I often criticize Christianity for its life-negating tendencies, and I wonder at times if Nietzsche is right in condemning our “slave morality” where we, following Paul, glory in weakness and suffering. I find the precepts of Christian forgiveness and deference to one’s enemies troubling—a veritable recipe for social disaster. Moreover, I find the obsession over one’s petty sins and constant worries about kingdom come rather nauseating. It all seems so vulgar, so low, so wretched.
And yet . . .
And yet Christians created the greatest civilization. Ancient pagan cultures impress, and I quickly confess my awe and appreciation before them, but, contra Nietzsche, Christianity made them finer. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas stand without shame among the many Socratic disciples throughout history. Compare the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Rome’s basilicae maiores, and the Gothic cathedrals of France and Britain to any structure in the world—has man ever reached such architectural and aesthetic heights elsewhere? Consider the Italian Renaissance or Andrei Rublev’s iconographic legacy. Or what about Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Rachmaninov, or the recalcitrant Christian Tchaikovsky? And should we even need to list what Christian civilization has bequeathed to literature? For all the Christian insistence on and mindfulness of humility, beggars, sackcloth and ashes, and such, the cultures that grew from the gospel have ennobled and enriched mankind beyond anything imagined by heathen fantasy.
And yet Christians not only defended their lands with valor and strategic genius, but Christian nations also came within living memory to dominate the entire world. Indeed, the West became weaker after it began to abandon its faith. The faith did not weaken its people; it did not cause civilizational ruin. Quite the opposite! What would Gibbon think now? And Christianity is only for eunuchs and slaves? Tell that to Charlemagne, Jan Sobieski, the Duke of Wellington, Robert E. Lee, and many other men of armies and arms who knelt before the cross.
And yet the words of Jesus Christ leap straight from the gospel to the heart with an authority that I cannot dismiss. For some years, I just discounted this power as one of conditioning. Being a product of Christian conditioning, I expectedly endowed scriptural passages with meaning and profundity. I do not think that this dismissal holds up, though, without undermining one’s ability to reason at all. How can we possibly judge anything rightly if we cannot rise above mindless conditioning? Such a criticism destroys every attempt to reach the truth of things—including itself. Like all reductions of man’s ability to know, this form of spillover psychoanalysis fails the retortion test.
Furthermore, the type of Christian most representative of the religion’s objectionable traits—the monk—shows himself to be fully human after all. I have met many folks who have chosen (or answered the call to) that path, and I find them on the whole quite alive.
So, perhaps, the Nietzschean attacks misunderstand the nature of Christianity and the nature of man.
Here is a charming video of some monastic hermits in Romania.
They are an odd lot—weird in its precise and casual meanings. The last one manifests well monkiness—the peculiar life, light, and insight that come from renouncing the world’s vanity and devoting oneself to God.