Old and New Christianity, A Response to BAP

By Sortes Discaled

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I do not like the New Testament, you have worked that out by now; it almost disturbs me to be so very isolated in my taste regarding this most valued, over-valued work (the taste of two millennia is against me): but it is no use! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other,’—I have the courage of my bad taste. The Old Testament—well, that is something quite different: every respect for the Old Testament! I find in it great men, heroic landscape and something of utmost rarity on earth, the incomparable naivety of the strong heart; even more, I find a people. In contrast, in the New Testament I find nothing but petty sectarian groupings, nothing but rococo of the soul, nothing but arabesques, crannies and oddities, nothing but the air of the conventicle, not to forget the occasional breath of bucolic sugariness which belongs to the epoch (and to the Roman province) and is neither Jewish nor Hellenistic.
— Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 3.22

Nietzsche among the Manichees

As I read it, Bronze Age Pervert’s 25 March reflection draws two conclusions: first, it insists that a recent resurgence of paganism on the right is unsurprising because of the decadence of contemporary Judaism and Christianity; second, it asserts that the ancient lines of conflict between paganism and Christianity should be redrawn, prioritizing cooperation against the Bugman. With some qualifications, I agree with both of these conclusions. Certainly, Bugman values are antithetical to the patrimony of classical Greece and Rome, a patrimony rightly prized by both the traditional Christian and BAP’s preferred species of pagan. Here, there is common ground. Likewise, I agree that the practice of Christianity (I admit that I know less about Judaism’s various forms) has become decadent and effeminate and that this, in part, explains the resurgence of paganism in the West.

I disagree with BAP, however, in how he arrives at these conclusions and, consequently, with what he takes to be their implications. It seems to me that BAP and Nietzsche both paint the long history of Christian thought in colors belonging to fairly recent theological fads. I do not think, as BAP does, that there is much credible evidence before the last two hundred years of a perennial “tension,” between martial aristocracy and Christianity. Indeed, contemporary readers of Bernard of Claivaux or Thomas Aquinas are frequently shocked at what they find in their respective exhortations toward and justifications for war and temporal punishment, lacking a trace of the allegedly ubiquitous apprehensions. The Readers Digest Christian can hardly understand what Augustine meant when he commended “peaceful wars,” or how religious in all ages and places could find edification in the Psalmist’s songs of gratitude for being an instrument of divine vengeance. Here, the Nietzschean will complain that the inoculation of the Christian warrior-spirit is the inevitable result of the spiritualizing pull of the New Testament. It was only a matter of time before the purely spiritual Buddha-Christ emerged from the last vestiges of paganism still clinging to European Christianity. But the extant works of the greatest systematic minds of the Church, still unsurpassed, tell a different story.

Owing to constraints of space, I cannot do more in this response than highlight some representative episodes from Christian history with the hope that this will begin a more nuanced discussion of Christianity’s past and future. To begin, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to some of the major developments in Augustine’s intellectual biography, recorded by Augustine himself in his Confessions. He tells us that after he converted to a life of philosophical inquiry, a conversion he attributes to a reading of Cicero’s now-lost Hortensius, but before he converted to orthodox Christianity, he spent some time among the Manichees. He was attracted to the Manichees, in part, because he was satisfied by their account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The two halves of Christian Scripture seemed to Augustine to be irreconcilable in mode and content—the Old Testament described a God who was jealous and vengeful, propitiated by blood offerings of man and beast. The New Testament was all spirit and light, offering an otherworldly purification not unlike the fashionable mystery cults of the Near East. The Old Testament was grim and violent while the New Testament offered transcendent peace. The Manichees explained the ostensibly insuperable tensions between these texts by arguing that each had its own God. The God of the Old Testament was a malevolent deity whose act of creation condemned pure spirits to tombs of flesh, while the New Testament offered relief from corporeal prison through spiritual ritual and rigor. In time, Augustine rejected the Manichees with a famous critique of their ontology of evil and, what is more important for my purposes, because he found with the help of Ambrose a fundamental continuity between the Old and New Testaments.

