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A reflection on "Schopenhauerian Christianity" by Tim Summers

Now this reflection is (once again) personal to me, and I'm not offering it as a prescription for everyone or a description of what I think religious faith "should" be like. But it is a description of what my faith has been like in recent years. (If you are feeling down, or are in the mood for something conventionally uplifting - skip it! But for something not quite conventional and not quite nice, read on...)


One of my favourite thinkers is the German C19th philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He was not a Christian. The world that Schopenhauer observed was one of blind striving, a "war of all against all" in the phrase of Hobbes, and deciding early on that "life is a poor thing," he resolved that his vocation was to develop a philosophy that could make sense of it. The resulting metaphysical system, expressed in his masterpiece The World as Will and Representation, is atheistic. But it can be reconciled with Christianity at least in some ethical and practical outcomes, in a way that I think his pupil Nietzsche's cannot.


Schopenhauer commends Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism as world-denying religions; as being rightly pessimistic about life in this world and, in the case of Christianity, having thus developed a tradition of self-denying saints. He especially admires medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart, considering them to embody the mature form of the religion sketched in the New Testament.


"In my opinion, the teachings of these genuine Christian mystics are related to those of the New Testament as alcohol is to wine; in other words, what becomes visible to us in the New Testament as if through a veil and mist, stands before us in the works of the mystics without cloak or disguise, in full clearness and distinctness."


Schopenhauer considered that life in this world is unavoidably harsh and unfair for reasons that are inherent, because they are rooted in natural processes. He precedes Darwin but anticipates his ideas. But the ethical teaching derived from such an insight into the nature of things is not one of strength, like Nietzsche's. Rather, in a world of universal striving and suffering, the greatest virtue and the only way to peace is to stand aside from the striving and show compassion for all living things. And this is the highest virtue in all three religious traditions.


Schopenhauer's view is that the lives of saints in the Christian tradition embody the inner nature of holiness, existing regardless of differences of dogma (such as between Christianity and the religions of the East). For Schopenhauer the heart of holiness is the denial of the will; most obviously of the body and its demands, but also of any satisfaction of one's own ego or worldly ambitions. The philosopher's task is to reveal this inner nature without mythical props.


Here is his account of the putting of self to death, a "not resisting evil" which does seem to resemble some teachings of Jesus and later Christian teachers:


“As he himself denies the will that appears in his own person, he will not resist when another does the same thing, in other words, inflicts wrong on him. Therefore, every suffering that comes to him from outside through chance or the wickedness of others is welcome to him; every injury, every ignominy, every outrage. He gladly accepts them as the opportunity for giving himself the certainty that he no longer affirms the will, but gladly sides with every enemy of the will's phenomenon that is his own person. He therefore enjoys such ignominy and suffering with inexhaustible patience and gentleness, returns good for all evil without ostentation, and allows the fire of anger to rise again within him as little as he does the fire of desires.”


Why do I find reading Schopenhauer, as a Christian, a source of comfort and inpiration? For me there are two conclusions, and they are complementary.


First, and regardless of any religious consolations, it is a mistake to hold to a misplaced optimism about life in this world. If we have high hopes for our life here, we will likely be disappointed. Whereas if we expect little, the good we do experience is (as it were) a bonus. But we should start from the assumption that all our worldly plans will be "shipwrecked," at death and probably sooner. One can find peace in remembering that the goods one has experienced are the exception to the general pattern of life (one's own as well as others'); that shipwreck and failure are in fact the norm, and built into the nature of things.


Secondly, there is the possibility (the "wager" as Pascal called it) that the Christian hope of a better life to come may be true. Disregarding any Christian apologetics or arguments from reason, we could quite credibly choose to hold Schopenhauer's ethical and practical view of life (which, although gloomy, is full of compassion and has an undeniable beauty and explanatory power) and add to it, without contradiction at the level of behaviour, the Christian metaphysical hope; the hope of heaven. Thus: we are never disappointed when things turn out badly; we are pleasantly surprised when they turn out well; and we can still hope that, in the end, "all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well".


Thus I proclaim myself, at least on some days, a Schopenhauerian Christian. I'm not alone or entirely a crank: Kierkegaard admired him too. The soundtrack for this kind of faith is the late operas of Wagner, who turned Schopenhauerian (and sort-of-Christian) in middle life. Most of all his last work, Parsifal. Here we find resigned Christianity, which given the Schopenhauerian inspiration also resembles Buddhism. The destruction of the will-to-life is embodied in haunting music and a story about the Grail. Listen to its overture, and understand life!


The image is a portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer in 1815 by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl.


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