Spiritual Warfare

by Henri de Lubac

Every age has its heresies. Every age also sees the principle of assaults against the faith renewed. For a long time--since its very foundation-- Christianity has never ceased to be attacked, but it is not always from the same side or by the same kind of adversaries or with the same weapons. At times it is the historical foundations of our beliefs that seem shaken: biblical criticism and exegesis, the history of Christian origins, that of dogmas and of the institutions of the Church, furnish the field for the battle. At times the latter shifts to the metaphysical plane. The very existence of a reality higher than the things of this world is then denied or declared unknowable, and thought falls back on immanent positions; or rather, it claims, on the contrary, to invade the entire field of being and to leave nothing outside the grasp of a reason that must understand everything: and consequently, without prejudice to more particular objections against some specific dogma, it is the very idea of a mystery to be believed that disappears. Historians and metaphysicians are often, in turn, relieved or replaced by politicians: the latter attack the Church instead, attack what they call her thirst for earthly domination; many of them, not content with opposing any interference of the Church in the state--“clericalism”--want also to destroy any Christian influence in the progress of human affairs, and the most ambitious go so far as to reject, for the benefit of the state, that distinction between temporal and spiritual that the world owes to the gospel. Finally come the objections of the social order, objections so strong, so insistent, that they have more than once seemed preponderant. Just recently, again, was not the primary concern of a number of disciples to prove, through the exposition of Catholic social doctrine and through an effort at social accomplishments, that religion is not the “opium of the people”, that the Church is not disinterested in the fate of man on this earth and that, mother of all, she is not at all in league with the rich and the powerful?

None of these kinds of objections has been superseded today. There is not one of these different sectors on which we should relax our vigilance. Yet the principal attack comes from elsewhere. What is in the forefront, if not always in appearance at least in reality, is no longer a problem of the historical, metaphysical, political or social order. It is a spiritual problem. It is the total human problem. Today, the fight against Christianity is waged not only with regard to one of its foundations or to one of its consequences: it is aimed directly at the heart. The Christian concept of life, Christian spirituality, the inner attitude which, above any particular act or any external gesture, defines the Christian: this is what is at issue. How timid, then, appear those men who, for example, fought against the Church while wanting to preserve the gospel!--or those who claimed to be free of any authority, of any faith, but who still called for principles derived from a Christian source! “Free thinkers” who were much less bold, even much less “liberated”! Those who now succeed them do not fail to mock their lack of logic as well as their impotence and to include them in the same reprobation as believers. As for them, they do not intend to be content with “the shadow of a shadow”. They have no desire to be nourished by perfume from an empty vase. They put another liqueur in the vase. It is all Christianity that they abrogate, and that they replace. Jesus had worked a “reversal of values”: it is a reversal of values that they work in their own turn. To the ideal Christian, they oppose a pagan ideal. Against the God adored by the Christians, they proudly set up their new divinities. In doing this, they are aware that they are attacking the essence and sweeping everything away with one stroke, for they profess with Schopenhauer that “it is the spirit and moral tendency that constitute the essence of a religion, and not the myths with which they are clothed.”

The Bond of Warfare

Such was the conviction of Nietzsche, and such was his plan. The God whose death Nietzsche announces and wants is not only the God of metaphysics; he is, precisely, the Christian God. Hostile to Christianity since the time he lost his faith, when he was around twenty years old, Nietzsche set up in opposition to it a non-absolute. His negation, immediately radical, would become increasingly violent and frenetic. His last writings are full of cries of hatred and invectives. But never did he take the trouble to outline any refutation whatever. For him, as well as for a Comte or a Feuerbach, it was already done. Christian history could only be a legend, and its dogmatics, a mythology. It was useless, then, to waste time with it. “This mythology which Kant himself did not completely abandon, for which Plato prepared Europe, to its misfortune. . ., this mythology has long since served its time.”So, indeed, it is not to this that his interest turns. “This whole absurd residue of the Christian fable”, he also says, “these cobwebs of concepts, this theology are scarcely important to us; it would be a thousand times more absurd for us to lift our little finger to combat it.” The essential question is not there. It is not a question of truth--is there only one truth?--but a question of value.

