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Before We Enhance Life, Let's Preserve It

Faithfulness to the Earth and the Frame of Hope

November 29, 2016 • By G√ľnter Thomas Faithfulness to the Earth and the Frame of Hope

In 1886, Friedrich Nietzsche published Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he claimed: “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of extraterrestrial hopes! They are mixers of poisons whether they know it or not. They are despisers of life, dying off and self-poisoned, of whom the earth is weary: so let them fade away!” For Nietzsche, those “mixers of poison” offer what was later called by Marxists “a bad reconciliation with misery.”

Most traditions of Protestant Western Christianity took Nietzsche’s seething remark quite seriously – and developed a thorough naturalism and morally oriented faith without stressing extraterrestrial, “otherworldly” hopes and imaginations anymore. The Church is not a pilgrim on its way to heaven, but a “church for the world.”  This is why today’s “rapture religion” looks so utterly strange. Most Christian traditions in the West turned to the world and supported the development and proliferation of democracy, developed diaconic practices, and engaged in changing the world. They worked – even though in different degrees – for the establishment of the welfare state, aimed at protecting and promoting the health and well-being of all people. Christians were not the only ones, but they were and still are a major part of this social and cultural change.

So the plea for faithfulness to this earth did bear fruits. But some of these fruits have been bitter. What we see now is this disturbing reality: the 20th century has seen mass atrocities, extensive violence, and genocides and all the movements which eventually became oppressive and violent wanted to better the world. They all had a vision of enhancing life – be it Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” or fascists’ creations of “clean nations” or Pol Pot’s vision of a communist agrarian utopia in Cambodia.  With their politics of violent and fatal exclusion, they betrayed the faithfulness to this earth in their own way. Each had a desperate hope for the future, but we see clearly now the lesson: desperate hope can become as violent as hopelessness, as cynical as false hope.

What happened? There is a strong reaction against these grand moral projects among some astute philosophers. Those thinkers who articulate more or less explicitly a “revolt against modernity,” such as Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and to some degree Charles Taylor (not to mention the so-called neo-conservative intellectuals), argue that there is a direct link between the secularization of religious hopes and visions and the misleading sacralization of political movements and mindsets. Without a larger religious frame of order and transcendence, Nietzsche’s earth is dominated by an amalgam of disorder and violent new orders which characterize political religions.

Without any doubt, self-critical Christian theologians see this danger. Nonetheless, they want to abstain from “otherworldly” speculations and any variant of so-called supernaturalism – because they know of the danger of trading the burden of anthropological finitude and political pluralism for a religious “pie in the sky.” They see how easily one can betray not only the human faithfulness to this earth, but even more, the divine faithfulness to this earth. There is no ground in Christian faith to be ‘raptured’ out of our responsibility for this earth.

My research for The Enhancing Life Project works on the implications of the Christian idea of a unity of love, faith, and hope.  With respect to both the religious imagination of hope and with respect to analogies in political philosophy, I am convinced that in addition to escapist theologies, violent political heirs of religious visions, and a stoic acceptance of finite life in all its fragility and beauty, creativity and contradictions, there is a fourth option. One could call this fourth option the faithfulness of hope.

Religious reflection can only make a suggestion to political philosophy in order to think and imagine in a certain new way, pointing to possibilities in a lived tradition that might appear novel or might be a reinterpretation. It can also point to specific cognitive and experiential functions of such new ways of thinking. Questions of specific religious truth, however, would move the discourse to theology and lived faith.

Nietzsche underestimated the constructive power of a thick imagination of hope which can work alongside a similar thick faithfulness to this earth. There are two related and decisive problems which cannot be addressed by any ‘innerworldly hope’ and far-reaching moral visions: First, hope without stretching out to a final divine redemption of history can become desperately impatient and ultimately violent. Second, hope that stretches beyond the possibility space of human action and “worldly” possibilities can acknowledge that the past and its victims cannot be redeemed, even though they need to be redeemed. By distinguishing the hope in God’s possibilities from the possibilities of human, social, and natural worlds, one can appropriately secularize political worldviews and mindsets, freeing them from the ultimate responsibility of human salvation and the redemption of history. Instead of the (neo)conservative quest for order over revolutionary disorder, the faithfulness of hope will emphasize both creative transformation and simultaneous patience—not leaping into a tragic view of the world and of existence, but rather opening a space of responsibility. Instead of the escapist tendencies in Christian religious life, the faithfulness of hope will always focus on the divine transformative faithfulness to this world and to creation. Instead of any strict version of a naturalized religion of immanence, the faithfulness of hope will not only call into question stoic tendencies of detachment, but will also stress the liberating dimension of the “otherworldly” frame: humans can be just humans – honored and ennobled by a divine being who wants to become human.

Faithfulness of hope is like a Mobius strip or a Klein bottle: the distinction between immanence and transcendence is maintained and dissolved at the same time. The way out always leads back to the inside. And vice versa.