In my first year of religious life, called the prenovitiate, I took a class on Friedrich Nietzsche. For those who know him, he is one of the most articulate, if not brilliant opponents and critics of Traditional Christianity. Although previously, I would have been shocked to study something that would be so contrary to my faith, something happened. It turned out to be beneficial.
The course I took was being taught by a middle age white woman who looked like she was recovering, or still indulging in the hippy culture of the 70s. She was frequently late to the class, and irked some of the more perfectionist, only-give-me-an-A-in-this-class-or-I’ll-report-you-to-the-dean types.
Every other day or so, she would collect our journal, to which we would write on the assigned readings. Well this turned out to be a rather exciting exercise. I could see why Nietzsche was so well liked by so many people, and particularly revered by Atheists. I soon took to reading him as one grappling with an aggressive adversary, and all of my journal posts were filled with retorts to his ideas.
The day after my professor would read our journals, I would find her trying to ‘clarify’ the stuff I wrote (without of course pointing me out). I think the same thing was happening with a few other students as well. What the whole activity did, it forced me to rethink my Catholic faith in such a way to outwit the cleverest of opponents. It broadened my faith horizons to be challenged by such a formidable foe. Instead of merely brandishing him a blasphemer and moving on, I had to look him dead in the eye threatened by everything he believed and get out alive. Well, God has the last word, and Nietzsche’s dead.
It turned out, in the end of his life, he was a catatonic, sad, decrepit man.
Over the course of the year, I could gather that Nietzsche was something of a Messiah to this women, who was falling apart, perhaps because he was ineffective at saving her from the cancer she had just received. It was really a pitiful site. She became just like her Messiah, sad, miserable, alone, and decrepit.
I burned the book at the end of the term, in such a way to suggest that I have come out victorious. What was most shocking to me, was how much I believe I would have turned out like him. I am not talking about just the sad decrepit part. Somehow, God’s love intervened and turned my world completely upside down. I would have likely been a virile, indignant critic of the Christian Tradition that I was reared in, had God not overwhelmed me with a storm of his love.
I think I also walked away with more confidence than before. Had I just dismissed him as a blasphemer or heretic, I would likely continue that sad pattern. I guess it is because I always look my detractors in the eye, and reach within myself, and to some of the great minds in our Church, to find creative and convincing responses to all of the challenges of the day, that I have become solid in my faith.
Augustine, as a theologian, wrote his theology specifically to answer some of the detractors of his day. You would find that someone like Chesterton or Lewis likewise had to outwit the serpents at one time, and their testimonies stand solid while Satan’s lies all fall down.