Up to now, the assault against Christianity has not only been timid, it has been based on the wrong premises. Insofar as one does not feel the morality of Christianity to be a capital crime against life, its defenders will have a good chance. The single problem of the “truth” of Christianity --the existence of its God or the historicity of its legend, to say nothing of its astronomy and its science of nature--is a very secondary problem insofar as one does not call into question the value of Christian morality.

“Does Christian morality have any value at all, or is it a profanation and a shame, despite all the sanctity of the means it uses to seduce?” There, then, for Nietzsche, is the true problem, the only problem. We know how he resolves it. “War against the Christian idea,” he exclaims, “against the doctrine that makes beatitude and salvation the end of life, against the supremacy of the simple in spirit, the pure of heart, the suffering, the failures. . . . When and where have we seen a man worthy of the name resemble this Christian ideal?” He is not fighting against belief in God: “What does God, belief in God, matter to us, in our time? God is today nothing but a word grown pale, not even a concept.” But what he is fighting, and what, he says, “one should never cease to fight in Christianity”, is “its ideal of man”; “that ideal whose morbid beauty and feminine seduction, slanderous and insinuating eloquence charm all the laziness and vanities of weary souls--and even the strongest have times of weariness”. What he is fighting is “confidence, candor, simplicity, patience, love of neighbor, resignation, submission to God, a kind of disarmament, of repudiation of self”, all these virtues which Christianity proposes to man in order to tempt him. The institution of such an ideal, by serving the little and the weak, has threatened the vigorous exceptions with death; it has compromised the great human successes, “as if this unpretentious, puny of soul, this virtuous, average animal, this docile sheep of a man not only had preeminence over the race of crueler, greedier, more daring, more extraordinary, and by this fact a hundred times more vulnerable, men, but even as if he were the ideal, the end, the norm for man in general, the supreme good”.

Nietzsche was aware of being an initiator along this path. “No one yet”, he said, “has considered Christian morality as something beneath him. . . . Up till now, Christian morality was the Circe of all thinkers. They placed themselves in its service. Who then, before me, has gone down into the caverns where the breath poisoned by this kind of ideal springs from, the ideal of the slanderers of the world? Who then has merely dared suspect that these caverns were there?” He considers that for this it was necessary for him to have “absolutely unheard-of loftiness, good distance vision, psychological depth”. Certainly Nietzsche flatters himself. To tell the truth, Christian morality had never completely lacked such adversaries. Recall, for example, not to go back to the early centuries, the pagan impulse of the Renaissance, with a Machiavelli setting “our religion”, which “places supreme happiness in humility, abjection, the scorn of human things”, in opposition to the ancient religion that “made the sovereign good consist in greatness of soul, strength of body and all the qualities that make man formidable. . . .” In the eighteenth century, in the group of political writers who moved around Diderot and the Baron of Holbach, several professed an anti-Christianism that was just as decided: such as Grimm, treating the Christian dogma of “base and ignoble mythology”, reproaching it for exercising “the most sinister influences” and for teaching “debasement, ignominy, servitude”, denigrating “the spirit of Christian charity” and declaring “that the spirit of the gospel could never be allied with the principles of good government”. But, these “philosophers” were of too base a quality to have any chance of carrying the elite away for long. As for Machiavelli, he had betrayed the depth of his thought only in rare passages; he did not usually pose as a master of moral philosophy but only of politics. We must, then, agree: never before Nietzsche had so powerful an adversary arisen, conceiving his plan in so clear, so full and so explicit a way, and pursuing it in all spheres with so much systematic and reflective ardor. Nietzsche is deeply conscious of his mission as a prophet. He is legislating for times to come. “Another ideal”, he said, “runs before our steps, amazing, seductive and rich with dangers. . . the ideal of a spirit that plays naïvely, that is to say, without intent, through excess of force and fecundity, with all that has until then been called sacred, good, intangible, divine.” He considers himself called to inaugurate a new era, “to set the first question mark in place, to change the destiny of the soul, to make the needle advance, to raise the curtain on the tragedy”. With him, eternal paganism proudly rears its head, but he clothes it, too, in a new outfit. He prepares to remodel individual life and inner feelings as well as public life and acts of power. He takes on, for new conquests, the destiny of humanity.

