Photo: Dan Valenti
'Apostate' or 'Apostle'
Two powerful words separated by so little ... and so much
By Dan Valenti (Aug 21, 2008)
Every age has its tumult. Every belief has its detractors. Every faith has its apostates.
The word "apostate" comes teasingly close to "apostle," yet it means the opposite. As a young man just beginning a long, self-directed study of religion, philosophy, and linguistics, I marveled at the similarity. I resisted the knee-jerk reaction of seeing the resemblance as merely derivative, as if the word came into being as a result of the inventor's laziness.
The similarity between "apostle" and "apostate" indicated something more than laziness or "coincidence" — that achy category of irrelevancy created for sloppy thinkers. There are no coincidences. That is a spiritual law, summed up in the compound word: "God-incidence."
"Apostle" and "apostate" looked like Siamese twins — sharing obvious roots but possessing different personalities. The similarity also suggested that belief and doubt are closer than most would imagine. There is separation, but the line is thin.
The word "apostate" surfaced for air in a discussion at a BBQ last week my wife Paula and I hosted for a few friends at our home. We got talking religion, and "apostate" was uttered by one of our guests. The word made me smile and reminisce back to spring of 1974.
In college, as part of a competition sponsored by the philosophy department of Union College, I debated another student on the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Up for grabs (and grads): the role of Christianity in Nietzsche's works. I had the difficult job of arguing the affirmative of the proposition that Nietzsche's anti-Christian writings were actually a form of severe self-criticism of his own lost faith. In other words, "Was Nietzsche in some way a Christian philosopher?"
The department hosted the debate in the faculty lounge of the humanities building at Union. The winner would receive the coveted Blatchford Medal for Oratory, rate a story in the student newspaper, and have his name printed in the graduation program. The front of the medal depicted the profile of a balding man who looked like he was about to sneeze (I assumed it was Sir Henry Smythe Blatchford). The reverse showed what looked like a hawk carrying stalks of goldenrod over the surface of the moon.
About 100 people — a mix of students, faculty, and the public — attended the debate. To add to the adrenalin, we had no advance knowledge of the question, only that it would cover one of the philosophers we studied during the semester. It turned out to be Nietzsche.
That was a stroke of luck for me, because the German with the mustache of a silent-screen film comic had been a specialty. I had even submitted a paper titled, "Nietzsche is Peachy." The professor returned it back, graded, with a note at the end saying: "Your title may set philosophy back 100 years."
The debate was set-up something like "speed chess." We were each given a 5-minute opening statement and a two-minute close but only 30 for assertions and 15 seconds for rebuttals. The idea was to induce as much stress as possible. The woman who ran the timer ruled with an iron fist. I silently nicknamed her Hildegard. At precisely 30 seconds or 15, Hildy would punch the bell then yell "Time!" with sinister glee. I went over the limit a couple of times, which pleased her greatly.
Spelling His Hyphenated Doom
My opponent, however, hadn't mastered "speed-philosophy." I don't remember much about my worthy counterpart except that he had hair like Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein," he owned a Rolex watch, and he had a hyphenated last name. He also possessed a hyphenated debating style. After making a point he would try to attach another to it, then another, invariably running out of time. Instead of playing "speed philosophy," he talked as if he were layering a wedding cake.
His doom came when he misused the word "apostate," thinking it meant the opposite. He said something like, "Nietzsche, unlike true apostates of Christianity, couldn't be bothered with God." He meant "apostles."
'His am I'
I moved in for the kill. Nietzsche was very much "bothered with God." I won the debate by quoting from memory a poem the philosopher wrote, a little-known work I discovered in a dusty book of criticism that hadn't been checked out of the school library since the Roaring Twenties.
I had since forgotten the verses, but in another of those "God-incidences" I found the poem. Cleaning the cellar recently, I discovered a book I had given my wife as a Christmas present many years ago. The book is titled, In Love with Love: 100 of the Greatest Mystical Poems (Paulist Press, 1978).
Here's the philosopher's poem, reprinted from that book:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD
Once more, before I move on
And cast my glance ahead
Solitary, I lift my hands
To you, to whom I fly,
To whom my heart's deepest depth
I have consecrated
A ritual altar
Recalls your voice to me.
On it glow, deeply inscribed
The words: to the unknown God.
His am I, even if in the company of the wicked
I have remained till this very hour:
His am I — and I feel the noose
That in battle brings me down
And, should I try to flee,
Yet compels me back into his service.
I will to know you, unknown one.
You who seize me deep in my soul,
You who roam through my life like a storm,
You, inconceivable, are kin to me!
I will to know you, even serve you.
Apostate or Apostle?
If I were to tell you this poem was written by St. John of the Cross or St. Faustina, you would treasure these words, but Nietzsche?
Nietzsche —apostate or apostle? I ask but don't answer. That I leave to you.
Who can judge a man's soul except for the most merciful God, who reads not the words of men and women but, rather, what is in their hearts and why?
Long after all our fatuous words are forgotten, God's mercy alone will remain.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publication of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" for the website: thedivinemercy.org.