Christianity and Resistance to Nihilism

The market society cannot accept the religion of transcendence and, in the European case, its specific form which is Christianity; among many other considerations, because it inevitably carries with it a social message incompatible with the civilization of markets and with the liberal atomistic of competitors, a market variant of Hobbesian homo homini lupus. As Ratzinger has observed, therein lies the essence of that “philosophy of selfishness,” according to which “the other is always, in the end, an antagonist who deprives us of a part of life, a threat to our self and to our free development.” As we have tried to show more extensively in Minima mercatalia (2012), the transition from the classical Greek worldview to the Christian one can also be understood as a redefinition in transcendent terms of the ontological question inherited from the Greek world. The fundamental prerogatives of “being” (τὸ ὂν) highlighted by Hellenic philosophy, such as the eternal permanence of the One and the Good, are not denied by Christian thought but reshaped in a new framework, so that they are transferred to the plane of the transcendent.

The formula with which Nietzsche scornfully disparaged Christianity—Platonismus fuers Volk, “Platonism for the people”—has, if nothing else, the merit of capturing the real continuity, differences deducted, between the Greek doctrine (especially the Platonic doctrine of being) and its theological successor: under the supervision of a God who creates everything ex nihilo (distinguishing Himself in this effectively from Plato’s Demiurge, who only organizes and gives form to uncreated matter), the Parmenidean world of being of immutable paradigms always equal to themselves is transferred in the Heaven of divine transcendence, and the Heraclitean realm of becoming embraces the sensible reality subjected to the processes of genesis and corruption. Incompatible seems, then, Heidegger’s hermeneutic perspective, which interprets the very conception of the Christian God as a decisive moment in the history of metaphysics insofar as it forgets being and the anthropocentrism that puts the being in relation to the human subjectivity called to assure it. In the Middle Ages, in particular, in a cognitive framework in which every entity appears as ens qua ens creatum, the theological concern conceals, in Heidegger’s view, the humanist impulse aimed at guaranteeing man Heaven and earth, the stability of the world and salvation in the other world. God himself is thought of as “super-mind,” as ipsum ese subsistens. For Heidegger, the oblivion of being and of the ontologische Differenz trace the horizon of sense of the medieval epoch, in which “every entity comes created by a creator and preserved as created”: the Vollendung, the “culmination” of metaphysics in planetary technique, is already prospectively noticed. This allows Heidegger to maintain, with hyperbolic figure, that “the Christian God and the institution of the grace of the churches are of the same essence as the airplane,” their common essence being that of the metaphysics of the nihilistic oblivion of being and the reduction of the entity to an available fund. For this reason, for Heidegger, Christianity and science figure in equal measure as das Vernichtende, “that which destroys,” that which dissolves all reference to being.

In antithesis to the Heideggerian hermeneutic line, which tends to recognize already in Plato and then in Aristotle the premises of the mastery of the planetary technique incardinated on the oblivion of being, Christianity has “transferred” being to the dimension of transcendence, confirming itself in that as “Platonism for the people”: as a synthesis, the level of the “being that is and cannot not be” is referred to God, where the sphere of Heraclitean becoming (πάντα ῥεῖ) is redirected to the sensible world of entities. In short, from this derives what, in Heidegger’s expression, could justly be defined as an “onto-theo-theo-logy”: the being codified by the Greeks “is transferred” to Heaven and remains there until the emergence of what Hegel will define as the “conversion of Heaven to earth” proper to Modernity and its principle of Weltweisheit, of “wisdom of the world.” Thus conceived, the God of Heaven also becomes the reflection of human solidarity and of the ethical community of believers: He is, so to speak, the imago of humanity which sees itself reflected in its Creator and which, precisely for this reason, feels its own uniqueness; uniqueness by virtue of which each one is an unrepeatable individual (“person”) and, at the same time, “brother” to all his fellows, who, like him, are creatures of the one eternal Father. In other words, God is superior to individual creatures and guarantees their ontological unity. In addition to being a symbol of the law, God thus appears as a symbol of the community of His children, called to love and reciprocal recognition.

Under this perspective unequivocally based on communitarian solidarity, faith constitutes the transcendent presupposition of an anthropocentric earthly humanism based on the ideal of the bonum commune. It is, however antinomical it may seem, a universalist communitarianism, which thinks of the community as a union of solidarity and, at the same time, aspires to universalize it in the form of a “community of communities,” capable of including in its bosom the whole human race, conceived as a union of the children of God. For Christianity, the very universality of God expresses the human need for ontological unity of knowledge and axiological evaluation. Thus, to give just one example, in the powerful architecture of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, the concept of Deus and that of bonum commune are solidary. They find their unity in the ontological presupposition of totalitas ante partes: just as God is the totality that pre-exists the created parts, so, on the level of immanence, communitas—which is the visible imago of God—is so with respect to each of its members and guarantees their communion. In fact—writes Thomas—bonum unius hominis non est ultimus finis, sed ordinatur ad commune bonum (the good of a man is not the ultimate end if it is not ordered to the common good).