We will not explain Nietzschean anti-Christianity once again, that appeal to a creative, powerful, heroic life, that morality of force and of hardness, that accusation of “feeling” borne against the founders of Christian morality and first of all against the great prophets of Israel, that opposition of the “nobility” of the Greek heroes to the “baseness” of the Christian slave, that exaltation of Dionysius, the god of orgiastic and ever-reviving life, in contrast with the scorn of the Crucified who, on the tree of the Cross, “the most poisonous tree of all trees”, is “a curse for Life”. . . . It is enough to note the extreme gravity of the attack. It is not addressed, like others, to a few specialists of history or metaphysics, its action does not remain confined first to intellectual circles, but, without needing the interpretation of men of science, it comes to shake souls. It is the spiritual elite at whom it is aimed, and when it attains its aim it succeeds in perverting them by sparing them the sense of being demeaned. Like everything that is of the spirit, even though it insinuates itself everywhere, it is difficult to grasp, so it has time to work immense ravages before the first alarm is sounded. Under the cover of impeccable formulas of faith, at times even to the benefit of an apparent redoubling of orthodoxy, souls can be already corrupt. Intellectual laziness is, moreover, a powerful preservative against many objections, the concern for social security can become a very strong argument in favor of religion, but neither intellectual laziness nor the concern for social security protects against the invasion of the pagan spirit. To the complicity that the latter has always found in our nature, Nietzsche's strength has been in adding others, by making appeal to our instincts of greatness.

That he has succeeded only too well in this is obvious from the facts. His influence is universal today. Neopaganism is the great spiritual phenomenon of our time. Despite the horror and vulgarity of the forms with which it is clothed while being spread, it continues to attract noble souls to itself, at times even Christian souls, whose blindness makes one shudder. For forty or fifty years, many young men have begun to think that a “profound distrust of man” had to be the prerogative of “great souls” many have begun to dream of “heroic ecstasies” and to regret “the pride of ancient heroes”; many have made reflections similar to those that Rainer Maria Rilke noted, after an enthusiastic reading of the new prophet:

The one who is adored as the Messiah makes the whole world a hospital. He calls the weak, the unfortunate, the infirm his children and his beloved. And the strong?. . . How could we ourselves, then, rise if we lend our strength to the unfortunate, the oppressed, to lazy wretches, deprived of sense and energy? Let them fall, let them die, alone and miserable. Be hard, be terrible, be without pity! You must go forward, forward! Few men, but great men,. . . will build a world with their vigorous, muscular, dominant arms upon the bodies of the weak, the sick and the infirm!

Others, after having repeated the cry: “The gods are dead, long live the Overman!”, celebrate the new Nietzschean ideal in terms with which one must be familiar, if one wishes to understand some of the dominant facts of our contemporary history:

Nietzsche announces the impending return to the ideal, but to an entirely different and new ideal. To understand this ideal, there will be a category of free spirits, fortified by war, solitude and danger. Spirits who will know the wind, glaciers and snow of the summits and will be able to measure without trouble the deepest abysses. Spirits endowed with a kind of sublime perversity and who will deliver us from the love of neighbor and from the desire for nothingness in order to return to the earth its goal and to men their hopes.

