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Ecce homo: Some reflections on Nietzsche and the crucified

Friedrich Nietzsche was among the most unforgettable philosophers of the 19th century. He was wild in just about every way. He was wild in appearance – an unruly mustache and an intense stare. That is, at least, how he appears in the painted and photographic images. He was famously wild in living, and whether he died of syphilis or cancer is beside the point. Moreover, his ideas were extraordinary; Nietzsche was not your run of the mill 19th century intellectual. 

He was the son of a Lutheran Pastor, but he became – not merely an atheist – an anti-theist. Through the course of his life, Nietzsche came to detest Christianity. He believed that religion – and the Christian religion above all – should be abolished for the good of the world. Consider some of his most striking condemnations. In a little book titled The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche wrote: 

“I condemn Christianity.  I raise against the Christian church the most terrible of all accusations that any accuser ever uttered.  It is to me the highest of all conceivable corruptions . . . . Parasitism is the only practice of the church; with its ideal of anemia, of ‘holiness’ draining all blood, all love, all hope for life; the beyond as the will to negate every reality; the cross as the mark of recognition for the most subterranean conspiracy that ever existed – against health, beauty, whatever has turned out well,  … I call Christianity the one great curse…I call it the once immortal blemish of mankind.” …… 


In Nietzsche’s mind, the Christian emphasis on humility, cross bearing – holiness as setting oneself apart from worldly pleasure – all of these “christian characteristics” are nothing more than the denial of life itself. Christian values, he claimed, are simply contrary to life – we can’t possibly flourish if we keep suppressing our passions and denying our true selves. Nietzsche was something of a prophet to our culture’s obsession with “you do you” or “be true to yourself.”

Our greatness will simply never get out if we live cross-shaped lives, he believed, so Nietzsche called for an end to religion, and with the abolition of christianity a “revaluation of all values.”  That is…. he recommended a rejection of everything that keeps us from living life to its fullness right now. Humility, weakness, self-sacrifice, holiness as self-denial, service to our fellow man – we need to toss it all out, he believed – these are nothing more than a rejection of life. In place of these Christian values, we need to retrieve the Ancient Greek virtues of strength, courage, the pursuit of worldly passions, and the will to power. Nietzsche was especially fond of the Greek God Dionysus who represented wine-making, feasting, fertility, and pleasure. 

Dionysus – not the crucified Christ – should guide human aspirations in Nietzsche’s mind. In fact, he had planned a series of books to further illustrate his so-called “transvaluation of values,” but the work was never completed. If it had been completed, his vision would have been eerily similar to 21st century Western consumerism and narcissism. But the series was never written, because Nietzsche became gravely ill in 1888 and shifted his attention to writing an autobiography which he titled….. “Ecce Homo,” which means “Behold the Man.” The Penguin Classics edition describes the work as follows:

Ecce Homo remains one of the most intriguing yet bizarre examples of [an autobiography] ever written. In this extraordinary work Nietzsche traces his life, work and development as a philosopher, examines the heroes he has identified with, struggled against and then overcome – Schopenhauer, Wagner, Socrates, Christ – and predicts the cataclysmic impact of his ‘forthcoming revelation of all values’. Both self-celebrating and self-mocking, penetrating and strange, Ecce Homo gives the final, definitive expression to Nietzsche’s main beliefs and is in every way his last testament.”

Incredibly, Nietzsche signed the book “Dionysus versus the Crucified.” ECCE HOMO – Behold the Man – Behold not Jesus of Nazareth. Behold Dionysus. 

If you don’t already know, then you will be interested to learn that Ecce Homo is a Latin translation of Pilate’s words to the crowd in John 19. Listen to vs. 1-6:

1 Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. 2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. 3 They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. 4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” 

Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Before Pilate

In his wild and brilliant writings, Nietzsche offers us a chance to do what the Jewish leaders and the crowds did so long ago. We dramatize this scene every year during the Palm Sunday Passion Narrative. Below is a screen shot from our Palm Sunday liturgy, which is among the most powerful of The Christian year. At the beginning of the liturgy, we welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem at his Triumphal Entry. Now, a little later in the liturgy, we have turned on Jesus for failing to be the kind of Messiah we wanted.

Nietzsche tells us that the role we all played (as part of the crowd) while dramatizing the Passion gospel on Palm Sunday morning was the right role. When presented with Jesus Christ, we responded rightly – crucify him! Nothing less than life itself is at stake in this decision. Ecce Homo – who will it be? Dionysus or Jesus of Nazareth? That is the question before us on Palm Sunday and everyday. 

For Nietzsche, a cross-shaped life is nihilistic, by definition. He was not willing to live as he pleased while pretending to embrace the same faith of St. Paul who said “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) and “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Nietzsche was far more honest than so many Christians today who embrace the spirit of our self-indulgent age and endorse a false gospel to justify their own faithlessness.