In his Contra Faustum, a repudiation of a famous Manichean mentioned in the Confessions, Augustine disputes the Manichees’ pacifistic reading of the Beatitudes. As the Manichees would have it, Christ’s moral teaching is a direct repudiation of the vengeful logic of the Old Testament. This is just one piece of evidence, they claimed, for the whole Manichean problematic. On the contrary, Augustine explicitly commends the lex talionis as a principle of exact justice, arguing that, far from subverting the Levitical precept, Christ’s teaching merely clarified one of its original intentions: to stop feuds from boiling over into society-disrupting strife. Not only should the proverbial Hatfields and McCoys not return an insult with a blow and a blow with a death, but they should form the appropriate habits of desire for proportional justice. Thus, on Augustine’s magisterial interpretation, the New Testament does not prohibit just punishment, but rather enjoins that justice be strictly observed in both deed and motive. In the same work, Augustine generalizes this point and praises soldiering and state punitive actions, not as regretful concessions to reality but as essentially good things.

I have chosen this episode because it seems to me that the Manichees’ juxtaposition of Old and New Testament is strikingly similar to Nietzsche’s and BAP’s (to the extent that he relies on Nietzsche) conception of Christianity. If the Manichees are correct about the Old and New Testament, then there surely will be a perennial tension between the legacy of Rome and the Buddha-Christ. However, if Augustine is to be an authoritative witness for orthodox Christians now as he has been for millennia, this tension is illusory, founded on an incoherent theology and clumsy interpretation of texts.

Augustine notwithstanding, it may be said that the Patristic era as a whole is pacifistic and wanted to suppress the martial virtues of the ancients. I submit that aside from known-heterodox rigorists (like Tertullian and Origen), each of the texts supposed to support this thesis has a more satisfying explanation. When reading the Church Fathers, we should bear their historical context in mind. The Roman army was the means by which the ancient Christians were being put to death—an ancient Christian’s desire to join the army should, therefore, be moderated by the facts about its contemporary use. In light of these circumstances, a fair-minded reader would find the Patristic injunctions against joining an army that is actively persecuting the Church to be remarkably mild. A recognition of the basic goodness of soldiering and submission to the emperor in all things properly belonging to him is the norm in these texts.

The Middle Ages saw, as BAP mentions, the flourishing of a Christian, martial aristocracy. The groundwork for this knighthood was laid, of course, in the experience of Christian Rome. Perhaps, it may be suggested, the Middle Ages were the result of centuries of compromise with pagans during the Dark Ages. The Christian element of the unhappy balance only awaited “enlightenment” to overthrow the pagan. However, if we look to the greatest Latin minds of the thirteenth century, there does not seem to be such hesitation about the arrangement as BAP believes. We know from his biographers that Thomas Aquinas’s brothers were soldiers. His father is described by his biographers with one word: miles. Although he led a different life from his father and brothers, there is no indication in any of his works that he had hesitation about the soldiering trade. To be certain, he was careful to enjoin that martial strength be put to good use, but he nowhere laments its existence. He writes favorably about formation in military strategy. He commends just wars. More generally, he does not prize (as some of Nietzsche’s contemporary Christians and many Christians today seem to do) weakness as such over strength. All things considered, says Aquinas, it is better for a man to rightly use his mind and his will than have strength of body, but if a man can have them all, he should desire and act in order to have them all. He knew well that virtus had for its primary antique significance virile and martial qualities. Perhaps most surprisingly for today’s Christian, Aquinas appropriates Aristotle’s account of magnanimity, of the great-souled man, whole cloth. A completely virtuous man, on Aquinas’s account, should cultivate disdain for the praise of vicious or small-minded men and should carry himself with a life-affirming levity.

The origin of today’s theological fads merits its own article, but suffice it to say that Aquinas’s moral thought has been the gold standard in the Catholic Church for centuries approaching our own. If we were to judge based on timescale alone, the Manichean softness of Christians in the last two centuries is a fringe movement, not the recently emergent essence of historical Christianity.

I agree with BAP that many of today’s Christians have forgotten these things, but I believe that these ideas, preserved in the canon of Western literature and beneath the nihil obstats of the Church, are merely awaiting rediscovery. The great task for today’s Christian is to clear away the prevailing Manicheanism of our age so that the perennial wisdom of historical Christianity can shape societies as it once did. This isn’t a LARP, but a desire for genuine reclamation no less sincere than the neopagan’s. Such reclamation would necessarily involve a reencounter between Christians and the wisdom of pagan antiquity. Here, again, I qualifiedly agree with BAP. Whether in the antique Christian use of Plato, the thirteenth century’s recovery of Aristotle, or Paul’s nod to the unnamed deity on the Areopagus, historical Christianity gives us an emulable model for intellectual cooperation with the best that paganism has to offer.

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Sortes Discalced

is a digital gadfly. His twitter is @SortesD