The Wimp that Won
In his long poem ‘The Hymn to Proserpine, Algernon Swinburne, one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated poets, pretends to be a late Roman pagan lamenting the rise of Christianity in the Empire. The most renowned lines from the poem are these:
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Jesus Christ is of course the ‘pale Galilean’, the one whose breath (for Swinburne) makes the world grey; the religion spawned by Christ subdues and oppresses the human spirit, and makes the human soul ignoble.
It’s a thought that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would pursue, with his bristling moustaches and long walks in the Swiss alps: Christianity is nothing more than a slave faith, a corruption of all that is possible in the singular human being, a denial of the real. In his words:
Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life
Christianity is the very antithesis of the idea of the Ubermensch, the Superman, the kind of Olympian ideal of the heroic man who is able to live out his humanity in complete freedom, exercising his will through power unrestrained by fetters of compassion or the chains off milksop and subservient virtues like humility.
We have learnt from Swinburne and Nietzsche that the true hero amongst us is the successful narcissist, especially if they can redeem themselves with such great deeds that we laugh off their failings; like Shane Warne, the classic naughty boy, loved but not much liked by the Aussie public, as the model anti-role model, the epitome of what we’d all like to be as men at least, playing poker, driving too fast, sticking it to the authorities and hurling with an actress across three continents; he’s good and he knows it, a legend of the game; he knows we think of him as better than the rest, as inhabiting some superior plane of human existence, and he agrees with our assessment: 700 wickets says so, which is pretty much 700 more than any other man he meets; and for a while we seem to bow the knee in this cult of the Warne ego. Age? It is not for him: he simply reconstructs his face to look younger. He scoffs at age.
The thing about Nietzsche is that he was exactly right about Christianity. It turns out that it is a faith that celebrates servility and submission, a religion that that produces ignoble acts of service that make the pleasures of life seem trivial, a cult of worship that makes people deny themselves. It glorifies the inglorious.
In fact, Christians adore a Lord who is Lord precisely because he gives up his noble entitlements. As Paul shows in Phil 2:5-11, it is the Lord who stoops who is worthy of worship. This isn’t accidental, or embarrassing; it is something to sing about, to advertise to the world. Yes: the Lord was a slave, and being the slave of others is what he calls us to be, as the high point of human existence. All the freedom and power in the world was most gloriously used when it was exercised in the filthy business of service.
For as Paul shows, the most divine of human beings was a model in quite a different way, a paragon not of the usual virtues – strength and mastery resulting in fame but something quite perverse in fact.
Not a superman, but an underman, not Ubermensch, but Untermensch.
A wimp, even.
Even so, this one is the model: as Paul says, Your attitude, your cast of mind, your approach to other people should be just like Christ, the royal Son of God, the majestic King, whose very nature made him ripe for equal standing with the Father: He was in very nature God. That was His being. He deserved nothing less than a seat alongside the Father. He had the right to it by dint of who he actually was in and of himself
But - and this is quite the extraordinary thing - for no apparent calculation of advantage to himself he relinquished his power, and emptied himself ; he nothinged himself; he did not seek to become something, but let go of his grasp on the something that he had; he insisted upon not insisting upon his rights; exchanging the very nature or the morph of God himself for the very nature or morph of a slave – the complete embodiment of the one with no rights, the very one whose purpose is to serve and to do no other – that is the form he took upon himself. He poured himself out.
I said that he did not seem to calculate the advantage: that he falls under suspicion like this is typical of our cynicism – where we cannot imagine the act of pure love. Surely he could see his future glory, and, like an athlete in training for Olympic glory, endured the pains and discomforts of the world because of the outcome. But the benefit he wins belongs not to him but to those who bow the knee to him in the final scene. He in essence gains nothing he did not already have except for one thing: our worship of him, which reconciles the created world to its creator.
And what was the form that he became, the nature that he embraced? It was to become like a human being. To be ‘a little lower than angels’; perhaps there is here a reminder that the purpose of human being was to live to the service of God, to humbly live out that calling without grasping at divinity.
