Christian Vitalism?

Note from the Editors: The following essay is part of our dialogues series, which aims to bring together the best minds to analyze and debate controversial issues in depth.


Benjamin Braddock & Kruptos debate: Is Vitalism compatible with Christianity?

Kruptos: We recently disagreed on X after I responded to a short video, well produced, showing babes in bikinis as well as athletic young men windsurfing and para-surfing. A horse was galloping on the beach. It all seemed like great fun. It reminded me of things I did in my twenties. Framing this video, however, was a statement by ‘Beachboy007’: “This is my ideology.” This prompted me to respond. Surely, the buff beach lifestyle is great fun, but as an “ideology?” It evoked Kierkegaard’s ‘aesthete’. Where does a lifestyle like this end up when turned into an ideology? Upper-middle-class fun-loving kids extended out as a whole life philosophy, an ideology, a desiccated religion? 

The “endless summer” if embraced as an ideology leads to civilizational collapse. Sure, it’s good to maximize every moment and squeeze the marrow out of the bone of life, but is this the attitude that enables a society to thrive, prosper and flourish? Kierkegaard’s “ethical” mode would say, “no.” At some point, you must set aside the chasing of maximum vitality to do the work of building something. What of duty? What of your obligation to your parents, to society, to the future of your civilization? Marriage is a bond, a commitment to a person, to a relationship, to actively love someone over time, through many seasons, to build something together, something that can be seen flourishing in your children and grandchildren. While the beach might call and you might refresh yourself from time to time by indulging in the aesthetic mode, delight for delight’s sake, you know that the future belongs elsewhere.

As evident by a follow-up tweet, in which he added, “Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now,” with a shirtless man looking out over the ocean next to a gun, the implication, whether intentional or not, seems to draw on the philosophy of Yukio Mishima. Facing the nihilism of a world in which God is dead, we assert the courage to live boldly, forcing our inner strength and vitality into a world where the machine desires to suffocate and humiliate us, to squash our spirit with its banal ugliness. Ultimately, on our terms, we must have the courage to end it all. It is a vision consistent with its foundational principles. But it is one antithetical, in my mind, to the Christian view of the world which strives for being, Being, against the chaos, the entopic nature of evil, to assert and struggle for life, for order, for goodness, for a future lived with God. 

Benjamin: I first stumbled onto this discussion from a later tweet in which you posted a photo of the interior of a cathedral and said “I can tell you this, no surfer boy will ever build one of these, no matter how buff he is, how vital he feels or how many hot chicks he sleeps with. His life will amount to nothing and he will leave no enduring legacy.” This struck a nerve with me because I think surfing and surf culture is good.

Let’s start with the activity itself. Surfing is technically a sport, but can also feel like a religious practice. There are moments while paddling out when you get overcome with awe at the beauty of it all. Being there in the ocean, with the rising or setting sun painting the sky in vivid color, with the rugged cliffs behind you and a clear limitless horizon in front of you — these moments can provoke an epiphany, moments which make you wonder if “this is what I was created for.” Then there’s the feeling of catching a wave, a feeling of becoming part of this great natural force with incredible power. It’s a kind of high that you’ll never find in a bottle, needle, or smartphone, and unlike those other highs, it changes your relationship to creation and how you view the world.

There is this confusion that the chill attitude of surfers belies some sort of laziness or aimlessness, but this is simply the absence of the sort of useless chronic stress and anxiety that plagues most people in modern society. Surfers are different animals. They get up before dawn out of a warm bed to get into a chilly ocean, then go to work all day, and afterward might catch another session. Lazy, unmotivated people don’t do that. I have known many surfers who took up the practice after going through hellish experiences in their personal lives. The girl who first introduced me to it had found her father dead in a freak accident and drifted aimlessly until she found surfing. I know several who took it up as a way out of alcoholism and drug use, and at least a couple of vets who had been on some rough tours of the sandbox. 

