by becoming the creator and sustainer of its own life. [5] Buddhism shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is better understood as the attempt of the developing sense-of-self to attain autonomy, like Descartes' supposedly self-sufficient consciousness. It is the quest to deny one's groundlessness by becoming one's own ground: the ground (socially conditioned and maintained yet nonetheless illusory) we know as being an independent, individual subject.

    If so, the Oedipal project derives from our intuition that self-consciousness is not something 'self-existing' but a mental construct. As with Nietzsche, consciousness is more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself, i.e. to make itself real. If the sense-of-self is a



p. 40 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

construct, it can realise itself only by objectifying itself in some way in the world. The ego-self is this never-ending project to objectify oneself, something consciousness can no more do than a hand can grasp itself or an eye see itself.

    The consequence of this perpetual failure is that the sense-of-self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense-of-lack, which it always tries to escape. In deconstructive terms, the ineluctable trace of nothingness in our non-self-present being is a feeling of lack. The return of the repressed in the distorted form of a symptom shows us how to link this basic yet hopeless project with the symbolic ways we try to make ourselves real in the world. We experience this deep sense of lack as the feeling that 'there is something wrong with me,' but of course that feeling manifests, and we respond to it, in many different ways. In its 'purer' forms lack appears as an anxiety that gnaws on one's very core. For that reason such anxiety is eager to objectify into fear of something, because then we have ways to defend ourselves against feared things.

The problem with objectifications, however, is that no object can ever satisfy if it is not really an object we want. When we do not understand what is actually motivating us -- because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, according to my interpretation of Buddhism) -- we end up compulsive. Then the neurotic's anguish and despair are less the result of symptoms than their source; those symptoms are necessary to shield him from the tragedies that 'normal' people are better at repressing: death, meaninglessness, groundlessness.

The ultimate problem is not guilt but the incapacity to live. The illusion of guilt is necessary for an animal that cannot enjoy life, in order to organise a life of non-enjoyment. [6]

    Buddhism agrees yet shifts our focus from the terror of future annihilation to the anguish of a groundlessness experienced here and now. A Buddhist interpretation of self-as-lack accepts much of the psychotherapeutic understanding while offering a way to resolve our unhappiness. Buddhism traces human suffering back to desire and ignorance, and ultimately to our lack of self. Deconstructing the sense-of-self into interacting mental and physical processes leads to Nietzschean conclusions: the supposedly simple self is an economy of forces. [7] The Buddhist solution to its lack is simple although not easy. If it is nothingness I am afraid of (i.e. the repressed intuition that, rather than being autonomous and self-existent, the 'I' is a construct), the best way to resolve that fear is to face up to what has been denied: that is, to accept my no-thing-ness by becoming nothing. The 12th century Japanese Zen master Dogen summarises this process:

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualised by [or: perceive oneself as] myriad things. When actualised by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realisation remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. [8]

Forgetting ourselves is how we lose our sense of separation and realise that we are manifestations of the world, not subjects confronting it as an other. Meditation is learning how to become nothing by learning to forget one's self, which happens when I become absorbed into my meditation-exercise. If the sense-of-self is consciousness reflecting back upon itself in order to grasp itself, such meditation practice is an exercise in de-reflection. Consciousness unlearns trying to grasp itself, objectify itself, realise itself. Enlightenment occurs in Buddhism when that usually-automatised reflexivity ceases, which is experienced as a letting-go and falling into a void.



p. 41 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. (Huang-po) [9]

When I no longer strive to make myself real through things, I find myself 'actualised' by them, says Dogen.

    This process implies that what we fear as nothingness is not really nothingness, for that is the perspective of a sense-of-self anxious about losing its grip on itself. According to Buddhism, letting-go of myself and merging with that nothingness leads to something else: when consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become no-thing, and discover that I am everything -- or, more precisely, that I can be anything. The problem of desire is solved when, without the craving-for-being that compels me to take hold of something and try to settle down in it, I am free to experience my nonduality with it. Grasping at something merely reinforces a delusive sense of separation between that-which-is-grasped and that-which-grasps-at-it. The only way I can become a phenomenon is to realise I am it, according to Buddhism. A mind that realizes this is absolute in the original sense of the term: unconditioned. Meditative techniques decondition the mind from its tendency to circle in safe, familiar ruts, thus enabling its freedom to become anything. The most-quoted line from the best-known of all Mahayana scriptures, the Diamond Sutra, encapsulates all this in one phrase: "Let your mind come forth without fixing it anywhere." [10]

    When anatman is understood this way, as a self-as-lack shadowing our illusory sense-of-self, Nietzsche andve a lot to talk about.


Qualifying for Being

"There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena." [11] That brings the ethical issue back from the other 'true' world to this one, as we inquire into the genealogy of our moral interpretations. Why do we make the interpretations that we do? As we become more conscious of our motivations, what other interpretations become possible?

    Nietzsche distinguishes two basic types of morality. Master morality does not hesitate to affirm the exercise of power, whereas slave morality is based upon rejecting master morality as evil and valuing the opposite of that evil. Behind the piety of conventional Christian morals, Nietzsche detected the fear and ressentiment of the weak who use ethical codes to control the strong. When this fear is projected onto the universe, it becomes a God who tells us to love each other even as he loves us, who will take care of us if we do and punish us if we do not. We may cower before such a God, yet this scheme seems to afford us some grip on our ultimate fate -- and, as Nietzsche emphasises, a pretty good grip on our fellow man. We know who we are, what we can do and where that is likely to get us. But this also destroys the innocence of our existence.

That no one is any longer made accountable, that the kind of being manifested cannot be traced back to a causa prima, that the world is a unity neither as sensorium nor as 'spirit' -- this alone is the great liberation -- thus alone is the innocence of becoming restored... The concept 'God' has hitherto been the greatest objection to existence... We deny God; in denying God, we deny accountability: only by doing that do we redeem the world. (TI 54)

We would be accountable to God because he would want to accomplish something through us. Nietzsche calls our bluff. We say we want to be free, yet we also want



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somebody, somewhere, to he taking care of us. There seems to be a correspondence between monotheism (a consciousness unifying and controlling the external world) and the ego-self (a consciousness unifying and controlling the internal). Then the issue is not only accountability but ego-integrity: without a God to keep us straight, who is strong enough to determine one's own direction? If God expires all is permitted, and the century since Nietzsche's proclamation has certainly fulfilled his predictions of nihilism.

    Perhaps a period of chaos is unavoidable.

One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain. (WP 55)

As with the adolescent forging an independent identity, some disorientation is inevitable before humankind matures enough to forego its projected parent and determine this-worldly criteria for moral interpretations. This would also explain the difficulty with Nietzsche's own solution, which understands the problem yet cannot quite escape it. Nietzsche saw that the dualism of good versus evil is an internalised game we learn to play with ourselves. "In every ascetic morality man worships a part of himself as God and for that he needs to diabolize the other part". (BGE 227) Since Christianity is the victory of pity over aristocratic values, his alternative is, in part, revaluing those aristocratic virtues. "The great epochs of our life are the occasions when we gain the courage to rebaptise our evil qualities as our best qualities". (BGE 116) This includes embracing the fact that "life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation." (BGE 259) [12] However, this famous passage is easily misunderstood. Nietzsche idealises the aristocrat, and especially the overman, insofar as they are masters of their own 'inward chaos', self-over-come men: "You shall become master of yourself, master also over your virtues. Formerly they were your masters; but they must be only your instruments beside other instruments." [13] Yet from a Buddhist perspective the concept of self-mastery contains a problematic ambiguity: who is master of whom? If the ego-self is that which vainly tries to grasp itself, the project of self-mastery is not only questionable but impossible. That for the sake of which it is worthwhile to live on Earth: does that happen when I master myself or when I let go of myself?

    For Buddhism these questions reduce to how our sense-of-lack may be overcome, and for Nietzsche that involves our embodiment of will-to-power. Retracing the genealogy of this, his master concept if he has one, will help us relate his will-to-power to the Buddhist sense-of-lack.

    The will-to-power cannot be separated from its sublimation (or 'spiritualisation'), for Nietzsche discovered them together. He was one of the first classicists to realise that the original Olympic games were a sublimated form of war. Nietzsche contended that Greek civilisation was noble and sublime precisely because it had been so cruel and bloodthirsty; the 'golden age' was created by bringing this original ferocity under control. "The thought seems to be: where there is 'the sublime' there must have been that which was made sublime -- sublimated -- after having been for a long time not sublime." [14] Having detected this phenomenon in ancient Greece, Nietzsche began to notice sublimated 'base' impulses in many kinds of activity; for example, Wagner's ferocious will sublimated into the Bayreuth festival. This makes Nietzsche the first, as far as I know, to undertake a systematic study of repression.



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    Nietzsche sees the sublimity of Greek culture as the sublimation of its original ferocity, yet here perhaps the genealogist of morals does not trace his genealogy back far enough. What makes man so ferocious? Can even the will to power, irreducible for Nietzsche, be deconstructed? What, after all, does power mean to us?

All power is in essence power to deny mortality. Either that or it is not real power at all, not ultimate power, not the power that mankind is really obsessed with. Power means power to increase oneself, to change one's natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance. (Becker) [15]

We feel we are masters over life and death when we hold the fate of others in our hands, adds Becker; and we feel we are real when the reality of others is in our hands, adds Buddhism. From that perspective, however, desire for power is little different from the slave morality Nietzsche criticises. Both become symptoms of our lack, equally frustrating inasmuch as we are motivated by something that cannot be satisfied in the way we try to satisfy it. No wonder Nietzsche's will-to-power can never rest, that it needs to expand its horizons, and that for most of us morality has been a matter of collecting religious brownie points. In both cases we think that we have found the way to get a grip on our eligibility for immortality -- or being.

The whole basis of the urge to goodness is to be something that has value, that endures... Man uses morality to try to get a place of special belongingness and perpetuation in the universe... Do we wonder why one of man's chief characteristics is his tortured dissatisfaction with himself, his constant self-criticism? It is the only way he has to overcome the sense of hopeless limitation inherent in his real situation. (Becker) [16]

When I realise that I am not going to attain cloture on that diabolical part of myself, it is time to project it. "The Devil is the one who prevents the heroic victory of immortality in each culture -- even the atheistic, scientific ones." [17] As long as lack keeps gnawing, we need to keep struggling with the Devil, and as we all know the best devil is one outside our own group. Evil is whatever we decide is keeping us from becoming real, and since no victory over any external devil can yield the sense of being we seek, we have become trapped in a paradox of our own making: evil is created by our urge to eliminate evil. Stalin's collectivisation programme was an attempt to build a more perfect socialist society. The Final Solution of the Nazis was an attempt to purify the Earth of its vermin.

    The Buddhist critique of such ressentiment includes understanding the self-deception involved in such dualistic thinking, when I identify with one pole and vainly try to eliminate its interdependent other. [18] Buddhism gets beyond good and evil not by rebaptising our evil qualities as our best, but with an entirely different perspective. As long as we experience ourselves as alienated from the world, and society as a set of separate selves, the world is devalued into a field-of-play wherein we compete to fulfill ourselves. That is the origin of the ethical problem we struggle with today: without some transcendental ground such as God, what will bind our atomised selves together? When my sense-of-self lets-go and disappears, however, I realise my interdependence with all other phenomena. It is more than being dependent on them: when I discover that I am you, the trace of your traces, the ethical problem of how to relate to you is transformed. [19]

    Of course, this provides no simple yardstick to resolve knotty ethical dilemmas. Yet more important, I think, is that this absolves the sense of separation between us which



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usually makes those dilemmas so difficult to resolve, including the conceit that I am the one who has privileged access to transcendental principles, or who embodies more fully the will-to-power. Loss of self-preoccupation entails the ability to respond to others without an ulterior motive which needs to gain something from that encounter. Buddhist ethical principles approximate the way of relating to others that nondual experience reveals. As in Christianity, I should love my neighbour as myself -- in this case because my neighbour is myself. In contrast to the 'Thou shalt not -- or else!' implied in Mosaic law, the Buddhist precepts are vows one makes not to some other being but to one's to-be-realised-as-empty self: "I vow to undertake the course of training to perfect myself in non-killing," and so forth. If we have not developed to the degree that we spontaneously experience ourselves as one with others, by following the precepts we endeavour to act as if we did feel that way. Yet even these precepts are eventually realised not to rest on any transcendental, objectively-binding moral principle. There are, finally, no moral limitations on our freedom -- except the dualistic delusions which incline us to abuse that freedom in the first place.


Grasping the Symbols that Grasp Reality

How much one needs a belief in order to flourish, how much that is 'firm' and that one does not wish to be shaken because one clings to it, that is a measure of the degree of one's strength (or, to put the point more clearly, of one's weakness). [20]

If one's final delusion is the belief that one has lost all delusions, and if there is no greater delusion than the one that eliminates all others, mustn't that delusion be... the truth? "What really is it in us that wants 'the truth'?" begins Beyond Good and Evil, a question that echoes throughout Nietzsche's writings. The value of truth must be called into question. Perhaps no one yet has been sufficiently truthful about what truthfulness is in which case we should be careful, for that may be for good reason. Nietzsche warns that one might get hold of the truth about truth too soon, before humankind is strong enough to give up the need for truth.

Look, isn't our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable, something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security? [21]

Then what might truth become for a person who no longer seeks to restore a feeling of security? Nietzsche saw the relationship between our will-to-truth and our need for being: "Man seeks 'the truth': a world that is not self-contradictory, not deceptive, does not change, a true world -- a world in which one does not suffer; contradiction, deception, change -- causes of suffering!" (WP 585) The will-to-truth manifests will-to-power; the problem with this form of will is when it thinks the world rather than creates it. "Actual philosophers, however, are commanders and law-givers... Their 'knowing' is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is -- will to power". (BGE 211) Even basic logical categories reflect our need to perceive things in a stable way. That some things are equal, that there is such a thing as matter, that things naturally fall into categories: these are fictions, even if more or less indispensable in daily life. Such instrumental truths work to preserve us and give us a grip on our situation. In his later writings, when Nietzsche saw through the illusion of a unitary ego-self, he realised that



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these truths derive from the sense-of-self objectifying its own self-image. Then what would happen if we could cease believing in ego as a self-determining cause? If we cling to these 'facts' for survival, can those who let-go of themselves let go of them?

