Tag Archives: Bruce Ellis Benson

Graven Ideologies

Bruce Ellis Benson is not only one of Christianxiety’s founding Advisory Board members, but he is also one of the most import scholars exploring the intersections of theology and philosophy today. This post is a special one, as it features a review of one of Dr. Benson’s books by one of his star pupils. We are very excited to feature this writing by Donnie Boyce of Wheaton University.

“God doesn’t like that,” “God thinks that’s immoral,” and most dangerously “I have God here in this book” – we’ve all come across these kind of claims.

In his book Graven Ideologies Bruce Benson warns Christians of an ever-present tendency to conflate “God” with “ideology.” Instead of holding onto our ideas about god lightly, we worship these self-crafted ideologies as God – “we too often think that our moral ideas are those of God” (51). Benson reminds us that the second we claim to “have God” we’ve attempted to draw a circle around Him, an ill-fated Promethean attempt at being god. We cannot “have” the Word, if anything the Word has us. Drawing insight from thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Marion, Benson leads the reader through the phenomenological tradition’s battle with idolatry.

“While human tradition is not necessarily suspect, here the problem is that it passes itself off as something divine. Thus the move is self-exaltation: we attempt to take God’s place by devising ideas and theories (idols) that we put in the place of God. By creating our own conceptions of God, we effectively become God (for we are the source of these conceptions).” (27)

One of the most important concepts in Graven Ideologies is the idea of adaequatio – the idea that “the minds conception of an object is ‘adequate’ to the thing itself” (33). Benson points out that if it’s not even really possible for us to have a comprehensive conception of something like Westminster Abby (that is, hold in our mind every corner of the cathedral including all of the inscriptions on the monuments), then how much more is this true for our conception of God. “Of course, even standing before it [Westminster Abby] does not make it fully present to my mind” (35). For this reason even biblical conceptions of God can become idolatrous. “If, for instance, I think of Jesus Christ as ‘my good shepherd’ whose principle purpose for existing is to meet my needs, then I have seriously distorted a biblical conception for my own purposes” (26).

Benson later suggests, following Jean-Luc Marion, a kind of apophatic awareness of the limitation of our language when we speak about God – saying “God is” must always be followed by a kind of “but he is not.” For example, if we say that God is our father, we must immediately recognize that he is not the kind of father that sleeps with our mother. Marion calls this dé-nomination. While in English the word “denomination” means “to name,” by setting apart the “dé” Marion draws our attention to the unnaming that always must occur when we name God.

While Levinas and Marion go so far as to say God is “otherwise” than being or even “without” being in order to avoid making an idol out of God by reducing him to the human category “being,” Benson follows the “phenomenological inquisitor” Derrida here. The hermeneutical “as structure” is the idea that we always experience things “as” something (e.g. when I look out the window I see brown cylinders sticking out of the ground with green tops “as” tree). On Benson account, to experience God at all we need to experience him “as” God – unless we want everything to end up being God.

While it is necessary that we project our fore-structures or “as structures” in order to understand God “as” God, we must constantly allow ourselves to derive new or altered fore-structures from God’s Word as we encounter him in scripture. Just as a woman reprimands a man when he misunderstands her asking, “What kind of girl do you think I am?” so we must allow ourselves “pulled up short” by the Word when it makes us question our idolatrous conception of God. The paradox of the incarnation has to do with the fact that while God “empties himself” (that is, becomes “less”), the fullness of the incarnation (what Marion calls a “saturated phenomenon”) overwhelms us and is so rich with meaning that we cannot expect to comprehend or “have” it – doing so would mean that either we are God or that what we “have” is not God but an idol.

Donnie Boyce


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Nietzsche’s religious life


For the purposes of Christianxiety, it cannot be stated enough how much Nietzsche still has to contribute to today’s religious discussion. I remember glossing over Nietzsche in my undergraduate “Intro to Philosophy” class. The handful of paragraphs in our textbook gave spurious descriptions of ideas like “the will to power” or “ubermensch” that greatly exaggerated Nietzsche’s misanthropic tendencies. I eagerly moved on to the next section. Over the course of time, I reexamined some of my conclusions. After reading through his works and supplementing them with scholarship, I now hail him as one of the great teachers in my life. During a visit to Torino, I actually felt quite a bit of emotion as I stood in Piazza Carlo Alberto, the site of Nietzsche’s mental implosion.

Nietzsche’s writings contain plenty of surprises for those willing to engage them and Bruce Ellis Benson’s Pious Nietzsche gives ones of the most surprising I’ve come across. He posits that Nietzsche remained religious to his last day. As he puts it, “Nietzsche can hardly be relegated to the realm of the ‘confirmed atheist,’ for the question of God or gods or divinity remains very much alive in his writings.”

NietzscheI have firmly resolved within me to dedicate myself forever to His service. May the dear Lord give me strength and power to carry out my intention and protect me on life’s way. Like a child I trust in His grace: He will preserve us all, that no misfortune may befall us. But His holy will be done! (18)

The only thing exceptional about the preceding prayer is that it comes from a young Friedrich Nietzsche. Aside from this, it is, as Benson notes, quite typical of the German Pietism of his time. This is one of many examples Benson provides to illustrate Nietzsche’s passionate religious devotion during his youth, a devotion that he claims Nietzsche never actually managed to distance himself from. 

