Vitalism, Sic et Non

On the Christian Pursuit of Earthly Excellence

Vitalism has made quite a stir over the last few years, especially in right-wing circles. A good summary of what animates vitalism is provided in Christian Winter’s American Reformer article “Towards a Christian Vitalism”: “For [vitalists], whatever promotes lives of natural human flourishing is what should direct political, religious, and cultural movements.” Friedrich Nietzsche, as John Ehrett comments “is the guiding light” of vitalism, since “Nietzsche’s standard is natural life” (Winter).

Vitalism is increasingly popular among young men. It is not hard to understand why this is the case. In a society that places nearly all blame for what is wrong on such men, it is all but inevitable that many will come to the conclusion that nothing remains for them but to reject prevailing cultural norms and seek to exert their strength to build an alternative world for themselves where they can prosper.

Vitalism has even proven attractive to many in Christian circles. It is not uncommon for Christians to insist that nearly every earthly good is merely a dangerous idol. Beauty, strength, and excellence are dismissed as mere vanity. In this way of thinking a certain kind of enthusiastic, private spirituality replaces competence as the mark of human success. Some Christians, then, find in vitalism an answer to the denunciation of human (and especially manly) greatness.

Does Christianity have an answer to vitalism? Or is vitalism itself simply Christian? Reading a theological hero of mine recently, the nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary Archibald Alexander (1771-1851), got me to musing on these questions.

Alexander’s work Thoughts on Religious Experience (1840) was his attempt to examine the revivals that had been periodically sweeping across America since the time of Jonathan Edwards. Alexander was aware of the danger that in these revivals emotional experiences were disconnected from the genuine work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of believers. However, he was unwilling to reject the idea in principle that there could be unusually dramatic outpourings of the Spirit from time to time, some of which he believed had been experienced in America (traditionally referred to as the First and Second Great Awakenings).

On the whole, I think Thoughts on Religious Experience is a good book. Almost the entire work is simply Alexander subjecting various religious experiences in the revivals to biblical scrutiny. But I found one chapter, entitled “The rich man and the poor – The various trials of believers,” to be somewhat jarring. Though Alexander admits that “there are a favoured few who seem to have learned the secret of using wealth so as to do much good” he maintains that “poverty and suffering are by infinite wisdom judged best for the traveler to Zion” (p. 198).

Jesus Christ continually warned against the spiritual dangers of wealth, most memorably when he said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:24). The apostle Paul warned in 1 Timothy 6:9 that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Alexander is thus not wrong to emphasize this teaching of Scripture. But Alexander appears to me to go further than Scripture at times, going so far as to indicate that poverty is inherently to be desired in the Christian life.

Something seemed off to me as I read this chapter of Alexander’s, but it was not until I recently overheard my wife reading to our boys from the English Puritan pastor Thomas Watson’s (1620-86) work The Duty of Self-Denial (1675) that I realized more concretely what was bothering me.

Early in the book, Watson writes: “God says that religion is gainful. 1 Timothy 6:8: ‘Godliness is great gain.’ It brings temporal riches. Proverbs 3:16: ‘In her left hand riches and honor.’ The way to be prosperous is to be pious” (p. 8). Watson is, of course, aware that faithful Christians are not always wealthy and that they often suffer great losses in this age. What is so striking, however, is that Watson, in contrast with Alexander, does not believe poverty is to be desired in itself. He insists that outward prosperity is often the result of godliness. Max Weber would approve.

