I’ve lamented our cultural disinclinations to be able to listen deeply to good sources of information and inspiration that have nonetheless triggered some red flag for us religiously or politically. And I qualify my lament to only include good sources because I also think there is nothing wrong with washing our hands of sources that have so demeaned themselves to be wholesale distributers of unsupported nonsense. A person does well to not waste their time with trash. I’m here reserving my admiration for those who deeply consider actual well-prepared/researched presentations that call them beyond their own tribal and even religious boundaries.
To that end, I feel like I’ve landed on a treasure trove in the recently publicized series “Conversations at the Crossroads”. And this latest one in particular, an interview with author Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen who wrote a book about Nietzsche’s influence in America piqued my interest in her work as well.
Here is one teaser from the interview that I think illustrates the topic at hand.
Ratner and Barron affirm that the contemporary cultural air we breath here today in the U.S. is very Nietzschean, even if the common person would not be able to trace the genealogy of their own particular outlook. We are definitely living in a society that very much venerates personal liberty and “will to power” if you will, that I am captain of my own ship and I will be the one to decide or manufacture any “meaning” that works for me. It seems like a no-brainer that Nietzsche’s work is not a religion-friendly (much less Christian friendly) cultural force for us. And that conclusion has plenty of reinforcement from the fact that Hitler was heavily influenced by Nietzche.
But we reach a “slow down this train for a moment” point when Ratner and Barron discuss other influences going yet further back. It may surprise many (as it did me) to hear that Nietzche himself - a late nineteenth century German, was heavily influenced by - apparently inspired by none other than the American Ralph Waldo Emerson. One may wonder how you get from Emerson’s highly idyllic transcendentalism to “Beyond Good and Evil”, and Barron doesn’t lose the opportunity to connect a few dots about what happens when cultures try to bracket away the messier or seemingly less rational parts of religion as Emerson did. I’m not sure it’s accurate to accuse a transcendentalist of not believing in the transcendent. It would seem Emerson does, but in a very human-sourced way. But my point here is that before one raises their finger in judgment, there are other paths of influence to trace out as well. Apparently Emerson was quite the influence on Walt Whitman (… again … probably not to be found much on the shelves of most evangelical church libraries.) Our book-banning enthusiasts will nod knowingly at this point about how much mischief all this heterodoxy generates. And then we are led to consider a young man in the late 19th century who was in the throes of despair about life and even contemplating suicide. This troubled young man found Whitman’s work, had his mind opened up and brought back into the world of possibility - probably saving his life. That young man was G.K. Chesterton, whose later great works are now treatises within the canon of respected Christian literature. Chesterton went on to inspire luminaries no less than Lewis, Tolkien, and many others.
Apparently God is no respector of our puritanical preferences. Our genealogies are messy and full of strange bedfellows. The Spirit blows where it will and delights in showing itself precisely where we say in cannot be.
Are there other stories any can share tracing back through the history of ideas?