Nihilism is at our door: whence comes this most gruesome of all guests to us?
If nihilism devalues even the highest of values, we can state with a fair amount of certainty that we are living in it now. Nihilistic sentiments are no longer lurking behind the facade of social norms and ideals but are now front and center in our cultural and political discourses.
Is the person holding the highest office of the land morally good? Does it matter? You see a similar spirit in our economics: More than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID. Unemployment numbers have hit record highs and thousands of American businesses have permanently closed their doors. Yet the markets continue to grow. So does that matter?
It is what it is.
The Origins of Passive Nihilism
The contemporary west, with its individualistic bend, is increasingly nihilistic and dangerously so. Such is the characterization of our times given not by fear-mongering conservative commentators but by secular philosophers, notably Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. In their New York Times best-seller book All Things Shining (Simon & Schuster, 2011), these secular thinkers express a genuine concern that our culture’s nihilistic existence can move to its destructive stage leaving people unable to find meaning for their lives, define what it means to be human, or lead a good life.
In their book, Dreyfus and Kelly try to answer Nietzsche’s question: Whence comes this most gruesome of all guests to us? To that end, they trace the development of human self-understanding over the course of Western history through great works of literature. After gradually dispensing first with Greek gods and then with the idea of Judeo-Christian God, Western civilization retained and firmly clinched the idea of priority and even superiority of the intellect and inner self over our physical environment. Thus, holding an individual to be completely self-sufficient, people were left with no other place to look for meaning but inside oneself.
Yet, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, that task proved to be impossible, for it would require creating meaning ex nihilo, something humans were always ill-equipped to do. Thus, we arrived at our present state of nihilism. There might still be time to change the course of history for Western civilization. “Quickly!” they urge their readers, “find meaning in something outside of self! Be open to the world of possibilities and be part of something bigger than yourself! (Just make sure it is not something terrible.)”
However, in the process of mapping out the intellectual history of the West and offering their solution for encroaching nihilism, Dreyfus and Kelly lay serious charges against the Christian tradition echoing Nietzsche’s own conclusion that Christian thought has significantly aided the current nihilistic trend. Hence their refusal to embrace monotheism in general and Christianity, in particular, to divert the train from plunging into the abyss.
We end here stressing the importance of the inner in Augustine because there is a direct path from Paul’s emphasis on the purification of our inner desires to Augustine’s finding God’s truth in his heart. This valorization of the human being as an essentially inner domain lay dormant through much of the next twelve hundred years.
But Descartes picks up Augustinian thread when he emphasizes the self-sufficient “cogito” whose inner experiences are cut off from “the external world.” And one hundred fifty years after that Kant finally brings the idea to fruition when he articulates his conception of human beings as fully autonomous selves.
But before we move on to Descartes and Kant we will have to take a detour by way of St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who draw on Aristotle rather than Plato to make Christianity intelligible in Greek terms. And whose failure to do so is dramatized by Luther.
Their analysis of how the Christian tradition has contributed to this chain of events, if correct, is indeed troublesome and should not be ignored. Dreyfus and Kelly contend that by putting too much weight on finding the meaning only in experiencing the beatific vision of God, following Aristotle, St.Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, we arrive at the passive nihilism where nothing on this earth is worthy of our pursuit but God.
Therefore, the path to obtaining the fullness of meaning lies through death. Only then can a person be united with God and fully experience his presence. Alternatively, by putting too much weight on the inner self and personal relationship with God, we arrive at Nietzsche’s active nihilism by way of Luther’s stress on an individual’s independence from the world’s power structures. Either way, it seems that we end up in the same place struggling to find meaning for our physical existence on this earth.
Their analysis is, certainly, too selective. Christians are not solely to blame for the state of Western civilization. Nevertheless, their claim should make Christians pay closer attention to our rhetoric, especially now when we are faced with pandemic and increasing ecological disasters; when we are forced to reckon with the history of racism in the church. Has our failure to place any meaning in the physical aspects of our existence contributed to the state of our natural environment and treatment of other people?
