The Word Embodied
Open to the Supernatural
“Cursed is anyone who trusts in human beings.” (Lk 5:4)
Perhaps Jeremiah was having one of his many bad days when he came up with that bit of wisdom. The very idea. We are cursed if we trust humans.
When we hear such outrageous statements in our scripture, if we're not dozing off, we must somehow flick a little switch in our consciousness that allows us to think, “This has to be nonsense.” Then we don't have to worry about making sense out of it in our daily lives. No sane human would think or talk the way Jeremiah does.
But that is what should give us pause. Maybe our sane, human way of thinking is not God's way. What if God's ways are utterly unlike our ways?
We try to enlist God in the respectable ranks of human nature, the best, highest, and brightest of us. But God is not us. God is utterly beyond our words and concepts, infinitely more vast than our deepest desires and resistant to our meager common sense.
Moreover, if we are to judge by Luke's account of the Sermon on the Mount, even Jesus, who is God with us, has a view of human affairs thoroughly at odds with our own. If we have to tune out Jeremiah's mistrust of humankind, imagine the skills of repression we must employ to ignore Christ's rejection of our every human impulse.
The benighted Nietzsche was clever enough to see the terrible truth in the Sermon on the Mount. What Jesus proposes is a bald reversal of human nature. Nietzsche knew that every last one of us wants wealth abounding and a full stomach. We dread suffering and tears. Being hated, ostracized, and insulted by others is among our greatest nightmares.
But Jesus deemed such conditions blessed. We are to rejoice if we are poor and hungry. We are to take delight in our tears and accept gladly our rejection by the powers of the age. This outright rejection of natural wisdom and desire so infuriated Nietzsche that he raged at those who might dare to follow Christ:
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency. The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our humanity. And they ought even to be helped to perish. What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy with all the botched and the weak—Christianity.
Nietzsche realized that there is something in Christianity dreadfully at odds with our natural impulse. He would never settle for some watered-down feel-good Jesus who pals along with us in our strutting.
Unfortunately, Christians have done just that. Rather than rejecting outright Christ's teachings, we soften and suffocate them with the pillows of our more realistic wisdom. As the great English writer and theologian Dorothy Sayers observed, we have snared the lion of Judah, trimmed his claws, and turned him into a domesticated kitten.
But if we allow the ways and words of Jesus to have their full force and vitality, we will realize that there is a higher wisdom that confounds all our categories. It is inescapable. If we are to accept Christ, there is something, someone, wholly other than our nature and inclination. The God incarnate in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, points to a reality that can never be reduced to human dimension.
Jeremiah, whether we like it or not, in some profound sense was right. We cannot put our trust in humanity. That, weirdly enough, is the devastating program of Nietzsche. He would have us obey only the pulse of our nature, our will to power. This not only denies the authority of God over us; it denies the claim that any other could make upon our wills. It is my survival against yours.
For Christians, our strength, our hope, is not in our flesh, not bound to the cycles of earth. St. Paul, though less contentious than Jeremiah, says as much. “If the dead are not raised, if Christ was not raised, our faith is worthless.” And for Paul, the new life of resurrection was only one indication of the unsearchable and incomprehensible ways of God.
While Christ is the entry of God into our human nature, and so transforms all nature and earth itself, his very being is a message that there is more than our humanity, more than all the orderings of the cosmos.
If there is no supernatural order, the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense. But neither do our liturgies, their holy acts and words. When we come together in worship, we do not merely celebrate and honor our frail fellowship and stories. Nor do we adore the mutations of the natural world. What we do is make present to ourselves the mighty work of God, who is the “mystery tremendous and fascinating.”
It is not our task as Christians to conform the Christ of God to our needs and expectations. Our task is to conform our lives to him.
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