“Your drink has been paid for.” The barista spilled a bit of coffee as she explained the random act of kindness, “The car in front of you took care of your order—the driver told me to tell you Merry Christmas!” It was a small gesture, but a strangely meaningful one for me in that moment. “Wow! Thank you! Merry Christmas to her and to you also!” The barista’s response stayed with the rest of the day, “You know, it’s sad that such kindness has to be tied to Christmas—as if we can only show mercy and generosity toward one another because of a holiday.”
Surely she was right, can’t we find ways to be more humane toward one another even when Bing Crosby isn’t playing on the radio every half hour? But I also had doubts, doubts that I nursed throughout the day. Sure, one can be charitable and kind while totally rejecting the Christmas message, we all know people like that. Yet, are such acts intelligible in what Peter Jones calls a “Oneist” view of the world? That is, if there is no “Other,” no God distinct from his creation, do our graceful acts make sense? I don’t think so, and neither do many of the sharpest Oneist thinkers, like Friedrich Nietzsche.
For Nietzsche, virtues like grace, mercy, and kindness are “merely an honorable form of stupidity.” Those who practice them simply “project their own honorable stupidity and goodness into the heart of things.” The “things” to which Nietzsche refers is the mystery of the universe—God, namely. A loving God is the work of fiction produced by the sentimental pining of a kind person. Our internal kindness simply gets reflected back onto the external world—next thing you know, there is a God willing to forgive sins. And it goes the other way around as well, if there is a kind God who shows mercy, then it’s incumbent upon his children to pass along such charity. (i.e. “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”)
“We others” says Nietzsche speaking on behalf of his fellow atheists, “we read something else into the heart of things: our own enigmatic nature, our contradictions, our deeper, more painful, more mistrustful wisdom.” Just as the vitreous people live lives in harmony with external reality, so too does Nietzsche want harmony: if life is pointless, dark, and cold, the only meaning to be found is in what we make for ourselves, in what he calls our “will to power.”
Nietzsche pointed to particular men in history who exemplified such will—the Übermensch, the Superman. These men sacrificed, worked tirelessly, strove beyond their fellowmen to gain for themselves power, and with power purpose, and with purpose dignity, and with dignity worth. This is the path to meaning in such a worldview: advance yourself, beat others to the top of whatever hill you decide to climb, win at all costs.
You can start to see why Nietzsche had antipathy for the Christian ethic. The Apostle Paul gives the exact opposite instruction to the church at Philippi, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” he says,” but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Rather than will to power, one almost expects Paul to coin the phrase, will to service. And why should we act in such a counterintuitive way? Paul answers by pointing to the life Jesus, our savior who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For Paul, selflessness isn’t a given, it isn’t born in a vacuum, it’s born in a manger. You see, at Christmas we celebrate the ultimate anti-Übermensch story: Jesus left the throne room of Heaven to be born in a cave as a poor refugee. As he grew older, he had no place to lay his head. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, he died, he was buried. His arduous journey was downward, from Heaven to Hell. He didn’t sacrifice himself so that he might gain power, he sacrificed his power so that he might give to others—meaning, purpose, dignity, all the things Nietzsche tried to make for himself but couldn’t. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” creed can never inspire the generosity that Nicaea’s “God is alive and coming back” creed can.
In my estimation, Nietzsche’s worldview makes perfect since if we do indeed live in a godless world. If there is no God, we’re left to strive, take, and conquer our neighbors. To find significance we have to look inward. But if the Christmas message is true, then by looking outside of ourselves, to the person and work of Christ, the Christmas spirit—joy, peace, mercy—is available to us year-round. Because he was denied a room in the inn, we can live lives of radical hospitality. Because our worth isn’t found in what we take, we’re free to give—gifts to our friends and family, and coffee to strangers behind us at a Starbucks drive thru. The Christmas spirit is incomprehensible apart from the Christmas story.
Dustin Messer is Sr. Fellow of Theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership. He and his wife Whitney live in Carrollton, TX where Dustin teaches at Legacy Christian Academy and serves on the preaching team at Christ Church (PCA). Before starting his doctoral work at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary.