Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung - surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting our way to complete spiritual freedom

Autumn leaves in front of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Readings: Mark 14:53-65

From the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Niezsche (trans. by Thomas Common)

The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!
     I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.
     Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!
     Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!

In the current Cambridge University Press edition (2006), translated by Adrian del Caro, this passage reads:

The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!
     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!
     Once the sacrilege against God was the greatest sacrilege, but God died, and then all these desecrators died. Now to desecrate the earth is the most terrible thing, and to esteem the bowls of the unfathomable higher than the meaning of the earth.


Autumn moves into winter and, today, as the leaves fall and the clocks change, we are increasingly aware, as they say, that the year is beginning to die. This fact coincided with some of my own current reading and thinking and it offered me a way to point to the natural world and show how it can help us surpass, twist, and reinterpret old theological ideas; it allows me to show you an example of "verwindung", a way of proceeding that I think is something our family of liberal of churches should consciously be pursuing as it tries to bring into being a religion which takes the well-being and ultimacy of natural world with the utmost seriousness. But, before I can come to my actual example of "verwindung" I need to remind you of what that word means and how it is used.

After the massive changes in our European and North American outlook brought about, in part, by the scientific discoveries of people like Charles Darwin and, in philosophy, the thinking of someone like Friedrich Nietzsche, it has become increasingly difficult to believe in traditional understandings of of God, especially the God of monotheism - as Nietzsche shockingly said in the 1880s, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms". I've explored some of the implications of this with you in other addresses over the past few years so, here, I'll just let this statement stand. Today, it's God's shadow I want to address. A contemporary philosopher, Lee Braver, points out that Nietzsche writes, 'even after God has been killed and buried, it will take centuries to finish scrubbing his shadows from our minds, cutting out the vestigial concepts of earlier times.' Braver, and I, for that matter, 'take this to be one of the great projects of the last two centuries and one that still lies before us. (Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds, MIT Press 2012, p. 9).

But, since this is a religious community, and I am a minister of religion, affirming this as one of the 'great projects' is likely to sound very odd, especially if you are visiting for the first time. So, just to be clear about what I mean by the great project, here are Mark Wrathall's words on the matter (indeed they have their own place on the side bar of this blog):

'. . . the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster. [In fact the] absence of foundational God [can] open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher's God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology)' (Mark W. Wrathall's introduction to "Religion after Metaphysics", Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1).

So we must be clear that task, at least as I am expressing it, is to overcome our old ideas about God and not to get rid of religion per se; it is about finding more authentic possibilities for understanding religion and the divine and the sacred. Perhaps the most popular approach to this overcoming of God is a strong one. It has thought that the best answer is to replace, lock, stock and barrel, the old theology, metaphysics and language with some kind of scientifically purified vocabulary. Not surprisingly, one word that is right out is "God" - it most assuredly has to go.

It's really tempting to think that by refusing to use the word God - perhaps even banning it from all public use - one will immediately and easily move into a new, enlightened kind of world view purified of thoughts about God. But a story I heard Stephen Fry tell a few years ago during a radio interview shows why this is a highly flawed approach. Fry told how schools, for obvious reasons, tried to stop (ban?) children using words of abuse like "moron". The word was, remember, once used in psychology in a technical sense to denote mild mental retardation but when the term became generally well-known and used more commonly as an insult the profession, understandably, stopped using it. Children once labelled "morons" became labelled as, for example, "educationally challenged". Fry recalls walking across a school playground sometime after this attempt had been made only to hear a bunch of school children abusing another child by shouting at them the word "challenged". It is clear that banning a word from a world does not remove the shadow of that word's meaning from the world.

This means I often find myself at odds with generally traditional religious people because the way they *keep* the word "God" means that there is no way openly to address with them the different possible meanings of the word. But I also find myself at odds with the new atheists because of the way they *get rid of* the word "God". The way they want to overcome "God" means that, among them, there is also often no way openly to address the different possible meanings of the word "God".

The odd thing about all this is that old ways of understanding God remain present for both groups. God remains present in an obvious way to the traditionally religious person but, for the new atheist, God remains present in the form of a powerful shadow. Their atheism is not (in my opinion nor in the opinion of Denys Turner) really an atheism since it is a position highly dependent on the still shaping-shadow of God.

This is why I think it is so important to keep the word "God" out in the open and in some kind of public religious and civic use. When this is done we at least have a real chance consciously to address and challenge, not only explicit, traditional uses of the word, but also unconscious, sublimated uses of, if not the word word itself, then ideas associated with the word - the same uses that can pop up under different names, as Fry's story about "moron" and "challenge" reveals so well.

