About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Order of Love | Lucy Beckett | From the Introduction to In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition | Part Two | Part One

The answer to this question, as Nietzsche knew well, is "only in God". Meanwhile, what we have made, fabricated or invented may give us pleasure, but all of it is no more than the result of human ingenuity, of the games we play in the dark:
All the beauty and sublimity we have lent to both real and imaginary things, I claim on man's behalf as his property and manufacture. This is his finest apologia. For man is a poet, a thinker, a god, love, power! 0 the kingly generosity by which he has endowed all things, so that he himself feels poor and wretched! This was hitherto his greatest self-forgetfulness: he wondered and worshipped, concealing from himself the fact that he had created the very object of his wonder. [15]
Little read in his lifetime, Nietzsche became for later generations the most powerful intellectual influence of all. Both before and after Nietzsche there have been some who, one way or another, have tried to show that, in the absence of God, "poetry can save us." Later in this book the brave attempts of Matthew Arnold, F. K. Leavis and George Steiner will be examined. Nietzsche himself nursed no such illusion.

Nor did he suppose as many, without thinking clearly, have hoped--that Christian morality, which Nietzsche despised as "slave-morality", is sustainable without Christian belief. In a diatribe against English Victorian moralists, in particular George Eliot, he wrote:
When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one's hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; ... it possesses truth only if God is truth--it stands or falls with the belief in God. [16]
It is "absolutely not self-evident", for example, that all human beings are of equal value, a moral principle claimed in the twentieth century as an achievement of the Enlightenment, but a notion that runs counter to every rational perception and judgement of the value of other people. Only in the sight of God are all human beings of equal value; most certainly in the sight of Nietzsche they were not. He, who aspired, for himself and very few others, to the self-induced "transcendence" over everyone else of the Ubermensch, would have had only contempt for what has been described by Balthasar as "Christianity's constant outpouring of light into the world, where it is renamed and regarded as humanism." [17]

"The importance of Nietzsche", as Erich Heller's perceptive book on him is called, is that Nietzsche never underestimated the scale of the consequences of the loss of belief in God. Fear and celebration at an equally high pitch ringingly clash in his most famous passage on the death of God:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"--As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?--thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. "Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him--you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? ... Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is more and more night not coming on all the time? ... Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed--and whoever shall be born after us, for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto. [18]
If God does not exist, if the transcendent has been wiped away, there is no longer a vertical axis for the human soul, but only a horizontal, that is, a historical, axis for the human mind. More particularly, the vertical never crossed the horizontal in the Incarnation. Toward the end, Nietzsche with good reason called himself "the Antichrist". And it is not surprising that Nietzsche's perception of the probable consequences of the death of God was shared most fully by Christians, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, in his accurate prophecy of the Russian future in The Devils, and in particular by Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century who had watched Nietzsche's direst premonitions become reality. "Must we not ourselves become gods?" as Stalin and Hitler, crushing underfoot what was Christian in the past and present of their people, became. Writers such as de Lubac and Balthasar understood exactly why the most highly organized and most dreadful cruelties of "might is right" in the whole of history had been perpetrated in what had for many centuries been Christendom, where, in Balthasar's words, "the vertical axis (insofar as it is revelation from above) [was] claimed by Christianity as its own." Once the claim is rejected,
man's openness to the upper realm becomes a purely anthropological fact that belongs henceforth to the immanence of horizontal world history. When this happens, in short, man's "upward" openness, which is the organ of ultimate meaning, is obliged to look for meaning at the horizontal level; hence people's tendency to attribute absolute significance to relative fragments of meaning in history and to commit themselves utterly to such constructions. Thus, in the post-Christian period, we find the development of various philosophies of history--"ideologies" in the strict sense. In this way, certain finite (and hence only partially true) ideas are foisted onto man's spirit, which has an inherent yearning for the absolute .... However, none of the passing moments of the world of time can encapsulate that desired absolute meaning--not even that moment, projected into an ever-receding future, when "positive humanism" will have been attained. [19]
Balthasar, already an old man (he was born in 1905 and died in 1988), wrote this in 1980, before the collapse of Soviet Communism. What he said in this passage is plainly true of the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism and Nazism. That it is no less true of optimistic liberalism, and also no less true of global domination by capitalist America, is concealed from many by the cloaking of both with a patchwork Christian morality and of the second also with the appropriation of God's approval. They belong equally, however, to "the passing moments of the world of time" wrongly taken to "encapsulate ... absolute meaning", even if liberalism takes "absolute meaning" as its absolute absence, and even if capitalist democracy affords its citizens freedoms denied to the citizens of totalitarian states. It should be added here that the long history of the Church has been scarred by her own failure at various periods to distinguish "absolute significance" from "relative fragments of meaning in history". The corruption of the Church as a human institution by her triumphalist assumption of worldly power was perhaps the worst of such failures. In 1965 Balthasar wrote of the old perils of the Church in relation to power and of her new peril in relation to the secular utopianism of human omnicompetence:
This anxious flight of the Church and of Christians from the Cross was always, and is once again today, the flight into ideologies of world domination: the Constantinian, Carolingian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Bourbon, and Napoleonic domination of the world in the past; and today, since the external forms of power are no longer within reach [of the Church], the flight into intellectual forms of familiarity, of the desire to be there, too, when the world is worldly, when the world is rising upward, when the world is taking possession of itse1f, as if it were possible to bestow Christian sweetness on the whole affair by tossing a saccharin tablet into this raging ocean. [20]
But the truth of God disclosed in Christ is itself and not another thing.


