Today is Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, the last day before the beginning of Great Lent, when it is customary for everyone to ask everyone else for forgiveness. Today also commemorates the Fall and the consequent exile of Adam and Eve from Eden. The complementary opposite is Pascha itself, where we celebrate the achievement of such forgiveness and the consequent overcoming of the Fall. The two feasts frame the Lenten fast and the very meaning of our religion.
I find the mercy of God as both evidence for and a stumbling block to the truth of the Christian message. The part of my soul sympathetic to the Gospel meekly bows before indiscernible divine judgments, while the skeptical part cannot shake the sense that Christianity teaches a ridiculous form of injustice. I wonder if Nietzsche is justified in his revulsion of the New Testament, where righteous men obsessively wrestle with the most petty disturbances of their souls. From the epistles of Saint Paul, it does not take many mutations to arrive at the hideous spirituality of medieval self-flagellation. At the same time, the Good News appears to exhort men to inhuman degrees of tolerance and mercy which tend to threaten the well-being of its sincere practitioners. How is it sensible to forgive a man hundreds of times for the same offense? Why should we turn the other cheek? The madness of loving one’s enemies and self-abnegation—the ascetic religion’s milk and honey—makes me question whether Jesus Christ came to fulfill the divine economy or to spawn a thousand dangerously idiotic ideologies upon mankind. What salvation is there in making men into voluntary slaves?
Yet, for millennia, Christians maintained their sanity. Christendom did not hesitate to defend itself from the barbarians. Christian men remained men and were not eunuchs for the sake of heaven. As I asked before, was this due to their hypocrisy, as our latter day fools teach, or did they understand better as a society the subtlety of Christian doctrine? Does Nietzschean disgust result from Christianity per se or from the Gospel’s modern degradations? As a modern, it is difficult to approach the statements of Christ without hearing them through the medium of the contemporary world view, just as it is difficult for someone who has been tainted with Calvinism to read Saint Paul without seeing in his works Calvin’s ugly theology. Modernity’s oozing sludge debases out hermeneutic abilities and corrupts all that we see. When I listen to the parables of Christ, I confess that I wonder if a Jew really did poison Western Civilization’s life source well. Germany’s neo-pagans thought so, and the more miserable recesses of my soul worry that they might have been correct.
It has been over a decade since I lost my unquestioning blessed assurance, and since then I have endlessly argued with myself about the ultimate questions. Was the wisdom of Christianity simply its residual Hellenism, complicated and distorted by barbarian superstition? Or, rather, is the wisdom of men quite insufficient to comprehend majestic providence? When I consider the saints and the beautiful fruits of Christian civilization, in word, deed, and stone, Nietzschean suspicions fade away. What folly could produce Ignatius, Irenaeus, Origen, Anthony of Egypt, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Benedict, John of Damascus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Seraphim of Sarov, and the thousands upon thousands of great lights that have illumined the world? What morbid slave morality could have achieved the Church of Holy Wisdom, the cathedrals of the High Middle Ages, or the splendors of the Renaissance? The charity of the Franciscans, the music of Bach, and the modern development of natural philosophy came to be in Christian civilization. The pagan Greeks at their cultural epitome never reached such glory, and a mechanistic understanding of “progress” does not impress me as an explanation for these facts.
We do indeed see through a glass darkly . . . woefully so.