Over the years, I have worked on a collection of (un)timely essays, Lenten reflections upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, his anti-gospel. Surprising to some, Nietzsche is often a favorite “atheologian” for those of us trained in the theological arts. The son of a preacher man (a Lutheran pastor), Nietzsche knew his Christianity well, having been trained in classics and theology (like me, actually), and offered real and biting questions and commentary that have no easy answers. Nietzsche serves as a kind of corrective to religious belief. And he’s just fun to read.
This Lenten Nietzsche is a kind of anti-devotional during the season. There will be a section from Thus Spake Zarathustra (linked to Thomas Common’s online translation, though I prefer the Kaufmann translation), and then my take. This won’t be the full TSZ, as some sections are more interesting than others, but I hope you will enjoy these.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. – Mark 1.12 NRSV
On the Three Metamorphoses (The Reading)
The season of Lent is considered a time of reflection, asceticism, and contrition. Often, the observer denies the self something of personal and sentimental significance or perhaps sets aside a personal vice. For many, Lent is a time of abstinence – but only a time. The self expects a retrieval at the end of the forty days. Easter becomes a time to rejoice at the resurrection and return of vice. The id is risen! The id is risen indeed!
This is the sickness that Nietzsche seeks to refute and destroy. What shall this wilderness be to us? What shall this wilderness do to us? Shall we allow ourselves to fast and go hungry from dawn to dusk? Shall we let hunger dull our senses and spirit? Does abstinence bring us closer to God? Or does it bring us further from ourselves?
Lent is a time of transformation, of metamorphosis. A metamorphosis of the spirit! Zarathustra proclaims that the spirit undergoes three transformations: to camel, to lion, to child. In the wilderness, the spirit finds itself. Into the wilderness the Spirit drives Jesus. There, the Spirit finds itself. In the wilderness. Jesus finds himself in the wilderness. But Zarathustra notes rightly that the camel’s strength demands what is difficult. How else shall the camel proclaim and demonstrate its reverent and obedient strength? It must be tested. It is a beast of burden.
“The difficult and the most difficult are what its strength demands” says Zarathustra. The camel craves difficulty. It craves difficulty and hardship to manifest its strength. The camel craves Lent. The camel craves the suffering – because the camel can rejoice in its strength. But is this not hubris? “Letting one’s folly shine to mock one’s wisdom?” Yes, that is the most difficult thing that the camel’s strength demands.
Hear my admonition! Be wary of the camel, the wild beast which seeks to flex its own stinking and aching muscles to show that it can! Shall we flagellate ourselves to give the appearance of strength? Shall we break ourselves to show we can be broken? No! Let Lent not fall victim to this masochistic spirit of weakness! The spirit takes the most difficult burdens upon itself into the desert. But still, we must enter the desert. The spirit requires it. For it is in the desert that the second metamorphosis occurs.
In the loneliest desert, says Zarathustra, the spirit becomes a lion. Do not make comparisons to the Lion of Judah. It is not that lion. This lion seeks to conquer the dragon. The name of this lion is “I will”. Nietzsche cleverly describes the dragon as “thou shalt” and upon every golden scale shines “thou shalt”. The dragon is law. The dragon is commandment. The dragon is tradition and values. In the thirteenth chapter of the Revelation of John, a beast rises out of the sea with blasphemous names on each of its heads. The dragon gives that beast authority. See how Nietzsche combines the two? See how he inverts the roles of dragon and law! Here, the lion does battle with this lawful beast, this valued dragon!
Says the dragon, “All value of all things shines on me. All value has long been created, and I am all created value. Verily, there shall be no more ‘I will.’” In the dragon there is nothing new. In the dragon there can only be response. There is no future in the dragon – only the imperative of the past. The lion must battle the dragon to free itself, to say “No” to law and tradition. To refuse to the past, to refuse the commandment, to refuse everything but the power of the creation of freedom for oneself.
But how strongly should we fight for our autonomy? Is there not the risk of anarchy in autonomy? Will we not create a new law for ourselves once we have sloughed off the old? Can we ever really defeat this dragon of tradition, of history, of values? Is it proper that we do? Shall we take that risk? In Lent, let us say no to our legalism. Yet, let us always be wary of law. Shall we be antinomian? Shall this be our new law? Let us carefully consider our selves and our laws during Lent. If Lent becomes too much a Law, then does not Lent defeat its own purpose? We must learn to say no to the coils of the dragon. But let us not unwittingly ensnare ourselves in new and unseen coils.
The lion cannot create its own values, merely the roar of its “No”. It is the third and final metamorphosis, that of the child, who has the power, the innocence, the laughter, to say “Yes”. Zarathustra says that “a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who lost to the world now conquers his own world.” Let us be in the world and not of it. This new child brings us out of the desert. The camel enters it to boast in its burdens; the lion remains there alone to battle for its own freedom and rule; the child innocently begins a new thing.
Let us create, in the space and time of Lent, a new world. A world of reflection and contrition. Let us not become haughty and hubristic. Let us create a new world that does not seek to be in the terms of the old world. Let us create for ourselves this new self. And let us always be aware of the prideful camel, the defiant lion, and the creative child. In Lent, we seek to consider, cast off, and take on. We must be creative, but humbly so. Let us cry out “No” to that which would bind us to empty tradition and values. Let us be careful how we walk through the desert among the wild animals as we are tempted to enter into the terms of the old world – for it is not the old world that we want, but the creative new.