Faith is the Supreme Act of the Will: A Response to Zero H.P. Lovecraft

Christ Pantocrator as depicted in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.”

Rev 5:12

Zero H.P. Lovecraft is that rarest of creatures, a living writer of fiction that is worth reading. He has extended to Christianity the unprecedented courtesy of approaching it from the direction of Nietzsche on terms other than those of complete hostility, with the hope of achieving some measure of synthesis. This undertaking may seem doomed from the beginning, but if it is achievable at all, Zero is the man to do it. There is probably no place for me in Zero’s ideal society; then again, there is probably no place for him in mine, and as we would both accept either as an improvement over the prevailing situation, I feel few qualms about thinking of him as at least co-aligned, at least for the moment. What a wonderful world it would be if Zero H.P. Lovecraft was the greatest enemy of Christianity!

In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I hope to attempt the same journey in reverse, to see if I cannot meet Zero somewhere in the middle. Curiously, Christian thinkers have been obsessed for many decades with the project of integrating Christianity with Marx, but integration with Nietzsche has scarcely been attempted. 

Zero’s essay summarizes the state of contemporary religion, outlining the main causes for the continued decline in church attendance and profession of Christian belief. He correctly identifies popular sexual mores as simultaneously a “Christianity shredder” and a major driver of cultural degradation. He presents several prongs of the Nietzschean critique of Christianity: that altruism and even martyrdom are intrinsically self-serving, and that Christian morality is inextricably bound up with “slave morality” (of which more below). What he asks for is a Christianity that has cast aside its adoration of weakness and brokenness, a Christianity that makes no apology for power, a Christianity that does not snivel:

When the will to power begins to decline, there is an accompanying decline physiologically into decadence. The divinity of this decadence, shorn of its masculine virtues and passions, is converted into a god of the physiologically degraded, of the weak. Of course, they do not call themselves the weak; they call themselves “the good.”

Christians who believe in the beauty of creation and the power of the Lord must teach of the inherent goodness of power qua power, that power itself is a good in itself, that God is good because he is powerful, and that we reflect God’s Glory best when we become powerful ourselves, always using that power to Glorify God, of course. 

Zero H.P. Lovecraft

I found objectionable much less of Zero’s essay than I expected, after pricing in the basic fact of his nonbelief. What I think he does not properly grasp is how compatible with Christianity this prescription already is. For all that it seems to have become the universal ethical framework over the past hundred years, slave morality is a Christian heresy, and to the extent that Christians need to cast it aside, we need not step outside Christianity to do so.

Slave morality is the resentment of the strong by the weak. Zero describes it as “pity and admiration for the botched and weak”. It is envy disguised as a virtue. To be sure, one does not have to search very carefully through the New Testament to find support for this view– it would be a poor heresy indeed if none at all could be found! And it is obvious that in its very earliest days Christianity first became popular among beggars and lepers, surely the weakest and most botched strata of society. Today, alas, we need not look far at all to see a Christianity that is institutionally dominated by slave morality. It is easy to see how the New Testament “God loves the wretched” has decayed into the modern “God loves wretchedness”. If Nietzsche without Christ gives us the civilizational murder-suicides of the 20th century, Christ without Nietzsche looks on track to turn the whole world into one continuous favela full of barefoot peasants chewing their UBI cud in bovine contentment.

If my Catholic readers find this a harsh or uncharitable judgment, consider that the last non-papal head of state to be canonized other than for martyrdom was Louis IX of France (d. 1270). The Cristeros of Mexico or the Vendée rebels of the French Revolution are commonly held up as examples of martial Christianity in the relatively recent past, but the astute observer will note that both of these causes materially failed. The only saints from these efforts are the martyrs; priests who took up arms during the Cristero war were specifically excluded from canonization. Likewise the ongoing cause for the canonization of Charles I of Austria (d. 1922), who can be safely venerated because his efforts to reclaim the crown were unsuccessful. In the eyes of contemporary Christianity, the truly unforgivable sin of Francisco Franco was his victory. We have always recognized and honored virtuous losers; do we still acknowledge the possibility of a virtuous winner?

Now, to return again to those earliest days of Christianity: what we observe is that immediately, a hierarchy already begins to assert or rather to disclose itself. Also curious is that Christianity very quickly became popular among soldiers, who possessed at least physical strength. For more than a millennium, Christianity as a historical force was perfectly capable of accommodating kings as well as peasants. In the feudal hierarchy, the strong had a responsibility to protect the weak, but did not exist solely for their benefit. The king was greater than his subjects, and they loved him for it.

As a Catholic, I say this is because God is active in history, and used it to shape the Church according to the vision He had in mind for it. As a nonbeliever, Zero may say that this was simply an evolutionary pressure that forced the Church to reify natural hierarchies. Tomato, tomato. What matters is that the constant whine of slave morality within the Church– the voice of Judas asking “why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”– was easy, if not to ignore, then at least to balance against magnanimity, the pursuit of greatness. It is only in the last century, and especially since the end of the second world war, that “social justice” has been invented as an excuse for tearing down anything that reaches higher than a favela shanty. I hope even a committed Nietzschean can appreciate the difference between “slave morality” and “the responsibility of the strong toward the weak”, which is after all just another way of saying “civilization”. We are all weak in some respect. Even in the modern era, a theology that could accommodate the hypostatic union was not overly stressed by the tension between the duties and privileges of power.

Nietzsche says that happiness is “The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome.” Well and good. His critique of altruism and martyrdom rests on the recognition that these are merely one part of the self overcoming another. This is a chain of reasoning that cannot end elsewhere than that the supreme act of the will is to take one’s own life, and in the most painful possible fashion. This was anticipated by Dostoevsky in The Possessed, when Kirilov resolves to kill himself because “if there is no God, then I am God.” What better way to demonstrate the power of the will to overcome resistance?

But to take another step along this chain, to go further, as Kierkegaard might exhort us, what is there outside the will? How can the will overcome itself? To a Christian, the answer is obvious: faith. What the Nietzschean critique of Christianity neglects is the great and central role for the will in Christian belief. Christ was already the ubermensch. When in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus fell to his knees and prayed “let this cup pass from me, yet not as I will, but as you will”–that was the supreme act of the will for all time.

Do not misunderstand me. Faith can be clutched weakly as a comfort, or (as I confess likely in my own case) desperately as salvation from drowning. But it can also be the ultimate act of self-mastery, far beyond the self-possession for which Zero regards it as useful. And this need not count against it. There will always be masses, and they will always need a faith and a morality. It is pointless to propose one faith for the masses and another, entirely different faith for their rulers; whatever encompasses both then simply is the single shared faith. Christianity already provides this. And in fact any Christian below the age of 40 who has not totally succumbed to the clinging muck of slave morality already approaches it in exactly this manner. There is no reason why the Christianity which built Chartres Cathedral and conquered the empires of the New World should be incapable of taking us to the stars.

All philosophy is an effort to justify the philosopher. I hope I can point out without giving offense that a “functional understanding of religion” is what Jordan Peterson has been struggling to construct for decades. Ultimately, faith is a gift from God. It is beyond mortal power to force yourself to believe. But what is within mortal power is to act in accordance with what faith would demand of you if you had it. Your task, like Frodo’s, is to struggle onward to the remotest reaches of where it is possible for the human will to take you, and trust God to take care of the rest– and you cannot know how far that is until you get there. If you can live in this way long enough, you may find that faith has been given to you while you were not looking for it.



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