Where They Walk Over Sainte Therese

Dwight Longenecker over at The Imaginative Conservative makes an interesting comparison between Friedrich Nietzsche and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, noting the two thinkers — the late 19th century’s most famous atheist and the young nun who would later become one of the era’s best-known saints and only Doctor of the Church — were actually closer to each other than either could imagine.

Or, I suspect, many of their supporters.

Longenecker writes:

Nietzsche was the son of a small-town Lutheran pastor and teacher. He went to conventional middle-class Christian boarding schools. He was the product of German, small-town Protestantism, and it was this background that he rejected. What kind of a God, therefore, did Nietzsche consider to have died? It was the god he learned about within small-town bourgeois Protestantism–a God who expected dull conformity of belief and behavior–a God who didn’t like smart boys asking too many questions. If this was the God that the boy Nietzsche was introduced to in his childhood, then not only was that God dead. He was never alive.

Thérèse, on the other hand, is the product of small-town, bourgeois French Catholicism. Her life and her philosophy are almost the exact opposite of Nietzsche. She never rejected the religion she was given as a child, and yet she questioned the same expectations of dull conformity and challenged them not by rejecting her religion, but by living it out in a radical way that turned the dull piety of the French bourgeois Catholics upside-down.

If Friedrich Nietzsche were to meet Thérèse Martin how would the conversation go? He might explain the death of God and the inexorable rise of nihilism. Therese would say “the good God” was not dead, but only man’s false ideas of God had died. When he explained how morality was discovered by each person, Thérèse would reply that each person did indeed have to discover morality–but in a radically personal way. When Nietzsche explained how the great ones had to give up fitting into dull society, had to give up attachment to all material things, Thérèse would point out that this is precisely what she aimed to do by becoming a Carmelite.

When Nietzsche explained that this process of negation and discovery of true values was the process by which the “superman” came to be, Thérèse would point out that the “superman” is what Catholics call a “saint.” When she cries, “Sanctity! It must be won at the point of a sword!” or “You cannot be half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all!” she gives the world her own version of the “superman”–one who has overcome the dull conventional beliefs and behaviors and risen to another dimension of humanity altogether.

This is one of God’s great jokes: that the world throws out a Nietzsche–a proud, self-dramatizing, Byronic philosopher–the atheist of the grand flourish and the tragic gesture, and God answers with a little girl who likes to sit on Papa’s lap and see her initials in the stars. …

Dull, bourgeois piety. That’s the wall I suspect I hit in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (Well, it is at least one of the walls. I suspect I ran into several, maybe at the same time.) Bourgeois piety has some distinct advantages — mostly it is easy to administer, a machine-made standardized good that is easy to package; a convenient, professionally made program that can be boxed and handed to someone as part of a formal, regulated process of teaching or instruction. This is your faith, the faith you are supposed to have, the faith all those around you have. Believe in this and nothing more.

The first thing to remember is that this dull, bourgeois faith is descended from a dull, village faith, and it is enough for most people. It explains their place in the community, their relation to God, gives them enough meaning and instruction to fit in and belong. The world has always been a tough place for those to whom God says more, or from whom God demands more. That encounter with God almost always turns the believer so touched (or perhaps cursed?) into a misfit, into someone who can no longer fit or find much meaning in the ordinary ways and practices of faith.

Ordinary is no longer enough for people like Thérèse of Lisieux, for people like me. And that frightens many in the community of believers, because the more God calls us to is a reminder that God frequently breaks His own rules and cannot be bound by the boxes the good, pious, dull, bourgeois church people want to put God in. So that God can look nice all boxed up, set on the top shelf for all to see, unused and unexperienced.

The second thing to remember is that in modernity, any system of administration will exist largely or solely for the convenience and ease of the administrators. Protestants are especially bad at this, given that bourgeois dullness and conformity to mass society and the managerial state are the supreme virtues and moral aspirations of Protestant life. (Protestants are supremely intolerant of difference in personality, and their commitment to “diversity” [sic] does not expand that far.) And so, people are to be formed and shaped for the convenience of the systems they are found in — bent or broken to conform, tossed away if the work of conforming them is too hard or unpleasant or even inconvenient. After all, if people are mere things to be managed — a supremely protestant and modern conceit — then who cares if the occasional person has to be mangled, shattered, or discarded in the process of compelling conformity? After all, looking after such ruined and worthless people is what the “caring professions” — social workers and jailers — are for.

(All of this I write about in my book, The Love That Matters.)

The Nietzsches of the world are no real threat to dull, bourgeois piety. By denouncing and abandoning God, He can be left safely in his box high on the shelf, and pointed to whenever necessary. “See, we believe in God.”

But the St. Thérèses of this world are a threat. Because we don’t meet a quiet, content, dull, safe God-in-a-box. The God we meet is a living, breathing, utterly uncontrollable God who celebrates the ordinary — the dull and the bourgeois — with an enthusiastic “yes, and so much more too!” We show there is more to life in community than conformity, that there is transcendence and magic in the world, from far outside the world, and in, with, and under the ordinary. “See, God believes in us!”

That God is a fire we cannot control, a fire we handle at our own risk.

And that God doesn’t make us choose between the ordinary and the extraordinary. That God is present in both, as both, to all. God calls all to follow. Church people choose to privilege the ordinary and exclude the extraordinary. Because church people think they have to. Because church people think it is necessary.

Because church people wrongly believe God demands it.


2 thoughts on “Where They Walk Over Sainte Therese

  1. The Reformation had such power in the beginning, and inspired such a sense of liberation, because – when people began reading the bible intensively and in big gulps – they found that it was not just radical, but practically insane by previous standards of piety. It refused accommodations with corruptions large and small. The bible is dangerous, as is the Spirit that guides us to its deeper meanings, and the history of God-encounters it records. It not only changes lives, it destroys worlds and rebuilds them. It destroys us and rebuilds us.

    The conventional church finds many ways to not-read the bible, to hide the power and the terrifying starkness of facing God. The desperate anguish of seeing that we have been saved by God, that we needed to be.

  2. Last year I read the biography of Luther by Heiko Oberman (originally in German). In the story as this author presents it, Luther had no intention of founding a movement. He was not trying to reform the church. He did not believe that the Pope was the anti-Christ simply by virtue of his office. Rather, Luther had come to believe that the devil had recently (and somewhat literally) invaded the Vatican and prevailed there, and that this must signal the beginning-of-the-end-of-days. He sought to create a fellowship which would be like a life-raft for faithful Christians in this cataclysmic crisis. Much that Luther wrote could not be carried over into Lutheranism. The Reformation created an opening for the bourgeoisie in northern Europe, and they gradually bent it into an instrument for their cultural dominance. By later standards, Luther, Calvin and Knox were not very good Protestants.

    Established churches tended to take a dim view of the various great awakenings, sometimes for good reason. Even in the 1950s, the mainline Protestant churches considered the media success of Billy Graham to be a scandal and an embarrassment. Whatever his faults, Graham was almost singlehandedly responsible for inspiring the revival of the evangelical wing of the Church of England in the 50’s, or rather the subsequent revival by those who were young when they heard Graham speak back then. The pontiffs pontificate, but meanwhile the Spirit goes where it listeth.

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