Never Human Enough

Christmas Special: A Response to “The Will to Christ” and “A World After Liberalism: A Review”

Much of today’s subterranean online discourse falls into one of two tendencies. Firstly, a tending toward Nietzschean impulses, which Chris Waldburger describes as being “invested in mythology, beauty, health, and national greatness.” Secondly, a tending toward what Charles Haywood describes as a “post-Christian Right” that rejects “the Enlightenment venom” and returns “to a much older, much longer-pedigreed Christianity, that is both universal in its appeal and confident in its civilizational role.”

It is not unusual for the second group to speak of a Christian worldview. But this immediately poses problems. Christianity isn’t a worldview, it is a religion. Or better, it is a revealed religion held to be of divine origin. This means it isn’t some way of viewing the world which can stand alongside other ways of viewing the world. Worldviews are human constructions, whereas Christianity understands itself as founded on divine revelation. This does not mean a divine perspective of the world is simply dispensed from on high to take its place alongside all the worldviews of man. It means that any Christian way of viewing the world must always be subject to radical critique by the One who is by definition wholly other to us. 

God cannot be perceived, conceived, represented, or even imagined in any way definitively or exhaustively. Any human perception, conception, representation, or imagining must therefore be open to perpetual reconfiguration and, ultimately, destruction. To keep this ever in mind is to view the world through what Kierkegaard called the “infinite qualitive difference” between humanity and divinity. It means standing on the other side of the dereliction experienced on one’s knees, in “fear and trembling,” before what Romano Guardini described as God’s “exclusive majesty and awful sanctity.” 

Many will retort by pointing to the revelation itself. God might be wholly other, the Veiled One, they say, but he has unveiled himself. He has thus become known, and available to perception, conception, representation, and imaginings after all. This is indeed correct, but still often leads to a lazy overconfidence. For the unveiling is not, strictly speaking, a book of Sacred Scripture, a set of doctrines and dogmas, a liturgical and sacramental tradition, and so on: it is a human being. 

As such, all that is known of the Veiled One, is strictly subject to the lineaments of the Unveiled One, a particular human being, the Christ. The Christ is understood by tradition to be ‘fully human’ – the exclusive fullness of humanity enshrined in one particular life. It is “through him, and with him, and in him” that Scripture, Dogma, Sacraments and so on exert the revelatory power of the divine: the unveiling of the One eternally enthroned in awful sanctity far beyond the veil of the Temple. 

Any attempts to claim a worldview as ‘Christian’ therefore means asking if, and to what degree, the elements of that worldview correspond to the revelation itself. Put differently, it is to ask, in light of the Unveiled One being ‘fully human’ – how human is this? In answering this question, we get to the core of the most fundamental divide in Western Christianity. This is the split between those who, on the one hand, hold that set interpretations of Scripture, one dogmatic tradition, and specific sacraments are the authoritative expression of the revelation – exclusive in majesty, with an exclusive Magisterium – and thus universal, or katholikos, that is, Catholic. 

On the other hand, there are those who say that any expression of the revelation is by definition lacking, that any body of teachings always falls short, and can never attain ‘exclusive majesty’ because that belongs to God alone. They say there must be a perpetual protest against the presumption of pretending anything is proximate to God: hence, Protestant. In other words, there are multiple Protestant worldviews, relative always to particular times and places. While history includes multiple Catholic worldviews too, these can and must only be adjustments and variations of the one universal worldview entailed by the definition of Catholicism itself. 

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This lengthy preamble hints at a theological duality between the ‘apophatic’ and ‘kataphatic’. To return again and again to the infinite qualitative difference between us and the divine is to walk the via negativa, or do apophatic theology. This maintains that the only way to gesture to that which is ‘wholly other’, is to negate what we think we know of it. God is then not, for example, understood as omnipotent in the sense of having an intensification of our limited powers as human beings. No, omnipotence means precisely that God’s power is wholly other to our powers, literally incomparable, not some summation of them. Unchecked, this via negativa brings hostility to hierarchy. God is not the ‘highest point’ on a gradated scale of being, as such, because to imagine God in this way is to ensnare his attributes or character within a human scheme, when all such schemes must stand open to their destruction by God’s own hand. 

The other side of the duality, however, works from the conviction that certain words, certain schemes, certain images, and certain understandings are mandated affirmations of God. There is positive content we have been given about who God is, approached through what is called kataphatic theology. God is then not merely other to us, but ‘there’, given to us, be it through Scripture, or experience, or reason, or the Church, and so on. There are many ways of interrelating apophatic and kataphatic approaches, but I want to draw attention to how they map onto today’s churches viewed through the prism of the Culture War. 