I have a friend named Wes Hill who taught for many years at Trinity School for Ministry, the Anglican seminary in Ambridge PA.  Wes is a New Testament scholar and a prolific writer. He’s also one of the key voices in the “Spiritual Friendship” movement. If you’ve never heard of Spiritual Friendship, it is a network of Christians with same-sex attraction – committed to celibacy and to classical, evangelical, biblical orthodoxy. Wes and everyone else involved in this movement – and there are very many – believe that sex is designed by God and is rightly practiced only within the bounds of a marriage between one man and one woman. A number of years ago, Wes was in a debate with Justin Lee. The debate was focused on the question of whether same-sex marriage can be consistent with biblical Christianity. Justin argued that it can be, and Wes argued that it cannot. 

In the context of the debate, Justin Lee made this comment: “I think the only reason we are having this debate is because of the so-called ‘clobber passages.’” By clobber passages, he is referring to the handful of verses in the Bible that refer explicitly to homosexuality. Those passages are Genesis 19:1-29, Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:10-11. Proponents of full-inclusion refer to these as “clobber passages” because, it is claimed, they are pulled out of context and used to abuse members of the LGBTQ community. These passages, some say, are exceptions and do not represent the overall trajectory of Biblical revelation.

However, when Justin made this argument, Wes realized that he believed exactly the opposite. In Wes’s mind, marriage is just one thread in a much larger fabric of teaching, and we cannot deny the biblical view of marriage without denying what the whole canon teaches. So what is Wes talking about here? Pay close attention to his own words: 

“There is, as the Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has put it, a “nuptial figure”—a marital form by which God orders human life, a form that is discernible in the unfolding of the biblical canon, from the first union of man and woman in Eden to the final marriage supper of the Lamb and his Bride, the church.” 

Click this link for Wes’s complete post.

According to Wes’s perspective, the union of a man and a woman – two different but complimentary sexes called to give their lives to each other in life-long faithfulness and potentially generate new life – this very specific form of human relationship is a sacrament  designed by God as a sign pointing to Christ (See Ephesians 5:31-32). In other words, the sacrament declares, “Behold the Man.”  There is a form or shape of life characteristic of traditional marriage. So Wes continues: 

“And it is that figure as it is attested throughout Scripture, not just a handful of tricky verses in six or seven places in the Old and New Testaments, that is the ultimate reason many of us cannot see our way clear to affirm same-sex unions as Christianly appropriate.”

The prophet Isaiah tells of that form in chapter 52, beginning in vs. 13:

13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.

The prophet continues in chapter 53, vs 7 and following: 

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The form of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is, of course, found in Jesus Christ, the one true man – the New Adam. And the form of Christ’s life comes into clearest view in the passion – on the cross. From the beginning of the biblical canon to the final chapter of the book of Revelation, we are invited to – ECCE HOMO…… “BEHOLD THE MAN.” BEHOLD THIS MAN…. THE TRUE MAN, Jesus Christ. Therefore, in the Palm Sunday reading from Philippians 2:5-8, Paul instructs the church, saying: 

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. 

Remember, it was the first Adam who sought to be like God – knowing Good and evil – becoming a law unto himself. Adam sought equality with God – he was a Dionysian figure, and as a consequence, he became forever disfigured. 

Continuing in vs 7, we read that Jesus – the second Adam – did the opposite. He

7emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

And in so doing, Christians through the ages – as Nietzsche rightly understood – have found in the self-giving, self-sacrificial way of Jesus, the deepest truths about what it means to actually live. In a famous line from Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it this way: 

“Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end submit with ever fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

Lewis is simply following the testimony of the apostles, and Paul in particular, who continues in vs. 9 of Philippians 2: 

9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Oddly enough, I’ve never met a theologian who didn’t love to read Nietzsche.  Although he was wild in his opposition to faith, he understood well what he was rejecting. For that reason, he is extremely helpful as an interlocutor. His challenge forces us to confront the central mystery of our own faith. When confronted with the cross, what do we say? Are we willing to lay aside our own self-indulgent wills and say, “Thy will be done?” Or is the cross foolishness in a world where “be true to yourself” has become ubiquitous? Far too many Christian live in a kind of stupor – too distracted by the ways of the world to pay attention to the deep mystery they are rejecting; the cross that stands at the center of Christian faith. The cross is a scandal today as it has always been. Tragically, Christians, too, stand before the cross, and rather than bend the knee in worship, we shout with great passion “crucify Him.”

Nietzsche understood the faith, so he knew what he was saying no to. He knew the meaning of Ecce Homo in John’s gospel, but he didn’t believe it. He said “no – that is not the form of life that I endorse.” So Nietzsche recommended the way of self-assertion over humble service. Self-gratification over self-sacrifice. The will to Power over Mary’s fiat – “be it unto me, Lord, as thou sayest” or Jesus’ own submission to the Father – “Not my will but thine be done.”  And in the end, Nietzsche died as we all will die.

But here are the questions that we should be asking – did Nietzsche really live? Will he be raised up? If the faith itself is true, what do “you do you” or “be true to yourself” gain anyone in the end?

Published inAtheismPalm Sunday

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