Several years ago, I was in Bath, England, with some friends to visit the ancient city and investigate a few Jane Austen haunts. While strolling around, I found my way into St. Michael’s Church, in which there was a contemporary art exhibition of some local artists. One piece in particular caught my attention. It was a shark engulfing a man down to his ankles. Although I can’t remember the artist’s name, the title definitely stuck with me: “Biography Shapes Theology.”
The more I read the history of philosophy and theology, the more I become convinced that biography has a disproportionate—but all too often unacknowledged—effect on an individual’s worldview. Case in point: Friedrich Nietzsche. He was born in Röcken, Germany, in 1844 into a pious Lutheran family, and his father was the community’s pastor.
“[My father] was the perfect picture of a country parson, gifted in spirit and heart, adorned with all the virtues of a Christian,” Nietzsche later recalled. The young Friedrich adored his father, Carl Ludwig, but then tragedy struck. In 1849, Carl died from an excruciating brain disease. The young boy struggled to understand why his faithful father had to leave the world in such great pain. Nietzsche’s brother, Joseph, died a year later. His doubts about Christianity began to grow. Friedrich, his mother, and sister were forced out of the parsonage to make it on their own. They were reduced to living with his imperious grandmother.
Nietzsche, for the time being, remained interested in the Christianity lessons he was required to take at his boarding school. His piano compositions included texts from the Psalms. By the time he had entered the University of Bonn, however, the years of creeping doubt in the aftermath of his tragic story proved to be too much. Although he went to Bonn to study theology, he abandoned the pursuit in favor of philology.
So often, evangelicals portray Nietzsche as some sort of monster filled with unreflective hate towards theism in general or Christianity in particular. But if you go back to the beginnings of his apostasy, you will find a great deal of regret after losing his faith. “Where is God?” he writes in The Gay Science, and continues:
I will tell you. We have killed him, you and I. We are his murderers. But what were we thinking when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to now? Away from all suns? We are continually then, all of us, falling. Backwards and forwards, and sideways. Is there even still an up or a down?
This is a lament, not a broadside. And there can be no doubt that Nietzsche’s journey away from his father’s orthodoxy emerged in response to his father’s tragedy.
Simply put, experience is a tempting but poor substitute for theological prolegomena.
This is the persistent story of heresy. Life takes an unexpected turn, anxieties mount, and fears that God isn’t there grow. Deus Revelatus yields to Deus Absconditus. We believe that God’s silence or hiddenness means divine antipathy or impotence.
Consequently, we lash out. Heterodoxy is definitely Freudian, too. We try to kill the Father by saying his Word isn’t true or his character isn’t good, but after the attacks and the assaults, God is still there and sovereign. Only the quality of our life has diminished.
In his masterful 1996 novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike tells the story of Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister from Paterson, New Jersey, who has lost his faith. Despite living an exciting life of apostasy, Clarence finds it difficult to enjoy anything about his life. The newspaper is meaningless, business and commerce a bore, and even his home and family kitchen are cold comfort. He is reduced to selling encyclopedias door to door. Clarence can only find reprieve inside the nickelodeon cinemas of his day, lost in the gaze.
Frank Kermode, upon reviewing Lilies, credited Updike for being “almost alone among his contemporaries in his willingness to study this state of dull spiritual privatization, what used to be called wanhope.” It was biography that first led the Rev. Wilmot to heterodoxy, and then into existential despair, but biography couldn’t get him out.
Our collective evangelical love for testimonies is both a blessing and a curse. Testimonies have the air of infallibility—who can disagree with what I experienced, especially when it ends with “and the Lord brought me through”? Yet an entire generation nurtured on the truth of experience—often to the neglect of tradition and theological precision—will be susceptible to deviations from the pattern of truth, especially if these are wrapped in a powerful personal story.
Keep the Faith
So how can we prevent our theological convictions from turning into some sort of Sartrean “bad faith” in the face of tragedy, suffering, and existential despair? Although a great many responses come to mind, this one is perhaps the most apt:
Learn from those who have suffered greatly and kept the faith. Here, I am borrowing from Pascal’s language in his famous “wager” argument, in which he in essence tells those who deny God’s existence to replace their doubts with acts of piety, such as partaking in the sacraments and the Mass. (For what it’s worth, the evangelical version of this looks like Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s telling a parishioner to listen to several weeks of his preaching before scheduling a counseling appointment.)
The perfect parallel to Nietzsche’s situation is that of his predecessor and counterpart, Søren Kierkegaard, who, far worse than merely losing a parent to illness, came to discover that his father, Michael, had been a blasphemer, adulterer, debaucherer, and fornicator. Kierkegaard also lost five of his six brothers and sisters in tragic and even bizarre circumstances. As if the loss of family weren’t bad enough, he felt compelled to break off his engagement with the love of his life, Regina Olsen.
Søren subsequently plunged into a whirlpool of anxiety and dread. Although he hoped that somehow he might win Olsen back, his hopes were dashed when, upon returning to Copenhagen from Berlin, he learned she was engaged. Yet instead of being driven to question God’s sovereignty, Kierkegaard saw that there was only one solution to his sorrows: to come honestly face to face with the incarnate Christ who “leads by the suffering of inwardness towards the truth,” thus saving him from error and bringing him the good news (Concluding Unscientific Postscript).
Indeed, the annals of church history are filled with the lives of saints who underwent not only great personal tragedy, but also suffered much for following Jesus. This is at the very heart of faith, to marvel at that great cloud of witnesses who “were stoned, sawn in two, and killed with the sword . . . who went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:37-38). Is this not part of the tremendous appeal and subsequent success of Eric Metaxas’s blockbuster biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer went to the gallows embracing the Scriptures and not giving the Nazi regime the satisfaction of his losing a single jot of his confession of faith.
In the end, isn’t this what we deeply desire—to know that the martyrs who stared down unimaginable evil looked past this veil of tears to see heaven opening up and Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father? In this light only—the session of Christ—can we endure the low points of our own biographies and make sense of them “while we wait for the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).