‘Liberal’ Christians always return again and again to some apophatic statement of God: “We can’t hold the traditional definition of marriage to be definitive, because God is utterly beyond all our definitions”. ‘Traditionalist’ Christians always return, conversely, to the kataphatic: “We can affirm exactly how marriage is to be understood because it is described in Scripture, defined in doctrine and Canon Law, and affirmed by common practice in the tradition.” 

At the extreme end of ‘liberal’ Christianity, there is antinomianism – a lawless libertinism, an anything-goes faith where God is nonbinary, sexual morality is outdated, and statues of the Buddha decorate Episcopalian cathedrals. At the extreme end of ‘traditionalist’ Christianity, there is legalism. Legalism mistakes adherence to religious stipulations for faith. The legalist thinks only about whether his actions adhere to the letter of the law, but obedience is only an effect of faith. Obedience must be rooted in the authority of the human being with whom there is a personal relationship in faith, in the Unveiled One. To make it all personal (“God won’t mind, he loves me, right?”) commits the first error of liberalism, to make it all just about compliance commits the opposite error of legalism.  

Liberal Christianity usually has features which can be traced back to a one-sided attempt to tread the via negativa, apophatic theology. There is the liberality of openness to contemporary modes of thinking, because no one philosophy is considered uniquely proximate to the faith by tradition. There is the aforementioned hostility to hierarchy, in which offices within an ecclesial structure are not mandated as dispensations of divine prerogatives. There is huge unease about Christian communities exercising political power, because this is seen as somehow beneath the radical otherness of God which undoes all human power. 

The net result of having only one side of the duality in play, of not having positive content drawn from tradition, is that ‘liberal’ Christianity ends up using the content of contemporary society instead. Modern-day liberalism becomes the kataphasis, the revelation. This faith then aligns all too comfortably with the dominant mores of the age: egalitarianism becomes universal salvation and the levelling-out of differences between religions, pop aesthetics intrude worship and piety, dogma is limited by cultural relativism, historical revisionism runs riot, and so on. 

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All this brings us back to Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy has a duality of its own with which everyone is familiar, and with a bit of creative application, it loosely aligns with the apophatic and the kataphatic: the Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian impulse deals with appearance, it gives hard edges to things, it offers clarity, and exemplifies the particular (principium individuationis). Apollonian art is sober, it offers resolution, it is reasoned, and lawful. The Dionysian impulse is the opposite – it undoes all the tidy structures of Apollo with the forces of unreason, uncertainty, chaos, and mystery. Dionysian art is the art of intoxication, it bespeaks the Eternal One in whom all individuality is destroyed. 

Andrew Louth describes the apophatic as an “abandonment to God in a felt experience of darkness, disorientation, bewilderment, and ecstasy.” Nietzscheans can surely see some parallel to the Dionysian here. The extremes of each also mirror each other, the Apollonian extreme of arid legalism, and a Dionysian extreme of antinomian libertinism. 

The language of apophatic and kataphatic itself is bequeathed to us from an anon. His pseudonymous handle is Dionysius the Areopagite. He masquerades as a figure from 1st century Athens, in whom the Ancient Greek wisdom was held to be have been transposed into Christian terms, although he actually lived five centuries later. 

The framework just provided enables us to revisit this question of ‘a Nietzschean Christianity’ afresh for the Current Year. The question itself is nothing new. It has been asked and answered in various ways from within a decade or two of Nietzsche’s death. The problem is that nearly all the answers have been posed within Protestantism. This is because the basic pattern of Nietzsche’s thinking is markedly protestant: it is Lutheran. It’s predictable to point out that his father was a Lutheran pastor, but perhaps less so to highlight his similarities with Luther’s own teachings. Luther is very different in tone and content to Nietzsche, of course, but there are broad patterns which make it clear that Nietzsche could only have been of Lutheran stock. 

In the first place, there is the radical individualism of Nietzsche, and the turning everything inward in Luther’s understanding of the Christian realizing he is justified by faith alone, apart from the law. This is something every Christian needs to work out, or rather have revealed to him, in the abandonment of all corporate and ecclesial attempts to achieve holiness through, say, piety or the sacraments. Custom cannot bring human flourishing and self-realisation, this only happens alone, in isolation. You must shake yourself free from custom, and venture out into the unknown. Then there is the moment of intense personal realization, which for Luther happened high in the tower of Wittenberg Castle, and for Nietzsche high in the peaks of the Alps. The way to do this for both is, of course, through suffering. 