    Nietzsche does not consider this Buddhist possibility, yet he contemplates "the most extreme form of nihilism", which might also be called "a divine way of thinking": the view "that every belief, every considering-something-true, is necessarily false because there simply is no true world. Thus: a perspectival appearance whose origin lies in us (in so far as we continually need a narrower, abbreviated, simplified world)". Nietzsche describes this as another reversal: just as our rebaptised evil qualities trade places with our best qualities, so truth becomes lie ??/font>

Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are. Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive. [22]

-- and lie becomes a kind of truth, for this makes the will to appearance, even the will to deception, "deeper, more metaphysical, than the will to truth" insofar as that will-to-truth is motivated by the need for security. Nietzsche accordingly calls his own philosophy "inverted Platonism: the further it is from actual reality, the purer, more beautiful, and better it becomes. Living in illusion as the ideal". There are no objective facts, no Immaculate Perception, no ultimate revelation of truth. Everything becomes a matter of perspective since "there is no solely beatifying interpretation". [23] Like eternal recurrence, perspectivism is a test and an intensification of our will-to-power. Perspectives gain in power by competing with each other. Superior perspectives develop by refuting or refining lesser ones. In this way the will continually surmounts itself, as individuals develop according to their own ability.

    Ernest Becker also believes that illusion is necessary. The Denial of Death starts with an insight of William James: "mankind's common instinct for reality ... has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism". Why do we want to be heroes? Our narcissistic need for self-esteem mean that each of us yearns to feel of special value, "first in the universe". Heroism (in the broad sense: e.g. Nietzsche as an intellectual hero) is how we justify that need to count more than anyone or anything else. Human society can be understood as a codified hero system, a symbolic-action structure whose roles and rules function as a vehicle for heroism. That raises the essential question:

If transference is a natural function of heroism, a necessary projection in order to stand life, death, and oneself, the question becomes: What is creative projection? What is life-enhancing illusion? ... Man needs a 'second' world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatise, nourish himself in. "Illusion" means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal. [24]

"The essence of normality is the refusal of reality", a refusal that Becker, like Nietzsche, justifies as psychologically necessary. Yet he too goes for what Nietzsche calls the bloody truths, peeling away repressions to arrive at "the potentially most liberating question of all, the main problem of human life: How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?" [25] Thus Becker ends up with a double-tiered truth similar to Nietzsche's, between a life-enhancing illusion and the truth about this illusion, too painful for most of us to cope with. From the first perspective, the important truths for Becker too are the ones that defend my existence, all the more important if they are believed to help me qualify for eternal existence (or self-being,



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according to Buddhism). From the second and deeper perspective, however, the question is how much truth we can bear.

    Buddhism also has a two-truths doctrine which distinguishes the usual truth of the everyday world from a higher truth that is not only difficult to understand but dangerous to misunderstand. The paradigmatic formulation is in chapter 24 of the Mulamadhyamikakarikas [26] of Nagarjuna, the most important Buddhist philosopher:

    The teaching of the Buddhas is wholly based on there being two truths: that of a personal everyday world and a higher truth which surpasses it.

    Those who do not clearly know the true distinction between the two truths cannot clearly know the hidden depths of the Buddha's teaching.

    Unless the transactional realm is accepted as a base, the surpassing sense cannot be pointed out; if the surpassing sense is not comprehended nirvana cannot be attained.

    The feeble-minded are destroyed by the misunderstood doctrine of sunyata, as by a snake ineptly seized or some secret knowledge wrongly applied.

    For this reason the mind of the enlightened one was averse to teaching the Truth, realising how difficult it would be for those of feeble insight to fathom it. (MMK XXIV, v. 8-12)

In this version, the higher truth that is fatal to the feeble-minded is sunyata, a term usually translated as 'emptiness' yet better understood as 'lack of self-existence'. In the West the two-truths have often been understood in a Kantian way, as distinguishing the higher Absolute from the relative phenomenal world. Yet they do not presuppose another Reality transcendent to this world. If the terms absolute and relative are used, it is better to reverse their meaning: the 'lower truth' is our usual, commonsense but illusory world of apparently discrete, hence self-existing, unconditioned (absolute) things, while the 'higher truth' is that phenomena are empty of self-existence because they are relative to each other.

    Candrakirti's commentary on this MMK passage explains that someone who misunderstands sunyata will reject the self-existence of things only to fall into the opposite extreme of believing that everything is merely illusion, and will get into trouble by ignoring the physical and moral laws of cause-and-effect. Yet the higher truth is bloodier than that. Buddhism is more than a philosophy that refutes self-existence: it is a practice which deconstructs our sense-of-self, and letting-go of ourselves in order to realise our own sunyata is seldom easy. If normality is the refusal of reality, it is because few of us are ready to face the truth about our lack of self-existence and the social games whereby we reassure ourselves. For many, the alternative to self-illusion is not Becker's creative play but a nihilism that no longer sees any reason to live. No wonder, then, that after his enlightenment Sakyamuni Buddha hesitated to teach what he had realised, according to the traditional account. The problem is not only that we are unable to understand such a difficult doctrine "beyond the reach of reason"; we resist it, for it does not grant us the kind of salvation we want, a grounding being for the ego-self.

    One form of that danger is that we will cling to sunyata, by accepting it as the correct description of the way things are. So Nagarjuna emphasises that the concept of sunyata is relative to the self-existing things it refutes; having fulfilled that function, sunyata refutes itself Sunyata is "the exhaustion of all theories and views" and those who make sunyata into a theory are "incurable". (MMK XIII, v. 8). While Nietzsche ends up with an infinity of possible perspectives, Nagarjuna seems to conclude with none, since



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sunyata is merely a heuristic device. Are these really contradictory, or does the exhaustion of perspectives liberate us for the polyvalence of many perspectives?

Ultimate serenity is the coming to rest of all ways of taking things, the repose of named things; no Truth has been taught by a Buddha for anyone, anywhere. (MMK XXV v. 24)

If truth is a matter of grasping the symbols that grasp reality, all truth is error on the Buddhist path. When nirvana is the end of all ways of taking things, the game of truth-and-delusion is turned upside-down. There is no truth to be taught because nothing needs to be attained; delusion is something to be unlearned. In the Diamond Sutra Subhuti asks the Buddha if his realisation of supreme enlightenment means that he has not gained anything.

Just so, Subhuti. I have not gained the least thing from supreme enlightenment, and that is called supreme enlightenment. [27]

Buddhism does not provide a metaphysical system to account for reality but shows how to deconstruct the socially-conditioned metaphysical system we know as everyday reality. It does not give us truths but shows how to become aware of and let go of the automatised truths we are normally not aware of holding. Buddhism agrees with Nietzsche's and Becker's insight that our truth consists of illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, yet the Buddhist path is predicated on the possibility of deconstructing the ones that cause us to suffer: most of all, the ones that maintain our delusive sense-of-self.

    The crucial issue is whether our search for truth is another attempt to ground ourselves by fixating on certain concepts that are believed to give us an effective fix on the world. When there is this compulsion, certain ideas become seductive: i.e. they become ideologies. The difference between samsara (this world of suffering) and nirvana is that samsara is this world experienced as a sticky web of attachments which seem to offer something we feel the lack of, a grounding for the groundless sense-of-self. Intellectually, that seductive quality manifests as a battleground of conflicting ideologies competing for our allegiance. Ideologies offer to ground the sense-of-self by providing the mind with a sure grasp on the world: now we know how the world is meaningful and what our role in that meaning is.

Ideology is the assumption that since the beginning and end of history are known there is nothing more to say. History is therefore to be obediently lived out according to the ideology. [28]

If there is no specifiable difference between nirvana and the everyday world (MMK XXV, v. 19) then very different ideologies such as religions, metaphysical systems, Marxism and psychoanalysis are in the same dimension insofar as they serve the same psychological function: trying to resolve the sense-of-self's intellectual sense-of-lack by identifying with a belief-system. The problem is that ideologies tend to become computer-viruses of the mind. When we assent to them -- let them in -- ideologies take it over and fill it up.

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are: metaphors which are worn



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out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Nietzsche) [29]

As metaphors lose their sensuous power they gain another role, as emblems. The freshness of the original meaning decays into tokens. Once objectified and socially-validated, a truth enters the exchange market: it can be gained, possessed, and lost.

Explanations succeed only by convincing resistant hearers of their error. If you will not hear my explanations until you are suspicious of your own truths, you will not accept my explanations until you are convinced of your error. Explanation is an antagonistic encounter that succeeds by defeating an opponent. It possesses the same dynamic of resentment found in other finite play. I will press my explanations on you because I need to show that I do not live in the error that I think others think that I do.
Whoever wins this struggle is privileged with the claim to true knowledge. Knowledge has been arrived at, it is the outcome of this engagement. Its winners have the uncontested power to make certain statements of fact. They are to be listened to. In those areas appropriate to the contests now concluded, winners possess a knowledge that can no longer be challenged. (Carse)

In this antagonistic encounter the will-to-truth is readily identifiable as will-to-power. When sense of lack evaporates because sense-of-self evaporates, however, the seductive web of sarasara transforms into polyvalence, where each viewpoint is able to appreciate others because it no longer identifies with a Truth-project that is threatened by those others. This is not Nietzsche's perspectivism, the competition among perspectives each trying to impress its own will-to-truth upon the world, but a non-abiding wisdom that can wander freely among truths since it does not need to fixate on any of them.

    Is this relativism, the bugaboo of all value-theory? Even if all ideologies are competing in the same intellectual arena, there are some important internal differences. Many ideologies are difficult to escape once you are committed. An old-style Marxist who began criticising Marxism would be told to purge himself of his bourgeois tendencies; a psychoanalyst will tell the analysand that she is resisting. On the other side are what might be called metaideologies because they are designed to self-negate: to free us from all ideologies including themselves. Derrida writes about the need to lodge oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it, [31] which nicely expresses one of the reasons Nagarjuna insists on two truths: the everyday transactional realm must be accepted in order to point to the higher truth that negates it. According to Nagarjuna's Madhyamika Buddhism, sunyata is like a poison-antidote that expels the poison from our bodies and then expels itself, for if the antidote stays inside to poison us we are no better off than before. The difference between ideologies and meta-ideologies rests on whether the sense-of-self's anxious groundlessness is to be resolved by providing something to identify with or by letting-go of itself. Then the important issue is the liberating function of any truth or practice. The same thought that is liberating in one situation may be binding in another. Even the most valuable insights can lose their freshness and become 'sticky' because they are now understood as something to cling to rather than a pointer to freedom; or rather, clinging to them is now misunderstood as the path to freedom. [32]



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The Nihilism of Eternal Recurrence

If everything manifests the will to power in one way or another, why bother to sublimate? Nietzsche found his answer in eternal recurrence, which solves the problem ingeniously: not by grounding this life in some otherworldly eternity but by impressing the form of eternity on this life. Eternal recurrence has been celebrated as the capstone of his philosophy, yet I shall argue that, instead of vanquishing nihilism, it eternally defers it. That is because nihilism is not the always-impending debacle of all meaning, but our fear of that debacle and flight from it -- which perpetuates the debacle and gives it power over us. The dread of nihilism, which Nietzsche rightly saw as our collective shadow, the ghost that haunts Western civilization, is the true nihilism. From a Buddhist perspective the problem is not our nothingness but the ways we try to evade it.

    This puts Nietzsche in the same camp as Plato. If the Platonic invention of another Reality is an attempt to escape the lack we experience now, so too is Nietzsche's attempt to fill in the lack of that now by making the now recur eternally. The basic problem is that eternal recurrence of the now can add nothing unless the now-as-now lacks something. Again we encounter sense-of-lack, here in its implications for meaning. This lack is not the meaninglessness of life but the threat of meaninglessness, and therefore it manifests as the devices we use to deny meaninglessness. In this way too the repressed returns, sublimated into symbols/symptoms. Tillich believed that the problem of meaninglessness is the form in which non-being poses itself in our time, and that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. [33] He also gave the solution: the meaning of life must be reduced to despair about the meaning of life, in order to take more non-being of the world into ourselves. Yet one must despair in the right way.

    How to overcome nihilism was the fundamental problem for Nietzsche, whose sensitive nose detected its stink almost everywhere. It is not a late development of Western civilization but man's normal condition, which is why the Overman is an overcoming of man. Then does nihilism have an essential connection with lack, also humankind's normal condition? Nietzsche defines nihilism as increasing gloom, then terror at the exhaustion of all meaning, a grand disgust directed at oneself as well as at the world. Goals are missing, the desert grows. What Nietzsche, the posthumous man predicted, we post-modem men are now living, and no one can say yet when or how nihilism -- today becoming recognised as a global problem -- might be resolved.

    At first, nihilism disguised itself by creating Platonic-type values. Nihilism shows its disgust at life by creating a "true world" having all the attributes that life does not: unity, stability, identity, goodness, happiness. This invention of another world is the nihilistic act par excellence because it devalues this world. The incomplete nihilism which constitutes the development of Western civilisation is the slow decomposition of that true world, and when it finally disappears we are left with this one, the "apparent" world that can no longer be considered apparent if there is nothing to juxtapose it with, yet nonetheless remains devalued and therefore experienced as unsatisfactory.

    Nietzsche's solution to this is eternal recurrence. As many have noticed, the key to what is otherwise a peculiar doctrine seems to be the ethical motivation behind it. "The question in each and every thing, 'Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?' would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight", because this thought would transform us in one way or the other: either crash us under its weight or prompt the supreme affirmation that Zarathustra makes: "Was that life? Well then! Once more!" [34] This would be the great liberation that restores the innocence of Becoming



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because it makes one accountable only to oneself -- which from a Buddhist viewpoint, however, is still one too many.

