I have often enjoyed reading social critics, as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Reinhold Niebuhr, and even one of the greatest of modern haters of Christians, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I first started reading as an undergraduate many years ago.
There is a discomfiting ring of truth in Nietzsche’s insistence that Christianity appears to be a religion of “everything low and botched,” a religion for the slave class.
He gets personal sometimes. “Whoever had the blood of theologians in his veins stands from the start in a false and dishonest position to all things.” Christians, he says, have a “deadly hostility to reality.”
And then there’s his critique of what often disgusted me and to which I have too often contributed to: that the Christian “turns the spirit of life into fear and suspicion, joy into self-loathing, passion into paranoia.”
Nietzsche also offered a summary objection. “They will have to sing better songs before I believe in their redeemer.”
Whatever those better songs sound like, I suspect that they will have to provide an antidote for the self-loathing that “Bible Belt” Christianity often fosters in good-hearted men and women and children, a better song that looks something like joy.
Having recently come through a season of a great deal of depression that was often accompanied by self-loathing and self-hatred, I saw again the ways in which roots of much of that self-hatred had been fertilized by the theological pettiness I often saw parading as matters of great substance.
So I’ve been thinking a great deal more about “joy” and “happiness” and what that might look like.
The Apostle Paul speaks of “joy” as one facet of the “fruit of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
I find this metaphor of “fruit” fascinating because it holds together two loci often kept separate: it is a “gift” from “the spirit,” not something we manufacture, and it’s “fruit,” which is cultivated, something in which we must participate.
Somewhere I came across the story about a farmer with excellent crops, well-tended and carefully cultivated.
The pastor went out for a visit, perusing the fields with Ben, and said in a pious tone, “The Lord sure has blessed you with a beautiful and bountiful crop.”
To this, farmer Ben replied, “You should have seen the place when the Lord had it all to himself.”
There is wisdom here: For those of us raised in the works-righteousness side of Christianity, we often focus upon petty concerns to the exclusion of large, broad and beautiful concerns.
We can become caught up in the self-hatred that comes from such legalism, such inability to keep all the rules we’ve made up for ourselves and others.
When such works-righteousness does not work, we either quit the Christianity thing all together or we discover that we are “saved by grace through faith.”
But there then is given us no framework or way of life by which we receive and experience a graced existence to overcome our powerlessness.
“Pray more,” “Read your Bible more” and such as this is about as helpful in leading a joyous Christian life as it would be to say to a baseball player, “Pray more” and “Read the baseball rule-book more.”
Many of the medieval Christians, Aquinas for example, insisted that Christian faith was about happiness.
Aquinas, drawing off numerous sources, one of whom was Aristotle, insisted that the end of life is to be happy, which ultimately comprised friendship with God.
This “happiness” was not then mere indulgence. Instead, Aquinas held together in his notion of virtues both gift and work, grace and cultivation.
To be happy, one needed to be schooled in, given the gift of, the cardinal virtues – temperance, justice, prudence and courage or fortitude – along with the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. These were the primary practices by which such happiness were cultivated.
Lee C. Camp is professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the host of Nashville’s “Tokens” Show. A longer version of this article, titled “Sex in your Forties, Self-Loathing, and Cellulite: Why Nietzsche Was Often Right,” first appeared on the Tokens Show blog and is used with permission. You may follow Lee on Facebook and Twitter @TokensShow.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series. Part two is available here.