One of the main reasons the Christian tradition cannot easily absolve itself of such charges is because many of us continue to engage in a theistic form of passive nihilism that so often emanates from our pulpits and the pages of popular Christian literature. Every week, countless preachers and Bible teachers urge us to seek our fulfilment only in experiencing God, rendering everything else of little to no value. This teaching can easily ingrain in us the idea that nothing we do matters because somehow all our actions amount to futile attempts by humans to earn our salvation. Still other evangelicals have routinely been taught that our personal relationship with God is the only purpose for which we were created, in a way that seems to exclude embodied creaturely existence.
Suppose we as humans can only find our meaning either in personal relationships with God or in experiencing a blissful intimacy with God apart from this world. In that case, this physical existence is indeed meaningless. At the minimum, it erases our human agency reducing us to a passive existence awaiting life after death. Exerting meaningful actions of service and missions, not to mention environmental or social causes, loses its meaning even when the urgency requires it. Is it surprising then that most Christians in the U.S. lack motivation to engage in these issues? Indeed, all of these reflections raise an even more fundamental question: Why did God create us to be physical beings in the first place? Why did he not simply make us spiritual?
At this point, those familiar with Paul’s writings might suggest that these problems originate in his work. “But what about Paul’s discourse in Philippians? Did Paul not say that he would rather choose to be with Christ than to stay on this earth? What about his passionate proclamation to count everything as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ? Can anyone accuse Paul of being a nihilist, even if a passive one?”
Indeed, in Philippians, Paul may seem to be endorsing something very like the view described above. It is helpful, therefore, to briefly revisit this letter. In four short chapters, Paul offers a generous look inside his past, his present struggles, his desires, and his hopes. He leans on such intimate details to address the issue of selfishness that had come to characterize some believers, Judaizers who tried to convince gentile Christians to follow a Jewish way of life, and former Christians who left the faith for safety and physical comforts. Paul considers selfishness, in all its manifestations, to be a severe impediment to the redeeming work of the gospel. Therefore, he subjects his Jewishness, earthly comforts, and even desires for personal fulfillment and intimacy with God to his divine call to the gospel’s work among gentiles and the benefit of other believers of the Roman Empire. He does this to set an example for his readers and teach them to cultivate and prioritize God-given mandate and desire for communal flourishing over personal interests.
Paul’s sense of vocation together with his work for the collective good of other believers kept his heart and feet firmly on the ground. Thus he could reject nihilistic notions and say: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me (Phil. 1:23-26).”
Paul knew that he existed on this earth to fulfill God’s mandate of continuing the work that Jesus had started (which is the work humans were created to do in the first place) — to uphold and spread God’s rule around this world that will ensure human flourishing in this lifetime and beyond. This is what gave meaning to his earthly life not only his personal fulfillment even if it was in God.
Finally, in Philippians, Paul revealed what captured his imagination and gave wind to his sails — a desire to participate in the future that was surprisingly physical, namely a bodily resurrection and a new physicality in the power and likeness of Christ (Phil. 3:7-21). His words in Philippians demonstrate how active anticipation of the renewed physical existence in the future gives meaning and direction to Paul’s bodily life on this earth.
Instead of giving in and succumbing to a bitter cynicism like Nietzsche or turning to nihilism to cope with the harsh realities of this world, Paul assumed full advantage of his renewed human agency empowered by the Holy Spirit. He poured himself into building faith communities that addressed spiritual, physical, and social issues. He was a tireless herald for the renewal of God’s good order around the world even during his imprisonment when death seemed inevitable, the active life could seem impossible, and his previous work could appear meaningless.
Paul grounded his sense of life’s purpose in the fulfillment of God’s call in his personal life, in service to others, and in living out the divine purpose for all humans to be God’s image-bearers in this world imitating Christ even in his sufferings. Paul also had a keen understanding of the physical and communal nature of our existence — something that will not be done away with in the future but be perfected in and through our resurrection in Jesus Christ. All that to say, that the meaning and purpose of Pauls’ life were not to be separated from his physical existence.
Paul is, indeed, worthy of imitating. We will do well, in our nihilistic age, to accept Paul’s invitation to follow his example not only in a missionary zeal but also in his vision of human life. Maybe then, Christians will be able to offer a real alternative that will stand against the most gruesome of all guests.
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