Nietzsche on the Human Tendency to Ossify Metaphors and Christ Who Shatters All Columbaria

According to Nietzsche in his essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,”[1] what we take to be knowledge involves two metaphors.  Here metaphor is understood in a broad sense, namely, as transference.  First, we have a transfer that occurs from a nerve stimulus caused by the external world, which is then translated into an image.  Secondly, that image is then transferred into a sound, that is, it becomes language.  Nietzsche’s point is that we construct our knowledge at a distance from (here at least two steps) the flow of life.  For example, when I look out the window and see a tree, a series of brain and nerve activities occurs, but these neural stimulations bear no intrinsic similarities to the tree “out there.”  Thus, we have the first metaphoric-ization or transference.   Then, having received this stimuli, I translate this information into a word, into language, which provides the second transference. From this picture, Nietzsche concludes that there is no natural connection between what is perceived in the external world and knowledge.  Rather, the relation between what is out there and my claims to know it is purely conventional.  According to Nietzsche, language is not a reflection of essences.    Our knowledge does not reflect the deep structures of reality; rather, it is a mere human construct.

Failure to recognize this state of affairs is, for Nietzsche, one of the central problems with the scientist or rational human being in contrast with the artist or intuitive person. That is, the scientist, who, of course, also constructs metaphors, takes his metaphors to be the truth, the way things really are.  According to Nietzsche, the scientist takes his metaphors too seriously; he ossifies them, whereas the artist recognizes their fluidity and transiency.  To be sure, these metaphors do serve practical and pragmatic purposes.  They help us to affirm ourselves and aid in our self-preservation to some degree.  However, when we forget about their provisional nature, we come to believe that our conceptual edifices are immovable.  When this occurs, the metaphors harden, they ossify-rather, we ossify them, and turn them into columbaria.   (A columbarium is a Roman vault for funeral urns!)  So the rational human being has lost touch with the metaphorical origins of human knowledge and lives his life constructing conceptual systems that display “the regularity of a Roman columbarium” (112).  According to Nietzsche, our (rationalistic) tendency to forget the earthy, metaphorical rootedness of human knowledge, moves us to increasing levels of abstraction-abstractions which we then take to be reality.  These systems of abstractions are likened to a columbarium; they are life-denying and lead to death.  (By the way, I think his critique of the scientist also applies to the philosopher and the theologian).

Clearly, Nietzsche values the flow of life and wants us to remain close to our, so to speak, humble origins.  His warnings against taking our conceptual edifices to be the reality and the one and only way to truthfully describe and explain the world are compelling and worthy of our reflection.  Part of his critique also involves cautioning against pride and calling us to acknowledge our finitude-two points that Christians ought to take seriously.  Yet, as a Christian, there are certain matters, which are central to the Christian narrative and understanding of reality, which Nietzsche fails to consider.  For example, according to the Christian tradition, the created order is now not as it originally was.  In fact, St. Paul, employing a number of earthy metaphors, tells us that creation has been subjected to futility and eagerly awaits its eschatological renewal.

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (NRSV, Rom 8:19-25).

So there is a sense in which, for the Christian, life and the world as now experienced involves a struggle against the natural world-a natural world, which groans and awaits a final release from its dislocation and disintegration.  In other words, something more than a return to the flow of life or even a recognition of the metaphorical origins of knowledge is needed to overcome the prideful tendencies of which Nietzsche speaks.  According to the Christian narrative, a kind of cosmic redemption is needed-a redemption that not only saves us from our pride but also transforms and renews the present state of creation itself.  This is of course precisely what St. Paul claims Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection accomplished and is accomplishing.  St. Paul doesn’t deny that our life in-between Christ’s advents is a life of eschatological tension both within ourselves and with creation as a whole.

In addition to St. Paul’s use of metaphors, we should also consider the use of metaphor and mythical language in the Genesis creation account.  For example, the author of Genesis speaks of a solid dome upon which fixed stars hang (the raqia).  This mythical description, of course, doesn’t square with contemporary science and our current understanding of the sky, stars etc.  Nonetheless, God chose to condescend to the then-current conceptual categories and to use this mythical language to speak of his creation, as his point was not to give us a scientific account of the universe but to proclaim himself as the Creator.  So perhaps we could say that God himself is more like the artist, who plays with metaphor and recognizes its inherent limitations.  Yet, he is unlike the artist (at least the artist in Nietzsche’s description) in that he is in fact trying to teach us something about reality itself, the reality that he himself brought into being and the reality which he is.

Lastly, perhaps participating in liturgical life provides a way to properly acknowledge our finitude and to combat modernity’s “columbaric” tendencies which Nietzsche so aptly describes.  For example, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, as the priest marks our foreheads with ashes, s/he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Of course, for those in Christ, there’s more to story. We, who are in Christ, shall be resurrected in glorified bodies).  In addition, participation in the Eucharist reminds us through humble material means (bread and wine) of our need for spiritual nourishment, that is, our need to be nourished by Christ’s resurrection life. Confession of sin reminds us of our weakness, our proclivity to idolatry and our continual, moment-by-moment need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  The preaching of the word keeps us rooted in the Christian story and challenges us to submit to God’s, as it were, “interpretation” of reality.