As far as duty to parents, society, and civilization goes, I find only duty to parents (and the family clan, more broadly speaking) remotely compelling. Society no longer exists, it was obliterated in 2020 and never returned. As for civilization, I consider myself an enemy of civilization – or at least as defined in the Oxford dictionary. The Book of Genesis tells us that the intended location for human existence is not a city, but a garden. Genesis also tells us that Eve was given to Adam to be his ezer, which is translated as “help meet” or “helper” but in Hebrew carries with it the stronger connotation of being “one who comes to us in our helplessness”. I have always found it interesting that God made a woman to save his lone man, Adam, while Cain in his loneliness sought safety and deliverance by his own hand when he went out and built the first civilization. In this and other scriptures, from the story of Babel to the great city that is judged in Revelation 17 (which sounds exactly like present-day America), civilization tends to be associated with hubris and sin. As Michael Hoffman put it, “If the expulsion from the Garden of Eden — that is to say, the literal alteration of man’s circumstance of living solely upon God’s bounty and providence — was the result of Satanic intervention, why has it not dawned on us that civilization is itself Satanic?”

It is said that Western Civilization has fallen, but that is not true. Western Civilization has never been more advanced. The market extends further and social organization and management are more complex than at any point in recorded history. What has fallen is Western Culture, a culture that was Christian. Culture is very different than civilization – in fact, civilization is often a destroyer of culture, as civilization is imposed from above while culture grows up from below. As Western Civilization has grown ever stronger and more centralized, it has laid waste to our great inheritance: Western Culture. It seems to me that our real obligation is not to society or civilization, but to that culture, to take the last embers of it and carry it to some place where the tinder is very dry and the conditions are right for it to be kindled into a living fire once again. And maybe there is no place to be found, so we swallow the ember and carry the burning fire inside of us. To me, vitalism is about keeping alive the spark that contains the glory of the species. 

Lastly, the quote “Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now,”; that is a line from the movie Troy, where Achilles is explaining that the gods envy the mortality of man. It is our mortality that makes each moment so precious. If our time here was not scarce, it would not be valuable.

Kruptos: I can see the attraction to surfing. I will admit, having grown up in a northern climate, becoming good at surfing was not something open to me. That said, I have engaged in activities that have brought the same awe. I paid for a portion of my undergraduate schooling by working as a bike courier. There are very ‘Zen’ moments riding a bike in the traffic of a big city in which time stands still and you seem one with the world. You just ‘flow’. On occasion, we would take our bikes to the woods, riding the single track, and the same connection would be had with the trail as with traffic. As I aged and slowed down, I began to hike and fish more, enjoying the sound of the loon piercing the mist-covered glassy northern lake at dawn. I felt the pull of those videos, that lifestyle. But I have also learned that they are more often than not an easy substitute for something more, something deeper, something metaphysical, something transcendent.

Today, things like nominalism, rationalism, science, technique, and the machine, cut us off from God, from the symbolic, the archetypal, the spiritual world all around us. We have closed ourselves off from God, and in many ways, this has made him functionally dead to us. As painful as it is to accept, Nietzsche was not off base in his critiques. And if writers like McGilChrist or Joyce are correct, and I think that they are, the changes that have occurred because of modernity have rendered us less able at a physical level to sense and apprehend God. Because of this functional materialism, we try to satisfy our need for connection with the transcendent by embracing our emotions. We look for the “high.”  Whether that emotional high is found in a theatrical style worship service that intentionally manipulates our emotions, or it is the feeling of being in top physical condition, the rush of catching the wave, the thrill of the high-speed descent on a mountain bike, the pleasures of sexual intercourse, or something as mundane as that latest vacation in the Caribean, we look to fill that void with the experience of vitality.

The monk in his cell is a reality almost entirely incommensurable to us. So too the masons who would work tirelessly shaping stone to build a place of worship within which their great-grandchildren would worship. A vision that transcends the mere fleeting emotions of pride or personal satisfaction. Theirs was a world in which they could realize the transcendent in stone. The monk could maintain himself in prayer long past when emotion had receded and God had withdrawn his presence as a test: will you pray and seek Me without feeling any tangible rewards? So, yes, none of us builds cathedrals. But it will not be vitality that will spur these projects either.

