THOMAS A’ KEMPIS—MEDIEVAL THEOLOGIAN
BY JON NELSON
Most Christians would find it inconceivable to think that their religion could possibly have side effects detrimental to their mental health or to society in general. Nonetheless, when objectively analyzed, Christianity is viciously hostile to the psychological well-being of the individual, and when it is accepted by society at large, poses a threat to its advancement, and even its very survival. The dangers of interpreting any religion literally are multitudinous, and Christianity is certainly no exception; some of the more negative ramifications include anxiety, anti-social behavior, hatred of oneself, one’s family, and even of life itself can be found in Christian precepts. In extreme cases, insanity, homicide, and suicide can be the result.
Psychologists and other behavioral scientists recognize some of the symptoms of mental illness. These can include low self-esteem, a dualistic view of self (the mind vs. body dichotomy), and alienation from family and friends. All of these symptoms are also core teachings of biblical Christianity; Christian writers of earlier times (and, unfortunately, many to this day) seemed positively obsessed with them. The writings of the medieval theologian Thomas A’ Kempis provide a startling case in point.
Thomas A’ Kempis (c.1379-1471) was a German monk whose treatise “The Imitation of Christ” is one of the most influential Christian works of all time. It is said that this is the single most read Christian work after the Bible. Despite this, it is a horrifying book to read. In it, Thomas repeatedly attacks this life and all the pleasures in it. He encourages self-hatred, obedience to authority, and disdains any kind of learning outside the Bible. For anyone seeking the ideological foundations of the Christian Dark Ages, Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ” is the perfect prototype.
“The Imitation of Christ” is a devotional work intended to “inspire” Christians to a life more pleasing to their god. In fact, it lays bare the brutal and inhumane essence of Christian dogma. According to the twisted Christian conception of morality (in its pristine state), every virtue becomes a vice, every pleasure becomes a sin, misfortunes a test, and pain a reward in itself. Thomas’ ideal man is not the intelligent, the productive, the noble and virtuous, but instead the weak, the fearful, the non-productive, and the ignorant. Does this sound like an extremist view of him and his work? As we will see, his own words are a better indictment of Christianity than any atheist could dream up. Let’s examine some of them:
Thomas’ hatred of knowledge is obvious: “Never read in any science to the end that you may be called wise.” And: “It is profitable to you to be ignorant in many things and to think of yourself as dead to the world.”
Of course, we must never trust in reason. This idea permeates the Bible, and Thomas, using god as speaker (rather an arrogant approach for someone supposedly so meek and humble) says: “My judgments are to be feared and not to be discussed by man’s reason, for they are incomprehensible to that reason.” What Thomas (as god) is saying is, if some scriptural injunction seems to be irrational or immoral, follow it anyway and without question. No totalitarian dictator could have said it better.
Since our distinguishing characteristic as humans is our mind, the faculty of reason that which separates us from the lower primates, hatred of the mind means hatred of the human race. Thomas takes it from there: “The highest and most profitable learning is this: That a man have a truthful knowledge and a full despising of himself.” This hating of self is reinforced in other passages, including: “Blessed is he who knows how good it is to love Jesus and, for His sake, to despise himself.”
This concept is conjoined with other equally noxious notions when Thomas states: “Cast away from yourself all worldly wisdom, all man’s comfort, and all your own affections.” In other words, to be “holy,” one must detest learning, hate the comfort of others, hate oneself, and hate anything that gives us pleasure. Elaborating on this, he adds: “A man ought to establish himself so fully in God that, whatever adversity befalls him, he will not need to seek any outward comfort.” So, if you become ill, do not dare to seek the “outward comfort” of medicine or hospital care. Again, this injunction emphasizes anti-social and anti-life behavior—perversely portrayed as a moral idea.
Not content with this, Thomas tries to deny us the comfort of any living thing: “Consider as vain all comforts that come to you from any creature.” So much for keeping pets.
