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The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon in Residence
Sunday, 4th March 2018 at 3.00 PM
Nineteen centuries after Christian faith dawned on the world and changed it, one of the greatest western philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche called for a complete end to it. What St Paul in our second reading called ‘the righteousness of God based on faith’ has been a curse on the world, wrote Nietzsche: Christian faith has stifled our deepest desires; it is anti-life, it sanctifies suffering rather than fighting it; it panders to what’s weak and contemptible; it rubbishes what’s strong and vital. Nineteen centuries of this pernicious philosophy has sapped our will, eviscerated our culture—and will only be overturned by a complete reversal: a ‘transvaluation’ of Christian values.
It will not surprise to you to know that I do not entirely agree! But in one respect Nietzsche was right. For better or worse, the values of Christian faith have certainly been influential, life-changing and society changing. Nowhere is this more on display than in our second reading where St Paul refers to his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus—a conversion so important that it’s recounted three times in Acts, in letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, and now, as we heard tonight, in Philippians where he describes the effect of this faith in Christ: it is so profound that he counts everything he previously valued—even his identity as a Jew and keeper of Jewish law—as nothing (literally as ‘rubbish’).
Such profound effect may actually cause a frisson of fear, even in those sympathetic to faith. A new found faith which causes us to rubbish our past can be a sign of dangerous fanaticism, brainwashing, the sort of blind zealotry which damns everything else. Happily, careful reading of all his letters makes it clear Paul’s change was not that. For all his extravagant rhetoric and self-dramatization (a characteristic temptation of many new converts), Paul was actually willing to honour his past, not wholly denounce it. Even so it was clearly a radical change he was embracing. His past zeal as a Jewish thinker, though honoured, was now turned 180 degrees to serve this new cause of Christian faith.
It was indeed truly new. It was faith in the generosity of God’s grace offered to all, not just to one group; it was faith which gave an equal value and identity to all in Christ, regardless of their ethnicity, social standing, or personal success. This was radically different from so much in previous antiquity which had assumed that people’s value was hierarchical, depending precisely on social role, power, wealth, family, ethnic belonging, personal strength, success. In Christ, says Paul, none of these count; the ground of our value lies simply in being a child of God, one for whom Christ died.
It was also truly influential. It has had real concrete effects. This new faith and its values joined forces with humanism in the enlightenment, for example, to drive extraordinary social reform: it helped abolish slavery; drive new policies in health care and education: it’s been a constant challenge to privilege; helped liberate us from being in thrall to any kind of elitism; it’s been a constant challenge to any notion that any part of society can be written off merely as an underclass. It’s offered a positive vision of community without hierarchy of class, race, or gender, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. It’s also had concrete effect in personal lives: offering new goals for personal life not based on success, power, or survival, but on service, humility, love.
All this was introduced by Christian faith and it has been transformative. But surely not as the introduction of something weak and life-denying, needing to be reversed! It has clearly been life-giving! True, it’s not always been fully lived out; this Kingdom of God is only work in progress and sometimes not very much progress; and it’s also true that the religious basis of these values has been twisted and exploited so that faith has sometimes exalted weakness, subordination, suffering, in an abusive way, as Nietzsche complained. But at its best and truest, it’s surely been the opposite: these values have actually given dignity and liberation, in all the ways I’ve described; Christian faith has been a genuinely life-affirming narrative of moral and spiritual strength, not weakness. And, I would suggest, a majority of non-believing humanists and people of other faiths would join forces with Christians to affirm that…
We most certainly have a positive faith to be proud of, then. But not to be taken for granted. For Nietzsche was also right about this: these values could still be reversed. His call for a transvaluation could happen. Why? Because so many of our natural biological drives and instincts are fuel for such a reversal. They are desires for power and self-assertion rather than service and love, desires for narrow tribal belonging rather than open generosity. These are powerful subterranean fires in us all (sin by another name). And they are always pressing us to row back on our Christian values. They are always nudging us to relocate our sense of identity and value back onto these more primal desires. Especially if a spurious cloak of respectability is thrown over them by a philosopher’s call—or more likely, by lifestyle calls which promote self-fulfilment, self-belief, success, as the supreme values…
So we must always be vigilant. We must never take our well embedded Christian values for granted. We must keep nourishing them. Not least, we need to keep feeding these values from the faith which has been their source. Yes, I know many people sustain these values without faith. Perhaps even whole societies can do this, at least for a while. And when they do they are welcome and admired fellow travellers in the kingdom of God. Yet the fact remains that the ultimate source of these values is from God. Those extraordinary events of Christ and his resurrection which precipitated the change, which so radically turned Paul and society around, did not and could not have come from rational humanism alone; they came from the perception of a power beyond. We should, then, continue to draw on that power; we should keep drawing on faith.
After all, if we’re honest, I think most of us know from our own experience that we need to do this. For we know that to really live these values which Nietzsche deplored—the life of real generosity, real service, sacrificial love—we need help. We need, exactly as Paul said: ‘the righteousness from God, based on faith’.