Piety and Nihilism

Theory, Nietzsche argued, arises from the will to “correct existence.” Taking his cues from Nietzsche, Lyotard describes the difference between “pious” and “pagan” theorizing. The former is guilty of Nietzsche’s charge: Since Plato, Lyotard argues, philosophers have attempted to formulate a perfect theory of justice or freedom on the grounds that such theorization is a prerequisite for instantiating those values in practice.

The result, though, is the opposite. Theoretical constructs of justice and freedom remain ideals, never actualized. Pious theory thus ends up representing, in Lyotard’s phrase, “a lost origin, something that must be restored to a society in which it is lacking.”

Frederick Dolan ( Allegories of America: Narratives, Metaphysics, Politics ) glosses Lyotard:

“The essence of pietism . . . is the attempt to offer a complete, self-contained, context-independent, true description of some object that also serves as a standard by which to judge particular contexts and events. What makes this operation ‘pious’ is just that the object of such theoretical discourse is by definition never fully actualized in any given state of affairs; it always lost, absent, in need of recovery. But that fact, for Lyotard, is disastrous; for it opens the door to the nihilism preeminently explored by Nietzsche and regarded by him as constitutive of late, post-Enlightenment modernity. From the pious, theoretical, ‘philosophical’ perspective, politics that are actually alive an kicking cannot but acquire a ghostly, ‘as-if’ quality, as mere imperfect approximations of the true normative ideal.”

As a result, the “Platonic will to truth has devoured itself and its theoretical gaze has been exposed as only another mythology.” And it is a malign mythology since the “specifically modern logics of repression and nihilism” marginalize and exclude “anything that departs from the principle of the ideal.” If no alternative to pious theorizing is available, we are left with pagan chaos: “a world of mere appearances that remain ‘mere’ appearances, relatively valueless and without connection to a more substantial reality.”

Pious “Platonism” collapses into nihilism.

That is a powerful critique, but several responses of a theological sort are in order. First, there’s correcting existence and correcting existence. One form might arise from a Gnostic distaste for creation; but another form arises from a recognition that the harmony of existence has been untuned by sin. And we have some sources for distinguishing the one sort of correction from another. Second, Christian faith doesn’t theorize an ideal of justice or truth but worships a living, active God who is just and truthful. This God is active in the world, exceeding all theorizing. That excess is built into the Christian theorizing known as theology. A living God is impervious to deconstruction in a way that Platonic ideas are not. Third, insofar as Christianity has sometimes toyed with “Platonism” in the sense described, it needs correction, and post-Hegelian theologians who emphasize God’s timeliness give us some important stage directions, even if some of their particular proposals are flawed.

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