The Word Embodied
Open to the Spirit
“The first man was of earth, the second is from heaven.” (1 Cor 15:47)
While the mind of Friedrich Nietzsche was unraveling as the last century ended, Freud's was taut, wrapped around the mystery of unconscious human behavior.
Both thinkers are now celebrated as the great unmaskers of motivation. They spread the awful news that we humans are not as nice as we think. Under our seeming civility and tidy-mindedness lurks a raging thirst for power hunkered down around an oven of anger and lust that Freud dubbed the “id.” Civilization, to Nietzsche's disgust and Freud's approval, supposedly tamed those feral impulses, yet both men suspected that the cooker of repression would explode.
Politically, world wars and holocausts—as recent as events in Rwanda —seem to have confirmed their frightening visions. In academic circles Nietzsche and Freud are lionized as prophets of deconstruction. And in mean streets, will and power work their ruthless ways.
What does all this have to do with the word of God? It suggests how dissimilar God's word is to our own.
Something wonderfully new has been done in us, taught to us, given to us.
The glow of a new way sparks throughout the story of David and Saul. By most reasonable judgment, David should have finished off his enemy and predator. Saul wanted nothing more than David's defeat. Yet, at the very moment when God had delivered Saul into David's grasp, the chance to drive a final stab to the heart and end the threat, David turned away from revenge and violence. “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord's anointed?”
What is only a glimmer in the book of Samuel has blinding brilliance in the Sermon on the Mount. The “anointed of God” is now no longer only the person of Saul. It is every mother's child—even one's enemy. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you. When someone slaps you on one cheek, give the other; when someone takes your coat, give your shirt as well.”
Admit it. This is dumbfounding, crazy—at least to our natural attitude. It is so disconcerting to our normal frame of mind, we Christians have learned to distract ourselves with minutiae while we dismiss the revolutionary import of Christ's words.
“Christ-stuff” infuriated Nietzsche. Freud, urbane humanist that he was, was more sober in his estimation, but just as grave. In Civilization and Its Discontents he wrote of the ugly truth that people are so eager to deny, that humans are not gentle creatures who want to be loved and will defend themselves only if they are attacked:
They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to torture and to kill him. Who, in the face of all experience of life and of history will have the courage to dispute this assertion?
Freud was a deep humanist and a proper gentleman, but he saw in himself and all of us something atrocious. He therefore spun out the predatory logic of organisms bent on maintaining their natural existence.
But as Paul writes to the Corinthians: “The spiritual was not first: first came the natural and after that the spiritual. The first man was of earth, formed from dust, the second is from heaven.” Dust, after all, is a thing: it-ness, matter, the it, the “id.” And Freud fully excavated the underground of human existence if there is nothing to us but dust, if we are mere “its.” He found only the cruel grind of natural processes, laws of consuming and entropy, the big eating the small, the powerful crushing the weak.
Yet Christ is the second Adam, the second David, the new Moses for this remnant of Israel which calls itself a people of the new way and covenant. And his new mountain of teaching can never, ever, be interpreted as a product of human pretense. Nietzsche and Freud have taken that route as far as it can go, and it leads to a trash heap of history.
Jesus Christ is flesh, yes, but the Word of God made flesh. Henceforth all human flesh is reordered and reconstituted. Something wonderfully new has been done in us, taught to us, given to us. The more we yield to it, the more we will be empowered, freed from fears of losing or disappearing, loosed from chains we thought our only security in an unsafe world.
Is it too high, too difficult to aspire to the Sermon on the Mount? Will we not fail? Is not the risk too great? What shall come of us when we dare to give it all away?
However, if we believe our prophet, we need not cower before the odds. The God we worship is even more marvelous than the way offered.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University