The community that courageously fights in defense of the common good is, consequently, the political equivalent of the martyr who faces death “for the sake of the pursuit of the Supreme Good which is God.” Heir to Aristotle’s anti-chrematistic ethics, Thomas’ communitas aims at the bonum commune, founded on modus, and condemns gains that exceed the necessities of life: omnis lex ad bonum commune ordinatur (every law must be ordered to the common good). To what extent this view, Aristotelian in expression by Aquinas, was rooted in the imaginary of the time is further confirmed by the medieval doctrine of the “just price”: according to it, a price could not produce for anyone a “profit out of the ordinary,” that is, such as to exceed the “just mean,” the μέτρον codified by Hellenic thought. The bonum commune is defined as the human good that is so in relation to the subjects belonging to the same social reality and that results of superior value to the good of the individual: in the words of Thomas, the bonum commune figures as melius et divinius quam bonum unius (the common good is better and more divine than the good of one). It is the lex divina itself that prescribes the conformity between the law and the common good: if this were contravened by the lex humana, then it would be legitimate to rebel against the sovereign (in obedience to God) in order to restore the bonum commune.

Although from different parameters, the thought of William of Ockham also lends itself to an interpretation centered on the idea of the bonum commune and of God as the imago of the human community in solidarity. If Thomas Aquinas is the author in whom, in all probability, the communitarian vocation shines best—thanks also to his powerful reference to Aristotle—Ockham could, at first sight, be considered the thinker most distant from an approach of this genre: and this is due to the fact that he dismisses universals as a mere nomen to which does not correspond an ontological reality in se et per se. Even from a superficial reading, one could have the impression that Thomas’ Aristotelian communitarianism is opposed to Ockham’s programmatic and anti-universalist individualism. In reality, Ockham’s theorization of the “invisible Church,” situated in the individual consciousness of the just, as well as his “nominalism,” for which the universal is a mere nomen, must be understood as the Franciscan foundation of a critique not of the common good in itself considered, but of the institutions that claim to reflect it exclusively: for the nominalist Ockham, the good is not embodied in institutions, but lives in a sum of individuals, each of whom is ontologically perfect as he follows the paupertas. Ockham does not deny the community and the common good; au contraire, he reaffirms them as the necessary result of the commitment of all, omnes et singulatim: that is, they do not exist as universals in se et per se, but as the concrete result of the responsible action of each one.

The figure of Jesus Himself can be understood in this onto-theological perspective centered on the idea of the community of solidarity and the bonum commune. His theandric nature reveals the essence of man as imago Dei and, at the same time, the power of the final redemption: this, in order to be explained, requires the passage through the immense power of the negative (per crucem ad lucem). In addition, the message of Christ is characterized by its communitarian and solidary flow, whose objective is to create the sensible worldly image of the Kingdom of Heaven: it is not a matter of “emptying” the reality of Christianity into a scheme of socio-political praxis of liberation, as “liberation theology” would pretend in part or as, among others, Reza Aslan has proposed in his reading of Jesus as a simple political rebel; quite the contrary, it is a matter of acting and striving to model the earthly kingdom—the civitas humana—according to the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven (civitas Dei). This is evidenced, by the way, in the proclamation of that year of mercy of the Lord (Lk 4:14-30), which implies the forgiveness of debts, with the associated liberation of slaves and the communal redistribution of wealth. Correspondence can be found in many testimonies of Jesus: “If you would be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, so that you may have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21); “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 21:24). In this regard, the contrast established by the “young Hegel” in Volksreligion und Christentum (1793-1994) between the “popular religion” of the Greeks and the “anti-communitarian” religion of the Christians does not seem convincing: Christianity, in fact, when it prescribes “sell all your goods and give the money to the poor, so that you will have treasure in heaven,” does not demand the renunciation of the community, but the foundation of a new community of free and equal individuals.

The episode of the “multiplication of the loaves and fishes,” the only miracle of Jesus narrated by all the four evangelists, could also be read in a communitarian key, not only ontological: the goods that, in appearance, seem to be scarce, if distributed equitably among all the members of the community are sufficient for a generous meal that satisfies the needs of each one of them. The same episode of the “expulsion of the merchants from the Temple” is inscribed in this horizon of meaning. The “Kingdom of Heaven” (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) then coincides with the earthly kingdom redeemed by divine justice. The faith for which Jesus immolated himself was the faith according to which the Kingdom of God, already established on high in the Heavens, was to be translated in the here and now into concrete behaviors and consequent actions: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Wherefore he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart, To preach deliverance to the captives, and sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of reward” (Lk 4:18-19). All were called to abandon private property and recognize God as its only “owner,” in the name of a distribution of goods according to the needs of the community.

