Guests on Volume 105: Julian Young, on the historical context of Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas and on why he still believed in the necessity of religion; Perry L. Glanzer, on the failure of American universities to adequately address the challenge of moral formation; Kenda Creasy Dean, on why churches are to blame for the “moralistic therapeutic deism” so common among teens; Brian Brock, on how the centrality of technology in Western culture encourages us to see the gift of Creation as merely nature awaiting our manipulation; Nicholas Carr, on how the distracted character of multi-tasking ruins reading and how social networking systems sustain a “transactional” view of relationships; and Alan Jacobs, on how the literary form of the essay reproduces the unpredictable way that our thoughts develop.
“Whereas the familiar interpretation says society exists for the sake of the exceptional individual, I say that’s wrong, that for Nietzsche the exceptional individual exists for the sake of society.”
— Julian Young
This volume begins with an interview with Julian Young, the author of what has been called the definitive English biography of Friedrich Nietzsche. Young has previously written on Nietzsche’s philosophy of art and his philosophy of religion, but he believed an examination of the events of Nietzsche’s life and the German culture in which he lived would yield greater insight into his ideas. Nietzsche grew up in an age where breakthroughs in science and technology were calling into question the viability of traditional Christian belief and European morality. Nietzsche marveled at Darwinian science and at the power and speed of rail travel, recognizing the great impact such developments might have on social and individual life. It was a time of change and modernization, and for Nietzsche, it was time full of possibility and opportunity for the revitalization of European culture through a revival of the classical norms of ancient Greece and a diminishing of Christian traditions and values which he believed were the source of the weakness of modern man. This cultural expectation and desire of Nietzsche puts to rest the mistaken notion that his concept of the Übermensch was radically antisocial and individualistic. For Nietzsche, the greatness of exceptional individuals was to be cultivated for the sake of society and not in antagonism to it. Young relates this logic to the logic of Darwinian evolution, seeing that exceptional individuals might be the means by which a species would survive.
“Every university attempts to form character; they’re just scared of that language.”
— Perry L. Glanzer
Perry Glanzer talks about Christian identity and moral education at the university. Glanzer describes the change not of students, who have always tended to be undeveloped, but of the ways faculty at universities have responded to the need to educate and shape students. The history of the American university involves a shift in the ground and purpose of education; as Enlightenment norms of what constituted knowledge changed, the university grew less comfortable with grounding ethics in Christianity due to its particularity and apparent lack of a kind of universality that reason and science could provide, at least purportedly. The failure to be able to ground moral formation in reason and science such that a unified consensus developed led to the gradual abandonment of the university’s self-consciousness in being a moral teacher. A resurgence in ethics, however, has been blooming lately in response to contemporary events and crises that highlight the necessity for ethics. Glanzer notes, however, that the key difference is that universities are only focused on ethics within a professional field, rather than the moral formation of one's whole humanity.
“I think one of the things that is really tricky, particularly to convey to parents and in the congregations as well, is that if you are trying to form your kids to be Christians, it’s not going to fit them very well for American culture; and actually it’s probably going to deform them for some of the things we value as a society.”
— Kenda Creasy Dean
Kenda Creasy Dean discusses her observations on the spirituality of American Christian teenagers, drawn from her sociological studies of that age group. She notes that because every parent desires safety and comfort for their children, and rightly so, it’s difficult to communicate to parents and congregations how being a Christian should and will often place their teenage children at odds with society, including successful, safe and “well-adjusted” society. One way this plays out is in the emotional life of teenagers absorbed in consumerism; the consumer seeks satisfaction in the purchasing and consumption of goods, and such a focus tends to displace passion from deep commitments, including religious ones, to the next best thing to buy. Consumerism relates synergistically to individualism, since the customer who is always right is inculcated by that consumeristic emotional arc against submission to external constraints and realities that might oppose them, and to ecclesiology, since the teenage consumer will see themselves more as a part of their age group or style group and less as a member of the church. Dean suggests that in order for Christian teenagers to grow into maturity, the networks of adults and authoritative communities in their lives will need to recover a mode of living that can sustain a particular faith amidst and against competing alternatives; Christians would do well to draw lessons in this matter from the early Church's activity within a religiously plural society.
“At every point, our desire for efficiency and productivity causes us to see the manipulability of nature in a very foregrounded way. And that’s why it takes revelation for us to even begin to comprehend what it might mean for the material universe we live in to appear to us as creation and therefore as gift.”
— Brian Brock
Theologian Brian Brock’s current project focuses on the mindset and orientation toward creation that is engendered by technology and technological priorities. Because technology has been conceived primarily in terms of efficiency, productivity and power over nature, Brock argues that the good and gifted character of creation recedes and is marginalized. When nature is understood primarily to exist for the purposes of man, the purposes of God for creation that are not necessarily those of man are marginalized. When nature is understood to have meaning and order only in so far as human beings give it meaning and order, then the meaning and order of creation that God has spoken and preserves in Christ is ignored or belittled. Brock’s task in his book is to examine how, apart from sustained theological reflection and communal practice, the growth of technology and Christian participation in the prevailing mindset driving technological development obscure to Christians the priority of God and his purposes which might limit or even conflict with particular developments and applications of technology.
“When people learned how to read books... that encouraged writers and composers to take many more chances and experiment and go into great levels of complexity, because they could assume that somebody was out there actually paying attention to their works.”
— Nicholas Carr
Critic Nicholas Carr talks about how technology-driven trends affect our cultural and personal lives. He reflects on how various technologies have made it both easier and more common for people to multi-task and split their attention. He suggests that singular intellectual focus is a kind of unnatural development in the life of human beings that is nonetheless desirable as a maturation or added sophistication of human capacities for creative and deep cultural work. Many technologies tend to undermine this capacity for focus; others, like social networking, tend to shape human relationships in terms of discrete transactions that aggregate in various compartments and categories. Life in society, however, does not consist and are not served well by this modular, computational and transactional form of relationship, but is in many significant ways fuzzier, more spontaneous, more open-ended, unified, and unstructured. Carr continues with a discussion of reading and technology, and he concludes with autobiographical observations of his own experience and some lessons learned.
“For me the best essays don’t offer . . . the kind of take-away that you can sum up in a sentence; but the take-away is rather reflection, meditation: here’s something I need to think about more.”
— Alan Jacobs
Literary critic Alan Jacobs discusses his book of essays entitled Wayfaring and what he thinks is special about the essay as a literary form. For Jacobs, it’s about telling the story of how the mind journeys through a topic or experience, reflecting the dips and turns and unexpected curves on the way to the conclusion. Jacobs sees great potential in this form for Christians because of the way the form corresponds to the navigation and journey of a Christian life, but observes that Christians have not, in recent years, embraced it. Perhaps it is because of the way the essay seems to be less ambitious and more humble than an epic poem or a grand novel, or perhaps it is because the best essays are, though containing a true arc, are finally indeterminate because the journey has not ended. He continues his observations about the essay by highlighting what some of his favorite essayists are able to do through their essays and how they do it.