[1] Quoted in Simon Blackburn, "Richard Rorty", Prospect, April 2003, p. 58.
[2] Ibid.
[3] William Empson, "This Last Pain", line 21.
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London, 1988), p. 335.
[5] Ibid., p. 346.
[6] Ibid., pp. 165, 337.
[7] Blaise Pascal, Pensée 438; numbered according to Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jacques Chevalier, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 34 (Paris, 1954), p. 1206; my translation.
[8] MacIntyre, Whose Justice? p. 394.
[9] Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, trans. Alexander Dru (Edinburgh, 1996), p. 154. Originally published as Sur les chemins de Dieu (1956).
[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness, trans. Richard Beckley (Sari Francisco, 1994), pp. 73-74. Originally published as Cordula oder der Ernsfall (1966).
[11] Czeslaw Milosz, "The Separate Notebooks", New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (London, 2001), p. 383.
[12] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic, vol. 1, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco, 2000), p. 12.
[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, quoted by Erich Heller, In the Age of Prose (Cambridge, 1984), p. 45.
[14] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 50, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (London, 1971), pp. 631-32.
[15] Nietzsche, Will to Power, quoted by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 4, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, 1994), p. 158.
[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London, 1968), pp. 69-70.
[17] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, trans. Graham Harrison, vol. 4 (San Francisco, 1994), p. 467.
[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125, in A Nietzsche Reader, ed. and trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London, 1977), pp. 202-3.
[19] Balthasar, Theo-Drama 4:72-73.
[20] Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Tragedy and Christian Faith", in Creator Spirit, trans. Brian McNeil, Explorations in Theology, vol. 3 (San Francisco, 1993), pp. 409-10.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Pages:

Author page for Hans Urs von Balthasar
Author page for Henri de Lubac
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | Joseph Pearce
The Power of Poetry | Joseph Pearce
Well-Versed in Faith | Selections from Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
A Résumé of My Thought | Hans Urs von Balthasar
"Love Must Be Perceived," | From Love Alone Is Credible | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Life of the Mind | An interview with cultural critic Roger Kimball | Carl E. Olson
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson

British author Lucy Beckett lives in Yorkshire. She as educated at Cambridge University and taught English, Latin and history at Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. She has published books on Wallace Stevens, Wagner's Parsifal, York Minster and the Cistercian Abbeys of North Yorkshire, as well as a novel, The Time Before You Die, on the Reformation, and a collection of poems. She is married, with four children.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright © 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius