The First Amendment, Nietzsche, and Boundary Maintenance

The First Amendment Center reports that a high school senior believes his speech has been censored by school authorities:

Once a week, Surber wears a black T-shirt featuring the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s take on religion.  In block letters, the shirt reads “GOD IS DEAD.”   No one has told him he can’t wear the shirt to school.  He wears it to provoke debate, he says, and that’s why he wore the shirt the day the debate club photo was taken for the yearbook.  Now Surber says his T-shirt prompted the school’s yearbook adviser to ask for a retake of the photo, without the T-shirt.

Aside from raising several interesting First Amendment and Establishment Clause issues, let’s hope he launders the shirt regularly.

On a more serious note, I wonder what kind of debate his shirt actually provokes.  Few one-liners in the history of thought are more misunderstood, or abused, than Nietzsche’s contention that “God is Dead” (which appears in his parable of “The Madman”).

Nietzsche was specifically referring to the intellectual history of Christianity, which has deep roots in Platonism.  From Nietzsche’s perspective, these roots found fertile soil in a religion that valued Truth claims above all others, and the inevitable result was the rise of skeptical empiricism.  Needless to say, skeptical empiricism has had a fairly corrosive effect on Christianity and other religions.

The Catholic Church in particular has fought a series of rearguard actions (or border defenses) against Enlightenment thinking.  Early defenses involved cosmology (the earth is the center of the universe) and recent defenses involved creation (all life on earth originated according to a literal reading of Genesis).  Unsurprisingly for a tradition that values truth claims, the intellect, and scholarship, the Catholic Church has conceded these issues and adjusted its borders.

Today, some of the more provocative and enriched thinking regarding the physics of the universe and evolution of life comes from Catholic scholars.  John Haught’s work comes immediately to mind.  His book Deeper than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution is a nice introduction for those who are interested.

And speaking of the Catholic Church’s engagement with science, who wouldn’t love to be  a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  Mingling with the world’s greatest scholars in this setting would be a heady experience.

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