Anyone who’s been filthy enough will tell you: to be clean after a shower is an amazing thing. The sensation doesn’t last, though. Even in the most temperate of climates dust latches onto our skin, and we begin again the slow journey towards becoming absolutely, intolerably, filthy. Considering this, it is no coincidence that we refer to our sins and moral wrongdoings as ‘dirt’. After all, the condition of being physically dirty parallels the condition of being morally or spiritually ‘dirty’.
To Nietzsche, this matter of uncleanness was illusory, a mental construct. He argued that if humanity collectively stopped looking to God and started coming to terms with the evils of the world, human society would be propelled towards a truly transcendent understanding of what is good and ‘life-affirming’.
But is this really? Is our preoccupation with God something that’s getting in the way of life-affirmation and a higher moral consciousness? Is the very concept of spiritual sin an illusion we have somehow tricked ourselves into believing, a monster under the bed that we haven’t yet outgrown?
I think not. Nietzsche was, at the end of the day, a kind of idealist, and certainly a kind of perfectionist. His view of the world was noble; he wanted humanity to be better, to get better, so much so that one might detect an undercurrent of disappointment throughout Nietzsche’s literary voice. Beyond the usual criticisms of Nietzsche’s moral philosophy as vague and lacking any normative component, I think Nietzsche was fundamentally wrong about the limits of humanity.
Nietzsche, for all his skepticism, wasn’t skeptical enough. There is no evidence that humanity is at all capable of permanently transcending its wickedness, its ‘impulse to dirt’. Humanity’s moral imperfection has had deep individual and global effects and these effects won’t disappear if we move into a post-religious society. And everything—from domestic abuse to political corruption to the unfathomable violence in the Congo to the entire lofty project of ethics—everything tells us that humanity won’t be cleaner if we shove God out of the equation.
So if the parallel between our physical dirtiness and our spiritual dirtiness is true, the implication is this: we can certainly achieve a state of perfect spiritual and moral purity, but such cleanness will be temporary, just like physical cleanness. Rarely do we have such spiritual and moral purity in the first place, and even individuals with a high capacity for goodness still have their dirt. Think Moses, King David, the apostles Paul and Peter, Gandhi, Mother Teresa; not one of these individuals were free of dirt.
This leads to an uneasy conclusion: perfect cleanness is not to be found in this life. Most people will accept this conclusion, hence the old adage ‘life isn’t perfect’. I think Jesus notes this impossibility of a spiritually and physically perfect Earth in Matthew 26:11, where he says “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (NLT)
But if poverty and sin will always be amongst us, what was Jesus working towards? To make Earth a ‘better place’? If so, Jesus would have agreed to every request, healed every sick person that was brought to him. He wouldn’t have been able to say no.
Jesus had an agenda. The agenda was to give humanity a place where perfect cleanness is possible because it is not possible on Earth. Jesus’ agenda is what brings us as Christians beyond the simple conclusion that we can’t be perfectly clean in this life. So, while perfect cleanness is not to be found on Earth, it is to be found in the Kingdom.
Here and now, perfect cleanness is something we wait on, till Kingdom come. And every time we experience a moment of purity, we are reminded of the reality of the Kingdom, and this is the hope that remains. This is the ‘and yet’ that comes after we say ‘life isn’t perfect’. And for us Christian artists, every labour revolves around this ‘and yet’ that remains; to gather it, capture it, name it, reflect it.
 I have in mind The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil
One Reply to “Here’s the dirt”
David! This renewed my mind on the clarity of Christ’s saving work. NOTHING ELSE except Him is able to save the human condition, which when left to itself, goes downhill. I love the last line because it encapsulates the skills of equipped believers in the kingdom in culture. I enjoy the diversity of gifts in talented people – all backgrounds and beliefs – but I find it precious when we articulate our contribution through the lens of our faith. Thanks for this!
“Nietzsche, for all his skepticism, wasn’t skeptical enough. There is no evidence that humanity is at all capable of permanently transcending its wickedness, its ‘impulse to dirt’…And for us Christian artists, every labour revolves around this ‘and yet’ that remains; to gather it, capture it, name it, reflect it.”