In Nietzsche’s own writings on Christ, the parallels with Lutheranism are even more apparent. As Nietzsche says in The Antichrist, “there has only ever been one Christian, and he died on the Cross.” Nietzsche had a surprisingly high estimation of Christ himself, whom he felt could adopt ressentiment as a tool in the pursuit of life. Nietzsche’s issue was with the historical institution of Christianity, because it translated that ressentiment into a moral code to be imposed on others, when each has to find their own path. But again, this is not as dissimilar to Luther as one might expect. For Luther, the collapse of Christianity as a moral code is the key moment of faith. Then the believing Christian becomes righteous, because Christ’s own righteousness is imputed to him. Both Luther and Nietzsche held Christ’s own experience to be definitive against the historical institution of the Christian religion, which is where it all goes wrong. As the latter writes: 

“One could, with some freedom of expression, call Jesus a “free spirit” – he cares nothing for what is fixed: the word killeth, everything fixed killeth.”

That is, when one’s path is fixed as a law for others to follow, it kills, it descends into the legalism by which each soul hides from reality. Again, Nietzsche writes: 

“The experience ‘life’ in the only form [Jesus] knows it is opposed to any kind of word, formula, law, faith, dogma.” 

It was thus natural for Protestant theologians like Paul Tillich, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or the early Karl Barth, to utilize Nietzsche’s work as a tool in the perpetual protest against any fixed form of religion claiming direct divine authority against others. Those who have presented Nietzschean variants of Christianity have to be selective, of course, because the basic commitments are so different. But this is the wrong sort of selectivity to focus on. What goes unnoticed is that Christians have invariably adopted only a Dionysian reading of Christ because that proved so serviceable for Protestantism. What the Current Year demands is something more creative: an Apollonian Christ. 

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This brings us full circle. If the divide in today’s discourse is to be made a creative tension, an Apollonian Christ is necessary. If what is required is a Christianity “that is both universal in its appeal and confident in its civilizational role,” what is required is a worldview, or rather, the worldview that understands itself as universal. That is, something with clear lineaments, hard edges, clarity, and lawfulness. A faith which is not fearful of rules, sobriety, distinctions, hierarchy, and civilisational commitments. Here the corrective to unbridled Nietzscheanism is most promising, challenging those who make much of Nietzsche’s conviction that morality can be reduced to self-interest. While this seems dissident when applied to the interests of certain groups, the same conviction is at the root of neoliberalism, and identity politics. It is therefore profoundly dehumanizing. 

An Apollonian Christ will go far beyond Nietzsche, of course. This Christ cannot permit any breach from the historical institution of the religion itself. There is positive content, it comes by way of teaching, tradition, liturgy, and authority. It must remain careful to avoid naïve legalism, and ever be willing to undergo correction by the unapproachable light of the unseen God. But it also emerges on the other side of centuries of a lazily one-sided apophaticism, which utilizes the incomprehensibility of God’s difference to us to pretend all differences among ourselves are similarly incomprehensible.

This will be a faith that holds firm to liturgical form and beauty, and banishes forever the acoustic guitar. It will treat the moral teachings of the tradition with all the gravity of Christ’s own words to the disciples, and never again surrender to lawlessness. It will understand that any human social structure of global universality will always lapse into evil unless it is of divine origin, for only God sees the world in its totality. It will be universal, but forever tethered to a particular place. It will not be fearful of wielding power, but work toward establishing an integralist political ordering by whatever small steps it can. 

Perhaps most importantly, because it is committed to the historical religion and not just the person of Christ, it cannot be merely restorative. It will have the confidence to engage with contemporary thinking without going astray, because it holds so firmly to its own sources it will not slip into the ungrounded fancies of liberal Christianity. This will be a religion that has passed through modernity – a post-Enlightenment Christianity that will, as Christianity always has, be marked by the heresies it has challenged along the way. Untangle the errors of the Enlightenment, yes, but don’t try and recreate premodernity. 

This faith will be offering a civilizational alternative among others in a world gone mad, and as such have an apologetic which works by way of covert or black-ops theologizing on matters only vaguely connected to religion. It will be glimpsed whenever that which is truly human emerges among the ruins. For if there has only been One who is fully human, the watchword for a world rebelling against even our humanity, is that we can never be human enough. 

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. His forthcoming book “Obedience is Freedom” will be published by Polity Press in 2022.

Cover art by: Mark Granza (Original Christ by: The Saints Project)




  
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