Struggling with Christian Morality

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday in Lent by FAN Executive Director, Stephen Schneck, Ph.D

This reflection was originally posted in our March 15th newsletter


Image by falco from Pixabay

For more than thirty years, I taught political philosophy at The Catholic University of America. As part of the canon for courses on the history of ideas, Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Genealogy of Morals, was one I would lecture about every few years.

In the book, Nietzsche made the argument that Christianity was a slave morality. He particularly contrasted Christian morality with the moralities of the classical ages of Greece and Rome – those moralities had at their heart a celebration power, nobility, spiritedness, magnificence, fame, wealth, nobility, pride, glory, and living exuberantly. They were moralities directed toward living gloriously as a master in the world.

Nietzsche loved Greece and Rome. He mocked Christian morality because it was morality for servants and slaves. Christianity was about meekness, humility, denial of self, obedience, turning the other cheek, and doing good to those who persecute you. Christianity embraces and identifies with those in poverty and those poor in spirit. It calls us to be lambs not wolves, to give rather than take, and to overcome our own egos, and our desires and pride, to surrender to become instruments and channels of divine love.

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent remind me of how my students struggled with these Nietzsche arguments. The Responsorial Psalm prays that God will cleanse our hearts from the glamours of pride and sin. The second reading, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, explains that even Christ suffered to deny himself in perfect obedience to the Father.

In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death…

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

The Gospel, from the twelfth chapter of John, dramatically insists on this same denial of self, insisting that we reject living gloriously in this world, that we spurn the appeal of magnificence and power and wealth.

Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.

And, John’s Gospel passage continues in this vein. We are called to be not masters; we are called to be servants, even as Jesus himself served the will of the Father, choosing not to save himself from an ignoble death, sacrificing his “self” for our salvation.

No wonder Nietzsche was appalled. Nor is Nietzsche alone. Indeed, are not those with power, fame, glory, wealth, and magnificence the kind of people we too often admire in the world around us? Isn’t the glorification of the self a modern American norm? We want VIP status. We post selfies. Our apps constantly invite us to self-promote.

The season of Lent reminds us, week after week, that our Christian morality is entirely different. It is ever about humbling and overcoming our individual selves in loving service to God and others. Lent is a journey to relearn the central message of Christian morality – a morality that begins and ends with being servants. It is a morality that identifies with those in poverty, the meek, the powerless, and the poor in spirit. Indeed, Christian morality is a Lenten morality wherein overcoming the self we allow ourselves to become instruments for divine purpose in this world and in preparation for the world to come.

Stephen Schneck, PhD
FAN Executive Director

Published in: on March 16, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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