Collective conversion would have put an end to the private appropriation of wealth, in a context in which the ideal of the Kingdom of God stood as the paradigm from which to act to implement the ideal of justice on earth, creating a community in which each human being would be free to manifest his or her own capacities: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill” (Mt 5:3-6). The words with which Jesus explains to his chosen ones the reward of the Kingdom of God are well known: “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:35-40).

In its “hot current” the Christian message, with its reference to the βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, does not resolve the transcendent into the immanent, but proposes a modification of the latter so that it corresponds to and is consistent with the former. This is the reading key to understanding the system of the Scienza nuova of Giambattista Vico, who, criticizing the exclusively geometrizing conception of the concept of raison in Descartes and counterposing to it a conception of truth as knowledge of human history (verum ipsum factum), maintains God as the supreme instance of good and evil in history: in the absence of this transcendent instance, external to the simple temporal flow of events, the only criterion for knowing and evaluating historical events would coincide with the success or failure of historical agents. In such a way that it would be reduced to an absolute historicism that would lead to nihilistic relativism. Thus, for example, it is precisely this—following Del Noce’s diagnosis—what has determined the “suicide” of a good part of Marxism, which historicistically passed to an integral adherence to the market world.

In this regard, it should not be forgotten that ἐκκλησία (ekklesía), before becoming the name of the Church, was for the Greeks the communal “assembly” and, as such, referred to an unmistakably social element, in which even the original Christian communities expressly recognized themselves: “And all they that believed, were together, and had all things common. Their possessions and goods they sold, and divided them to all, according as every one had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Among the constitutive elements of the Church of the origins, therefore, a very central place is occupied not only by adherence to the magisterium of the Apostles, but also to “communion” (κοινωνία) and to the equitable breaking of bread. There is a patent call to the communitarian dimension, by virtue of which the distinction between rich and poor is annulled, and everything is common among believers, who recognize themselves equal in the fact that they are all children of God. In his Apologeticum (39:7), Tertullian recounts how the attention and assistance of Christians towards the needy and the weak aroused a deep sense of wonder and amazed the pagans.

From the Christian point of view, the Mass itself is not a personal affair, nor an intimate act, nor even a devotional gesture. It is the We of the community that gathers with the You of God and the We of the Trinity. For this reason, the prevailing pretension today constitutes a pure absurdum (and consistent once again with the neoliberal order) that demands that religion and the sacred be liquidated in the private sphere of a de-socialized individual, insisting on the well-known distortion of Lutheran origin. In fact, the supremacy of the I over the We is the apogee of capitalist individualization, but also of the disintegration initiated with the Lutheran Reformation, which dissolves the “Church” (Kirche) into a “Christianity” (Kirchenheit) of the sum of individualities living sola fide. The Mass is impossible without the ecclesial We, understood in turn not as a sum of solitudes, but as a corporate subject, as communio. Also, from this point of view, the enmity between Christian communitarianism and neoliberal individualism is evident. The community of God’s children who love each other as creatures of the same Father, gathered under the sign of the ἐκκλησία, comes disintegrated in the neoliberal “system of atomistics,” where each one is alone, without God and without brothers and sisters, projected into the cold de-spiritualized space of the Global Market. In its icy, unregulated domains, each one is worth and receives recognition according to the exchange value at his disposal. The de-Christianization of the world goes hand in hand with the individualization of the competitiveness of the competitive society.

For Christians, the very fact that God becomes man opens up the possibility of an anthropocentrism unknown to all other cultures. The divine, understood in Christian terms, does not “weaken” the human; on the contrary, it strengthens and magnifies it, since man himself is now divine, the supreme vertex of the creaturely order and himself the living image of God: God became man, so that man might become God. This is the theme of the “young Hegel” and of his so-called Theological Writings of his Youth (Theologische Jugendschriften), where the contrast between Judaism and Christianity is always repeated. The former is the religion of the abstract, which radically distinguishes between man and God, confronting the latter as a threatening and vengeful entity. Christianity, however, is for Hegel the religion of ϑεανδρικὴ “theandric” union, according to the expression perhaps first employed by Pseudo-Dionysius. God and man are now united and to pretend to separate them represents the ultimate sin, since the last of men, abandoned by God and by men, is God Himself: hence arises the imperative that prescribes discovering the imago Dei even in the last among men. Enfremdung von Gott und Versöhnung mit ihm, “alienation from God and reconciliation with Him” are the central terms that condense the theological-philosophical problematic of the “young Hegel.”

Diego Fusaro is professor of the History of Philosophy at the IASSP in Milan (Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies) where he is also scientific director. He is a scholar of the Philosophy of History, specializing in the thought of Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. His interest is oriented towards German idealism, its precursors (Spinoza) and its followers (Marx), with a particular emphasis on Italian thought (Gramsci or Gentile, among others). he is the author of many books, including Fichte and the Vocation of the IntellectualThe Place of Possibility: Toward a New Philosophy of Praxis, and Marx, again!: The Spectre Returns. This article appears courtesy of Posmodernia.

Featured: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Flemish School, 17th Century.