By contrast Caesar in all his might would claim for himself divine properties, a seat at the table of the gods in heaven, and demand the prayers and sacrifices of men and women – longing to ascend to the highest place in his arrogance.
But not this true Lord, deserving of power and status, but not grasping; having what tyrants long for, but giving it away, emptying himself and becoming no different to the most abject non-citizen of the empire. He takes on our form: as Athanasius puts it:
He has not assumed a body as proper to his own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without a body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.
What he takes on himself is not simply the indignities of bodily life, with all its liquids, solids and gasses; but he opens himself up to the vulnerability being human life. We are vulnerable to pain, to loss, and to death. Could there be any less vulnerable position than being divine? But the Son of God exposed himself to – can we say the risk? – of human living, as Athanasius says, ‘out of the love and goodness of His Father’.
And his life itself was a humble life of obedience to command of God – and to a particular command, the command to embrace a human death – indeed the sin-bearing death of which human kind was in dire need.
What an extraordinary mystery this is – the obedience of the Son of God! That, we discover, in divinity itself is not simply raw authority and power but a submission to power and authority – not a coerced submission, as if he left heaven at gunpoint, or because he had been tricked in some divine card game, or outvoted by the other persons of the trinity, but a completely voluntary submission: a submission without necessity other than the desire of God’s heart that the lost be saved.
I don’t know when it was that you last gave up something that it was your right to have; it is part of our ongoing childishness as human beings that we continue with this demand that we be treated according to what we feel we deserve: it has become a part of our cultural discourse, our way of getting noticed. As well we might: this has been the way in which oppressed groups in our culture have asserted themselves as full human beings among other human beings, and achieved equal status before the law. With Jesus, however, we are not dealing with an outsider. He had the rights of an insider, the rights off the one who was born to rule, the rights of the powerful, not the powerless. It is precisely we the powerful and included who ought to hear this word, then: whenever you find yourself pointing the loaded gun of submission at someone else, you have missed the point; it isn’t a teaching that is meant to increase the subjugation of others, it is meant to be about you: you ought to consider others better than yourself, and stop complaining that others aren’t.
It is this submissive, obedient, dying Lord who is vindicated, nevertheless. In this him there is an exaltation which is higher than than the degradation with which we began. The journey above trumps the journey downwards – for God has exalted him to place above all places, and given him the name that is higher than any name – a name which can only be God’s own name. If the Son gave away equality with God, we see that here is it fantastically restored, to the glory of God the Father.
And finally, we will see the complete unveiling of the glory of God in the Son. Whereas he came anonymously to earth, obscure and unknown, he is now the bearer of a name on every tongue. Where once he was the slave of all, he is now the object of the worship of all, recognized by all as the Lord of all, with no exceptions or qualifications.
And this should be your attitude? The hymn of Christ’s descent from heaven really overwhelms Paul’s appeal for the Philippians to show humility to one another, doesn’t it? That was just the beginning; yes, be humble, to the point of abject subservience and loss of dignity – not simply because here we have some Aesop’s fable of humility, but because the way of humility runs with the grain of the universe. That’s the direction in which it is all purposed – the final moment when all recognize the Lordship of the humble one, not because he has subdued them but because he has served them to the point of death and beyond, and because that is what the Father celebrates and honours above all.
But if you see that this is where everything is headed, it may lead you to sit in the mud alongside those who also sit there; to expose yourself to the unlovely and unloveable people of another culture; to listen for hours to the lonely old woman when you have better things to do with your time; to exercise your freedom to live in acts of sheer love; to pour yourself out for the needy; to spend your life’s silver coin in a way that seems like such a poor investment to everyone else around.
How trivial our petty calls for recognition seem! How completely this puts our grasping to shame! How marvelously this turns us from the usual bickering and complaining to the words with which we must forever worship and adore the Son of God, as we humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself for us: Jesus is Lord.
Feature photo: Ian