I am unashamedly a graduate (twice) of the Franciscan University of Steubenville; despite the heresy, goofiness, and STRAIGHT UP OCCULTISM of the charismatic movement, I am proud to call Steubenville my alma mater. Steubenville is weird in itself, but it is even weirder in contrast to how awful and cruel the world is. At Steubenville, there was a genuine kindness and Christian charity among the majority of the students and faculty that did not wither away under the pressures and bitterness of the exterior world (visiting the campus again for a seminar on Dietrich von Hildebrand two years ago, I was literally SHOCKED at how nice and welcoming everyone was). Working in academia, I know how rare genuine kindness is; I have had multiple “nice” humanist professors “let the bodies hit the floor” and explode in anger when their world view was even slightly challenged. The best of Steubenville is deeply and passionately Christian, but the worst of Steubenville is deeply and passionately “nice.” Weirdly, like many creative writing and fine arts programs, Steubenville fosters a selfish, narcissistic, and therapeutic atmosphere that leaves the students vulnerable to a world that is brutally predatory—maybe that is at least part of the reason why so many leave Franciscan and end up divorced, addicted to drugs, atheists, and/or not straight. Reflecting on my experience at Franciscan, it is not thus that everyone attempts to be genuinely kind and humble, but that the philosophy and theology programs are too gooey and do not take life seriously enough.
The core of Steubenville’s philosophy program, from which I proudly received a BA and MA, consists of Christian phenomenology and existentialism. Maybe it is because my ancestors were Vikings or because I drank Red Dog beer when I was younger and know what it is like to live off of a minimum wage, I always assumed that because I have been repulsed by Christian existentialists and drawn to atheists and neo-pagans like Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche, that there was something wrong with me. I identified much more with the “view from the café” or the “view from nowhere” than I did with the “sparkle in the eye” Christian philosophy of the interwar years; I devoured The Stranger, The Rebel, Genealogy of Morals, the poems of Sylvia Plath and the early work of T.S. Eliot—I also listened to A LOT of early Coldplay. Life seemed violent, ridiculous, animalist, absurd, and grotesque, and the best works of art and philosophy were those that shattered the bourgeois, Pokemon theme music world of smiling Catholic homeschoolers. I arrogantly assumed, like most nerds who first read Zarathustra, that I was “in the know,” and my professors and peers lived in a Kirby’s Dream World of naiveté.
At the same time I was embarrassed. I wanted to be a good Catholic. I felt there was something wrong with me. I genuinely tried to see the radiance of the person or value bursting forth from creation. I tried to make John Paul II’s prose move me. I tried to convince myself that the “Tickle Me Elmo” Thomism of Jacques Maritain was a much needed update to the spooky medievalism of the Angelic Doctor. I wore t-shirts in public and tried to smile a lot and flattered people. This didn’t work. Christian personalists like Dietrich von Hildebrand and Gabriel Marcel were unquestionably geniuses who lived lives of deep piety, but their world view tends to be too sentimental, too bourgeois, and unaware of the bitter complexity of human life.
It took a return to Aquinas on his own terms, exploration of the pagan classics, and a study of the Christian mystical tradition, unfiltered by Ignatius Press and EWTN, to bridge the gap in my heart and mind between sober pessimism and Christian charity. I saw that Virgil, the anima naturaliter Cristiana, crafted a model hero in Aeneas who combated suffering with fortitude not melancholy retreat. I learned that St. Thomas Aquinas was by no means the sentimental proto-personalist liberal Neo-Thomists made him out to be but a man deeply impacted by the strong steel of medieval life and thought. I figured out that it was possible to love one’s neighbor without acting like a Bugs Bunny or a zany, high-fiving youth pastor. I also came to love God more deeply when I learned that the Christ of Anglo-Saxon poetry was more of an accurate depiction of the Second Person of the Trinity than the buddy Christ who is worshipped at a “Festival of Praise.”
The weird thing was that when I was nihilist, I was not too, too far from the truth as Kierkegaard himself had suggested. Christianity is not nihilistic, but it is like nihilism in the same way that Platonism and Stoicism are nihilistic in that it is world denying. The ocean (especially on the Oregon coast) is stunningly beautiful, but is also, as Sartre noted, “cold, and dark, and full of animals.” Sometimes, it will seem beautiful; other times it will not. It is not required for one to get really exited or gush with love upon seeing a baby or to smile cartoonishly at everyone upon walking into Burger King. Kindness is a virtue that even the very pagan Aristotle required as for a great man, but so is a chaste and sober demeanor that does not resemble any of the Veggie Tales characters. The calm and serious kindness of the Christian is itself a reflection of the Divine Majesty of God.
As the title of Leszek KolakowskiI’s book reads, God owes us nothing, and He is a just and demanding God. Personalists, evangelicals, charismatics, and New Agers are not wrong to insist on the infinite and boundless love of God, which is often experienced with gushing consolation, but God is also the Divine Majesty, and the first step in the Christian life is penance and mortification. The torturous dilemmas of theodicy, of the existence of evil in the world, and the problem of suffering are all rooted in the post Vatican II mentality that God is “nice.” Christ himself is meek and humble of heart, but this flows from generosity not justice. Human evil is the cause of human suffering, and the emergence of disease and suffering in the natural world independent of human will is something we must accept. Either God allows and even wills this suffering as part of his inscrutable justice, or God does care about us. The idea that God is like Larry from Veggie Tales is both blasphemous and cruelly absurd. Veggie Tales Larry would not let anyone go to hell and would eliminate cancer with the wave of a wand.
Last summer, I went to see The Rover, the post-Apocalyptic quieter and more meditative Mad Max set in a desolate Australian outback. I had hoped for a scandalous and excellent adventure through the rubble-filled landscape of the post-modern mind. But as the melodramatic musing on the nature of suffering, which had already reached its intellectual and aesthetic apex with the book of Job, drug on, I came to the disappointing realization that the movie was childishly nihilistic. Yes, people are more likely to be cruel and indifferent than kind. Yes, God allows human suffering and responds with silence, as the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo said better in the 80s in his novel Silence. The movie, although in many ways hauntingly beautiful and full sporadically superb acting, fails because, unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, there is no exit: there is only despair (and friendship with our pets?) in a barren wasteland.
I read Camus’ The Stranger again with my students this year and was as disappointed as I am when Dairy Queen doesn’t put chocolate syrup in the Heath Bar Blizzard. Rather than being the dispassionate atheist hero, Meursault is a whiney selfish brat who is much more of a caricature of a Freudian study on delayed adolescence than he is a noble prophet of nihilism, calmingly brushing aside Christianity. I didn’t want it to be like this. I wanted to be stung by the old magic again, but it was gone. I had lived and loved too much and eaten too many Cinnabons, bursting with value and flavor, since I had first read the book as a young aspiring Christian nihilist. I had seen another world that Camus and Sartre couldn’t see in the tedium of secular, bourgeois Republican France.
In the Arkham Asylum of late capitalism, it is difficult see the human person in its fullness. We are constantly barraged with media presenting the human being to us as being a spastic, clownish, consuming ape. The music we listen to and the TV we watch is all making fun of us, and every other bill board is an invitation to Joker-style, satirical nihilism. It is hard, and it takes time and God’s grace to see and love the human faces around us among our families and friends. It is even harder if not impossible to love the snarling face lurching out of a truck window that curses us out on the highway (that may or may not have happened to me the other night). While genuine human life is full of a range of emotions, it is far better to engage in real human life with all of the bitterness and sorrow and temptation to despair than to suffer from the two cruelest human emotions: indifference and sentimentality.