How fitting on this Easter Sunday to allow Nietzsche to teach us about the power and relevance of the Christ-event.  Whether ancient, stone columbariua or modern, conceptual columbaria, neither are able to contain Christus Victor.  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!


[1] All citations are taken from an anthology edited by Lawrence E. Cahoone, From Modernism to Postmodernism:  An Expanded Anthology, 2nd edition, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

10 thoughts on “Nietzsche on the Human Tendency to Ossify Metaphors and Christ Who Shatters All Columbaria”

  1. for what it’s worth, i doubt that contemporary physical scientists typically take scientific conceptual systems as ‘the truth’.

    in my experience of physical science, it is more typical to take a scientific conceptual system as a special simplification. e.g., if you wished to predict where a given projectile would land, you wouldn’t attempt to take into account everything of any physical relevance; you would attempt to identify a few measurable quantities that you could use to make a sufficiently accurate prediction (the fewer the better). a successful system would not provide ‘the truth’ by design (or, better, a successful system would be (acceptably) ‘inaccurate’ by design). this is not only design; it is also a recognition of inability: i cannot even count, much less analyze, everything of some relevance to ‘simple’ problems of motion.

    it is interesting to try to imagine a world in which no physical phenomenon could be simply approximated, where the network of physical causality was so dense and intricate as to defy building physical theory. cryptographers build little systems which are designed precisely to hide the logic of the system; why not a universe whose physical principles are intractably hidden?

  2. True, many physicists and philosophers of science will readily grant that mathematically-based physics is not an attempt to set forth reality in itself, but is rather a set of hypotheses that are accepted until disproven by new findings etc. Yet, I think Nietzsche’s point can be understood in terms of how those scientists as they engage in their work, defend their work, apply for government grants (and so on), as well as the average person comes to understand science’s claims, namely, not as a provisional set of hypotheses but as *the* truth about reality. When this happens the metaphors have been ossified.

  3. it seems you took me to say that scientific conceptions are provisional. but what i meant was that, for contemporary physical sciences, in my experience, scientific conceptions are typically meant to be special simplifications. approximation is the name of the game, part of the essence of the business. the coin of the realm is ‘model’ — as in ‘a is a model of b’.

    if that’s right, difference from reality is very much a part of personal engagement in science and of peer-to-peer communications (e.g. grant proposals, papers, seminars).

    i’m not trying to one-up nietzsche — he just seems wrong (insofar as he was speaking of 21st century physical science!)

    come to think of it, physical science seems to have difficulty speaking of grand inspiring notions, such as truth or the common good.

  4. So are you suggesting that in your experience, 21st century science is more “humble” than the science of Nietzsche’s day and, in fact, recognizes its limitations?

    If so, it still seems to me that the common person thinks of the claims of science as authoritative in an almost religious sense. (I’m not anti-science, by the way. I’m simply attempting to describe socio-political phenomena). Also, in the various debates over when life begins etc., scientific data/research is presented both by “experts” (scientists) and laypeople as if it is telling us what really is the case. Legislative policies are created based on these “models” as if they are the truth, reality and not merely approximations.

  5. For my part, I’m simply wondering if Nietzsche’s denigration of the empirical collapses into some form of subjective idealism? And is that a viable Christian epistemology?

  6. I suppose we need to define what we mean by “the empirical.” Nietzsche’s criticism of science should not been seen as stance against the material world. In fact, his polemic against Christianity is that it has given itself over to Plato and his dualism. He famously states, “Christianity is just Platonism for the masses,” that is, it so exalted an other-worldly world that it ends up hating this world, which for Nietzsche is all that there is. Nietzsche is about as far from idealism as one can get.

  7. “…Nietzsche concludes that there is no natural connection between what is perceived in the external world and knowledge.”

    I guess that’s what confused me. How does this avoid a kind of hyper-rationalism, an outdoing of Plato, if you will?

  8. I won’t feign understanding here, but the statement struck me as necessarily leading to perspectivism (no surprise there) and thus to a radical individualism. The self becomes the arbiter of truth, or, rather, the definer of the reality of the thing known. Now, I do see that we come to know nothing apart from ourselves, that our knowledge is therefore in some sense removed from the world “out there” (ding an sich). But is this all Nietzsche was getting at?

    I suppose I’m simply wondering out loud that while he was certainly correct to limit reason, to, in your words, warn us against “taking our conceptual edifices to be the reality and the one and only way to truthfully describe and explain the world,” were his epistemological underpinnings consistent with this? I don’t know; you tell me.

  9. Here’s how I would attempt to draw together some of what you say concerning Nietzsche’s project. Nietzsche denies that we can know, to use Kant’s phrase, “the thing in itself.” We construct “reality” or better “realities,” as the ancient and medieval (Aristotelian) teaching on essences/forms has been rejected. One of the main problems (it seems to me) with such a view is that one can say very little in the realm of ethics or morals. That is, if you fully embrace Nietzsche’s view, how is it possible to establish a criterion for judging between competing “realities”?

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