Frederick Nietzsche, a 19th century atheistic philosopher from Germany, broke new ground in his day by boasting that “God is dead.” Still living in what could be considered a Christian time period, this German philosopher was emboldened by something he recognized. He sensed that Christianity had begun to weaken from within. In his book, Daybreak, published in 1881, he wrote the following:
“[O]ne should notice that Christianity has thus crossed over into a gentle moralism: it is not so much 'God, freedom and immortality' that have remained, as benevolence and decency of disposition…And [when] the belief that in the whole universe benevolence and decency of disposition [should] prevail: it is the euthanasia of Christianity.”
But what is wrong with benevolence and decency of disposition? And why would it lead to the euthanasia of Christianity?
Again, Nietzsche was able to pick up on something a hundred and thirty years ago that many Christians today have a difficult time grasping. That something is this: When one set of principles or virtues are impressed upon the minds of people at the expense of other complimentary principles or virtues, an imbalance is created. Disorder sets in. As for Christians in the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche took it for granted that if the exclusive emphasis on “gentle moralism” or just “being nice” was to prevail within Christian circles, soon, other needed virtues would fall by the wayside. From there, the defenses that for centuries had preserved the mission to win souls for Christ would eventually wither on the vine.
You see, the strength of Christianity is the ability to juggle opposites. For instance, the Holy Spirit is symbolized in the New Testament with both the fierce image of fire and gentle image of water. Christ, too, is given the title the “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of Judah.” St. John the Evangelist is said to have “leaned back against Jesus' chest” during the Last Supper as a son would affectionately do with a father. (John 13:25) But in book of Revelation his familiar disposition towards Christ gave way to awe and reverence: “When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead.” (Rev. 1:17)
As we transition from theology to pastoral practices we find the same principle of juggling of opposites as well. Not infrequently, the admonition to be gentle is emphasized by the apostolic writers. “A slave of the Lord,” St. Paul said, “should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness.” (II Timothy 2:24-25) And as for St. Peter, he said, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence…” (I Peter 3:15-16) Indeed, we can be sure that diplomacy has its place in the New Testament.
Yet, in addition to gentleness and diplomacy, there are other pastoral approaches to consider. For one, Jesus uses violent imagery to communicate our moral obligations. He said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. And as for those who might lead a child astray, he said that it would be “better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) He also characterizes his followers in a peculiar way: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12) And, when needed, a kind of forceful approach was used by the Apostles.
With our modern and refined sensibilities, we have a difficult time coming to terms with the taking of the kingdom of heaven by force. Frederick Nietzsche, prophetic in his own sinister way, saw what this difficulty would imply. Benevolence and decency of disposition, without their opposite virtues, leads to a paralysis of will in the face of evil. When reluctance to confront evil becomes normative among Christians, as it has, evil advances with very few checks while goodness is slighted at every turn.
Like Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, the Church Fathers in the early years of Christianity took this truth for granted. Taking the kingdom of God by force, as Pope St. Gregory the Great saw it, meant that public offenses were to be confronted publicly; especially when high profile Catholics led others astray by their bad example. More important, for those who wanted to be in good standing with the Church, the pastoral policy among the Fathers was always one that insisted on repentance as a precondition to living the life of Christ. Without repentance from serious sin, they argued that good seed was bound to fall on rocky ground, thus bearing little fruit, if any. To be sure, the old self has to die in order for the new self in Christ can emerge.
St. Augustine was one Church Father who maintained that many Christians want to begin anew and follow Christ where he goes. However, they have difficulty enduring the sufferings that threaten. As such, they stop short from doing what Christ demands of them. In his book, On Pastors, he said this was especially case when one’s pastoral duty requires them to correct the wrongdoing of wayward Christians. To heal and bind up what is broken, a pastor must reveal what is hidden:
“There are men who want to live a good life and have already decided to do so, but are not capable of bearing sufferings even though they are ready to do good…Weak men, are those who appear to be zealous in doing good works but are unwilling or unable to endure the sufferings that threaten…Reveal therefore what is hidden, and thus you will open the roof and lower the paralytic to the feet of Christ. As for those who fail to do this and those who are negligent, you have heard what was said to them: You have failed to heal the sick; you have failed to bind up what was broken."
What applies to the clergy equally applies to the lay leadership. The violent who take the kingdom by force do so precisely because they are willing to endure the sufferings that threaten. They know that if the kingdom of heaven is to be ushered in, evil must be exposed and then exorcized. But as any exorcist will tell you, there is always a price to pay for liberating a soul from the powers of darkness. It is exhausting work!
Nietzsche was right. A disproportionate and an exclusive emphasis on “gentle moralism” and “decency of disposition” renders the Christian ill-adapted for genuine spiritual warfare. As such, whenever this one-sided Christianity prevails, it ends up dying. It becomes prey to a myriad of unfriendly forces.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.