Even in France, from the beginning of this century, the Gospel of Zarathustra found a smaller but not muted echo in several cenacles. The Nietzschean current came to mix its waters with one of the arms of the great positivist river. It is thus that a Hugues Rebell began to pursue “that Christian spirit, with which everyone today is infected”, he said, “including the men who call themselves its enemies”. A Pierre Lasserre, author of an admiring work on La Morale de Nietzsche, reproached Christianity for having made a mystery of suffering and for having in a way “made the eyes of the suffering ugly”: Cruelly pursued by the arrows of Apollo, Christian eyes have become full of anger, hatred and despair. . . . Suspicion and spite inhabit them. . . . If at times they seem finally to have found repose, if they surrender, calm, serene, ethereal, take care! It is then that they express the most knowing and the most proud malice! They want to persuade you that they have forever thwarted the enemy, that already they are paying attention to the first glimmers from the beyond. . . . The hatred that I read in these kinds of Christian eyes is precise, it is the quintessence of the Christian hatred against the earth. It is when they are the most gentle that Christian eyes are the most devious. . . . Basically, is it not a supreme, cunning trick of incurables to begin to love the sickness and to exalt it?"

A laborious exercise of rhetoric, an unwieldy imitation by a disciple without genius? Undoubtedly. The effect of such writings was not, however, negligible. But today, it is a question of a very different matter! Christianity is beleaguered everywhere, and the heart of numerous baptized has already begun to surrender. Accounts of apostasy circulate. The intoxication manages to make even the wisest stagger. . . .


Nietzsche's feelings with regard to Jesus always remained mixed. So, too, his judgments on Christianity. He saw in it less a false ideal than a worn-out ideal. “It is our most severe and refined pity”, he says for example, “that prevents us today from still being Christians.” It is, then, with the Christians of our times, it is with us that he is angry. His cutting scorn is aimed at our mediocrities and hypocrisies; he aims at our weaknesses embellished with fine names. Can we blame him completely? Must everything that “bears the name of Christian today” be defended against him? When he exclaims, for example, speaking of us: “They would have to sing me better songs to teach me to believe in their Savior. His disciples would have to look more saved!”, how dare we be indignant? To how many of us does Christianity appear in fact “like something great, expansive, to which we can surrender ourselves entirely with joy and enthusiasm”? Do the infidels who come into contact with us every day observe on our faces the radiance of that cheerfulness that twenty centuries ago seduced the elite of pagan souls? Are our hearts the hearts of men resurrected with Christ? Are we, in the midst of the century, witnesses to the Beatitudes? In brief, we discern well the blasphemy in Nietzsche's terrible sentence and in its whole context: But does it not oblige us to discern as well, in ourselves, what has been able to push Nietzsche to blasphemy?

Such is the tragedy of the present situation. Whatever the past may be, we are told, the Christianity of today, your Christianity is the enemy of Life, because it is itself no longer living. “I see”, Jacques Rivière was saying as early as 1907 in a letter to Paul Claudel, “that Christianity is dying. . . . We do not know what these spires, which are no longer the prayer of any of us, are still doing over our cities; we do not know what these great edifices mean that today enclose stations and hospitals and from which the people themselves have chased the monks; we do not know what these turgid stucco crosses of a revolting art demonstrate on tombs.” And without doubt Claudel's reply to this cry of anguish was good: “Nothing of the truth is seen in the number of people it persuades.” But if those who have remained faithful to the truth seem themselves without “virtue”, which is to say, without inner strength, will the abandonment of others not seem justified? Now, the grounds of the verdict are such that it often makes us agree with it. Almost daily experience shows that some of the hardest reproaches made of us come both from our worst adversaries and from men of good will. The tone, intention, profound inspiration are different, but the judgments are, in the final analysis, the same. A surprising but significant convergence. Among the best of those whom we thus disappoint, some of the most clearsighted and most spiritual find themselves caught between two contrary feelings: we see them seduced by the gospel, whose teaching appears to them still full of power and newness; attracted by the Church, in which they sense a more than human reality and the only institution capable of bringing, along with the remedy to our ills, the solution to the problem of our destiny. But, on the threshold, there are those who stop: the spectacle we offer them, we the Christians of today, “the Church that we are”, this spectacle repels them. They then come to think and “to say that what still remains of the evangelical ideal in the world survives outside our camps”. It is not necessarily that they condemn us: it is rather that they cannot take us seriously. Does history condemn Romulus Augustule for not having revived the work of Caesar or Augustus? It notes merely that in this final heir of the Empire, the vigor had been exhausted. . . . So, too, of us and the Church we represent, in the eyes of some of our contemporaries: their feeling is composed of a mixed admiration and contempt.