    Given Nietzsche's attitude towards truth ("Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy..."), this may have been his self-conscious attempt to promulgate a myth. "By what myth do you live?" asked Jung. Well, this one is better than most. Like Heidegger's analysis of death in Being and Time, it can inspire us to live the way we want to live rather than let life pass by while we are making other plans. For Nietzsche and the early Heidegger, the future is necessary to focus us in the now, for otherwise we are diverted and scattered by chance possibilities. In lack terms, both try to resolve our sense-of-lack by making the sense-of-self more efficient. But do their solutions replace one type of evasion with another? Unamuno dismissed eternal recurrence as "a sorry counterfeit of immortality", yet that puts the shoe on the wrong foot: the problem is not that it is a poor immortality but that it is an immortality, which still reflects a felt need to "stamp the form of eternity upon our lives". Eternal recurrence seems to exalt the now by refusing to evaluate it according to some other standard or to ground it in some other reality, yet here too the now is weighed and found wanting: its lack can be filled up only by repeating it. The now as now -- just this! -- is still not enough. A Buddhist may agree with Nietzsche that "this life is your eternal life!", but the eternity of this life must be understood differently, as a not-falling-away eternal now that, when it lacks nothing, may be discovered to be all we need.

    Nietzsche calls eternal recurrence the basic conception of Thus Spake Zarathustra, yet it becomes a dominant theme only near the end of part four. Zarathustra teaches the Higher Men how to overcome the Spirit of Gravity, and at the beginning of "The Intoxicated Song" one of them asserts: "For the sake of this day -- I am content for the first time to have lived my whole life... 'Was that -- life?' I will say to death. 'Very well! Once more!'" At that moment Zarathustra hears the sound of the midnight bell and sings its song, "whose name is 'Once More', whose meaning is 'To all eternity!'":

O Man! Attend!
What does deep midnight's voice contend?
'I slept my sleep,
'And now awake at dreaming's end:
'The world is deep,
'Deeper than day can comprehend,
'Deep is its woe,
'Joy -- deeper than heart's agony:
'Woe says: Fade! Go!
'But all joy wants eternity,
' -- wants deep, deep, deep eternity!'

This roundelay is so important that it appears at the end of both part three and part four; and the reason it is so important is that it reveals the origin of eternal recurrence to be joy. This joy wants to recur eternally, and because it is deeper than the heart's agony such joy can even will that suffering to recur again too, if necessary for its own recurrence.

Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woe as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love;
    If you ever wanted one moment twice, if you ever said: 'You please me, happiness, instant, moment!' then you wanted everything to return.



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Alas, for the failure of Nietzsche's moment of joy! However deep it was it was not deep enough, for he needed it again, and again... "Joy, however, does not want heirs or children, joy wants itself, ... wants everything eternally the same." (Z, p. 331) This reaction is natural yet nonetheless ruinous. Ironically, that very desire for its recurrence is the worm which burrows in to destroy it, as in those most-cherished musical moments that inspire us to think "this is so beautiful, I wish it would never stop" -- only to discover that the moment has ceased, destroyed by the self-consciousness which reflexively distinguishes itself from the music in order to enjoy enjoying it. Nietzsche yearns for that moment of joy again, because it absolves his sense of lack, yet his desire for its recurrence is itself part of the problem that the deepest joy resolves. For contrary to his roundelay the deepest joy does not even will to recur: it wills nothing because it lacks nothing, if it is the deepest joy. By wanting to retain that joy Nietzsche separates himself from it and thereby loses it into the past as a memory, then can only try to bring it back by willing the recurrence of everything -- not realising that his moment of pure joy was a temporary collapse of willing. Since the will-to-power always strives to overcome itself, it must project a future, which is why the only consummation it can attain is in the eternal recurrence of such moments. However, striving to find the past in the future is less a formula for joy than a psychoanalytic definition of neurosis.

    What is attractive about eternal recurrence is that it foregoes the need for any other Reality to compensate for the defects of this one. It is an affirmation of this world, yet this world not as let-go but as grasped-at, fixated by being brought back again and again. "Very well: once more!" is his deep affirmation; yet deeper would be: "To all that has been: thanks! To all that will be: yes!" To say yes! to a single moment of joy, completely affirming it, is by definition an experience of no lack. At that instant one wants nothing else, no void needs to be filled in or evaded, which means (if, as Buddhism implies, sense-of-lack is the shadow of sense-of-self) that this must be a moment of egolessness. Then one cannot have such a joy, one can only be such a joy. Blessed are those who have had or rather been such a moment, for it transforms all other moments as well -- although not because of the entwined contingency that Nietzsche refers to. "An affirmation that is truly full and complete is also contagious: it bursts into a chain of affirmations that knows no limits." (Haar) [36] Yes, but this chain is not each contingent affirmation causing another. Just the opposite: a complete affirmation breaks all causal chains. The joy of just this! -- the Buddhist experience of tathata thusness -- needs nothing, desires nothing, and thus reveals that the causal chain is a succession of just this! in an eternal-now where there is nothing to gain or lose. Paradoxically, when the causal chain is such a succession, our experience is that there is no causal chain and no succession. As long as we experience the causal chain as a means to get somewhere else, we lose just this/and the eternal-now. In sum, life becomes joyous not when we get something from it but when we become it.

    So a moment of deepest joy does not banish woe by discovering the interdependence of joy with eve everything else, past and future. Rather, it reveals that what we thought was the means for solving our lack is what maintains the problem. End of lack is not an effect that can be experienced at the conclusion of some causal chain, but the shattering of all causal chains insofar as they are our means for trying to overcome lack. Eternity is found not in the recurrence of time but in the evaporation of that objectified time whereby and wherein we hope to end our lack. This realisation is embodied in perhaps Nagarjuna's most important verse, which distinguishes between samsara and nirvana:



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    That which, taken as causal or dependent, is the process of being-born and passing on, is, taken non-causally and beyond all dependence, declared to be nirvana. (MMK XXV, v. 9) [37]

    Nirvana cannot be caused and therefore cannot be attained. We might think of it as some kind of substratum pervading all our experience but that is still too dualistic: it is simply the nature of our experience when there is not the delusive sense of a self-conscious yet ungrounded self that has the experience and therefore feels something to be lacking in it. The joy of that experience is deeper than the heart's agony.

    On this account, happiness in the form we seek it -- "that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss" [38] -- cannot be gained. All we can do is realise that nondual "perspective" where nothing has ever been lacking. The amor fati Nietzsche celebrates is not accepting everything due to its interdependence with a moment of complete Yes! but the absence of any need to will that things be any different. The amor is not willing that everything be exactly the same, over and over again, but that everything be as it is; that, however, is not something which needs to be willed. Or, finally, which can be willed. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche came close to this: only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence justified, which amounts to saying that existence experienced aesthetically does not need to be justified. Are what we call "aesthetic experiences" tip-of-the-tongue tastes of something that we have always been immersed in?

    Instead of yielding to this groundlessness, eternal recurrence is a last gasp at self-grounding being, for it attempts to fill up lack by discovering a being within becoming. "That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being" (WP 617). Nietzsche can find infinite value in the now only by having it recur an infinite number of times. Therefore he ends up not with the end of nihilism but with another, more willful reconstitution of it.

    For Buddhism the problem of lack can be resolved only by ceasing to avoid it and instead becoming-one with it: letting-go of oneself and falling into the void, in order to realise that the void is not really void but the nondual realm of the Buddha-dharma, as Ch'an master Huang-po put it. What does this mean in terms of nihilism? To stop evading the debacle of all meaning and accept it, which requires experiencing the meaninglessness of one's life -- an anguish not to be recommended lightly. Such understanding of the solution also transforms our understanding of the problem, for this solution is usually understood as the problem. This implies that true nihilism is less the debacle of meaning than our terror of that debacle and the ways we flee it, which includes a compulsive need to find some meaning in life as a bulwark against that threat. If so, nihilism is not our lack but the fear and denial of that lack, experienced in this instance as impending loss of meaning. Insofar as Nietzsche's will-to-power is in flight from lack, then, the will-to-power is nihilism. Eternal Recurrence insures that flight will have no cloture, for it tries to fill up lack by flight itself, by repeated recurrence of the passing moment. Thus eternal recurrence would not be final victory over nihilism, but the final victory of nihilism: in grasping at the fleeting now by making it recur, it misses and loses the now that right now does-not-fall-away, and deflects us from the opposite solution of yielding to the nonbeing we most dread, which we might discover to be not so dreadful after all.

    The "discovery" of objective meaning is one of our main ways of dealing with lack. As Zarathustra points out, man assigns values to things only to maintain himself. We can usually cope with anxiety and guilt as long as we know what the meaning of life is, for there is security in that even if we don't always do what that meaning implies we



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should do. However, such meaning-systems corrupt "the innocence of becoming" because in projecting and understanding them as objective we repress the fact that these meanings are our own creations, socially-constructed and -validated. Insofar as they originate in lack they are based on fear, so a test of our maturity is whether we are able to face that fear. "It is a measure of the degree of strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things, to what extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one organises a small portion of it oneself." (WP 585A)

    If the autonomy of ego-self is a delusion, we can see why that is difficult. Common-sense subject-object dualism presumes the sense-of-self to be the locus of awareness; subjectivism goes further to make the subject the only source of value and meaning, which devalues the world into a field-of-activity wherein the self labours to fulfill itself. Apparently objective meanings paper over the problem of lack because they provide some objective security. In order for the illusory self to feel secure, however, its meanings must be unconsciously projected. The sun that motivates me must not be realised to be my own creation, if I am to be inspired by it. When I am aware of constructing my own meaning, the absence of any external grounding for that meaning means I have nothing to lean upon. The natural response is a deepened sense of lack, experienced as anguish and ontological guilt: by what right do I create such meanings? Who am I to decide that this is the way to live?

    Juxtaposing the possibilities in this way clarifies the Buddhist approach, which contra Nietzsche does not find any solution in strength of will. If the collapse of objective meaning exposes my sense of lack, that will be painful yet it is nonetheless desirable, since becoming aware of my lack is necessary in order to eventually solve it. Then realising the subjectivity of meaning does not by itself resolve the matter, for it becomes a stage to be endured in order to realise something else.

    If despair is a stage, however, one must despair in the right way. Odd as it sounds, the danger with despair is that one will cling to it. In Kierkegaard's school of anxiety (recommended in The Concept of Anxiety) despair is the final exam: it dredges up our most cherished meanings and devours them, leaving us disconsolate. But we do not become completely empty unless despair devours us wholly and also itself. Despair (literally "no hope") is the reverse side of hope and both are relative to the sense-of-self, for the ego-self alternates between the hope it will finally fixate itself and the dread it never will. Then despair evaporates with the self, like the matter and anti-matter of particle physics which disappear by collapsing back into each other. Yet often this does not happen, because when despair finally occurs after a lifetime of avoiding it, it appears with a force that makes it seem more real than the meanings it roots out, which had been used to repress it. From the Buddhist standpoint, the recurring thoughts and feelings that constitute despair are no more real and no less impermanent than any other thoughts and feelings. When we despair, however, our usual psychological defenses fail and we identify with self-pitying thoughts and self-destructive inclinations. Then, instead of despair consuming the self, it reinforces the worthlessness of that self. We end up not becoming-nothing but with a sense-of-self nourishing itself on self-disgust. This is the "reactive" tendency that so disgusted Nietzsche and he saw what the problem is: "He who despises himself still nonetheless respects himself as one who despises." (BGE 78) Man would rather will nothingness than not will. [39] Yet the void Huang-po recommends is not something that can be willed.

    When we despair in the right way, what happens? Abandoning the hope that we will eventually become something, we yield to our nothingness and discover how we have always been everything. As Dogen expressed it in Genjokoan, to forget oneself is to be



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actualised by myriad things, which is to perceive oneself as all things. What does such mutual interpenetration imply about the meaning of life? For Buddhism, meaning too is neither objective nor subjective. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless but what might be called meaningfree. To forget oneself ad become nothing is to wake up and find oneself in or, less dualistically, as a situation -- not confronted by it but one with it -- and if one is not self-preoccupied then meaning arises naturally within that situation. As Buber put it, you start with yourself in order to forget yourself and immerse yourself in the world; you understand yourself in order not to be preoccupied with yourself.

    The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom has discussed the formidable problem posed by the 'galactic' point of view, which seems to trivialise us into microscopic specks flickering in the vast expanse of cosmic time. He points out that this renders life meaninglessness only from that perspective, a perspective that moreover is delusive from the Buddhist point of view: it abstracts me from my actual situation, yet there is no such "sub specie aeternitas" perspective outside our various perspectives. We are nondual with the whole only by virtue of our particular position within that whole. We are free to experience and appreciate different perspectives, but there is no perspectiveless-perspective. The therapist's goal, according to Yalom, is:

not to create engagement nor to inspirit the patient with engagement -- these the therapist cannot do. But it is not necessary: the desire to engage life is always there within the patient, and the therapist's clinical activities should be directed toward removal of obstacles in the patient's way. [40]

Searching for the meaning of life is searching for something that enables us to stop searching. When lack comes to an end, so does the problem of meaninglessness. And life becomes ... play. [41]



Mature manhood: that means to have rediscovered the seriousness one had as a child at play. (BGE 94)

For Nietzsche, like Derrida today, the death of God unleashes limitless play. [42] Yet whether our god has died or not, we are already playing. The question is not whether we play but how. Do we suffer our games as if they were life-or-death struggles, because they are the means whereby we hope to ground ourselves, or do we dance with the light feet that Nietzsche called the first attribute of divinity? His philosophising exceeds any system that can be constructed out of it, for, the will to power notwithstanding, it demonstrates how thinking can be such play.

I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher might wish more to be than a dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, and finally also his only piety, his 'service of God.' (GS 381)

A friend once complained to Samuel Johnson that he had tried to be a philosopher but cheerfulness kept breaking in; Nietzsche shows that the two need not be incompatible.

    Zarathustra teaches three metamorphoses: from camel (a weight-bearing spirit) to lion (who captures freedom) to the child, who "is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning ... a sacred Yes." Unless we become children, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven -- which does not mean that children will enter therein, for they are already there, since without a matured sense-of-self they do not yet have a debilitating sense-of-lack.



