Category Archives: Philosophy

Evangelical Christianities move onto the Master Morality End of the Spectrum

Starting with Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche sets out to get behind our moral concepts, and to seek out the origins of those concepts we have come to see as the very essence of any system of morality (Good vs. Evil). Nietzsche crystallizes his search into the psycho-historical origins (this was before the days of evolutionary psychology) of these terms and systems in his Genealogy of Morals.

He sets himself up in a naturalist position, over and against those thinkers who begin with some sort of unprovable (and thus useless) metaphysical assumption. Nietzsche is concerned with the facts on the ground, and how those facts influence the development of our moral systems, even if we are inherently limited in our abilities to see and understand all possible facts on the ground (he acknowledges the limits of science as well).

Nietzsche sets at the forefront of his thinking on morals a fundamental dichotomy: the morality of the Masters vs. the morality of the slaves, saying that the whole morality game began when strong men made known what they perceived as being good/useful to themselves and what they perceived as bad/unuseful to themselves.  He comes to the faulty conclusion that the Jewish supertribe (though he doesn’t use this term) was the first to flip morality on its head and demonize the rich, noble, and powerful as soon as they got the short end of the social stick. Personally, I don’t think that Nietzsche goes far enough back into our common tribal past. Modern moral psychologists like Robert Wright and Joshua Greene get us the rest of the way. While Nietzsche’s first steps in the right direction are admirable, evolutionary psychology has covered a great distance since Nietzsche’s time.

This master/slave dichotomy is nonetheless still extremely informative if viewed as a spectrum on which all moralities operate, rather than a strict dichotomy with players either on one side or the other. As Wright, Greene, and others have shown, moralities can be incredibly elastic in their application. In The Evolution of God, Wright forcefully demonstrates how, rather than remain static, moralities evolve and adapt to facts on the ground. He also demonstrates that modern morality first emerged with the appearance of the supertribe/larger-scale social structure. As Wright points out, “…the moral standards of [tribal peoples] …. stand on their own ground of tradition and public opinion rather than on a religious foundation” because the negative consequences for harming a member of your own tribe could be seen with one’s own eyes.

Only once we reach the supertribe stage of our social evolution do we reach the point where Nietzsche’s analysis becomes most relevant. Earlier than this point, all leaders must have appealed to/genuinely had the in-group’s best interest in mind or he or she is swiftly replaced. Tradition and social sanction guarded against the ego-mania we combat in our modern leaders. As soon as we reach a stage where the immediate effects of our actions could negatively affect members of our own supertribe, we see the rise of moralities in the more modern sense, which Nietzsche referenced. As soon as we see these large-scale moralities develop, we also see opportunities for those moralities to be exploited by “masters” and we witness the subconscious psychological response of resentment toward the rich and powerful, as well as postponing of hopes to a future world. Nietzsche was keen to seize upon this as the “slave revolt in morals.”

As Wright puts it, “Humans have various ways of coping with extended stress, and one is the anticipation of a better time. Here, as with retribution, there is often a kind of symmetry: the more intense the stress and the more hopeless the situation, the more fabulous the coming times that are anticipated.”

I would argue that this is the same phenomenon observed by Marx and dubbed “the opiate of the masses.” It doesn’t seem possible that there was ever a time where the master/slave dichotomy was ever present in any isolated general sense (as Nietzsche saw it) before the supertribe and before the advent of modern moralities. Even at this point, it makes more sense to discuss the phenomenon as a spectrum.

To illustrate the the application of this master/slave spectrum, I put forth one example of the many Christianities extant today: evangelical Christianity. Within evangelical Christianity, we see what I believe is the shift back towards the master morality end of the spectrum, toward the “victor” conception of Jesus (and thus the individual) rather than the more traditional conception of the “humble servant” for the people,  “blood sacrifice” for atonement of a wrongdoing, or “ultimate payment” for some sort of metaphysical/existential debt. Popular conceptions of God always tell us more about the people who create and maintain those conceptions than anything having an objective existence apart from the people.

The same analysis can be applied to “liberation theology” which has seeped into more traditional denominations like Catholicism. These shifts are all outgrowths of the general trend to liberate individuals from centralized authority, even as they set up their new forms of authority or regard the text of any one of a number of biblical translations itself as an authority and practice selective readings of the text to emphasize victory rather than submission. Even if we find ourselves in atheistic camps, we may use this tool for psychological analysis.

The aforementioned shift in modern Christianities is very predictable given that Christians have seen their social and political capital steadily increase over the last two centuries. “Our God is so powerful that He conquered Death.” (And thus He can lead us through anything.) This is a revolution in morals akin to the Jewish shift in morals which occurred when the Jewish supertribe went from being conquerors to being the conquered. Thus modern evangelical Christianities tend to fall more toward the Master Morality end of the spectrum than other, more traditional forms of Christianity.

In response to the changes in social circumstances which account for these shifts across the master/slave moral spectrum, all major doctrines are reinterpreted in new, more favorable light so as to fuel the ongoing shifts in these Christianities. In the new parlance, sin is no longer some sort of blood debt to be paid, but simply an absence of “God’s saving Love/Grace” in your life…”You are not yet properly aligned with the ultimate Victor.” One even reads in Princeton’s publication Theology Today that there is a growing need for acceptance among evangelicals for those with both a “high theology” perspective and those with a “low theology” perspective. In the first case, Jesus is God. In the second, Jesus is a free-thinking teacher who questions the status-quo in regard to their preconceived notions about God and Truth. This call for simultaneous acceptance of various theological interpretations is the call of a Victor, welcoming other free individuals into conquered lands…

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The Gnostic Debate: My Response to Mr. Goodpastor

As always I appreciate your careful consideration of my questions. I really cannot express how excited I am to have you engage me on these topics rather than brush me off (this has happened so many times in the past). Your input always helps me very much!

The time periods you mentioned seem to be accurate. (I got my hands on a course dealing with the history of Gnosticism, given by David Brakke of Yale University, and the dates seem to coincide.) I think you are right to suggest that Paul was probably responding to either an earlier strand of Gnosticism or something similar. That whole early period of Christianity seems to be incredibly diverse as far as interpretations of what Jesus and his teachings actually meant. I know that there were many “mystery” cults of the time…most stemming from Greek pagan cults who began to incorporate Jewish and Christian ideas. Gnosticism probably emerged from one or more of these. I know they lean much more heavily on Plato than does what came to be Orthodox Christianity.

It seems that their three main divergences from proto-orthodox Christianity are their take on the OT, the way in which one is saved through Jesus, and their willingness to alter spiritual texts of the time in a way which, they felt, made more sense of this world. ( From a purely spiritual perspective, I am interested in the first two divergences. Of course, from a literary perspective I am very much fascinated by this third divergence as well.) Though Paul would not have agreed with what came to be known as the Gnostic POV, he did contrast the Jewish law of the OT with the teachings of Jesus enough that the Gnostics could run with the contrast and build up a systematic alternative to the proto-orthodox POV while still considering themselves Paulists in many cases.

As I work through my course, I will let you know if any other notable aspects of the movement come to light…

P.S. Throughout all this my respect for Paul steadily grows.

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