Whence comes the temptation that lies in wait today for some of us. While the great mass continues to grow duller, blaspheming every day a little more the Lord with whom it claims kinship outwardly while understanding him less and less, while devout circles, the “edifying” circles, so often give proof of such a mediocre quality of education and spiritual life, there are in the Church men who see, who understand, who reflect. There are Christians who refuse to protect their faith with a shield of illusions. “Yes,” they say to themselves, “it is only too true. . . . Taken as a whole, our Christianity is insipid. Despite so many fine efforts to give it life and freshness, it is enervated, habitual, rigid. It is effeminate. It falls into formalism and routine. As we practice it, as we think about it at first, it is a weak, ineffective religion; a religion of ceremonies and devotions, of decoration and vulgar consolation, without serious depth, without a real grasp of human activity, at times even without sincerity. A religion outside of life, or that places us ourselves outside of life. There, then, is what the gospel has become in our hands, what this immense hope has become that had been raised above the world! And what is to be said of this alternative, indeed of this mixture of politics and devotion, in which religion is at pains to find a place? Do not many of us profess Catholicism today for the same reasons of inner comfort and social conformism that would have made them reject, twenty centuries ago, the unquieting newness of the Good News? Can we recognize the breath of that Spirit who was to recreate all things and renew the face of the earth? The evil is as serious, although of another nature, with the most “practicing” as with the worldly. The most virtuous themselves are not always the least unaffected. Impatience with all criticism, the futility of all reform, fear of intelligence, are they not manifest signs? Clerical Christianity, formalist Christianity, narrow and rigid Christianity. . . . The great current of Life, which is never interrupted, seems for some time to have deposited it on the bank. . . .”

It is at this point in their reflection, when courageous lucidity begins to change into satirical distortion, that the temptation insinuates itself. The temptation to “cast longing eyes”, as the prophets once said, on the side of the new paganism, in order to steal something of that strength and that life with which it appears to be suffused. Imperceptibly, the reproaches made against our Christianity are transformed into criticisms of Christianity itself. After having denounced the negative way in which we often practice the Christian virtues, they come to accuse the “negative virtues” that make up the Christian. The satire of the false Christian, who, being “neither of nature nor of grace”, is a diminished being, ends in joining the Nietzschean satire of the authentic Christian afflicted with “hemiplegia”. There are some strange consonances between the remarks one picks up when people painfully pour out their souls in confidence or from sudden slips on the lips of some young Christians and the caricatured depictions spread, for example, through a work like the Livre des vivants et des morts. In the end, this can be apostasy once again. Cases are not unheard of. They make manifest, in a strong condition, a disposition that, in a weak condition, is already widespread.

It would be of no use to blind ourselves to the causes of so profound a malaise. No more than we should refuse to see the good that exists in the adversary would it be good to steel ourselves to our own deficiencies. Such an attitude has only the appearance of the fearlessness of faith. The faithful soul is always an open soul. But, on the other hand, it would be no less fatal to lose the least amount of confidence in the resources of our Christian heritage in order to put ourselves in search of an external remedy. If we want to rediscover a strong Christianity, that “high-powered Christianity” of which there has been so much talk, our first concern must be not to let it be shifted, as is threatened today, into the direction of a Christianity of power. Otherwise, the anticipated cure would only be an aggravation of the evil. If the search for a Christianity by force were not a betrayal, it would at the very least be a reaction of weakness. Is it not clear, in fact, that in this case, wanting despite everything to remain Christian, one could never propose anything but a pale imitation of the ideal of Power that is being advanced as a conquering hero? One would then be twice conquered in advance. Instead of giving new value to Christianity, as one proposed, one would have weakened it by distorting it. What is at issue is something quite different. It is a matter of returning to Christianity its power in us; which means, above all, of rediscovering it such as it is in itself, in its purity and in its authenticity. In the final analysis, what we need is not even a more virile, or more effective, or more heroic, or stronger Christianity: it is to live our Christianity more virilely, more effectively, more strongly, more heroically if need be. But to live it as it is. There is nothing to be changed, nothing to be added; it does not need to be adapted to the fashion of the day. We must return it to itself in our souls. We must return our souls to it.