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Of course, the normal child can soon distinguish easily and quickly between what adults call 'real life' and 'play.' The more psychological way of stating the matter is to say that the child acts out his fantasies and seriously tries, through the play-situation, to resolve conflicts in which these fantasies play a part. But he normally recognises reasonably well which of these selves and lives are defined as real by the adults around him; and he learns to go along with their game -- until finally he is quite unaware that it was their game, for it is now his, too. [43]

One grows up by learning the socially-acceptable ways to try to overcome lack.

Becker, like Nietzsche, concludes that 'childlike foolishness' is the calling of mature men. [44] But few of us are ready to hear it. "So the grand destiny of man is... to play?" Does our incredulity reflect the absurdity of the proposal, or how far we have trudged from the Garden of Eden? Perhaps the negative connotations of the word reveal less about play than about us: our self-importance, our need to stand out from the rest of creation (and from the rest of our fellows) by accomplishing great things -- the ones we hope will make us more real. We are to play not because there is nothing else to do, not because the lack of some higher meaning means we just while away our time, but because we realise the nature of meaning and time. This is not inconsistent with the selflessness of the bodhisattva, for loss of self-preoccupation is what makes true play possible, what enables the bodhisattva to manifest the liberation he or she teaches:

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself. [45]

The problem, ultimately, is 'not enjoying yourself', Nietzsche's definition of original sin which is as good a definition of lack. This fits nicely with an equally simple definition of Buddhism offered by the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: a clever way to enjoy your life.



1. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) in: Twilight of the Idols [hereafter "TI" in the text, with section number] and The Anti-Christ, R. J. Hollingdale (Trans and Ed.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin), No. 20, p.129.

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1968) in: Walter Kaufmann, & R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) The Will to Power ["WP"] (New York: Random House). No. 55. See also, e.g. WP Nos. 179, 23, 64, 55.

3. This paper does not address the important question about how much Nietzsche's texts constitute a system or whether "there is no such thing either as the truth of Nietzsche, or of Nietzsche's text" (Derrida, Spurs). I assume that it is valuable to discover/construct a consistent philosophy. My interpretation of eternal recurrence is more 'literal' than is fashionable nowadays, yet there is abundant textual support for it. In my opinion the apparent absurdity of such an identical repetition, rather than any lack of textual evidence, has led to the vast literature denying its literality. But to argue for this would leave little space for the rest of the paper.



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Some other comparative studies, with rather different approaches, are found in: Mistry, Freny (1981) Nietzsche and Buddhism (De Gruyter); Nishitani (1982) Religion and Nothingness (Berkeley: University of California Press) and Parkes, Graham (1990) (Ed.) Nietzsche and Asian Thought (University of Hawaii).

4. See, for example, Becker, Ernest (1973) The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil (New York: The Free Press) and Yalom, Irvin D. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books).

5. See Brown, Norman (1961) Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (New York: Vintage) p. 118 and passim.

6. Life Against Death, p. 268.

7. See, e.g. WP Nos. 489, 518, 561.

8. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (Ed.) (1985) Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (San Francisco: North Point Press), p. 70.

9. Blofeld, John (Trans.) (1958) The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (London: Buddhist Society), p. 41.

10. For more on the Buddhist approach to repression and the return of the repressed, see Loy, David (1996) Lack and Transcendence: the Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism and Buddhism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press).

11. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1973) in: R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) Beyond Good and Evil ["BGE"] (Harmondsworth: Penguin), No. 108, p. 78.

12. See also WP 273.

13. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1986) in: R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) Human, All Too Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 9.

14. Hollingdale, R. J., in a note to his Ed. of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, p. 196.

15. Escape from Evil, pp. 81, 114.

16. The Denial of Death, p. 154.

17. Escape from Evil, p. 123.

18. BGE 2 also identifies the fundamental faith of metaphysicians as "faith in antithetical values", but the Buddhist solution is different than, e.g. WP 272, where Nietzsche is concerned to demonstrate "how everything praised as moral is identical in essence with everything immoral." Buddhism instead emphasises how the meaning of each term in such dualisms is dependent upon the other, so that, e.g. concern to be 'pure' involves a preoccupation with 'impurity'.

19. WP 786 dreams of the antithesis between egoism and altruism disappearing in the future, when finally "one grasps that altruistic actions are only a species of egoistic actions -- and that the degree to which one loves, spends oneself, proves the degree of individual power and personality." Buddhism implies the reverse, that egoistic actions are a subspecies of altruistic (i.e. nondual) ones, inverted by the delusion of a self/subject which believes itself to be other than the world.

20. Kaufmann, Walter (Trans.) (1974) The Gay Science "GS", (New York: Vintage), No. 347, p. 287.

21. GS 355. Because Nehamas (1985) in his Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), does not perceive how this desire for security motivates our search for truth (which becomes a sublimated, intellectualised form of being), his discussion of truth in chapter 2 is weakened.

22. Kaufmann, Walter (Trans & Ed.) (1964) "On truth and lie in the extramoral sense", in: The Viking Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking), p. 47; WP 493. On the necessity of ignorance, see, e.g. WP 609.

23. Letter to Fuchs, 26 August 1888.

24. Escape from Evil, p. 124; The Denial of Death, pp. 1, 5, 189.

25. The Denial of Death, pp. 178, 6.

26. The translation ["MMK"] used here is from Sprung, Mervyn (1979) Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way (Boulder, CO: Prajna Press), Candrakirti's classic commentary on the MMK. The following verses, and Candrakirti's commentary on them, are on pp. 230-234.

27. Price, A. F. & Moulam, Wong (Trans.) (1990) The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng (Boston: Shambhala), p. 43.

28. Carse, James P. (1986) Finite and Infinite Games (New York: Free Press) p. 145.

29. "On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense," pp. 46-47.

30. Finite and Infinite Games, p. 106.



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31. Derrida, Jacques (1978) Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (Trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 111.

32. The particular danger with Buddhist meta-ideology is the version of dualistic thinking that motivates it: the distinction between nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and delusion. Enlightenment includes realising how the distinction we come to make between enlightenment and delusion is itself delusive, that enlightenment does not liberate us in the fashion we look to be saved. What makes the game of enlightenment-versus-delusion a meta-ideology is that this realisation is essential to the game.

33. Tillich, Paul (1952) The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 57.

34. GS 341, p. 274; Nietzsche, Friedrich (1961) Thus Spoke Zarathustra ["Z"], R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin), "The Intoxicated Song", p. 326.

35. Z, pp. 333, 331-332. The passage from GS that discusses ER says: "Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment..." (No. 341) See also WP 1032.

36. Haar, Michel (1979) "Nietzsche and metaphysical language", in: David B. Allinson (Ed.) The New Nietzsche (New York: Delta) p. 31.

37. In this way Madhyamika dependent-origination refutes itself to become non-dependent non-origination. For more on the Buddhist understanding of time and causality, see Loy, David (1988) Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press), chapter 6.

38. Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegy, IX.

39. The last sentence of The Genealogy of Morals.

40. Yalom, Irvin D. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books), p. 482.

41. The Buddhist concern to overcome the delusion of subject-object duality adds another dimension: to become enlightened is to forget one's own suffering only to wake up in (or one with) a world of suffering. Mahayana Buddhism found its ideal in the bodhisattva, who is devoted to helping others: not because one ought to, but because one is the situation and through oneself that situation draws forth a response to meet its needs.

42. Derrida, Jacques (1980) The Archaeology of the Frivolous, J. P. Leavey (Trans.) (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press), p. 118. In Derrida's terms, it is the difference between dreaming of deciphering a truth which will end play by restoring self-presence, and affirming the play which no longer seeks to ground itself.

43. Hillman, James (1975) Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper and Row) p. 191.

44. The Denial of Death, pp. 201, 202. The "need for legitimate foolishness" was Otto Rank's cure for neurosis.

45. Finite and Infinite Play, p. 15.


return to religion-online

Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion by Ian Barbour

Published by Harper & Row, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London, 1976. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock. Published by Harper & Row, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London, 1976. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 4: Models in Religion

One of the functions of models in science is to suggest theories which correlate patterns in observational data. One of the functions of models in religion, I submit, is to suggest beliefs which correlate patterns in human experience. The testing of scientific theories and the corresponding testing of religious beliefs are the topics of subsequent chapters. In this chapter I will propose that the character of religious models is in several respects similar to that of scientific models. First, religious models are analogical. The analogical basis of metaphor, symbol and parable were outlined in Chapter 2 above. The role of analogy in the more systematically-developed interpretive images which we have called models must now be examined.

Models in religion are also extensible and unitary. I stated in Chapter 2 above that models can represent the enduring structures of the cosmic order which myths dramatize in narrative form. Images which originated in religious experience and key historical events are extended to interpret other areas of individual and corporate experience. As models of an unobservable gas molecule are later used to interpret other patterns of observation in the laboratory, so models of an unobservable God are used to interpret new patterns of experience in human life. Ultimate interpretive models -- whether of a personal God or of an impersonal cosmic process -- are organizing images which restructure one’s perception of the world. One may notice features which might otherwise have been ignored. Moreover, religious models are readily grasped as unitary wholes. Because of their vividness and immediacy, they are strongly evocative of personal response, but they also help to integrate the interpretation of diverse areas of experience.

I will argue that religious models, like scientific ones, should be taken seriously but not literally. On the one hand, they are not literal pictures of reality. In the biblical tradition the limitations of models are recognized. The prohibition of graven images ‘or any likeness’ (Ex. 20.4) is both a rejection of idolatry and an acknowledgment that God cannot be adequately represented in visual imagery. ‘His ways are not our ways’, for he is ‘beyond our farthest thought’. Perhaps with auditory symbols (e.g. ‘the Word’, ‘the voice of the Lord’) one is less tempted to think one can visualize God. In any case, biblical language is reticent about claiming to describe God as he is in himself, though it uses models freely. The creative theologian, like the creative scientist, realizes that his models are not exhaustive descriptions. Neither God nor a gas molecule can be pictured. An additional safeguard against literalism is provided by the sense of awe and mystery associated with religious experience.

But if we insist that religious models are not literal descriptions, can we avoid the opposite extreme of treating them as useful fictions? Braithwaite, who considers scientific models dispensable, in turn treats religious language as a morally useful fiction. Its function is to express and evoke distinctive ethical attitudes. Stories about God, he says, are parables whose only point is to recommend attitudes. We don’t ask whether they are true or false but how they are used. Parables are imaginative ways of endorsing an ethical policy or affirming one’s commitment to a pattern of life. They are declarations of one’s intention to act in a particular way -- with unselfish love, for example. A model of God, on this reading, would be a psychologically helpful fiction which supports moral behaviour. Braithwaite’s instrumentalism is discussed in Section 2 below.

In addition to these questions concerning the status of religious models, this chapter asks about the diversity of functions which they serve. I indicated earlier that historians and anthropologists have delineated the variety of tasks which myths perform in human life. Contemporary philosophers have also shown some of the varied ways in which religious language is used. Sometimes it does, as Braithwaite says, recommend a way of life or endorse a set of moral principles. Again, it may express and evoke a distinctive self-commitment. It may propose a particular kind of self-understanding or engender a characteristic set of attitudes towards human existence. It produces, that is, a typical form of personal life-orientation. Religious language may also express gratitude, dependence and worship. These are all functions very different from any of the functions of scientific language. Another proposed role for religious models, the evocation of ‘disclosures’, has been presented by Ian Ramsey; I have given in Section 3 below a critique of his scheme.

But beyond all these non-cognitive uses, I will maintain that a religious model may also direct attention to particular patterns in events. It provides a perspective on the world and an interpretation of history and human experience. In particular, religious models are used in the interpretation of distinctive kinds of experience, such as awe and reverence, mystical joy, moral obligation, reorientation and reconciliation, and key historical events. An even wider scope has been claimed for ‘metaphysical models’, concerning which I will express some reservations iii Section 4 below. In subsequent chapters the crucial problems of verification, falsification, and the testing of the beliefs derived from models, will be taken up.

1. Models in the Interpretation of Experience

In the previous chapter I mentioned Black’s contention that both metaphors and models involve ‘construing as’ (e.g. construing man as a wolf, or construing a gas as a collection of tiny elastic spheres). I would like now to set forth Wisdom’s idea of ‘seeing as’, Hick’s idea of ‘experiencing as’, and the idea I would favour, ‘interpreting as’. I will take these three phrases to represent alternative renditions of the way models are used in the interpretation of experience.

The point of departure must be the page of Wittgenstein’ s Philosophical Investigations on which appears a famous sketch which can be seen as a rabbit or as a duck.1 Wittgenstein says that we do not simply see; we ‘see as’, interpreting according to a pattern. John Wisdom applies the phrase to the world in its totality, which can be seen in more than one way. He tells a now-classic parable about two men who return to their long-neglected garden, in which both flowers and weeds are growing. One man is convinced that ‘some gardener must tend this plot’; he points to evidence supporting his view. The other is sure that there is no gardener, and points out opposing evidence. Similarly throughout their lives, people use ‘models with which to get the hang of the patterns in the flux of experience’ 2

Later comments by Flew and others on Wisdom’s parable have dwelt on one point in it: the two men do not differ concerning the facts about the garden. But Wisdom himself went on to say they do differ concerning their interpretations, and that the difference is significant and discussable. Each can try to help the other person to see the garden as he himself does by drawing attention to certain patterns among the facts, by connecting them up in distinctive ways and by mentioning features which might have been overlooked. Like a judge trying to decide in a law court whether there was negligence in a controversial case, the men in the parable must weigh the cumulative effect of many factors. ‘Reasons for and against may be offered.’ The men differ not simply in attitudes but in beliefs. ‘It seems to me’, writes Wisdom, ‘that some belief as to what the world is like is of the essence of religion.’3 Religious models, then, serve an ‘attention-directing’ function, accentuating the patterns which we see in the facts.

