If the lesson-drawing bits of this book had been omitted, I would have been as enthusiastic as are the blurbs printed on its cover”as it happens, written by two highly respected friends of mine. The book would then have been straightforwardly an exposition of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the great modern “masters of suspicion,” on the subject of religion. And strictly as such it is indeed the “gem” one of my friends calls it.
Merold Westphal, who teaches philosophy at Fordham and writes on crossover matters between theology and philosophy, has a comprehensive and often penetrating knowledge of the texts”for my choice, he is best on Freud, but that may only be because that is where I most needed his instruction. He has a remarkable ability to see and display constitutive relations between the parts of each thinker’s work, and to exploit conceptual and historical relations between each thinker and the others. Finally in this encomium, he has the teacher’s indispensable knack of oversimplification without disastrous distortion; for example in a grand summary, he tosses off a chart filling in the blanks of “For . . . religion is primarily . . . ” which with Freud has “ontological weakness seeking consolation,” with Marx “sociological power seeking legitimation,” and with Nietzsche, “sociological weakness seeking revenge.”
Had Westphal let it go at this, one could also have commended the book for its stated purpose: “This book was written more for the church than for the academy.” The Church must indeed always give thanks for insight into these thinkers with whose legacy she is so inextricably engaged. One might even have swallowed the cute opening: “Yes, you heard me right. I propose the serious and sustained reading of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as a Lenten penance.’ You’ve got to be kidding. That’s positively outrageous.’ Perhaps it is. But I’m not kidding.’ “ One might wonder where the author had been keeping himself, to imagine such a conversation, but never mind.
The book, however, wants also to tell us how the Church and her theology can and should profit from Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. It is at this juncture that my gratitude turns to disappointment, and occasionally even to outrage.
For the lesson that Westphal would have Christians derive from the masters of suspicion is that religion may be or can be or sometimes is what each of them say it is, fudged renunciation a la Freud or ideological obfuscation a la Marx or the cunning of ressentiment la Nietzsche, and that we should watch out for the symptoms and repent when we find them. But that, of course, is not their point at all. What each says is that religion essentially is the diagnosed sort of bad faith. Nor is the unconditional character of their suspicions negotiable; if religion sometimes can be selfless or disinterested or noble, the theoretical positions by which their suspicion is mandated in the first place are falsified. Since of the three I most honor Nietzsche, it is on his behalf that my disappointment at trivializing application most turns to protest, and I will spend another paragraph exemplifying it.
Zarathustra’s bitter word play is cited, from a section “On the Virtuous.” “ Und wenn sie sagen: ich bin gerecht,’ so klingt es immer gleich wie: ich bin gerächt ,’” which we can only translate with loss of the fun, “and when they say, I am just,’ it always sounds like [which is just what it does in German] I am revenged.’“ Despite the text’s pitiless “ immer ” (always), what the author would have the pious get from it is that “the concept of justice very frequently masks the vengefulness that stems from resentment” (emphasis added)”a triviality never, I suppose, doubted by anyone. Or for an example that gets to the heart of the problem, when the author rightly sees that Nietzsche is no “cynic,” he concludes that Nietzsche’s threat is merely that “no piety is exempt from scrutiny,” never adducing Nietzsche’s actual alternative to cynicism, a nihilism consisting in the impossibility of all piety.
It no doubt goes with the manageability of the threat as seen here that where occasional concrete responses are recommended, these too are less than intrepid. Marx is to be satisfied with liberation theology, Nietzsche with a moderate Lutheran antinomianism, and Freud with “real” renunciation.
The conceptual basis for the author’s ability to dodge in this fashion is the entirely correct and necessary observation that Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche practice hermeneutical or “genealogical” rather than epistemic suspicion. They do not ask whether religious claims are true, but how we come to make them. They are “theologians of original sin,” not of original error. Thus believers can, it is urged, at once learn from them that the causes of their belief are such as can only be repented of, and continue to assert their beliefs as true. Indeed, it is argued, Christian faith intrinsically involves the necessity of religious self-critique.
This is doubtless true so far as it goes. As Westphal points out, biblical prophets and Reformers and Barthian theologians have done something very like what he commends. Nevertheless, the commendation as developed is too superficial to meet the hermeneutic of suspicion. Freud and Marx and Nietzsche charge that the holding of religious beliefs is itself sufficient evidence of bad faith. Therefore I cannot tell them, “I have thought these true things for the following disgraceful reasons, of which I now repent. Henceforth I will think the same things but for better reasons.” For if I continue to hold the beliefs in question, merely thereby I prove to them that I have not in fact repented. Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche may indeed leave open the possibility of religious beliefs being in some disembodied sense true, but they do not leave open the possibility of anybody truly entertaining them. If we are to grapple with these thinkers in honor for them and to our believing profit, more principled moves are required than are here proposed.
Theology has seen two possible such moves, not necessarily mutually exclusive. We may counterattack, destroying the position from which the accusation of bad faith is launched. Such an attack can only be made by turning suspicion against itself, by critique of the uncriticized assumptions of modernity’s merely critical intelligence. A current effort along these lines is the much-discussed work of John Milbank. And here indeed Nietzsche can point a way: alone of the three, he knew that suspicion had to fulfill itself in suspicion precisely of suspicion.
Nietzsche himself, since he would not believe, ended sheerly adrift in being, practicing anti-thought, intermittent madness, and confusion of identity with his enemy “the Crucified”; but believers need not fear that outcome.
The other possibility is to carry out the whole, and not just the first part, of Barth’s move. Barth and the other “dialectical” theologians teach a doctrine of epistemic justification by faith alone. We are to confess not merely that our reasons for belief are sometimes sinful, but that they always are, thus indeed agreeing with Nietzsche et al. If then we may nevertheless continue to believe, it is not because we have found some moral room to maneuver, but because God in Christ justifies our”in itself reprehensible”belief, making Himself truly its object. Belief’s salvation is not by our insight, learned from suspicion or otherwise, but by God’s grace.
Describing these two possibilities, I have described much of our century’s theological labor. The pity is that the present work does not seem to know about this. By all means read it for excellent expositions of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. But look elsewhere for how to profit from them.
Robert W. Jenson is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College and author, most recently, of Unbaptized God.