What I, and those who find the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo's thinking persuasive, want to do is overcome our old understandings of God, the divine and the sacred and our old theologies and metaphysics, not by overcoming them in a strong way, forcibly replacing in one fell swoop one word or concept with another but, instead, by employing a weaker, more subtle and creative way by consciously surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting them. Vattimo borrows two German words from Heidegger to point to the difference. The hard, forcible replacing is called "überwindung" whilst the gentle way is called "verwindung".

Vattimo called this approach "il pensiero debole" - "weak thought". But, in the sense that counts for us its very weakness is, in truth, is very strength. Water is the obvious analogy as the Tao Te Ching knows (Ch. 78, Addiss and Lombardo):

Nothing in the world is soft and weak as water.
But when attacking the hard and strong
Nothing can conquer so easily.

Weak overcomes strong,
Soft overcomes hard.

This is why I advocate keeping in our liturgy and language a great deal that we are tempted to overcome in a strong way ("überwindung") - for example the Lord's Prayer. I feel that if we can find ways to keep these things present and consciously engage with them through "weak thought" in a dialectical conversation, through a process of "verwindung", then we will, with patience, truly have a chance of escaping many of our old and, to my mind, highly damaging religious thoughts and practices.

But everyone is in such a rush these days so it is not surprising that what I suggest is not a popular way to proceed. But, never the less, I persist, water-like, in suggesting that this is the way to go if we truly want to achieve the complete spiritual freedom promised by liberal religious tradition. OK. Now I can move to an example of what "verwindung" looks like in action.

I'm re-reading Nietzsche at the moment and have just come, once again, to his most famous work, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". My re-reading of Nietzsche coincides with some thinking about the natural world partly occasioned by a book I intend to introduce you to next week, the biologist Ursula Goodenough's book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature" - already a religious naturalist classic.

This meant that I was particularly attuned to Nietzsche's lines we heard earlier where in the book's prologue Zarathustra says to the crowd:

"Once blasphemy (or sacrilege) against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!"

The power of Nietzsche's words relies upon us having a lively sense and understanding of blasphemy - a religious term and practice that many liberal religious people just want to get rid of or overcome. Surely, with regard to the dreadful blasphemy laws that still exist around the world required here is a good bit of "überwindung" and so the cry often goes up, "Let's abolish all blasphemy laws!"

But Nietzsche's genius here is to achieve this, not by "überwindung", but by engaging in a nifty bit of "verwindung". He does this by encouraging us to reshape the old religious conception by surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting it such that we are directed gently, but powerfully, towards the earth, towards the natural realm - "To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!"

The word blasphemy, or sacrilege, survives in Nietzsche's vocabulary but the sense of it is no longer tied to a belief in a transcendent, metaphysical God. Nietzsche reveals that the word can be a used in a this-worldly, ethical way that is both relevant and persuasive to us and which, wonder of wonder, can also be used to challenge older, and I would argue, dangerous and unhealthy traditional religious uses of the word. Instead of now dividing theists and non-theists Nietzsche shows how the word "blasphemy" or "sacrilege" can be a genuine point of connection between them which keeps open lines of communication and the possibility for new moments of creative interchange in which a surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting may continue anew.

Our second hymn is, itself, also an extraordinarily powerful example of "verwindung" - but again only if you know the religious reference the hymn makes. It speaks, in a powerful fashion, of the way we humans are currently blaspheming the earth.

It is an extraordinary surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting of the Passion Chorale, "O Sacred head, sore wounded" - if you turn to our green book, number 103, then you will the find two verses of this hymn that we still feel we can sing here. In the complete hymn, however, the sacred head is not the human, all too human Jesus highly valued in this church, but the metaphysical Christ, the second person of the Trinity who is believed, in the words of the Nicene Creed, to be:

. . . the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through [whom] all things were made.

The new hymn's power and the power of Nietzsche's use of "blasphemy" to help slowly and genuinely to dispel the shadow of the old metaphysical God which still hangs over us and enable us to see more clearly and brightly the sacred depths of nature would be wholly lost if, through impatient, thoughtless and careless "überwindung", we had simply banished and banned from our hymn books all trace of the most enduring of all Good Friday hymns and, from our general language, the word "blasphemy" or "sacrilege".

Make no mistake, in our culture we are all still very much in the shadow of God - theists and atheists alike. If we, as religious liberals, are to succeed in helping to bringing us out of the shadow and into some genuinely sunlit, natural, secular religious landscape, then some real patient, gentle, weak thought is required and our motto should, I think, always be “Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung.”