The question, once again, is a spiritual question, and the solution is always the same: to the degree we have let ourselves lose it, we have to rediscover the spirit of Christianity. To do so, we have to steep ourselves in its sources, and above all in the gospel. This gospel, such as the Church never ceases to offer it to us, is enough for us. But, ever new, it must always be rediscovered. The best among those who criticize us sometimes know how to appreciate it better than we. They do not reproach it for its would-be weaknesses: they reproach us, we ourselves, for not taking advantage of its power. Will we be able to understand the lesson? Lord, if the world is seduced by so much prestige, if it knows today such an offensive return of paganism, it is because we have let the salt of your doctrine lose its savor. Lord, today, like yesterday and all times, there is salvation only in you--and who are we to dare debate or revise your teachings? Lord, keep us from such an illusion and return to us, if need be, not only a faith submitted to but an ardent and concrete esteem for your gospel!

Christianity, if we go directly to its essence, is the religion of Love. “God is Love,” says the Apostle John, “and whoever dwells in Love dwells in God, and God dwells in him.” Any greater awareness of our faith must make us understand this better. We must not, of course, misunderstand anything about the conditions of this love and of its natural foundations; in particular of justice, without which it is only a false love; we must beware of its counterfeits, whether gross or subtle, which are today so numerous, or of successes that are too easily obtained. But, in the final analysis, everything is for it. It is the absolute to which all is ordered, in relation to which all must be judged. Now, people are seeking today to steal this primacy away from it, at times by violent assaults, at times by a thousand more subtle ways. The prestige of Power insinuates itself into the very hearts of Christians, and it banishes or at the very least diminishes the esteem of Love. Against these assaults, may the Holy Spirit communicate to us the gift of power! But against the most insidious attacks, may he communicate to us also the gift of Wisdom, to make us understand in what Christian Power consists! The latter is not to be set up beside or in the face of Love, like an antagonist: it is to be cultivated at its service.

In the present state of the world, a virile and strong Christianity must go to the point of being a heroic Christianity. But this epithet is a qualification, it must not be a definition--in which case it would be a falsification. In particular, this heroism will not consist of speaking constantly of heroism and of being delirious about the virtue of power--which would perhaps prove that one was submitting to the influence of someone stronger and that one was beginning to resign. It will consist first of all in resisting with courage, in the face of the world and perhaps against oneself, the force and the seductions of a false ideal in order to maintain proudly, in their paradoxical intransigence, the threatened and ridiculed Christian values. With a humble pride. For if Christianity can and must assume the virtues of ancient paganism, the Christian who wants to remain faithful can only reject with a categorical No a neopaganism that is constituted against Christ. Gentleness and goodness, delicacy toward little ones, pity--yes, pity --toward those who suffer, the rejection of perverse means, the defense of the oppressed, humble devotion, resistance to lies, the courage to call evil by its name, the spirit of peace and concord, openness of heart, the thought of heaven. . .: that is what Christian heroism will save. This whole “morality of slaves” will make it obvious that it is a morality of free men, that it alone makes man free.

It was not promised to Christians that they would always be in the majority (rather, the contrary was proclaimed to them). Nor that they would always seem the strongest and that men would never be won over by any other ideal but theirs. But, in any case, Christianity will never have any real efficacy, it will never have any real existence and will never make itself any real conquests except by the power of its own spirit, by the power of charity.