Back when I was a junior at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, PA, thinking about graduate school, vocation, etc., I took a Christology course with one of my favorite professors, Father Tom Hart, O.S.B., a Benedictine priest and then chair of the Religion and Religious Education department. The course was, as one would expect, fairly Catholic–in a good way–and was a genuine attempt at simultaneously introducing multicultural and spiritual approaches to the subject. Me being me, I presented as my final paper for the class something neither Catholic nor multicultural, “Nietzschean Christology.”
Earlier in that semester I actually got locked into the lower level of the library late one Friday night–this was before the library had a major renovation and brought up to fire code. St. Vincent has a phenomenal library right in the center of campus, and I had my favorite spots on the lower levels that were generally uninhabited.
After realizing that I was locked in, I diligently went to work on my plans for my senior thesis on the Baha’i Faith, which would be built off of a course paper for a different class that semester (“The Influence of Philosophy on Theology” with the infamous campus fixture Fr. Justin Nolan, O.S.B.); eventually my attention shifted toward my Christology paper. It was that night that I discovered the books of Thomas J. J. Altizer and my vocational choices and academic interests began to take shape. The next morning, as the sun was rising, I said hello to Father Chrystostom, the head librarian, as he was unlocking the doors on my way to the cafeteria. I could feel his look on me as I exited the library.
“Nietzschean Christology” was probably the best paper I wrote in college, and I was awarded a grant from the college to continue to develop the paper and present it at a conference, and it was later published in an edited collection from the conference. I used it for my M.Div. applications–which, looking back on it, probably shaped which seminaries eventually did not admit me–and I actually went back to it during my second round of Ph.D. applications and reworked it and used it as one of my writing samples. In some ways, my dissertation work and my ministerial-theological paradigm have been shaped by the paper. Fr. Tom asked if a version of the paper could be posted online as a “stellar student paper,” and I consented. I’m not sure if it’s linked on the college’s website, but the page still exists.
On the internet, “Nietzschean Christology” has taken a life of its own. I occasionally get e-mails and Facebook messages from people asking about it or thanking me for it. There were at one time a few websites that had taken the essay without crediting me as the author, and as a result I have actually had students at least twice hand in a journal entry or a whole paper that copied my own essay from one of those websites.
Someone recently alerted me to a YouTube video of Hubert Dreyfus, who teaches at UC Berkeley, lecturing on Nietzsche. The video itself is just filler, but if you click on the “show more” in the description is a cut and paste of part of the “Nietzschean Christology” essay (I’m not quite sure why). An Atheist Youth Movement blog had a post last year that quoted the essay extensively, sometimes attributing people I have quoted as my own words.
A little while ago I met a local philosophy professor, who, before meeting me googled my name and discovered the essay via the Atheist Movement’s blog post. While I am proud of this essay, the form that is out there on the internet is the version of the 21-year old me writing in a former monestary room with a rear view of Saint Vincent College’s Basilica. It’s a snapshot of me, perhaps 25 pounds lighter, listening to Nine Inch Nails as loud as I was allowed to in the “quiet dorm,” and trying to find my writing voice while tapping away on a IBM 286 on a desk cluttered with 3 x 5 notecards taken on that night of being locked up in the library.
While re-working my c.v. recently, I asked for some advice from a few people, and it was suggested that I clean up my publications or divide them into different groups, because I have written so many short articles for a variety of publications, many of them not academic publications. Another suggestion was to abbreviate publications, especially the two from my undergraduate years, even if they were “peer reviewed.” The other, on the death of God in “industrial music” for a course on popular culture criticism, was also placed online (with my permission) by the college and is even now linked on one of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s websites.
It seems to me that the value of “Nietzschean Christology,” beyond its personal importance, is that it is kind of a starting point for myself as a (or an aspiring) public theologian. It has taken a life of its own, gone viral a little, and is actually what some googlers find when they search for my name. I am not sure if I would have consented to it being online back in 1999, before I understood that the internet offers a kind of permanent record. But I am glad I did, even if I am a little uneasy about my work being used by the “Atheist Youth Movement.” But I wish the bloggers had instead engaged Jeff Robbins’ and my essay, “Beating ‘God’ to Death: Radical Theology and the New Atheism,” which was published last year in Religion and the New Atheism. The difference, is, of course, that essay isn’t available for free or immediately accessible online.