For My Sons

Christian Vitalism and the Abundant Life

As I sat holding my newborn son in a dimly lit, sterilized hospital room, I was suddenly struck by the monumental task lying in my lap. He is my third son–the third boy I must somehow shepherd into manhood. In a time with so many competing visions of true manhood, which one should I impart to my sons?

The battle for men’s souls has been a long-fought struggle resembling now the protracted stalemate of the Great War. Each side is dug in, awaiting some intervention that will finally lead to some decisive victory. In the meantime, they hurl explosives over the top without any real goal other than to demoralize their opponents. 

The contempt the culture holds for men hardly bears repeating. But sadly, even traditional churches are inventing new ways to add to the gender confusion. In her appearance on Full Proof Theology, Nancy Pearcey describes the now-too-typical church which hands out roses on Mother’s Day and harsh rebukes on Father’s Day. Rather than defend the men in their pews, too many pastors sound like the culture, denouncing masculinity as toxic or inherently dangerous. The result is a brewing gender crisis within the church which has already bubbled over in some cases, as in the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent debacle about female pastors. 

Young men are increasingly expected to apologize for their maleness on every side, even catching broadsides from the church they once trusted for guidance. Trapped in this vast no man’s land, some are seeking refuge under a new banner. 

“This new vitalism,” as John Ehrett calls it, is “a profoundly deconstructive project” that calls for “a breaking of the fetters of secular liberalism and Judaism and Christianity alike, a recovery of a more elemental way of being-in-the-world.” It is a neo-Nietzschean attack on the paradigms of modernity and a return to more ancient days when men were men–competing for glory on the battlefield and securing their right to rule by strength and dominance. 

On the one hand, Ehrett is right to say the Bronze Age Mindset is “impossible,” especially in its rejection of the moral framework inherited from Christendom. Turning back the clock on two millennia of philosophical, theological, and ethical reasoning is an insurmountable challenge. But this is precisely why Christian Winter is not wrong to doubt that simply stating its impossibility will be enough to unnerve the neo-vitalists. Rather, he proposes a new “Christian vitalism” which “must proceed by showing that the kind of life the pagan vitalists idolize is in fact inferior to the Christian life, properly lived.”

For Winter, men who embody his Christian vitalism 

“will have natural greatness which they will use for life-affirming ends, biblically understood. Such great men will not deny hierarchy. He will recognize both that his proper place is below the God of the universe and also that he has a duty to lead others according to the real talents and excellence that God has graciously given him.” 

Ultimately, Winter says, Christian vitalism will lead men to believe “the standard of life does not culminate in Caesar or Napoleon but in Christ.” To be like Christ is to truly live. 

While pushing for a type of Christian vitalism may unsettle some evangelicals today, we ought to remember that Christians in the past critiqued Nietzscheanism on similar grounds. 

Take, for example, Thomas Cary Johnson, a Southern Presbyterian and professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. In 1919, he delivered a short lecture critiquing Nietzsche from an unashamedly Christian and vitalist perspective.

Nietzsche despised Christianity because he believed its ethics inspired decadence, exalting a virtue of weakness over strength. He may have rightly judged the pietistic and quietistic forms of Christianity that mirror so much of what we see in evangelicalism today, but “the ethics of the downy beds of ease Christians,” Johnson says, are not “true Christian ethics.” True Christianity, he argued, “helped to develop masterful spirits” among its adherents. 

It was Nietzsche’s prejudice against the English that marred his vision, says Johnson. Had he seen clearly, “he would have seen a type of Christianity, nearer to the ideal set up in the Scriptures and that it was making strong men.” For Johnson, one need only look at examples like Gustavus Adolphus, Stonewall Jackson, and Charles George Gordon as proof.

Nietzsche was wrong to pit Christian morals against vitality, Johnson argues. Far from excusing weakness, Christian virtues like selflessness, justice, love, and humility were “compatible with strength.” Indeed, only a man truly secure in himself can give so generously to those of a lower station. Moreover, the true Christian exercises these virtues appropriately, not as “the doting indulgence of the grandmamma” but with care for the other “which is heroically controlled by regard to inexorable and eternal right.”

Finally, Johnson rejected Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity was unnatural. Far from being detached from the world, Johnson affirmed Christianity’s obligation to steward cultures championing “the best and highest in man.” True religion does not abolish nature or natural hierarchies but perfects them:

“The New Testament never asserts an identity of gifts for all men. It affirms the contrary. Not all are Pauls, or Peters. The New Testament does indeed assert the worth of every individual and vindicates to him certain rights; but it subordinates some to others, e.g. in the home, and in the state, and in the Church. It represents Christians as having gifts differing according to the grace given unto him.”

Johnson’s polemic is helpful as both a defense against the pagan neo-vitalists and a check on any potential excesses of Christian vitalism. While Nietzsche may have criticized an aberrant version of Christianity, there are still impregnable differences between any proto-vitalism and true Christian faith, Johnson argues. The former “has no Gospel for the poor” and has “only a message of contempt” for the majority of men. Christ, however, holds the destitute as objects of his affection and humbly submits to the cross that many might be brought to glory. To live as Christ, as Christian vitalists want us to do, means embracing the Savior’s call to excellence through selfless service each according to the authority he’s been given by God.

Such a vision accords well with Aaron Renn’s comments on the lost virtues of America’s old WASP culture, an ethos that propelled many ambitious Americans to incredible achievements through a combination of gift and grit. Unlike the old WASP’s however, who gave most of their attention to careerism, a new crop of Protestants, supplemented by Christian vitalism, will experience the fullness of life beyond the boardroom–in their homes, with their families and friends, in their churches, and before God.

I do not yet know the future the Lord has prepared for my sons, but my hope is they will embody the invigorating Christian virtues imbibed by so many fathers and sons who helped make this country great. “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly,” says Christ. May it be so for my boys and yours. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Robert Hasler

Robert Hasler is a seminary student, pastoral intern at Christ Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA, and a 2023 Cotton Mather Fellow at American Reformer.

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