“Christianity is a revolt of all that creeps on the ground against what is elevated: the gospel of the lowly makes low . . .”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (1895)
“An old man wet with tobacco juice and furtive-eyed summed up the result: ‘Wal, the bottom rail’s on top and it’s gwiner stay there’ . . . . The herd is on the march, and when it stampedes, there’s blood galore and beauty is china under its feet.”
William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (1941)
New commenter Vlad has raised the old charge that Christianity is what Nietzsche called a “slave morality” that must ultimately destroy all true value. Thus, the gross value inversions of today are the fruits of Christianity, and not, as we say here, of its rejection. The charge is old, but it is not silly, and it deserves a serious answer. And this serious answer is not only intended for non-believers like Vlad, but is also intended, and intended more urgently, for Christians. The reason is that history has shown that Christianity is subject to two fatal perversions, antinomianism and what Nietzsche called ressentiment.
Antinomianism is, of course, the false doctrine that the blood of Christ effectively abolishes the moral law for those who are saved, and that “Christian freedom” is therefore a boundless license to do just as the born again please. This doctrine especially prospers among passionate peoples in whom the moral law is weak or altogether absent, but one must admit that it is powerfully fertilized by such Christian notions as election, assurance, and the conviction that one is “saved.”
The author of my second epigraph explains the antinomianism of many American Christians by relating a conversation he had with a clergyman in Mississippi.
“I asked a clergyman recently why it was that so many prominent church-goers were crooks in business and hypocrites in private life. He replied: ‘They have been born again.’ This clarified nothing for me and I told him as much. He explained sadly: “When they are born again, they are certain of salvation, and when you are certain of salvation you may do as you like.’ But I urged horrified: ‘People don’t really believe that!’ ‘Hundreds of thousands of them,’ he rejoined, obviously as grieved as I. ‘The ethics of Jesus do not interest them when their rebirth guarantees them salvation.’”*
Antinomianism is a doctrine of decadent Christianity—one perceptive writer says it is “nothing more than Calvinism run to seed”**—and I will be the first to admit that it is by such means that decadent Christianity accelerates decadence in the wider culture. In a great analysis of the decay of English culture, Thomas Carlyle wrote that, by 1867, the certainty of three things happening was “agreed upon by gods and men.” One of these was:
“That, in a limited time, say fifty years hence, the Church, all Churches and so-called religions, the Christian Religion itself, shall have deliquesced—into ‘Liberty of Conscience,’ Progress of Opinion, Progress of Intellect, Philanthropic Movement, and other aqueous residues, of a vapid bad-scented character . . .”***
With the advantages of hindsight, I would not care to try to dispute this point.
* * * * *
Decadent Christianity also exhibits the perversion of ressentiment, by which is meant a system of inverted values in which everything low is exalted, and everything high is pulled down. This is Nietzsche’s argument that Christianity is at bottom a “slave morality” with which inferior men take their revenge on the natural nobles with a “transvaluation of values.” Nietzsche called himself (and his book) “the Antichrist” because he aimed to reverse this inverted slave morality and put nobles and noble values back on top.
It is important to understand the difference between resentment and ressentiment. An ugly woman may resent the fact that she is ugly, but ressentiment would be the system of inverted values with which she (and others like her) attempts to take revenge by denigrating the beauty of beautiful women. A stupid man may resent the fact that he is stupid, but ressentiment would be the system of inverted values with which he (and others like him) attempts to take revenge by denigrating the intelligence of intelligent men.
Christianity opens the way to ressentiment when it teach that ugliness and stupidity are not marks of God’s curse, and that the ugly, the stupid, the poor, and the lame may therefore have as good a hope of heaven as those who are not so ill favored. The perversion of this teaching occurs when the lowly use Christianity as a pretext to act on their envy and take revenge on the natural nobles. They do this by instituting a system of inverted values in which their lowliness is a mark of holiness—in which ugliness, stupidity, poverty and infirmity are marks of a spiritual superiority.
This is the “revolt of all that creeps on the ground against what is elevated,” and it of course mirrors the revolt of Satan and man against God.
We can see that this ressentiment is a perverse and decadent Christianity if we look at its locus classicus, the beatitudes enumerated in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus says, “blessed are the meek,” he is not saying that “the meek” are henceforth a new nobility that can lord it over those who are bold. Indeed, to say this would be a contradiction because the meek would no longer be meek if they declared that their meekness entitled them to power and prestige.
Humble folk stop being humble the moment they begin to wear their humbleness as a crown!
No honest Christian can deny that there is a decadent Christianity in which “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” has been perverted into “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for revenge.” And no honest Christian can deny that those who hunger and thirst for revenge will, if sufficiently numerous, take their revenge with ressentiment, a “slave morality,” an inverted system of values.
But there is nothing to justify this “revolt of all that creeps on the ground” in a Christianity that is orthodox and sound. The justification for this revolt comes from one of the other things that, in 1867, Thomas Carlyle said both gods and men were agreed was certain to happen.
“Democracy to complete itself; to go the full length of its course, towards the Bottomless or into it, no power now extant to prevent it or even considerably retard it . . .”***
As the tobacco-stained philosopher explained, “the bottom rail’s on top and it’s gwiner stay there” And when the bottom rail is on top, beauty is by no means the only value that is “china under its feet.”
*) William Alexander Percy Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941), p. 314.
**) John Evans, A Sketch of the Denominations of the Christian World, Eleventh Edition (London: Crosby and Co, 1808), p. 81.
***) Thomas Carlyle, “Shooting Niagara and After” Macmillan’s Magazine (August 1867).