John Hick develops the idea of ‘seeing as’ a step further into ‘experiencing as’, in which there is a greater involvement of the total person. Someone might say, ‘In the twilight I experienced the tuft of grass as a rabbit.’ All experience, says Hick, is ‘experiencing as. To recognize an object as a fork is ‘to experience it in terms of a concept’, rather than to receive it as a bare observation. So religious faith, Hick proposes, consists in ‘experiencing life as encounter with God’:

The Old Testament prophets, for example, experienced their historical situation as one in which they were living under the sovereign claim of God, and in which the appropriate way for them to act was as God’s agents. It is important to appreciate that this was not an interpretation in the sense of a theory imposed retrospectively upon remembered lacts. It was the way in which the prophet actually experienced and participated in these events at the time. He consciously lived in the situation experienced in this way.4

According to Hick, experiencing life as encounter with God involves one’s whole person and transforms one’s total life. It leads one to act in terms of the interpreted experience. ‘All of life is for him a dialogue with the divine Thou; in and through all his dealings with life he is having to do with God.’ Yet Hick’ also insists that there is considerable ambiguity in the given. ‘What we can know depends in consequence, to an important extent, upon what we choose to be and to do.’ God safeguards our freedom by leaving room for more than one interpretation. The need for ‘a voluntary act of interpretation’ and ‘a freely offered response’ protects man from total domination by God.5

Although I agree with Hick’s general position, it seems to me preferable to use the expression interpreting as’ rather than ‘experiencing as’. In Hick’s example, I would say ‘I interpreted the tuft of grass as a rabbit’, acknowledging that I had misinterpreted it (whereas it would seem strange to say that I misexperienced it). Similarly a man converted from theism to atheism would probably say that he had previously misinterpreted his experience. Hick’s phrase is perhaps more appropriate for the unselfconscious experience of biblical man than for the reflective outlook of a person today who is aware of a plurality of interpretive frameworks. But my phrase differs from his only in emphasis, since he also acknowledges that there is no sharp line between experience and interpretation. We cannot isolate uninterpreted experience.

We can, however, reflect on the distinctive types of experience which have been most prominent in religion and try to describe them without explicit reference to any particular religious interpretation. The first two are discussed in detail in the next chapter, the others in subsequent chapters:

1. Awe and reverence. Men in many cultures have described a sense of mystery and wonder, holiness and sacredness, in a variety of contexts. Rudolf Otto’s classic study finds in numinous experience a combination of fascination and dread. Often there seems to be a sense of otherness, confrontation and encounter, or of being grasped and laid hold of. Correspondingly, man is aware of his own dependence, finitude, limitation and contingency.6

2. Mystical union. The mystics of many religious traditions have spoken of the experience of the unity of all things. Unity is found in the depth of the individual soul and in the world of nature. It is achieved in the discipline of meditation and is characterized by joy, harmony, serenity and peace. In its extreme form, the unity may be described as a loss of individuality and the joy as bliss or rapture.

3. Moral obligation. Decisions on ethical questions sometimes demand an inescapable responsibility and the subordination of one’s own inclinations. Though the voice of conscience is in part the product of social conditioning, it apparently is not entirely so; it may lead a person to express judgment on his culture and to oppose his society even at the risk of death. According to Peter Berger, moral outrage in the face of evil, courage in defiance of death, and trust in an underlying cosmic order are among the ‘prototypical human gestures’ which can be interpreted as ‘signals of transcendence’. Donald Evans holds that indignant compassion and courage in spite of anxiety are depth experiences which can be interpreted as revelations of God. When men fail to respond to moral demands they experience guilt.7

4. Reorientation and reconciliation. In individual life, acknowledgment of guilt and repentance may be followed by the experience of forgiveness. Persons unable to accept themselves are somehow enabled to do so. Such reorientation may lead to a new freedom from anxiety, an openness to new possibilities in one s life, a greater sensitivity to other persons. Grace is experienced in the healing power of love at work in our midst when reconciliation overcomes estrangement.8

5. Interpersonal relationships. The interaction between two persons is sometimes characterized by directness, immediacy, mutuality and genuine dialogue. In an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, as Martin Buber describes it, there is availability, sensitivity, openness, responsibility, freedom to respond; one is totally involved as a whole person. Buber suggests that one can interpret the neighbour’s need as a divine summons. Encounter with the human Thou is a form of encounter with the eternal Thou. One understands oneself to be addressed through events. ‘The sound of which the speech consists are the events of personal every-day life.’ A person replies through the speech of his life; he answers with his actions. Events in daily life can be interpreted as dialogue with God.9

6. Key historical events. In addition to individual aspects of experience, the data of religion include the corporate experience of communities which have arisen in response to historical events. Key events in the past continue to illuminate the present life of a community. In H. R. Niebuhr’s words, ‘such events help us understand ourselves and what has happened to us’. The message of the Hebrew prophets was an interpretation of the pattern of events in Israel’s national life. The Christian community arose in response to the life of Christ, which is the continuing centre of its common memory. Every community celebrates and re-enacts particular historical events which are crucial to its corporate identity and its vision of reality. 10

7. Order and creativity in the world. The teleological argument has been debated by philosophers from Aristotle and Aquinas to Hume and Kant, continuing into the present century. It has not, however, been as prominent in the actual life and thought of religious communities -- even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the argument from design was frequently presented by Christian apologists. Yet it cannot be denied that many persons have been impressed by the order and beauty of the world, the intricate complexity and interdependence of natural forms; a response of wonder in confronting nature is not confined to primitive man. In their reflective moments, many men have speculated about the ultimate ground of order and creativity in the cosmic process.11

Now each of these seven very diverse areas of experience is subject to a variety of interpretations. Cultural presuppositions condition all interpretive categories. Interpretation influences experience, as will be stressed in later chapters. I am not claiming that moral and religious experience or particular historical events can constitute a proof for the existence of a personal God. I am only saying that it is reasonable to interpret them theistically and that it makes a difference whether one does so or not. ft makes a difference not only in one s attitudes and behaviour but in the way one sees the world. One may notice and value features of individual and corporate life which one otherwise might have overlooked. Construing the world through a model of ultimate purpose unifies a diversity of experiences, for the same power is understood to be at work in all of them.

A variety of analogies has been used in the interpretation of the corporate experience of communities. Israel understood the pattern of events in her national life as the working out of a divine covenant analogous to the covenant agreements familiar in the ancient world. Historical situations were interpreted by the prophets in relation to an image of God and his purposes for the nation. In the prophetic literature, various specific kinds of familiar person are the analogues for images of God as King, Judge, Shepherd, Husband, Father, etc. In biblical religion, these various images form a model of God as a personal being, which is used in interpreting corporate as well as individual experience.

Through such a model, in short, characteristic areas of experience, such as those listed above, are interpreted as manifestations of God. ‘Interpreting as’ is very much like ‘construing as’ discussed in previous chapters. We can take it to include ‘seeing as’, as a special case, since interpretation includes visual interpretation. If the experiential basis is stressed, and the inseparability of experience and interpretation acknowledged, it differs only in emphasis from ‘experiencing as’. Models not only direct attention to particular aspects of and patterns in experience but provide a framework within which a variety of types of experience can be integrated. A person with a theistic model will interpret his whole life as lived in the presence of God.

2. Models in the Expression of Attitudes

We shall now consider some alternative views. The first of these is the instrumentalist claim that religious models are useful fictions whose function is the expression and evocation of distinctive attitudes. I will take attitudes to include feelings, value judgments, and policies of action. Braithwaite argues that religious assertions are ‘primarily declarations of adherence to a policy of action, declarations of commitment to a way of life’.12 Religious language is a form of moral language, an affirmation of one’s intention to act in a particular way. It is prescriptive rather than descriptive. But it is not merely emotive or expressive of feelings, since policies of action are resented. In a religious tradition such a declaration of ethical policy is associated with ‘stories’ or ‘parables’ which Braithwaite treats as morally useful fictions:

For it is not necessary, on my view, for the asserter of a religious assertion to believe in the truth of the story involved in the assertions: what is necessary is that the story should be entertained in thought.... Many people find it easier to resolve upon and to carry through a course of action which is contrary to their natural inclinations if this policy is associated in their minds with certain stories. And in many people the psychological link is not appreciably weakened by the fact that the story associated with the behaviour is not believed. Next to the Bible and the Prayer Book the most influential work in English Christian religious life has been a book whose stories are frankly recognized as fictitious, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.13

As we have seen, the term parable traditionally referred to a fictitious story whose main point was the attitude it suggested (e.g. the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Braithwalte extends the term to include all references to God, since he holds that these are likewise oblique ways of recommending attitudes. One does not ask whether a parable is true or false; one asks only whether it is psychologically effective in inspiring people to adopt the policies it endorses. Since they are not believed, they need not be consistent. ‘Indeed a story may provide better support for a long range policy of action if it contains inconsistencies.’14 Parables about God, in this view, are narratives offering a kind of imaginative model which, like Braithwaite’s scientific models, have the status of psychologically helpful fictions.

A similar instrumentalism in both science and religion has been espoused by T. R. Miles. In discussing the billiard-ball model he writes: ‘Models of this sort are not normally shown to be true or false by crucial experiments; it is rather that they work well or badly for particular purposes, and when they work badly they gradually fall into disuse.’15 When he turns to religious language, Miles describes a believer as a person who accepts ‘the "theistic" parable -- the parable of a loving father who has called us all to be like him and to become his children’. Acceptance of the theistic parable commits us to distinctive kinds of action, but we cannot ask whether the parable is objectively valid since it is neither true nor false. Adopting it is not like trying to discover facts, but is a decision to make an act of personal commitment. ‘To accept the theistic parable is to commit ourselves to a particular way of life.’ All men live according to some dominant parable:

All of us alike are confronted with the question of how we ought to live; and whatever way of life we choose, we can be said to be implicitly accepting one set of parables or another. If the parable which we accept is not that of the loving father, it is likely to be that of a purposeless world, indifferent or actively hostile to man’s highest endeavours. Such a parable cannot be shown to be wrong. But to live in accordance with it involves a commitment no less than does living in accordance with the theistic parable.16

Now I would agree that religious language does indeed express and evoke distinctive attitudes. It does encourage self-commitment to a way of life; it acknowledges allegiance to ethical principles and affirms the intention to act in particular ways. But I would maintain that these non-cognitive uses presuppose cognitive beliefs. To be sure, religious faith is not simply assent to the truth of propositions; but it does require the assumption that certain propositions are true. It would be unreasonable to adopt or recommend a way of life unless one believes that the universe is of such a character that this way of life is appropriate. ‘Useful fictions’ are no longer useful if they are recognized as fictions or treated as ‘parables’ whose truth or falsity is taken to be irrelevant. Pilgrim’s Progress, cited by Braithwaite, was an influential guide to behaviour only because it was read as an allegory faithfully representing the way of life recommended by the Bible and supported by the claims therein about God and the world. In addition, we should note again that religious language expresses worshipful as well as ethical attitudes, and thereby implicitly affirms an object of worship.

In Donald Evans’ view, the functions of religious language are very diverse and go far beyond the support of moral behaviour. Yet for him also the expression of attitudes is central. He starts from a general discussion of ‘self-involving language’ which expresses attitudes, feelings and commitments rather than neutral facts.17 He then asks us to consider sentences of the form ‘I look on x as y’. If I say ‘I look on Tories as vermin’, I indicate that my attitude towards Tories is similar to my attitude towards vermin, but I give no indication of objective similarities between Tories and vermin themselves. If I say ‘I look on Henry as a brother’, I commit myself to treating him as a brother, even though in fact he does not act like a brother. I acknowledge similar attitudes in two situations, without specifying analogies between the situations themselves. ‘Looking on’ differs from ‘seeing as’, ‘interpreting as’, and other expressions mentioned earlier in this chapter, for it refers only to attitudes and policies.

So also, says Evans, scripture provides analogies for our attitudes towards God, rather than analogies concerning God himself. I am to ‘look on God as a father’; I am to have the kind of respect and trust I ought to have towards a father, even though I cannot say in what respects God resembles a father since he is not describable. Similarly the creation story is ‘a parable suggesting attitudes towards the world’. If I look on God as father, creator, etc., my resulting conduct will be appropriate.

Evans enjoins us to adopt these attitudes because they are recommended by scripture, not because we understand in what way they are appropriate. By appealing to revelation, he does manage to avoid treating parables as ‘useful fictions’, but they remain devoid of cognitive content beyond the endorsement of distinctive attitudes:

When I look on God as y, I can only specify the similarity between God and y attitudinally; I believe and hope that God is such that the attitude which is appropriate towards him is similar to the attitude which is appropriate towards yThe expression of an onlook commits me to a way of behaving and thinking, a mode of life. Moreover, such an onlook is not a case of ‘Let’s pretend.’ I do not merely act as If I believed that there is a God who is like a potter (or a victor, etc.). I act in accordance with a positive belief that God is like a potter; but I cannot describe this likeness except by referring to human attitudes.18

Evans claims that biblical language is predominantly parabolic; once again, it is said that to accept a parable is simply to adopt the attitude it suggests. But even if such parables are taken to be revealed (rather than treated as useful fictions), can the recommended attitudes be sustained in total isolation from specifiable beliefs about the object of the attitudes? The appropriateness of a response surely depends on one’s understanding of that to which one is responding. Does not the biblical model of God as father offer analogies for God’s fatherly nature as well as for our filial stance? In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is not the analogy between God and the forgiving father as important as that between ourselves and the two Sons? In scripture, attitudes are often justified as a response to what is understood to be the case; for example, ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4.19). Models in religion not only encourage distinctive attitudes but purport to tell us something about God, man and the world.

3. ‘Disclosure Models’

In addition to the interpretation of experience and the expression of attitudes, there is a third function of religious models, namely the evocation of disclosures, of which Ian Ramsey has been an articulate proponent. Since he has made extensive use of the idea of models, we should examine his view with care. In some passages he says that models in religion, like those in science, derive from analogies between observations, ‘the perception of significant isomorphism’. He states, for example, that there is a resemblance between patterns in the world and patterns in the behaviour of fathers which leads to the model of God as father. But he does not develop these remarks.

