We were a group of seventh-graders on the bus, making our way to the first basketball game of the season. “I think facial hair is gross; it’s so itchy,” I said with a look of disgust. “I will never grow a beard.” The discussion was around my friend’s illustrious beard that had grown in over the summer. When you’re 12, you don’t really think about the science of puberty. As far as we were concerned, our friend was a master face-gardener, having access to some magical pubescent Miracle-Gro and making sure to water it daily.
I remember how vehemently I reacted to the idea of having a beard. I made a spectacle, cursing facial hair and swearing off it forever. I was better off without it, so there.
The reality was I couldn’t grow a beard.
But deep down, I wanted one. So bad. Yet, rather than admit that I longed for a beard but didn’t have the machismo (or what I later found out to be “hormones”) to get one, it was much easier and better for my ego to pretend I didn’t want it at all.
This phenomenon is what the philosopher Nietzsche called ressentiment (French for “resentment”) and his observation of its prevalence among Christians was one of the main reasons he couldn’t stand them. (For a contemporary example of others being a little upset by this phenomenon among Christians, see the 2004 movie Saved!). Essentially, Nietzsche says, we all want power. But if we are too weak to get it, we pretend we don’t want it at all, in fact, we pretend we want the opposite, both to stick it to the powerful and to save our own egos.
And I have to agree with Nietzsche. We do this a lot and not just with regard to facial hair.
My favorite example is the bumper sticker: “My real treasure is in heaven,” which you’ll most often see stuck to the back of an old jalopy. What does this bumper sticker mean? Forget your BMW, I don’t even want it because my treasure is better than yours, but it’s, er, not quite here yet. BUT JUST YOU WAIT!
When I taught ethics at a Christian university, I would use this example and then ask: “How many of you, if you had that sticker on your car, would turn down a BMW if someone offered it to you, no strings attached?”
Having asked hundreds of students, not one has ever raised a hand. Hmmm.
What happened to real treasure being in heaven? Well, it is, until we get a good job and we don’t need it to be. What happened to suffering being part of what it means to be a Christian? Well, it is, until we can avoid it. What happened to the blessing of being poor? Well it is, until we’re not, and then of course Jesus didn’t mean that literally. What happened to a church leader’s proclamation “we’re proud to be a small church because it means we are faithful?” Well that’s true, until you grow, then you’re proud because your growth means you are faithful.
Nietzsche’s point is that Christians don’t seem to take Jesus very seriously, using Jesus’ virtues simply as a placeholder until they gain access to what they really want: money and power. That is to say, he calls out hypocrisy because he sees hypocrisy all around. His call to authenticity and honesty asks us to take a hard look inward, to see if we are simply using Jesus’ virtues as a palliative on the path to our vices.
While many would consider Nietzsche an enemy of Christianity, I call him a prophet. Like the biblical prophets, when it comes to his concept of ressentiment, he holds up a mirror to our hypocrisy and calls us to repentance.
He asks us to admit our desire for beards. And I believe it’s in that place of raw honesty that God begins to work.
Dominick Dodgson is a professor of philosophy & ethics who consumes pop-culture and pretends it's "research." You can follow him on Twitter @dedodgson and read more posts at www.dominickdodgson.com.