Benjamin: Emotions are one thing. They are powerful in the moment, and some leave lingering effects, but they are ultimately transient, like little butterflies or bees that softly land on you before soon fluttering away. What I’m talking about is a whole other thing. It carries emotion with it, but it is exponentially more powerful. Steinbeck described it in the following way:

“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.”

I think that without these moments of glory, man loses spirit and becomes a dutiful slave of the system, spending his workdays doing things that have little meaning to him and spending the weekends trying to drown the existential dread of living out of accord with the self. We are all in danger of being sucked in by the system, of becoming cogs in the machine. But if we can remember the glory, we have some standard of comparison that hopefully makes it clear when we are in a rut for too long, and motivates us to overcome. 

Kruptos: Your descriptions are stirring, in part because we can both place them within a transcendent order. The vitality we experience in this life lifts our eyes heavenward to God our Creator. To deny ourselves this richness is to rob ourselves of the many ways in which we can honor God. After all, He made our bodies a glorious thing. Why would we not wish to run and jump, to lift and carry, to craft and shape? Why would we not wish to savor and delight our senses? Why would we not delight in the embrace of our husband or wife? Just because someone has cut themselves off from acknowledging God as their Creator and Savior, we would not then say they should be denied the joy of living a vital life. And even when done outside of the Christian faith tradition, the artifacts of these pursuits still cause us to marvel, as we lift our eyes heavenward to give thanks for these common graces.

But herein comes the rub of “vitalism” as a philosophical stance. I agree wholeheartedly that civilization drains the life out of a living culture, largely in the pursuit of money and power. Spengler’s insights ring true in this regard. What happens to a culture when it self-consciously reaches the Nietzschean moment of declaring the death of God? This is the fruit of civilization. The danger that I see in vitalism in this context is not something that is rightly ordered, rooted in culture and the faith that helped birth it; rather, it lives within the dead husk of something once living, struggling for life. It sees the banal ugliness of civilization and is rightly repelled. But rather than looking to the true living source of all things, its eyes remain trapped within the experiences of this life. Desire is good when it is rightly ordered, and it is rightly ordered when its end is directed to God the Creator in Christ. This end is the key. It is the dividing line which allows us to sort what is ordered and good from that which is deficient, dare we say even sinful? It is the ends of our desires and our aspirations that define their worth. There are a lot of things done by fellow Christians that fall short of that mark.

The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament is little read, and when it is it’s often poorly understood, but it’s a remarkable book. It seems like a bleak one. Everything is meaningless. He pursued wisdom and knowledge. He pursued pleasure and even folly as a project. He engaged in great building projects. He increased his business interests and grew his wealth. He became the greatest of men. Then he looked around at what he had built and all of it was meaningless, empty of value. He settles on a simple piece of wisdom, repeated five times in different forms throughout the work: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment.” (Ecc. 2:24-25)

The point is not the achievement itself, which is meaningless and empty, but rather the simple joy of doing something before God. You eat and drink and find pleasure in things not because they are pleasurable in and of themselves. It is not about ‘the orgasm’. Rather, it is the doing of these things in the presence of God. When life is rooted in this larger metaphysical frame, done before God, it gains a meaning that it cannot achieve on its own. The vitality of life comes not from the things themselves, the doing of them, the achieving of them; but that they are done before God. Vitalism without this cannot resist the accusation of Qoheleth: it is all meaningless.

