(Note to readers: The series on “The Allure of Rome” will be continued at a later time. Periodically, it will be interrupted by other topics.)
“The totalitarian revolutions, with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism, were nothing but the executors of … so-called positivist philosophy, which, as a matter of fact, was a latent nihilism, and which, towards the end of the last [19th] and the beginning of this [20th] century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society. The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution of Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism [Nazism] or Fascism on the other. That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic. No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our [the WW2] generation reaped with blood and tears …”
Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, First Part: Foundations, (London: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 3.
Little has changed in the mindset of “the educated and leading strata” of Western society since Emil Brunner spoke these words in 1947 as he began the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland. We may add the newer variation of nihilism called postmodernism, but Nietzsche and nihilism still command a huge following, supplemented with Foucault, Marcuse and other more recent, trendy figures, including some hard-left feminist voices. Existential desperation and despair still rule academia, and no hope of more than a very transient and contingent reprieve is even hinted at. Meaning in the cosmic sense has faded from view. We now find only stop-gap contingencies to prolong our tenuous hold on hope—causes to fight for (climate change or gender mutability, anyone?), methods of “self-actualizing oneself to the fullest” during the brief candle of our swiftly-passed sojourn on our freakishly incredible little speck of cosmic dust we call Planet Earth.
Literally, “nihilism” means belief in nothing (nihil = nothing in Latin, + ismus = belief in). On its own, it is a strange and self-contradictory term. No one can really believe in nothing, for one must at least believe that one exists in order to actually ‘believe’ a thing, even if we declare that belief as ‘nothing’ or non-existence. The belief itself, however abstract and ethereal, is a thing we believe and believe in. One can believe that it all means nothing, but not that nothing exists, at least not with real conviction.
In truth, a nihilist cannot really be a nihilist. She may be like Descartes, who began his Meditations on the nature of reality with his famous declaration of universal, radical doubt that anything at all actually exists, even himself. But she can only at last arrive at the same place as Descartes—admitting that she is actually ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) because she is thinking. As Descartes concluded, it will not answer to posit that perhaps, after all, I am merely an idea in another, greater being’s mind. In that case, even if that were a possibility (which it can be shown not to be since one has the actual power of independent thought), at least the other, greater being exists to have the ‘thought’ which self-identifies as “I think, therefore I am.”
Brunner’s lectures were given in the immediate wake of World War 2, and he was seeking to understand how the West had “come to this pass.” His diagnosis is completely brilliant and as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, today as when he composed it and shared it. We may have seen most of the totalitarian dictatorships crumble into the dustbin of history since 1945, but nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on. Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.” Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists. As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”
After all, a real, existing Creator, leaving His/Her stamp, image, and signature everywhere for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear” to perceive, will actually require me to admit I am not my own creator and god, and neither am Ithe actual creator of my own reality. If I am to be the least bit really honest about that reality, I must admit that I don’t control it. Then I will have to admit that I am truly accountable and responsible to Someone/Something much greater than myself for the of life I have been given. As the New Testament puts it, “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.” I would need to seek the Creator’s purposes and my place within them in order to achieve harmony with what really is, including within my own being.
It is all very well to say, as the ‘progressive’ nihilists who may confess a sort of transient, temporary (and, yes, even fifty billion contingent years is temporary) existence of something destined to implode and return to nothing that, as the only (as far as we know) self-aware extrusions of the Cosmos, we are responsible to care for the fragility of life in all its forms until we and it inevitably pass into oblivion. The greatest of nihilist gurus, Nietzsche, has already given the simple, callous, and brutal but completely realistic answer, in the form of a question, to this apparent altruism towards an ultimately meaningless and aberrant ‘something-out-of-nothing-destined-to-return-to-nothing’: “Why?”
Nietzsche is rarely read straight-up by those who claim to proclaim his gospel. Rather, he is read and admired in dribs and drabs by the “‘wise of this age”, as Paul of Tarsus described the similar folk of his day two thousand years ago. But Nietzsche is not really taken at his word even by those who claim to be his evangelists. He said that the meaning of everything, in so far as any meaning is to be found, is only in seizing “the will to power”. “God is dead and we have killed him,” he said. (A Theist wag’s reply to this from God’s perspective: “Nietzsche is dead and I’m still here!”).
The angst-driven, postmodern existentialist turns the “will to power” into, “The will to make yourself whatever you choose, to make meaning whatever you choose.” Although Nietzsche would not contradict this, he would chide, “But this is not enough.” I-myself as “God” is so small as to be ridiculous. But most humans do not have the courage to admit that underneath this revolt against the Creator there really IS nothing to support the claim that we can define reality as we see fit. The void left by the Creator can only be finally and fully filled when I, the creature, accept who I really am in relationship to Him/Her, the Creator. Most of us cannot live with true nihilism, for the only position really left to the true nihilist is despair. Even Nietzsche finally killed himself because he couldn’t find real hope even in his own myth of the Superman and Super Race. We all desperately want our own existence to mean something real,and we cannot live without some substantial meaning to which we can anchor our lives and identities.
Brunner observes that worldviews inevitably shape the civilisations where they take root. He then looks at the West and its relationship to Christianity, and the consequences of the West’s rejection of its strongest foundation. This suicidal rejection is an exceedingly perplexing phenomenon, just as the emergence of anything called a “Christian civilisation” was a mystery in the first place, given that The New Testament says nothing whatsoever about creating such a thing. It talks much of “the Kingdom of God” and how it contrasts to “this age” or the system of “the world”. It is radically countercultural in the truest sense, and yet, when it took hold, it spawned the richest and most open culture and society the world has ever seen. And now we find that the children of this culture have decided, like children so often do, that the parents know nothing and never did, and they can do infinitely better without all that old-style discipline and talk of morality and moderation and accountability to a greater Being and greater good.
Our journey in this blog has been to explore elements of this story and, like a blind person with a walking stick, to tap our way forward towards a “Third Way” of truly knowing the Creator and understanding our relationship with Him/Her. As we move forward, we also need to look backward, for our fore-parents were not stupid and probably not as blind as we have chosen to make ourselves or make them out to have been. People across all cultures and ages have been seeking harmony within themselves and with the creation and whatever or whomever brought it into being. Therefore, wisdom and insight can be found in various traditions and quests, as well as insight in how not to travel this road. In every age people have blundered into ditches or, even worse, a terrible morass by adopting insane, reality-denying and destructive notions of what is and what it means. Now, in the 21st Century, the West has lost its way and must once more go seeking its soul.