Certainly, the prayer quoted here, serves as an example of decadence. One should not depend on the Lord for strength. One should not want protection from anything in life. One should not trust in another’s grace. Over the course of his life, Nietzsche vigorously fought against the weaknesses of his youth. The key word here is fought. Benson reminds us that Nietzsche, to his own admission, struggled with decadence his entire life.

“A long, all too long, series of years signifies recovery for me; unfortunately it also signifies relapse, decay, the periodicity of a kind of decadence. Need I say after all this that in questions of decadence I am experienced?”Ecce Homo

Nietzsche resisted decadence in two ways. First, he waged war, “…fighting is itself a way of resisting decadence, a part of (Nietzsche’s) therapy.”(70) Second, he practiced a “musical askêsis” as a method of self-overcoming. This “musical askêsis” is not quite like the asceticism that Nietzsche repeatedly criticizes. Benson reminds us that, in Greek, mousikê means more than music. It also carries notions of personal development and political freedom.  Instead of denial, the aim is a strengthening of the will not a surrendering of it. It is “for life” in that it understands thinking as wholly based in the body. As Nietzsche says, “body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.”

When considering Nietzsche’s resistance against decadence, particularly in the form of Christianity, we must understand the specific type of Christianity Nietzsche grew up with. Benson describes it as a Lutheranism “deeply mediated by German Pietism.” Nietzsche’s father’s Lutheranism was mediated by his mother’s Pietism. This mediation ended up producing a Christianity that emphasized praxis over doctrine. As Benson puts it, “from the Pietistic perspective, Christianity is primarily a way of being, one characterized by a childlike trust in God rather than doctrinal correctness.” Over time, one could see a shift from this trust in God to a “childlike trust in life” …to amor fati. Benson also notes how Pietism wholly embraces God’s will. There is a “yes-saying” to God, that one again can see transposed in Amor Fati.

Dionysus NietzscheEventually Benson arrives at the point where he sees Nietzsche develop his own sort of Dionysian Piety. Worshiping Dionysus, the god of life, allows Nietzsche to find a faith that reconfigures “transcendence into a kind of ‘immanent transcendence.” Dionysian ekstasis allows for self-overcoming in one’s immediate physical life. This path leads to a return to innocence, to a second childhood.

“The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed.” – Thus Spake Zarathustra

However, Benson ultimately wonders if Nietzsche truly becomes Dionysian, or if he remains “caught up in the logic of ressentiment?”

In the Gay Science Nietzsche tells us to what extent he ultimately wants to resist decadence and affirm life, “some day I want only to be a yes-sayer – I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation.” Benson already told us that Nietzsche resists no-saying, ressentiment, decadence, with two strategies. First, warfare. Second, a musical askêsis. Regarding Nietzsche’s askêsis, Benson writes “to the extent that Nietzsche’s askêsis ‘allows’ him to be changed and live by the rhythm of life, it is nonreactive in nature and thus does not reinstate the logic of decadence.” However, Benson writes to the extent that he “makes war with decadence is the extent to which he is likewise guilty of merely altering decadence’s expression.” In other words, there is a passivity in Nietzsche’s askêsis that avoids being reactionary, thus avoiding also avoiding ressentiment. Warfare is by nature reactionary.

Could a child even wage war? When Nietzsche doles out alternate readings of his own life, (Benson uses as example Nietzsche’s claim that he is of Polish ancestry and his insistence that he has never held a “presumptuous and bombastic posture”), he is not giving the “yes to life” that a child would. Benson asserts that his multiple perspectives turn out to be a series of “no’s.”  I wonder if Benson is walking on thin ice here,  as this criticism seems to imply that there is an actual Nietzsche to say “no” to. That is, that there is a truth of Nietzsche’s past that can be denied. Yet, the point is still taken. From what we know, and following the logic of Nietzsche’s own system, it does seem that Nietzsche is reacting to his own past. The truly affirmative way of dealing with this would be a lighthearted “yes and amen” that blesses the past while going on its own way.

“In outbursts of passion, and in the fantasizing of dreams and insanity, a man rediscovers his own and mankind’s prehistory… He who, as a forgetter on a grand scale, is wholly unfamiliar with all this does not understand man.”Daybreak

So how could Nietzsche escape himself without ressentiment? Is this even possible? In the end, Benson wonder’s if Nietzsche’s mental decline was actually a divine ekstasis whereby he truly became initiated into the cult of Dionysus. Nietzsche’s final moments are often described as containing a sort of rapturous beatitude. He appeared so transformed that he became “literally outside” himself. There are probably many who would roll their eyes at this and suggest Benson is merely romanticizing a case of syphilitic dementia. I am not one of those. Whatever the cause, I will end this review as Benson ends his book, quoting (in its entirety) a letter Nietzsche wrote to Peter Gast:

“Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens rejoice.” – The Crucified.

Michael Sapiro

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