Benjamin: I am glad you brought up Ecclesiastes. It is one of my favorite books in the Bible and I agree, it is a deeply misunderstood text. The Preacher reminds me quite a lot of Nietzsche actually, another deeply misunderstood philosopher. I once heard a minister condemn it as “nihilistic” and say that it was a mistake it was included in the Bible. I think rather the opposite, it is an embrace of life and fate, recognizing that death equalizes us all and that nothing is permanent, we should live with joy, exulting in the fruits of our lives and labor, and doing whatever we do with everything that is in us. Knowing full well that we’re not going to be around here for long and we’re not in control of much. We are in the world but not of it. Travelers passing through on the way to our eternal home. Most people live lives of desperation because they care too much about life. They try desperately to preserve it, turning themselves into breathing corpses in the attempt. They imagine that they can and must control their lives. But as Ecclesiastes says, it rains on the just and the unjust. The righteous man dies before his time, or worse, lives long enough to see his offspring degenerate, and the wicked prolongeth his own life. Many a good man has put in decades of devoted service to family and civilization, only to be treated worse than a dog by his own wife, kids, society, and government. We live in the age of the snitch. People turned their own families into the FBI after January 6th. I know wonderful people who were loving parents whose children have now turned into hate-filled wretched demons. That’s the way it goes. The saints are tried like Job. There is very little that we really can control. We should focus on that and let the rest fall where they may. 

Ecclesiastes also says “Much study is a weariness of the flesh” and this has been going on for a while, so I will close with my basic argument for vitalism:

The church is not suffering from an excess of vitality. Rather the opposite. For decades it has compromised with the world. Tolerance, ecumenicalism, evangelization. The church reached out so far that it fell out of the window. In the name of making people feel “comfortable”, the modern church is constructed to resemble not a church but an auditorium. The hard wooden pews have been replaced by soft stadium seats. The pastor no longer wears a suit. A new translation of the Bible comes out every year. But where is the fruit? Where is the power of God? Where are the miracles? The church made the mistake of lowering itself to the level of the lost rather than elevating the lost to the level of the church. From the suburban megachurches to the Vatican itself, across the spectrum of Christian leadership there is a stench of weakness tinged with fear. Not the fear of God but the fear of disapproval. There is a grasping desire among many leaders across institutional Christianity to be accepted and loved by the world. But the church can only be loved by the world if it becomes like the world, and if it becomes like the world it is no longer the church. 

So who do we look to as an example of Christian vitality? Christ himself. As the church became ever more worldly, a conception of Christ emerged based not on the gospel but on the kind of Christ that the world could be comfortable with. Christianity seems to be the one major religion in the world where women significantly outnumber men in church attendance and I think this is a major reason why. This conception robs Christ of his virility and manliness and presents a weak and somewhat effeminate nice guy, a pacifist and socialist. The real Christ said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, and when Judas Iscariot (the First Leftist) complained that the expensive ointment from the alabaster box that Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus could have been sold and the money given to the power, Jesus replied, “… the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.” He faced down the establishment and religious and civic leaders with boldness and spoke bluntly and with authority. When he saw corruption in the temple he did not just complain about it, he chose violence, expelling the moneychangers, flipping over their tables, pouring out their coins, even fashioning a whip to beat them with. In the same passage of scripture he speaks against the temple as a building, condemning it to destruction, and John recorded simply “But he spake of the temple of his body.” Which brings us to the physical vitality of Jesus. He walked long distances to preach outdoors in the elements. When Peter was sinking in the sea he physically lifted him up out of the water. He went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights. He carried a heavy cross after being beaten half to death. When a soldier at the crucifixion offered him wine mixed with gall (a numbing painkiller) he refused it. This was not a domesticated, civilized, or weak man. His life was not taken from him, he gave it willingly. Mark recorded that when it was his time to fulfill his destiny, he walked ahead of the disciples, saying: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. My God what an example of what a man can be, to embrace fate to the point of striding to torture and crucifixion. 

Christ said “I pray not for the world.” He did not come to build an earthly kingship. He came for us. He brought us a sword, and we should pick it up and use it. He lived well, lived fully, not seeking security and old age, but remaining true to his vital imperative to carry out God’s will, willingly chose to endure an excruciating and humiliating torture and execution, through which he conquered and defeated death, hell, and the grave, and by which we can all find salvation. 

