By: Matt Gordon
Nietzsche is not the usual lead-off hitter on a faith-centric blog. But let’s allow the thinker to take a swing today. Here he is stepping to the plate on the absolutes of Christianity:
“Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned” (Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality).
Here, as is so often the case, Nietzsche is quite right and just as much wrong. He is right in that Christianity throughout the ages has often become more dogmatic than its founder. Jesus was certain of himself, and seems to leave a lot of the rest to mystery. “Follow me,” he says. “We’ll sort it out.” But many Christian organizations cannot stomach such freedom—the kind Paul writes about—so they create rules and standards and absolutes and doggedly pursue these statutes or rally against any others who don’t. The Pharisees and Sadducees and religious elites of Jesus’ day gave Jesus every opportunity to weigh in on every conceivable controversy—and some not so conceivable (remember that time they asked about the poor woman who has to marry seven brothers?)—and he met most of these interactions with an eye-roll and what could have been his slogan: “Repent and believe.”
But where Nietzsche misses it that Christianity is a system for believers—believers, mind you, who, like Nietzsche, are quite right and just as much wrong. Christianity is not static; it is a dynamic philosophy who is recalibrating and correcting and over-correcting in an attempt to progress toward the perfect prophet. Where a generation gets something right, it can be guaranteed that the next generation will carry forth the idea to a waywardness. Sin, after all, is not a bad thing, but usually the abuse of a good one.
What Nietzsche misses is what so many miss about belief—that it is imperfect and messy and progressive (not regressive!) in nature: westward leading, still proceeding, as the old song goes.
In Mark 9, Jesus expresses his own views on doubt; his views nearer to Nietzsche’s than they are to Nietzsche’s strawman Christian. In the scene, a father pleads with Jesus to heal his sick son. “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”
“If you can?” Jesus responds. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Here is the chance! For the man to pledge his doubtless, undying belief! The opportunity to double-down on dogma and absolutes and perfect, sweet faith. No matter how unreasonable, how unlearned, the blind passion will own the day. It must, right? That is what Christianity demands—what Jesus requires.
But that is not what the man says.
“I do believe,” the boy’s father exclaimed. “Help my unbelief!”
There, side by side, hand in hand, unbelief and belief. Doubt and certainty. Nietzsche lacked a similar doubt about his own thinking—so do many of us. In truth, the only sure-thing we’ve figured out about our world is that it is too complex for us to figure out. Our Science is always growing, and in that growth revealing an absolute dearth of knowledge. We are finite beings, and, as such, should be perpetually dubious of all we think we know. Faith is no different. My faith cannot see around corners, but its architect can. Jesus is undaunted by doubt, and “taking the boy by the hand, raised him, and the boy stood up.” Healed.
The lingering unbelief of the father was not a disqualifier. It was an identifier—a statement of humility that our faith is not in our faith, but in our God. “Help me, Jesus, with my unbelief!” We cannot receive help and healing for wounds we pretend do not exist.
There are countless articles about how a believer or wannabe believer can eradicate doubt, as if doubt is the enemy. It isn’t. Hardness of heart—in belief or out of it—is the true foe. A supple, humble heart? That is the path of Providence—a well-trod terrain, step by step, hand in hand, tender and true.
We swim from land and glance back. Wondering. Thinking. Doubting. But then we swim on courageously toward some better place, chanting in cadence with our strokes: I believe, I believe, I believe! Help my unbelief!
This post is part of a series called Mark: My Words. To read the preceding post in the series, click here.