Again, Ramsey says that we can test the ‘empirical fit’ between a religious model and reality. ‘It stands or fills according to its success (or otherwise) in harmonizing whatever events are at hand.’19 A model ‘is able to incorporate a wide range of phenomena’; it ‘chimes in with the world’ and is ‘authenticated by reality’. Unfortunately he says nothing about the relation of models to theories, which we have seen to be essential in any testing procedure in science. Although he defends what he calls the ‘empirical fit’ of religious models, he grants that there can be no strict ‘empirical verification’ because no predictions or testable deductions can be made, and because God is a mystery which we cannot comprehend. Elsewhere he writes that a model is verified by its consequences in distinctive behaviour (e.g. the power of love) and by its ability to lead to articulations which provide ‘the most comprehensive and most coherent map of the universe’.20

Ramsey puts his main emphasis, however, on the way models are disclosed in both science and religion. He calls them ‘self-authenticating models in which the universe discloses itself to us’.

The contemporary use of models in science or theology -- models which are not picturing models -- points us back, then, to that moment of insight where along with a model there is disclosed to the scientist or the theologian that about which each is to be, in his characteristically different way, articulate.21

I must confess that lam rather dubious about this notion of ‘disclosure models’ in either field. Ramsey is evidently impressed by the suddenness and conviction of the ‘moment of insight’ in scientific discovery. But is any model in science ‘self-authenticating’ or ‘disclosed as true’? A scientific model is initially a very tentative conjecture which leads to a testable theory; it may have to be modified -- or more probably discarded, for most sudden inspirations in science turn out to be useless. Ramsey’s illustrations of supposedly self-authenticating disclosures in science are almost invariably taken from mathematics: one suddenly ‘sees the light’ in looking at a geometrical theorem; ‘the penny drops’ as one grasps the significance of the sum of an infinite convergent series, etc. Now in mathematics insight into the relationship among ideas may indeed be ‘self-authenticating’, at least within the framework of accepted axioms and rules; but in science this is not the case because one is not dealing with relationships among ideas alone.

On the religious side, Ramsey holds that models are ‘occasions of divine self-disclosure’. We are to take the model ‘loving father’, for example, and then imagine a ‘very loving father’, developing it in the direction of ‘infinitely loving father’. The latter is not part of the series, but a logically different realization which ‘breaks in on us’ as we develop the model:

For theology (I would say) is founded in occasions of insight and disclosure when, to put it at its most general, the universe declares itself in a particular way around some group of events which thus take on a cosmic significance. These events then become, and naturally, a self-appointed model which enables us to be articulate about what has been disclosed... So a qualifier like ‘infinite’ will work on a model of human love until there dawns on us that particular kind of family resemblance between the various derivative models which reveals God -- God as ‘infinitely loving’. God is revealed in the cosmic disclosure which may occur at some stage as the pattern of models is developed without end, just as there may dawn on us that to which an infinite convergent series points, as its terms are endlessly developed.22

Ramsey stresses the ‘logical oddness’ of the qualifying adjectives and sees it as a reminder that we are not talking about ordinary events.23 The direction in which the model is to be developed is one that leads to a sense of mystery and wonder, thereby safeguarding the transcendence of God. By underscoring the inadequacy of the model Ramsey prevents it from being interpreted literally, but does he not run the risk of eroding the positive analogy completely? Are there logical reasons, rather than purely psychological ones, for the ability of some models and not others to lead to disclosures? Ramsey is not simply proposing a method of meditation or a technique for achieving an experience of enlightenment. What then is the connection between the model and the disclosure? Does the model suggest any conceptual frameworks which can be discussed apart from the moment of disclosure?

Ramsey occasionally attributes this process of disclosure or ‘breaking in’ to divine initiative:

Whether the light breaks or not is something that we ourselves cannot entirely control. We can certainly choose what seem to us the most appropriate models, we can operate what seem to us the most suitable qualifiers; we can develop what seem to us the best stories, but we can never guarantee that for a particular person the light will dawn at a particular point, or for that matter at any point in any story. Need this trouble us? Is not this only what has been meant by religious people when they have claimed that the ‘initiative’ in any ‘disclosure’ or ‘revelation’ must come from God?24

More typically Ramsey says that ‘the universe discloses itself to us, which may or may not imply an initiative on the part of the universe. Most of his examples, however, seem to illustrate an act of intuitive awareness on man s part. Apparently it is the immediacy of the insight, rather than its suddenness, which authenticates it. That Ramsey sees religious models as leading to an intuitive awareness is suggested also by the frequent parallels he draws ‘with self-awareness. He repeatedly cites examples of the recognition of the ‘I’ which is neither observed nor inferred. Language about oneself, about moral awareness, and about loyalty and self-commitment, is said to be logically similar to religious language.

In Ramsey’s view, each use of a model is a separate occasion of discernment, and one does not need to seek any consistency between diverse models. He urges us to use as many models as possible; but we are to avoid mixing discourse deriving from different models. He tells us that when we come across apparently contradictory theological doctrines, we need only trace them back to their respective models which cannot conflict since they are used independently of each other. It seems to me that by making models instrumental to the evocation of disclosures, Ramsey bypasses the problem of their relation to each other and to anything outside man. He rightly insists that models are not literal descriptions or pictures of reality, but he does not discuss the development of a coherent set of beliefs based on the models.25

Are there criteria for evaluating religious models themselves, or are they to be judged solely by their psychological effectiveness for particular individuals in evoking disclosures? Ramsey says that one can judge models in part by their effectiveness in producing loving behaviour; this criterion, taken alone, would raise again all the problems encountered in Braithwaite’s instrunlentalism. We have also seen that Ramsey occasionally talks about ‘empirical fit’ in the use of models, but this more empirical side of his thought is not systematically set forth. As he presents them, models are to be judged more by their ability to produce personal disclosures than by their ability to order experience. Ramsey maintains that the functions of religious language are the evocation of commitment and worship, which are non-cognitive functions, and also discernment, which is presumably cognitive.26 For Ramsey, the cognitive claims apparently rest on both divine revelation and human intuition in the moment of disclosure.

If I understand him correctly, Ramsey takes intuition to be a form of immediate and indubitable knowledge which is not subject to revision or correction; if it is ‘self-authenticating’, the problem of distinguishing genuine from spurious disclosures can never arise. It appears that for him models are occasions for moments of intuitive certainty. But do we not run the risk of being arbitrary and subjective if there is no way to tell true from false disclosures? If, instead, we said that disclosures involve the evocation of experience and its interpretation by models, we could acknowledge the possibility of misinterpretation and subject our models to critical evaluation.

4. Metaphysical Models

A fourth and final function of religious models is the construction of metaphysical systems. This resembles the first function, the interpretation of experience, except that the scope of metaphysics is broader, its motives more speculative, and its approach more systematic. Metaphysics has traditionally been understood as the search for a coherent set of general categories for the interpretation of the whole range of human experience -- scientific, religious, aesthetic, moral, etc. In metaphysical thinking, says Dorothy Emmet, a pattern of relationships drawn from one area of experience is extended to coordinate other areas. The metaphysician takes a ‘co-ordinating analogy’ from some relationships he judges to be specially important and from it derives a model which can order a diversity of kinds of experience:

Such ideas share something of the character of scientific models, but whereas scientific models suggest possible patterns for the coordination of data of a homogeneous type, the metaphysical model has to suggest a possible pattern of co-ordination between data of different types.27

Emmet acknowledges the selective and partial character of metaphysics, in which judgments are influenced by cultural assumptions and individual sensitivities. She concludes that perhaps no one analogy is comprehensive enough to encompass the diversity of modern life; we may have to be content with several analogies only loosely related to each other. Stephen Pepper ascribes a similar role to metaphysical models, which he calls ‘root-metaphors’ (note once more the reference to metaphor). He develops five basic models and concludes that none of them should be abandoned since each illuminates certain aspects ofexperience.28

Frederick Ferré has given a careful and, in my judgment, balanced account of models in religion. He views the metaphysical use of theistic models as important but subordinate to their practical use in focusing values and influencing life styles. The vivid ‘ultimate images’ of religion provide a basis for ordering valuational commitments and orienting life and action:

For it is without doubt the imagery of the models in theology which evoke the communal adoration, obeisance, awe, devotion, ecstasy, courage -- the emotive and cognitive dimensions of faith that constitute it religious faith rather than philosophical speculation or metaphysical system-building. I am not claiming that imagery alone can support such non-cognitive elements -- courage without belief that courage is appropriate in the situation is something less than courage! -- but it is precisely because the models of faith are taken as trustworthy, that is, believed to be in some sense true, that their non-cognitive functions are possible. Towards a theory without the vividness and immediacy provided by the biblical model, however, such responses could never be expected.29

Ferré points out that in science, and in metaphysics considered as a speculative theory, models are ancillary to the theories into which they are developed. But in religion, and in the more existential side of metaphysics, models are more influential than theories:

For the purposes of pure theory, a model must be subordinate to its theory and must be alterable or dispensable according to the dictates of theory; but theistic imagery is not used -- even on its speculative side -- for theoretical purposes alone. As long as it remains religious imagery, the motivation to think in its terms is overridingly practical. This is not necessarily so different, however, from the normal metaphysical situation as it may sound. Seldom, if ever, can metaphysical models, ‘visions of ultimate reality’, be held entirely dispassionately. A metaphysician’s view of his world and of himself, as well as his sense of order and intelligibility, is wrapped up in the conceptual model he uses.30

In the metaphysical articulation of the theistic model, as Ferré shows, various conceptual schemes have been used -- for example, the categories employed by Plato, Aristotle, Whitehead, or Heidegger. Conversely, the metaphysical system adopted may lead to emphasis on particular features of the model (e.g. Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions lead to emphasis on God’s changelessness, self-sufficiency and omnipotence, whereas Whiteheadian thought minimizes each of these aspects). Theistic imagery can ‘suggest patterns and unity in the totality of things’ by virtue of ‘an appeal to personal purpose, volitional power, and moral principle as the ultimate explanatory categories’. Ferré maintains that a metaphysical system can be evaluated by criteria not unlike those used in judging scientific theories. Coherence refers to consistency, interconnectedness, conceptual unity and the reduction of arbitrariness and fragmentation. Inclusiveness refers to scope, generality and ability to integrate diverse specialized languages. Adequacy is a matter of relevance and applicability to experience of all kinds.

Ferré grants that these criteria are not at all precise and that they are often in tension with one another, but he believes they can be used to evaluate metaphysical systems. No predictions can be made from such systems, however, since their categories are very general; presumably all types of past experience have already been taken into account, and no radically new types are likely to occur in the future. The absence of prediction is a major point of distinction between metaphysical and scientific models, but in other features Ferré sees considerable similarity:

Barring this one logically inappropriate means of testing the reliability of models, the metaphors of religion lie open to evaluation along very similar lines to the models used in the sciences to represent a subject matter that lies beyond our powers of direct inspection. As organizing images through which we see ourselves and all things, the powerful images of religion should bring certain aspects of our experience into prominence, should minimize the importance of other aspects, and should throughout function to illuminate our total environment by discovering to us otherwise unnoticed parallelisms, analogies, and patterns among our data. They are reliable, and thus candidates for reasonable adoption, to the extent that our experience of life as a whole (not, remember, just specific bits and pieces of experience) is open to organization in this manner without distortion, forcing, or ill fit; and to the extent that the total account of things that they suggest is consistent, unified, and free from uninterpreted disconnections.31

In Chapter 7 below I will discuss the verification and falsification of metaphysical systems, and the difficulties in applying criteria for evaluating them. Such difficulties lead me to seek a role for religious beliefs which is less comprehensive than metaphysical synthesis. That is, religious language makes cognitive claims which go beyond practical and attitudinal uses, but such claims are more modest than those of all-inclusive metaphysical systems. The primary context of religious beliefs, I will urge, is the interpretation of distinctive types of experience. Beyond this, beliefs are indeed relevant to the interpretation of personal and social life-situations and significant events in the lives of individuals and communities. The additional task of systematizing these beliefs into a theology and relating them to metaphysical categories used to interpret a variety of other types of experience must indeed be undertaken.

But the further one has moved from the primary domain of religious language, the greater is the danger of imposing on other domains categories which distort their data. 1f in constructing a theistic metaphysics, one’s interests are predominantly speculative, the distinctively self-involving functions of religious language will be forgotten. Moreover the theologian is not interested in the detailed structures of ordinary kinds of experience as such, but rather in their relation to the events and experiences which for him have special religious significance. Thus I will consider the metaphysical function of religious models as a speculative extension of the interpretation of experiences of the sort described in Section I above, rather than as another primary function in its own right.

5. The Functions of Religious Models

Models are only one aspect of religion, abstracted from the total matrix of life and thought of a community; we would not expect them to perform all the tasks of religious language. Some of the characteristic functions of myths, mentioned in Chapter 2 above, are not prominent in the case of models: sociological functions in integrating a group, psychological functions in reducing anxiety, ritual functions in communal celebration. Four proposed functions of models have been outlined in the present chapter: (1) the Interpretation of experience, (2) the expression of attitudes, (3) the evocation of disclosures, and (4) the construction of metaphysical systems. I have advocated that whatever is valid concerning disclosures can be subsumed under the first rubric, since disclosures involve the interpretation of experience rather than the acquisition of self-authenticating knowledge. Likewise, metaphysical systems can be considered as speculative extensions of interpretive categories which within religious language itself are applied to distinctive types of experience and key historical events. The first two functions, then, will be taken as primary for religious models.

We must not underestimate the importance of the expression of attitudes. Religion is, first and last, a way of life; its main interest is practical rather than theoretical. Religious models do indeed present what Braithwaite calls ‘policies of action’. They have the capacity to inspire devotion, serenity, new patterns of living. Whiteley is right that ‘what men seek from religious experience is not information; it is encouragement, consolation, moral balance, mystical rapture’.32 The life-orienting and valuational power of religious images cannot be denied. But we can acknowledge these non-cognitive functions without agreeing that they are the only functions of religious models.

I have defended the role of models in the interpretation of experience, adopting the phrase ‘interpreting as’ in preference to ‘seeing as’ or ‘experiencing as’, while acknowledging the inseparability of experience and interpretation. Organizing images restructure our perceptions and alter the way we see the world; they help us notice patterns among the facts which we might otherwise have missed. Models lead to religious beliefs (see Chapter 6 below); religious traditions make assertions, as well as recommending attitudes. The critical realism which I have advocated allows models to fill both interpretive and expressive functions, whereas instrurnentalism does not. Cognitive models can fill both cognitive and non-cognitive functions, but non-cognitive models cannot.