Kruptos: I think we are mostly in agreement. I don’t disagree that people lack vitality. My point is that I see vitalism as dangerous if pursued as an end unto itself. A vital, healthy life is both subordinate to and finds its source of power in the Living God revealed to us in the scriptures. There is a powerful sequence in the Gospel of Matthew; it begins in the middle of chapter 14 with the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, teaching his disciples about the essence and power of faith, upon hearing the suggestion that the crowds should be sent away to buy food, informs his disciples, “They do not need to go away, You give them something to eat.” When the disciples inform him, their eyes fixed upon and limited by the material, that they only have five loaves and two fishes, Jesus proceeds to demonstrate to them what faith and the power of God can do.  

Following this story is the account of Jesus walking on the water and his invitation to Peter to join him. All is fine until Peter takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to assess his material conditions, the wind, the waves, and the reality that he is walking on the water. When he starts to sink, Jesus pulls him to safety, admonishing him: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This is followed by a story in which Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the people, “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Then there’s the story highlighting the faith of the Sidonian woman and the feeding of the 4,000 in a similar fashion to the feeding of the 5,000 which began this sequence.

Finally, everything is brought together in chapter 16. After the Pharisees and Sadducees try to test Jesus, he warns his disciples against them: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” When the disciples misunderstand this completely, Jesus directs them back to the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000. It is a subtle point here that Jesus is making, one often lost on us in our results-driven, technological age. If it works, it must be good. It is a fluffy loaf of bread. But Jesus urges his disciples to pay attention to the yeast that causes the bread to rise. Don’t be fooled by the success, dare we say, the vitality, of the teaching of other religious leaders. Ask yourself, what fed the 5,000? What fed the 4,000? It was the power of God. That is the power, the ‘vitality’, that is supposed to drive what is happening here through me, and when I am gone, through you. Don’t get sucked into using the wrong yeast. I sense that you and I are seeing the same thing, but expressing it differently.

Many in churches, and society more broadly, have bought into the sickness that is liberalism, or better, the idea that libertinism is the equivalent of freedom in Christ. Yes, they will talk at length about a rightly ordered sex life, but then indulge themselves without restraint in every other area of their life. They are overweight, unhealthy, and live in homes cluttered with possessions they don’t need. As you say, it seems when people do try to impose discipline they do so in a manner that resembles the caricatures we have of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  Or they are building successful churches that are full of people, open to the “seeker,” but don’t stand for anything controversial. They are ‘nice’. In many ways, our churches practice a kind of functional materialism. Far too many are adept at using God’s language, but in reality, they live Nietzsche’s death of God. Their yeast is not that which fed the 5,000 and the 4,000, and it shows.

This means presenting a vision for a full life that does not fall into the trap of materialist nihilism, where the pursuit of strength, beauty, and vitality is subordinated to the reality that true power can come only from God. The meaning of the Incarnation is that the realities of faith are embodied, the presence of God is embodied. One of the key New Testament teachings is that the Christian struggle is not primarily material, but spiritual. Our battle is against ourselves and against the evil one whose desire is to usurp God. The first battle makes us ready for the second. How can you sustain prayer if your body is weak and unhealthy? One of Augustine’s great insights is that evil lacks “being.” Only that which is good has being. Evil is always a corruption of what is good, the “queering” of being. The struggle is for being, for Being. To strive for that which is Good, Beautiful, Truthful, Ordered, and so forth is the essence of the human struggle. But it can only be done when both the object of that struggle is rightly ordered, as in directed to the Living God, and the power for that struggle comes not from ourselves, but also from the Living God.

I will admit that this sounds sermonic, and no doubt it is. But when properly understood, received, and lived, the Christian vision of life is one of tremendous power and vitality, one that conquered the world. If you wish to attach the label “vitalism” to this, I can live with that.

Kruptos writes at seekingthehiddenthing.com and can be followed @_kruptos.

Benjamin Braddock is an American writer and IM—1776’s Commissioning Editor. He can be followed @GraduatedBen.


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