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Nietzsche misses the point: Jesus changes our desire
For some of us, Lent is about darkness and grieving. Some of us can’t bear the oppression and condemnation that is associated with Lent or Christianity at large. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like how wicked we are became a prominent feature of Christianity. So much so, that postmodernists like Nietzsche relativized what wickedness was in a way to subvert Christianity and our own morality.
Nietzsche argued that we had to find it within ourselves to become who we really are—we had to embrace our envy, and use it to allow us to move in the direction we desire. He thought Christian morality was merely circumstantial. Christians were too cowardly to embrace what they really wanted (money, sex, power, brilliance), and so they sided on purity, goodness, and forgiveness. Nietzsche gave birth to the idea that what we desire is the root of our own morality, and Christians are just too weak and dumb to figure that out. Though he thought faith was a good way to cope with the horrors of life and lamented the death of God, he thought Christianity was as much of a sedative as alcohol was, numbing us to our pain.
Nietzsche’s caricaturizing of the church sticks with us. The church’s reputation as an institution that oppresses populations that it condemns isn’t just derived from Nietzsche’s philosophy but it certainly re-enforced the point. And it lingers with us today even as we may resist Lent. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s criticism didn’t free us of our pain, it just noted that the church isn’t helping.
Nietzsche’s salvation comes from giving in to one’s envy and doing what it takes to become who we are. As many of us know, consciousness about our desire does not necessarily give us that desire, nor is it really what we want. The “Christian Guilt” that is so often stereotypically associated with the Catholic Church and its confessions is rooted in some truth of people’s experience and I think that stays with our culture today. You can see why someone, like Nietzsche, and all of the people he influences, would think that Christianity is oppressive and Lent is oppressive.
But I want to undo that negative thinking about the Church and Christianity and Lent. Galatians can help us. Paul’s letter to Galatia, probably the southern region of the Roman province in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey, makes a major Pauline theological point: faith that justifies us in front of God—not our actions.
The backdrop of the epistle to the Galatians is the Council of Jerusalem, which is cited in Acts 15 as well. The basic discussion the apostles are having during the council revolves around Jewish purity laws. They are debating whether circumcision and other matters of the old Jewish Law are merely cultural or should all Christians adhere to them? Paul, in Galatians as he does in Romans, makes an appeal to Christians to be an inclusive group of people who do not let cultural limitations and obstacles stand in the way of someone’s salvation, circumcision being the one most frequently cited.
In fact, in chapter three, he makes quite possibly one of the most inclusive statements heard in the entire world at the time, famously uttering that we are all one in Jesus—we are children of God. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Paul uses some of the most colorful language in Galatians to describe the extreme opposition he has to dogmatizing cultural constructs and social norms and mores. In other words, if we make a list of rules that people need to adhere to be saved, we are missing the whole point of the message. He is making this argument specifically to the Galatians because of their insistence of conflating Jewish custom with Christian salvation.
Paul, in Galatians, is making a point that our faith transcends culture. That it is about revelation, and is not merely a cultural artifact. That all are welcome to participate in it. In fact, he is saying that Christianity is a pluralistic faith, welcome to all people, and not just limited to Jewish people. In fact, he is reminding us of our own proverb in Circle of Hope: All cultures are fallen, yet Jesus reveals God in all of them. The church does not need to force people to leave all aspects of their culture in order to worship God through Jesus Christ. The temptation with such a radical statement is to denude our diversity and our personalities and who we are as people, in order to fully submit to Jesus. Paul is not making the argument that the things that make us individuals are not valuable, they are simply not required. Paul is saying, like Nietzsche in fact, that we are destined to become who we are in Christ. But Paul’s identity is wrapped up in Christ Jesus, just like all of ours is. We are our true self in Jesus.
Our current idea of self-worth and self-love is not often referenced in the Bible mainly because of that kind of concept wasn’t even in the local vernacular at the time. Sometimes Christians quote Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as a way of arguing for the Scriptural proof of self-love, but I’m not sure Jesus meant that, and I don’t want to force a 19th Century concept into a 1st Century Palestinian mind. The scripture cannot mean to us what it would have never meant to its audience. With that said, when we read the end of Galatians 2, we see something that helps us care for ourselves, which I think is at the root of Lent.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
Paul says that his old self no longer lives. Indeed, it is Christ that lives among us. The self-sacrificing servant. We are mourning our distance from God who transformed us during Lent, and we are feeling the worth and the love that he gives us and moving closer to him.
Undoing the patterns of our old self is a challenge. The Jewish Galatians know that as they force everyone to obey their cultural standards. But we are fighting toward a sense of our new selves and our true selves. We are moving closer to God. If you think you are a dope, I think you will have trouble being redeemed. If you think lent is all about realizing how terrible you are, you might not ever get better. Lent is about learning how much you are worth and then striving for that worth in totality. Nietzsche thought that Christians were too weak to assert themselves, and they called that goodness. That they couldn’t actually take revenge on someone, so they called that forgiveness. That they hated sex, so they invented purity. But living in a selfless way is ultimately the best way to find our self-worth. Those actions that Nietzsche thought were so stupid are in fact Christ living in us. We end our enslavement to the Law that regulates what we should do and not do, because Jesus transforms our desire. Our old self is crucified with Him and our new and true self is resurrected!
This Lenten season let us strive to “no longer live,” but allow Christ to live in us. Because Christ lives in all of us, we can be radically inclusive. Our new identity is formed, so all of the world’s identity constructs are welcome. We are all worth something. We are all children of God. Jesus, himself, is the great equalizer. We are made new—Christ lives in us. And, as Paul concludes his passage, we now live in our bodies—actively. We are actually living right now. We aren’t just redeemed for a later time or enslaved to the Law because wickedness would dominate us otherwise. We are transformed and now positioned to do something great in the Body of Christ. Lent is all about having faith that God transformed us; new faith in ourselves.