My position is a weak one. But the question is: why?
Paul is clear that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). God works through the weak and the simple.
That is, God preaches the cross.
But preaching the cross sounds, of course, like a dodge. It’s good cover for a position that is inherently weak. It’s a good ploy to claim that a position’s weakness is a mark of its own virtue. That kind of move is Rhetoric 101.
On this account, Jesus’ followers have to preach the cross because Jesus lost. They killed him. The Romans won and the empire, with hardly a hiccup, rolled on.
More, it’s impossible these days to read Paul’s claim — that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18) — without immediately wincing at the thought of Nietzsche’s rejoinder.
For us, Paul’s claim is unavoidably entwined with Nietzsche’s often painfully accurate critique of Christianity as a tradition that casts people as victims, valorizes weakness, wallows in pity, and lives on resentment. Christian thinking that valorizes the weak is, Nietzsche claims, saturated with a “slave morality.” It’s a system of thought built for slaves to keep them enslaved. Christianity isn’t liberty, it’s a self-serving justification for our lack of it. Christianity is smoke and mirrors deployed for the sake of either taking advantage or excusing it.
Nietzsche’s critique has bite. It’s always tempting to just agree with him and retire from the field.
I’m sympathetic to anyone who chooses to get off the bus at Nietzsche’s stop. Bless you, I say, as I squirm in my own seat every time that same stop comes back around.
But if I don’t get off here, if I’m convinced that Jesus and Paul have got hold of something crucial in their defense of weakness that Nietzsche doesn’t see, then I’m left with a dilemma.
Granted that, on Jesus’ own terms, our position is weak, the question is: why?
If my position is weak and looks foolish and is hard to justify, is this because my position is weak and foolish and (by any reasonable standard) unjustifiable? If my position looks weak, doesn’t it probably look weak because it is baloney?
Or, if my position is weak and looks foolish and is hard to justify, is this because I’m on the right track? Is this because I’ve connected, in some small part, with what Jesus and Paul were themselves after?
Let’s withhold judgment for a moment.
It’s important to let both these possibilities sit because, to be safe, self-deception should be my default assumption. Its undertow is strong. Decisions like these are ripe for self-deception.
If my position on Mormonism takes its own weakness as a virtue, then it is only fair that my honest working assumption should be that this position is, plain and simple, an act of self-deception. I’m too scared or too comfortable or too privileged or too lazy or too invested to come clean and see the truth. Self-deceived, I adopt a slave morality and then rationalize like crazy from there.
Now, granted, this may well be true. Certainly, it’s the simplest explanation. And, certainly, it’s most soundly in keeping with what I know about myself: I am, myself, weak and afraid. I should have gotten off the bus with Nietzsche but didn’t because I was chicken. And now I’m tangled up in escalating feedback loops of dubious, pseudo-philosophical, paper-thin rationalization. The emperor has got no clothes.
This may well be true. Even likely.
In fact, it may well be true because it feels false (even to me) to think that, of the two options, my position is weak because that weakness is (surprise!) actually a virtue in disguise.
It’s too convenient by half. It smells like dead fish.
If I sit still and I’m really trying to be honest, I would also have to say that it would feel even more false to deny that something bigger than me, something truer than me, something better than me, is at work here in all this Mormon weakness: in all this Jello, all these manuals, all this hypocrisy, all this self-congratulation, all this politics, all this confusion, all these pews, all these meetings, all these visits, all these faith promoting rumors, all these bureaucracies, all these failures, all these scriptures.
At least in my case, denying this weakness, denying that this weakness is in fact exactly what Paul claims that it is — the power of God made manifest — smells even fishier. Denying it would be even less honest.
The smell of self-deception is, while pungent in the first case, even stronger in the second.
At least in my case — and you, without exception, must think and act and speak for yourselves and in your own names when weighing this in your own hearts — self-deception is an ever greater risk were I to deny what has, to redemptive effect, repeatedly shown itself to me in all this Mormon weakness. I know what I’ve seen. And I know God knows what I’ve seen.
In my case, denying that God is at work in this Mormon weakness would itself be too easy. Too convenient. Too simple. It would itself be an act of self-deception.
No decision about this will be simple. No decision will be clean. You risk various measures of self-deception either way. But a decision still has to be made. And responsibility for the consequences of this decision, with all of its foreseen and unforeseen costs and rewards, will have to be borne. And you won’t bear the costs alone.
Is my decision unjustifiable? Yes. But the other seems even more so.
I love Nietzsche and I wave and smile whenever I see him. He has a beautiful mustache. And each time I see him, I fidget in my seat and worry that he’s right and that I’m just deceiving myself. And each time I see him, I admit that he may well be.
But, in the end, for my part, it’s the pressing likelihood of even deeper kind of self-deception that keeps me on the bus.
I don’t stay because I’m oblivious to self-deception. I stay because I’m keenly tuned to it.