You should not beautify Christianity or try to dress it up: it has waged a war to the death against [the] higher type of person, it has banned all the basic instincts of this type, it has distilled ‘evil’ and ‘the Evil One’ out of these instincts—the strong human being as reprehensible, as ‘depraved’ Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, failed, it has made an ideal out of whatever contradicts the preservation instincts of a strong life . . .
So writes the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his controversial book, The Anti-Christ. Throughout much of his work, but particularly in The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche makes the now widespread accusation that Christianity demands of its adherents submission to a morality fundamentally opposed to the fullness of life. Nietzsche contends, Christianity—along with Platonism and Judaism—prevents one from being fully and truly alive for the sake of transcendental doctrines. For example, he claims that the notion of “sin” makes Christians ashamed of instinct and sexuality, while “faith” discourages believers’ natural curiosity and deadens their desire to know.
I think it negligent to simply dismiss Nietzsche’s claims. Some Christians’ bad habits and deformed understandings of their faith too often lend credence to Nietzsche’s troubling assertions. How many Christians brush off questions about the faith and swiftly end discussion by chalking an answer up to “mystery,” a quotation from Scripture pulled out-of-context, or the appeal to some other authority? How many Christians, when presenting the faith, choose to lead off with repulsively rigid articulations of morality? How many Christians, by the example of their lives, appear numbed to beauty or apparently lack joy and zest for life? Nietzsche’s criticism reflects many people’s experience that the Christian life seems narrow and constricting, repressing our natural desires and tendencies in unhealthy ways.
“We Christians weren’t chosen by the Lord to do little things,” said Pope Francis in a recent homily to confirmation candidates. Far from constricting human nature, a thorough examination of the Gospel reveals that Jesus Christ, the Word, “was life and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). The graces of the Gospel compel us to seek out the accomplishment of grand things.
Without the Gospel, the lives of many great saints easily conform to Nietzsche’s scathing indictment. Mother Teresa’s dedication to the poor of Calcutta turns out to be a perverse glorification of the most repulsive and wretched strata of society. Maximillian Kolbe’s act of self-offering is nothing but a pointless throwing away of his own life. Vincent de Paul’s care for the poor is merely the systemic enabling of the feeble and frail. Bonaventure’s years of theological reflection are but the pitiable exercises of a mind trapped in a scholastic prison.
Authentic Christian teaching confronts this accusation head-on, proclaiming that the Gospel message properly interpreted builds man up rather than constrains man. In fact, St. Thomas is so bold as to say, “There is in man something great which he possesses through the gift of God; and something defective which accrues to him through the weakness of nature. Accordingly magnanimity makes a man deem himself worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts he holds from God.”
The Christian tradition takes hold of magnanimity—the greatness of soul—from ancient thinkers and transforms it in light of the Incarnation. Like all virtues magnanimity disposes us to readily perform good acts. Magnanimity, the virtue which arouses in us aspirations to achieve feats worthy of great honor, can be thought of as a confidence. In other words, true magnanimity inspires man to greatness. Since all the virtues act in conformity with our nature, raising us up, magnanimity perfects us. Understanding magnanimity’s role in the spiritual life helps us to see the place in the Christian life of seeking after greatness.
But are we left caught in an interminable struggle between magnanimity and humility? Hardly. Central to a correct understanding of humility and magnanimity is the idea that both virtues are grounded in seeing things as they really are. St. Teresa of Avila, for example, says humility is simply truth. As if they were separate squares on a Rubik’s cube, humility and magnanimity fit together, because in the end they highlight different aspects which ultimately help us to see ourselves as God sees us.
Not just a promise for the future or a solace for the weak-minded, the joy and vigor of the Gospel are intended for all people in every time and place. The virtue of magnanimity orients believers to seek and strive after the loftiest of aspirations. Empowered by grace and aided by virtue, great-souled believers become who they were made to be.
Image: Mary Harrsch, Monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg National Battlefield