There are, then, several similarities between religious models and theoretical models in science, which can be summarized as follows. First, they share the characteristics outlined previously: they are analogical in origin, extensible to new situations, and comprehensible as units. Second, they have a similar status. Neither is a literal picture of reality, yet neither should be treated as a useful fiction. Models are partial and inadequate ways of imagining what is not observable. They are symbolic representations, for particular purposes, of aspects of reality which are not directly accessible to us. They are taken seriously but not literally. Third, the use of scientific models to order observations has some parallels in the use of religious models to order the experience of individuals and communities. Organizing images help us to structure and interpret patterns of events in personal life and in the world.

There are also important differences between religious and scientific models. First, religious models serve non-cognitive functions which have no parallel in science. Sometimes religious models seem to survive primarily because they serve these functions effectively. Second, religious models elicit more total personal involvement than scientific models. Religious language is indeed self-involving, as both Ramsey and Evans insist. Religion asks about the objects of man’s trust and loyalty, the character of his ultimate concern, the final justification for his values. The call to decision and commitment, pointed out in the discussion of parables in Chapter 2 above, is present throughout religious language. Third, as Ferré observes, religious models appear to be more influential than the formal beliefs and doctrines derived from them, whereas scientific models are subservient to theories, even though a model may outlast a series of theories developed from it. Theories are the instrument for specifying positive and negative analogy, and for correlating observations. Religious images have a more direct relationship to experience, especially in worship, ethics, and the life of the religious community.

In later chapters, additional similarities and differences between science and religion will be evident. We will see that scientific theories influence observation, but that religious beliefs influence experience in a more problematic way. Scientific theories, while not subject to any absolute verification or falsification, can be supported or undermined by empirical evidence. We will examine the scientist’s commitment to paradigms, which in both science and religion are highly resistant to falsification; but I will maintain that criteria of assessment are not totally paradigm-dependent. Distinctive features of religious commitment and its relation to critical enquiry will also need consideration. Any conclusions about religious models must await these further comparisons.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell 1953, p. 194e.

2. John Wisdom, ‘Gods’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 45, 1944, p.187; reprinted in Antony Flew (ed.), Logic and Language, vol. 1, Basil Blackwell 1951.

3. John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery, Basil Blackwell 1965, p. 54.

4. John Hick, Faith and Knowledge, 2nd ed. Macmillan 1967, pp. 142f.

5. Ibid., p.122; see also John Hick, ‘Religious Faith as Experiencing-As’, in G. N. A. Vesey (ed.), Talk of God, Macmillan 1969.

6. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey, Oxford University Press 1923; see also Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind, Bobbs Merrill Co. 1969; H. D. Lewis, Our Experience of God, Allen & Unwin 1959.

7. Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels, Doubleday and Co. 1969, chap.3; Donald Evans, ‘Differences between Scientific and Religious Assertions’, in Ian G. Barbour (ed.), Science and Religion: New Perspectives on the Dialogue, Harper & Row 1968.

8. See Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1948, pp.162ff.

9. Martin Buber, l and Thou trans. R. G. Smith, T. & T. Clark 1937; and Between Man and Man, Macmillan 1947.

10. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, Macmillan 1941, chap. 3.

11. See John Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, Westminster Press 1965, for a recent example.

12. Richard Braithwaite, An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief, Cambridge University Press 1955, reprinted in John Hick (ed.), The Existence of God, Macmillan 1964 p.239.

13. Ibid., pp. 246-247.

14. Ibid., p.249.

15. T. R. Miles, Religion and the Scientific Outlook, Allen & Unwin 1959, p.74.

16. Ibid., p.178.

17. Donald Evans, The Logic of Self Involvement, SCM Press 1963, chap. 3.

18. Ibid., pp. 227, 251.

19. Ian Ramsey, Models and Mystery, Oxford University Press 1964, p.17.

20. See Ian Ramsey, Christian Discourse, Oxford University Press 1965, pp. 25, 60, 82.

21. Ramsey, Models and Mystery, p.20.

22. Ibid., pp. 58, 61.

23. Ian Ramsey, Religious Language, SCM Press 1957, chap. 2.

24. Ibid., p.79.

25. See William Austin, ‘Models, Mystery, and Paradox in Ian Ramsey’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 7, 1968, p.41.

26. Ramsey, Religious Language, chap. I.

27. Dorothy Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking, Macmillan 1949 p.215.

28. Stephen Pepper, World Hypotheses, University of California Press 1942.

29. Frederick Ferré, ‘Mapping the Logic of Models in Science and Theology’, The Christian Scholar, vol.46, 1963, p. 31.

30. Frederick Ferré, Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1967, p. 381.

31. Frederick Ferré, ‘Metaphors, Models and Religion’, Soundings, vol. 51, 1968 pp. 341-342.

32. C. H. Whiteley, ‘The Cognitive Factor in Religious Experience, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 29, 1955, p. 85.

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A secular Christianity does not in fact exist at present; it may exist sometime in the future. I do not wish to indulge in crystal-ball gazing on so important a topic as the future of Christianity, but there are moments in which I am inclined to think that unless a secular christianity does emerge, the future of Christianity's possibilities for being of help to a secular world appears dim. I mention this in order to indicate for the reader the point of view from which this essay is written. It is that of one who is exploring the possibility of a secular Christianity, not simply as a game or as a hypothetical tour de force, but as an act of profound concern for the future of the human enterprise. This enterprise is in dire straits and desperately needs what I believe a secular Christianity might conceivably have to offer. The concern, then, is not for the survival of Christianity (Parkinson's Law will surely preserve the church), but for the survival of men and of our sick, secular world. With that concern, I ask about the possibility of a secular Christianity.

At the present time, a number of theologians and thinkers, both lay and professional, and of almost every branch of the Christian tradition, have been exploring the possibilities of a secular Christianity. Thus far, not all of these have been of one mind on the character or the features of secularity. Since I am particularly concerned with problems of thought and understanding which present themselves as problems of language, I should like to begin by indicating what I take to be some of the fundamental features of secular thought. This is the way in which men so think of, see, and shape their experienced world at the present time as to lead us to use the word "secular".

I would add that I find singularly artificial the distinction between secularization as a supposed process in history, and secularism as a supposed attitude of mind. That dichotomy assumes a separation of how we think from how we live that, in the light of present knowledge, seems quite indefensible. I take it that these ways of thinking (secularism?) are inseparably connected with how we experience, act in, and give shape to our world (secularization?), and that thinking of and seeing our world in this way, we shape it as we do. With our words or thoughts we carve up our experienced world, and our ability to do this carving in any particular way provides the occasion for that use of words which we come to acquire. Without drawing sharp lines, then, between the political, economic, and social processes of our life, and our thought or language, let me indicate what I take to be the distinguishing features of a time which some have come to call secular.

The character of secular thought appears more clearly when we contrast it with that other way of thought which we seem to be leaving behind.1 It goes without saying that broad cultural changes such as the one that we are here trying to understand do not happen all at once or in an even manner. Secularity effects all to some degree and some to a high degree, but all remain in part also creatures of past culture. I wish, then, to indicate a tendency, which, although not clear-cut, is nonetheless of profound importance. Five features of this tendency come to mind, though not necessarily in order of their importance. Together they constitute a shift of emphasis or of relative valuation from permanence toward change, from the universal to the particular, from unity to plurality, from the absolute to the relative, and from passivity to activity.

Through most of recorded history men have feared change and longed for permanence. This is so evident in the pages of political, economic, philosophical and religious history that it needs no exposition here. Once we reflect upon our own contemporary experience, it becomes equally evident, however, that change has begun to displace both stability and permanence as the higher good. In every area of life, we are coming more and more to admire that which can change, develop, and be improved, that which is flexible and open to the future, rather than settled for all time or fixed by the past. Again, I do not say that any of us have made this transposition of values without reservation, but the fact that we have made it to the degree we have sets us off from men in most of recorded history.

Not unrelated to this is an increasing concern with the particular and a certain lack of concern, if not outright distrust, for the universal. We seem to feel that generalizations must be tested against the concrete. In our own way we have become nominalists. The scientific method itself, the operations of modern industry, the standards of sound scholarship in almost any field, all these and much more reveal our priority of values to be different from most men in our past. In politics and economics, in historical and social studies, the answers that count as answers for us are answers to particular questions. The proof of the pudding, we are inclined to think, is in the eating.

No wonder, then, that we have found ourselves becoming pluralists to one degree or another. Our experienced world is a world for us in many different ways. Any unities we find in things are always unities for some particular purpose; they leave room for other unities or ways in which the world can be a world for us. Religious pluralism, so called, is but one of the minor manifestations of the extent to which we have come to recognize the plurality of our experience and thus the plurality of all our thinking and living. For us, an Archimedean point would remain the point for accomplishing Archimedes' objective, although, having other goals in mind, other points would have to be found.

The other side of the pluralist coin is a growing sense of the relativity of things. What is true is true always and only relative to some specific frame of reference. Absolutes come to be distrusted as only disguised relativities and it becomes increasingly difficult to disassociate the term `dogmatic' from pejorative overtones. It may be necessary to point out that we are learning to live with relativity, that we are discovering that profound commitments can be held without absolute claims being made about that to which one finds oneself to be committed. There are many shades of grey and a world can be won or lost over the difference between these shades, but a change of no small importance has come about if we find we are willing to live or die for something we do not take to be absolute. This also is a change so pervasive as to need no documentation, but I could mention only the development of historiography in the last century or two as one obvious manifestation of the shift.2

Finally, and perhaps the most explosive and controversial of all the shifts is the change which is taking place slowly in human consciousness from ourselves as passive to active beings.3 Where we are going and what is to become of us is beginning to seem not a matter of fate, Providence, or luck, but of what we ourselves do. It is easy to overstate this shift and so make a parody of it. Never before have men been more sensitive to the ways in which they are shaped by their economic, social, psychological, and political environment. Yet it is interesting to notice the extent to which we seem to think that these are factors which we ought to change and at least theoretically can change. Whether we shall be as successful as we hope or as powerless as we fear, we seem to think that it is up to us, that we are responsible. If we pollute our world beyond the point of human survival, if we over-populate the world beyond the point of nourishing life, if we blow it up into atomic dust, we seem to think that it will be we who did it and that it will be our own fault. That is to say that we think we could have done otherwise. I am not discussing whether we can in fact do all that we want to do; the point is that we think of ourselves as the makers of our own future, for better or for worse. In that sense, this age differs importantly from the way in which men have seen themselves from the beginnings of time until quite recently times in that we see ourselves the active makers of our lives and world. With fear and trembling we walk toward a future which we are becoming increasingly conscious of forming by our very way of walking.

These shifts in value and new tendencies in priorities, these new directions of the human consciousness so intimately associated with the scientific, technological, and educational explosions of our time are what I have in mind when I speak of secularity. If it should come to pass that a majority of those who called themselves Christians, or even an important minority of them, should find themselves sharing wholeheartedly in this new consciousness, then we would have a secular Christianity.

As things stand now, however, only a few individuals and small groups here and there, living as it were on the fringes of one or another of the Christian churches--and most of these to only a certain degree--share in the secular spirit that is taking shape in our age. The fact that Christians on the whole are lagging behind in this cultural shift is hardly surprising. Quite apart from the generally conservative attitude of the churches, it is clear that the shift that is taking place is not an easy one for Christians to make. No matter how one conceives it, a secular Christianity is going to be a different Christianity from that which has gone before, and thoughtful Christians are sure to wonder whether it will still properly be a form of Christianity at all.

The question is painful because of the fact that Christianity, throughout almost its entire history and all the changes and transformations it has undergone, has nonetheless lived within, accepted, and helped shape that older priority of values with which we contrasted the consciousness of secularity. In that older world, Christianity along with the rest of ancient and classical culture, valued the eternal over the temporal, permanence above change, unity over plurality, the universal above the particular, and the absolute above the relative. No wonder then that Christianity in its own way shared a view of man's proper role as passive, as adapting oneself to that which was immutably decreed from eternity, as coming to terms with that which was thought never to change. Of course, Christianity gave its own twist, coloration, and emphases to the picture, but, if the shift which I have described is at all accurately depicted, it leaves the balance of the history of Christianity on the same side as the balance of the long history of human consciousness. If indeed a change of the sort which I have indicated is going on, would it be possible for Christianity to change too, or must it remain forever wedded to a classic consciousness and set of priorities, and doomed to battle against the tendency that is at work among us all?

It has already been argued, of course, with that skill of adaptation so often making the history of theology, that the essential features of secularity can all be found in the origins of the Christian tradition. Surely a good deal of the appeal to Christians of Harvey Cox's The Secular City was the way in which he presented secularization as coming directly out of the biblical witness. Without having to swallow that tour de force, however, one can at least say that a modern historical study of the history of Christianity shows that Christianity has itself been changing all through its history. Indeed, as a historical religion it must perforce have been changing or it could hardly still be alive. When one thinks of the revolution set in motion by St. Paul to the horror of the Jerusalem establishment, or the NeoPlatonic transformation which we owe so largely to St. Augustine, or any of the later Aristotelian, Occamist, Renaissance, Kantian, Hegelian, or Existentialist transformations of Christian consciousness, it may be that a secular form of Christianity, though it may seem more radical, is at least not without some precedent when viewed in historical perspective. The shift is not an easy one to make, however, for none of these earlier shifts seems to have called for changes of so fundamental a sort as those involved in developing a secular Christianity.

The possibility of a partially or selectively secular Christianity, that is, of a compromise with the secular tendencies described is of course already being explored. However, such a compromise simply will not do, and that for two reasons. In the first place, it rests upon a superficial and inadequate understanding of the sort of shift that is taking place. It either fails to see the way in which these various tendencies which we have enumerated hang together, or else sees them but fails to take them seriously. It intends to make the most of a few aspects of a process of secularization under the illusion that we can live in a new sort of way without this having consequences for the way in which we speak or think.