By now it should be obvious what Thomas’ views are on pleasure. He elaborates on this and also makes it obvious what he thinks of being a productive individual: “Oh how pure a conscience should he have who would despise all transitory joy and would never meddle with worldly business.” And: “You cannot have two heavens—that is to say, you cannot have joy and delight here, and also joy afterwards with Christ in Heaven.” Thomas’ stated ideal is for everyone to live a totally joyless existence, in the warped expectation that the afterlife will somehow be better: “As far as your weakness may allow it, never give yourself to indiscreet mirth for any reason.”
The only thing Thomas would allow us to enjoy (or rather, to wallow in) is our own misery: “You err greatly if you seek any other thing than to suffer.” And: “For myself, I shall glory in nothing but in my infirmities.” At this point, we begin to see Thomas as a truly sick man, totally devoid of any human sentiments.
It is a natural extension from this to a promotion of masochism: “No man feels the Passion of Christ so efficaciously as he who feels pain like the pain Christ felt.” Or the even more graphic: “If you had once entered the bloody wounds of Jesus, and had there tasted a little of his love, you would care nothing for the liking or the disliking of the world, but would rather have great joy when wrongs and injuries were done you, for perfect love of God makes a man perfectly to disregard himself.”
The Christian must also exhibit paranoiac tendencies: “The spiritual enemy does not sleep, and the flesh is not yet fully mortified and therefore you must never cease to prepare yourself for spiritual battle, for you have enemies on every side who are ever ready to assail you and to hinder your good purpose all they can.”
Even good deeds mean nothing to Thomas: “Never think yourself worthy to be called holy or virtuous because of any good deeds you have done, but think how great a sinner you are.”
The atheist’s contention that the only people who derive tangible benefits from religion are the ruling elites is inadvertently borne out by Thomas: “Be not ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ, and to be poor in this world for his sake.” And: “It is a great thing to be obedient, to live under authority and to seek our own liberty in nothing.” What more could any dictator ask of his subjects?
And of course, the final touch is the pie-in-the-sky reward: “You will always have your will in Heaven, where you will have all that you desire.” One can only wonder what one could possibly want after a life lived according to Thomas’ teachings.
It is a serious mistake to dismiss these absurdly evil musings as the product of a medieval monk’s dark mind, for many Christians today think in much the same way—and then have the unmitigated gall to call Christianity a doctrine of love. Thomas’ book has not been relegated to the dustbins of history; the fact that it remains in print and a best-seller shows that the voices of medievalism are yet in our midst. The note on the back cover of one recent re-issue alarmingly illustrates this point: “The timeless message of the humble monk is as inspiring in our tempestuous era as the day it was written.” Timeless? Inspiring? Apparently emotional (and possibly physical) self-flagellation is still an integral component of the church’s teachings and the goal of the clergy today is still, as it has always been, to keep humanity in this mental torture chamber—from whence they derive their power.
Certainly, most of the world does not follow the mad monk’s teachings; if we did, we would still be in the Christian Dark Ages. What has led some people away from Christianity’s toxic doctrines is innate humanity (held in check for centuries by the strong-arm tactics of the church) which enables them to transcend, to some degree, the horror of those teachings.
This is why an atheist/humanist outlook is so essential for our survival. By rejecting theology and all its concomitant absurdities, and by recognizing that morality must be human-based rather than based on appeasing some non-existing celestial super-tyrant, we are able to develop our human potential freed from mindless, life-negating religious nonsense. A person of self-confidence knows that real wisdom does not come from rejecting our minds, but from using them. Life is to be enjoyed, not hated.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) once stated that his goal as a philosopher was to make “the friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, worshipers into workers, candidates for the other world into students of this world, Christians who on their own confession are half animal and half angel into men—whole men.” What better goal could any atheist have—or any self-respecting human being?
- The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’ Kempis. Published by Doubleday, 1989
- Deadly Doctrine—Health, Illness, and Christian God-Talk by Wendell W. Watters. Published by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York 1992