Watson is just as aware as Alexander of the spiritual dangers of wealth (covetousness and discontentment in particular), but he approaches wealth (and other related blessings such as earthly preeminence and power) from a different perspective than Alexander. In The Art of Divine Contentment (1653), another work of Watson’s, he begins to articulate his view of wealth from the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Thus, Watson says,

God sees in His infinite wisdom that the same condition is not convenient for all. That which is good for one may be bad for another. . . . Prosperity is not fit for all, nor is adversity. . . . Another man is seated in an eminent place of dignity. He is more fit for it. Perhaps it is a place that requires more skill and judgment, of which everyone is not capable. Perhaps he can use his position better. He has a public heart as well as a public place. (pp. 24-25)

It is not necessarily poverty, but rather contentment with one’s station in life, that Christians need. Thus, while Alexander argues that it is better for the Christian to be poor, Watson, using the example of Paul, is able to describe wealth (and other earthly blessings) more positively:

When a prosperous gale blew upon him, he could bend with that (‘I know how to be full’), and when a boisterous gust of affliction blew, he could bend in humility with that (‘I know how to be hungry’). (p. 15)

What does any of this have to do with vitalism? Just this: many Christians today disparage earthly excellence as if it is inherently unspiritual and dangerous. This can be seen, for example, in the strange attempts to claim that striving for male physical strength, political success, and so on, are all idolatrous. The pagan vitalists are indeed obsessed (in a particularly effeminate fashion) with the male physique. Politics can become all-consuming for some. Any good thing can be abused, but there is a difference between biblical warnings against mistaking earthly goods for eternal ones and disparagement of earthly excellence itself (in any realm of endeavor).

As a friend recently commented to me, evangelicals have a tendency to substitute spirituality for earthly distinction. How can you be an excellent businessman? Be pious. How can you be an excellent musician? Serve as a volunteer musician for church worship services. This mentality often struggles even to admit that excellence in non-churchly matters is to be desired at all. Should a Christian pursue excellence as a painter? As a symphony musician? As an investor? As an architect? As a politician? Isn’t striving for distinction in all of these realms sub-spiritual?

While reading through 1 Chronicles recently I was struck by how alien the disparagement of human excellence is to Scripture. In chapters 25–29 there is an account of David’s organization of the temple musicians, gatekeepers, and treasurers, as well as administrative officers and judges in Israel. There are numerous comments in these chapters that emphasize the greatness and skill of the men appointed to these various offices. The musicians “who were trained in singing to the Lord,” are all said to have been “skillful” (25:8). While the Psalms sung in Israel’s worship are inspired by the Lord, there is no reason to downplay the literary and musical skill involved in composing them. To become a musician capable of composing beautiful melodies and playing them excellently in worship would require great ability and training as well. The same is true of the various highly skilled craftsmen involved in building the temple (2 Chron 2:13–16). Of the gatekeepers guarding the temple it is said that “they were men of great ability” (26:6) and “able men” (26: 7, 8, 9). And of the officers and judges in Israel we read that they were “men of ability” (26: 30, 32) and “great ability” (26:31). To describe the officers in the army as “mighty men” (27:6) is likewise to highlight their earthly greatness. David’s instructions to Solomon for building the temple include the charge to “be strong and courageous and do it” (1 Chron 28:20). When David blesses the whole assembly of Israel gathered to receive his final instructions he first blesses the Lord: “both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand, it is to make great and to give strength to all.” Riches, honor, power, might, greatness, and strength. All good gifts from God’s hand to be used in service to him.

These are just a few examples in the Bible revealing how thoroughly un-spiritual it is to polemicize against earthly excellence. In this age there will always be a tension between maintaining heavenly-mindedness and rightly enjoying earthly blessings; inordinate desire for earthly things is a spiritual danger all men face. But this temptation must not lead us to disparage the good earthly gifts the Lord provides. These gifts are meant to be used in serving him, whether that be in a narrowly spiritual role (as a pastor, etc.), or in the variety of earthly vocations that exist.

Today, we all need to hear this, but perhaps young men especially. Ironically, though Nietzsche is the fountainhead of neo-pagan vitalism, his own life was anything but a manifestation of the vigorous pursuit of beauty, excellence, and vitality. Roger Scruton was right, when in his book I Drink, Therefore I Am, he described Nietzsche as a “pitiable creature” whose “invocations of life, health, cruelty and the will to power are the masks of a timid invalid, who lived a largely hermetic life, and who never achieved power over anything or anyone, let alone himself” (p. 189). Christians, on the other hand, have every reason to pursue beauty, excellence, and vitality in every earthly vocation, all to the glory of God.

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