Beyond its naivety or fallaciousness there is the further point that any such compromise places one in intolerable logical confusion. A "death of a thousand qualifications" stands there to greet both a significant theism which suffers from insufficient warrants and an unfalsifiable theism bought at the price of vacuity. Either classical Christianity believed in a God who really did make a difference and we now simply do not have sufficient warrant to think that he still makes that difference, or else God does not depend on any warrants because in fact in our sort of world he doesn't make a difference at all. Sophisticated efforts to turn away the thrust of the argument only succeed to the extent that Christianity is willing and able simply to turn its back on the whole secular shift that is taking place. That option can be respected, even if one does not agree with it. What is quite unacceptable, however, is the compromise that attempts to go part of the way with the secular spirit. The revolving door between the museum of antiquities and the secular world may be passed through, but it will not do as a place to stand.


Secularity, as I understand it and have presented it, does have a set of values, but only in the broadest sense of the word. It values particularity, change, plurality, relativity, and an active consciousness. These values or tendencies of thought, however, are so broad and open-ended that they will hardly do to set goals for us. Two men could well share a secular orientation and yet be at profound odds about what they ought to do in some particular case. As our society has become increasingly secular, there has been no detectable wane of injustice, racism, imperialism, self-interest, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. Each day the secular city seems to be coming closer to total collapse. Political corruption and wooden institutionalism seem to be as much a part of a secular establishment as they ever were in the past. An acceptance of change is no guarantee that a man will work for change to benefit his neighbor rather than himself. The classical world had no monopoly on evil.

It would seem, then, that a secular world stands in every bit as great a need as did any pre-secular world of guides for conduct and of a social vision that can challenge the status quo and stir men to work for a world better than that which is at hand. Christianity, understood in terms of devotion to an unchanging, eternal, universal, and absolute unity, succeeded in calling man to a passive role of cooperation with that absolute unity in building a better world in a cultural context in which an unchanging, eternal, and absolute unity were highly valued. Hence, there would seem to be no a priori reason why a secular Christianity might not serve as a source of ethical insight and motivation in a secular age by calling men to actively shape a world of change, plurality, and relativity. If classical Christianity provided ethical insights for classical Christians in a classical age, then it could be that a secular Christianity might be able to provide secular Christians with ethical insights in a secular age.

The place and logic of ethics in a secular Christianity are not difficult to find, for ethics has been central in most efforts to explore the character of a secular Christianity. This could be shown with any number of examples, but I should like to take as a case Professor R.B. Braithwaite's Eddington Memorial Lecture of 1955, "An Empiricist's View of Religious Belief", since I think it can be argued that this essay brings into focus the primary issues and the central direction of most of the important efforts to define a secular Christianity. I shall assume that any one who is the least interested in our topic would by now be thoroughly familiar with this essay and with the discussions to which it has given rise.4 To sum up his conclusion in barest fashion, Braithwaite argued that Christianity may be understood by a contemporary empiricist as a way of life. In this view, faith is seen as the serious intention of pursuing the moral policy of agapé, which intention is supported by association with the Christian and biblical story. The conclusion and, of course, its supporting argument are much more complex than that, but such a short summary as I have given will do for our purposes, since I do not intend to criticize the argument after the manner of most who have objected to it. Most have argued, in one way or another, that Braithwaite has reduced Christianity to morals, making the whole business of theology into an ethics which involves no claims whatsoever about the existence and activity of a personal creator God. Braithwaite, most objectors have said, has gone too far.

It has been objected that any "moral interpretation" of Christianity which analyzes the language of Christians as a sort of moral language neglects an important and evident characteristic of what believers are doing when they confess their faith. It is objected that in important ways Christian faith may be much like a moral commitment, but that it is something else as well. It is also an affirmation about what is so, about the state of affairs in this world and this universe; this is not brought out by simply comparing this language to the language of morals.5

In response to this objection, it must be granted that when Christians speak of God and his kingdom, at least indirectly they are expressing a belief as to what is so, as to what is the state of affairs in the world. It must be added at once, however, that this objection has not made much headway, even with this concession, and that for two reasons. In the first place, saying what is so is a complex matter which those presenting the objection have not cleared up. Saying what is so is complex, not because we do not know how to do it, but because we do it in so many different ways. For example, if a man says that he has acted in faithfulness to God, or that he is calling upon the name of God, or that the whole world has been laid claim to by Christ, one surely would not argue that such a man is saying or implying what is so in the same way as a natural scientist does. He is not saying what is so in a way that has the logic of any number of descriptive ways in which he says what is the case. In what sense, then, are Christian affirmations of what is so?

The objection also overlooks a second point which suggests a possible answer to our first question. It overlooks the fact that a man who takes a moral stand is almost inevitably committed thereby to certain beliefs about the world, about what is so. He is committed to some form of belief in regularity or order in the world and in language, such that it makes sense to speak of doing something for a reason. He is also committed to the belief that the world is so constituted that moral action is not an utterly vain pursuit. These beliefs may be of a very general sort, but that does not make them any less important. Morality as well as religion seems to commit men to beliefs about what is so. When we see this, it becomes apparent that the objection to what I have called a moral analysis of theological language no longer makes its point. If it makes any point, it is that such an analysis calls for an exceedingly careful and subtle treatment of morality, or perhaps a broader view of the language of morals than that which Braithwaite seems to have had in mind.

I want to argue, therefore, that Braithwaite has not gone far enough. He has moved in what I take to be a most productive and constructive direction by focusing on the moral character of Christianity. I would conclude from his argument that if there is to be a secular Christianity that can be of any service to the world, it will be understood as a moral enterprise, a matter of how men shape their lives and their world, or it will be of no significant service at all. But I find his proposal for what I am calling a secular Christianity deficient on two counts: his views of both ethics and agapé are too narrow. By calling to mind both ethical and theological resources that can be used to correct Braithwaite's essay, I can make clear what I take to be the place and function of ethics in a secular Christianity.

The model of a moral issue which Braithwaite seems primarily to have had in mind in his essay was that sort of case in which I ask, within a specific set of circumstances, what it is that I ought to do. A moral principle in such a case is that to which I refer, along with all the relevant factual information, in order to arrive at the conclusion that in this case I should do thus and so. That this is an important type of moral situation is not to be denied, but I think that for the purpose of characterizing the moral character of Christianity, it is not broad enough. It has been pointed out that there are other sorts of moral judgments which ethics must attend to besides those which have to do with specific moral acts.6 There are also judgments which we make, not about this or that particular act, but about the shape of a man's life, about his life as a whole. There are judgments which we make about the character, or state, or style of a society. These too are moral judgments, and the achievement of clarity about such judgments is also the business of ethics. The judgment, for example, that our present American society is profoundly sick, that its priorities are in the wrong order, that we have as a society sold our birthright for a mess of porridge, is surely a moral judgment, whether one agrees with it or not. Surely, it is the business of ethics to help us to see such a matter more clearly and to help us to decide whether we ought to make such a judgment.

If we ask in what way Christianity is more adequately conceived of as a moral enterprise, or of what sort of moral judgment is the judgment of faith, then I should think that primary attention should be given this broader conception of moral judgments. Christianity has certainly given attention to the problem of answering specific questions about specific acts, but there is more to Christian ethics than casuistry. The primary judgment of which it has spoken, after all, is presented in the image of a total reckoning of all the nations, and of a judgment made on Good Friday and on Easter about the whole of the human situation. The moral judgment with which Christianity has been concerned has been painted with a big brush on a big canvas, and it is in the light of this that finer judgments are made about the details. It would seem, then, that both ethics and the Christian tradition encourage us to consider the moral character of Christianity more broadly than has Braithwaite in his essay. This is not to depart from what he has done, but only to push further in the direction which he has already indicated.

A second way in which Braithwaite's understanding of what a secular Christianity might be (which was not, at least in those terms, what he set out to show, but which expresses what we are concerned with here) may be developed and improved by the insights of modern theological scholarship, especially in the field of Old Testament studies.7 Though, at least in those terms, this is not what he set out to show, it expresses what we are concerned with here. Had Braithwaite been more versed in modern biblical scholarship, or even in aspects of modern theology, he might have seen "God is love" to be too narrow a center to pick for the Christian story. Or perhaps we could say that agapé has more of the character of an active, historical event than Braithwaite seemed to realize. In any case, it is at this point that I should want to substitute some form or other of the New or Old Testament proclamation of the Kingdom of Jahweh as the central imagery for a secular Christianity. The imagery of the Kingdom could serve as a source for a social vision of what human life could be like and what the world could become. This would serve the desperate social and political needs of our secular society in a way parallel to that in which agapé serves in Braithwaite's essay as a moral principle for individual actions of individual Christians. The danger of a purely individualistic conception of the moral thrust of Christianity could be met by a center which would politicize and socialize the single theme of agapé. To put this in other words, unless agapé is understood in relationship to the Kingdom, it is less than Christianity can mean by this word.



We have now to ask about the place and function of ethics in a secular Christianity in the light of the foregoing considerations. It has been a custom of moral philosophy to use `moral' as a word for certain sorts of questions and judgments about human action and life, and `ethics' as the name for systematic reflection on and study of these moral questions and judgments: ethics being, in short, reflection upon moral issues. According to this usage, we may say that ethics would appear to displace theology as the central and indispensable reflective activity of secular Christianity. The central image for a secular Christianity would be that of the Kingdom, as an image of the unrealized and hoped for dream of what human life might yet be. In this light, the Christian life would consist in so living as to long for the realization of that social vision. The secular world would be measured by that vision and the challenge of that vision would be accepted as both a spur to action and a norm by which to measure alternative courses to be pursued in working to change society. Thus, a secular Christianity living with an image of the Kingdom as its social vision would be a frankly revolutionary movement. Social ethics would be its primary reflective activity, analyzing the existing state of society and the quality of human life against the vision in which it hopes, and studying possible strategies of action that would make for some degree of greater conformity of the world to the vision it seeks to realize. The character of that vision being what it is, each new state of affairs realized would itself become subject to new criticism in the light of that vision. As a result, the revolution in which a secular Christianity would be engaged would be permanent, constant, or ever-renewed. With its eye on the vision, the word of a secular Christianity about, for, and to the world would be semper reformanda, and it would rest at peace with nothing less.

It should be evident that a secular Christianity working for social change and seeking to transform the style of human life would be, as Christianity has always been, dependent upon the biblical story as the primary source of its social vision. Were it to forget that story with its constant reminder of the temptation to identify some modest accomplishment with the Kingdom itself, or were it to turn to some other story in order to find a vision more agreeable to the conditions of its society or the demands of its culture, then of course it would cease to be a form of Christianity at all. If there is to be a secular Christianity, then, we must assume that the telling and the retelling of that story, whether in more established forms of preaching and eucharist, or in newer forms of drama, guerrilla theater, or folk song, will be an indispensable activity which will go on whenever Christians meet together.

One can image, however, that the story will not always be told in just the ways in which it has been told in the past. A `gentle Jesus, meek and mild,' will hardly be expected to figure in a Christianity that has accepted the shift from passive to active man. The privatized translation of Luke 17:20 that places the Kingdom within us would no longer displace the translation that announces the Kingdom among us in the person who is faithful to its demands. The cross might become a symbol of political challenge and revolt against every establishment, and a call to political and social risk. The Kingdom itself will surely be a symbol or vision of a situation on earth, not a projection up in the clouds. A secular Christianity, no longer under the burden of trying to prove that its vision is true (what in the world would it mean to say that a vision was "true"?), could give up fighting for the existence of God and turn to the work of serving the Kingdom, as an ideal or vision, which if not necessarily the finest that men shall ever devise, is still the greatest that those who call themselves Christians have yet run across.

In contemplating the picture of a secular Christianity presented here, it would be well for us to consider the present situation of a society growing increasingly secular and to that extent unable to hear or understand the message of a pre-secular Christianity. Of course, a Christianity which understands man as passive and which, due to its loyalty to a supposed absolute, is unable to throw itself without reserve into the proximate struggles for relative gains in the particular issues which confront men, is hardly likely or even able to throw its weight on the side of change, much less revolution. Concern for the fundamental changes in our political, economic, and social life which would be needed to reverse the disastrous course of the arms race, racism, urban collapse, mass starvation, and pollution of our environment stands little chance in competition with its deeper concerns for personal salvation and other-worldly solutions.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the fatal course on which we are embarked in our secular society can be reversed. There is no guarantee that a renewal of social vision would be able to draw us into a new path. There is, further, no guarantee that a secular Christianity will win a better hearing from the secular world than does classic Christianity. But its message may at least be more comprehensible, and it would be easier for the secular hearer to understand what is at stake in being a Christian. The choice he would be asked to make, of throwing himself on the side of the revolution for the sake of a vision, however, would not be any easier to make just because of its comprehensibility.

On the other hand, a secular Christianity might offer to a secular society badly in need of direction the social vision of a world of righteousness, justice, and love, which depends on our active and imaginative efforts for its creation, and in which particulars in their full and unqualified relativity and diversity are esteemed--the vision of a world in which change and plurality are highly valued. The issues which confront us today are all of a moral sort: the style of contemporary life, the shape and functioning of our institutions, the direction of foreign affairs, and the priorities of our politics. A Christianity so changed as to understand itself essentially and fundamentally as a moral enterprise, the direction pointed to by Braithwaite fifteen years ago, might yet find that it had a saving service to perform in a sick world. "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The ethical issue of the decision concerning a secular Christianity is the choice for Christians between their own past and the people's future.

Temple University

Philadelphia Pennsylvania


1. The contrast is developed at length in John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1948).

2. The character of pluralism and relativity in our thought was extensively described by William James. See especially his Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907).

3. I wish to express my indebtedness on this point to an unpublished paper of my colleague John Baines, entitled "From Passive to Active Man."

4. Originally published by the Cambridge University Press, 1955, the essay has been reprinted in various places, most recently together with responses and a reply by Braithwaite in I.T. Ramsey, ed., Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy (London: S.C.M. Press, 1966).

5. Ronald Hepburn and Iris Murdoch, "Vision and Choice in Morality," in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, op. cit., pp. 181-218.

6. Conversations with Professor James A. Wharton have been particularly helpful in this area. See his "The Occasion of the Word of God," Austin Seminary Bulletin, LXXXIV (1968), 3-54.

7. See especially John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), pp. 43-56.

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