Posted by: gcarkner | February 12, 2013

Nihilism and Suffering: Incompatible?

Nihilism Fails to Honestly Engage Evil and Suffering

~Gordon Carkner PhD~

Author of The Great Escape from Nihilism

Recovery of Meaning Amidst Suffering Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, author of The Great Escape from Nihilism.   (slides)


The problem of evil and suffering is one of the toughest for people of all worldview persuasions. Yet, it can be our teacher in moral growth and discovery of meaning if we dare to dig deeper into the human condition, if we dare to think about it in the proper moral horizon. A bitter response to personal tragedy or an abusive relationship easily emerges: “Trust no one!” If a trusted friend, colleague or relative committed the unseemly act, the hurt individual can opt for retreat and a refusal to ever trust again. We heard a prayer request this week: “Help me to learn to trust that there are some good people out there.” One’s emotions disengage and commitments can become ever so tentative, nervous and cautious. It could also be a strong temptation for  a person who has had a life-altering injury, like a severed spinal cord or serious Iraq War injury. The problem of coping is especially true of someone who was abused as a child in their innocence; the emotional scars are often carried well into adult life and can be debilitating. Tragedy like this can break our narrative and our spirit, dash our hopes and dreams. We die inside.

The Scream by Eduard MunchPeople respond differently to hurt and tragedy as we know from our great works of art such as Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables: someone will write a poem or song; others will start a foundation. And yet others will settle for resentment or rage against God, parent, the system or the regime; this person tends to demonize others or institutions. They go inside and stew their hatred, and often become an abuser in their own turn. This is often the crucible in which cynics, rebels, career criminals, dictators and suicide bombers are shaped. Such a response is quite understandable, but it is not a solution, nor is it a direction of healing. We believe that the trauma is much accentuated and intensified if one has nothing transcendent to hold onto, no one to share the pain with, if one espouses Nihilism as a stance on the world. This is to give up on grace itself, a kind of existential death, a death of meaning and human purpose.

Creative writer Robert Farrar Capon speaks about the need in An Offering of Uncles. He notes that we all need someone trustworthy other than our parent to confide in, to help us grow up–an uncle or auntie. Most people begin to see imperfections in their parents in their mid teens, if not before. Cynicism can suddenly blind an adolescent to any good in adults. At its worst, cynicism projects the problems and insecurities of the teenager onto others or the world. Friends often are their only solace in this painful space. Counselling may be required to address the imbalance, but a healthy person cannot reside long in that space of resentment. It is unstable ground.

We are alerted to this danger by brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Scott Peck famous for his Road Less Travelled; People of the Lie; and A Different Drum. He points out that most human neuroses start with the refusal to face the hard realities of life, to deal with pain and brokenness in healthy ways. Mental health comes from facing reality at all costs. Most mental illness starts with a refusal to accept and go through one’s pain, an escape into fantasy of some sort, a refusal to grapple with the complexity of life and relationships. We need to own our pain and work through it; avoidance leads to counter-productive side effects.  We have to find that deeper honesty about our brokenness, and face the pain and pollution we also contribute to society and the violence we perpetrate upon creation. The cynic, in the quest to avoid more pain, settles for the emotional cancer of  bitterness and resentment. Cynicism is a sickness, a tricky defence mechanism to protect oneself against further and deeper hurt. Worldview author James Sire once wrote: “The strands of epistemological, metaphysical and ethical nihilism weave together to make a rope long enough and strong enough to hang a whole culture.”

Evil and suffering need not crush us, but we will need a worldview big enough and sophisticated enough to handle it fruitfully, a proper horizon of meaning to deal with the complexity of our emotions, our ambivalence. Peter Kreeft talks about this in the opening chapter of his profound book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Some worldviews he claims are useless and even harmful. But courage and conviction are required to face off with evil and work through our pain. Psychologist Victor Frankl revealed some profound human insights from his experience at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The survivors were those who were able to find meaning in their suffering and maintain a strong view of the future (hope of a resolution), a bigger purpose or frame to their lives. The others fell victim to the evil games of the guards, lowered themselves to animals and died miserably. One freedom that Frankl observed amidst the misery is this: the survivors held tight to their freedom to choose their attitude to the terrible circumstances, the freedom to remain human inside. Some of them gave their last crust of bread to a friend to maintain their compassion, their humanity. We once visited the Dachau death camp with a group of Waterloo and Windsor students, and took the time to let the tragedy of this terrible Western nightmare sink in, rattle the soul and make us weep over this narrative of Nihilism and will to power, this crushing of the weak and the vulnerable. They often experienced an infinity of meaninglessness.

We have a powerful illustration of choices we face today in the play, Les Miserables, by French playwright Victor Hugo. We recently viewed the movie version. This story depicts the power of forgiveness to transform the tragic, miserable prison life of Jean Val Jean into a productive life where he in turn acts as a redemptive agent for others. He allows himself to be reinvented in the most amazing way, carrying with him a sincere empathy for others who struggle under the machinations of an unjust society in nineteenth century Paris. The rescued prisoner becomes the rescuer. But there was a crucial moment where he had to choose between bitter hatred and resentment, over against redemption into a life of compassion and wholeness. His choice of this stance towards the world is contrasted by the virile vengeance of Policeman Javert who is only concerned to hunt down Jean Val Jean over a decade or more and punish/oppress him once again. In the end, Javert commits suicide because he cannot cope with a world where forgiveness is an option. He has become a true cynic, a consistent Nihilist. His heart died; there is no space for compassion, mercy or forgiveness. He self-destructs, even though given several opportunities to change. The picture painted of these two options are staggering in their implications and their life instruction.

Present Tense: The other day we were talking with the father of a current political science student. He was recalling that his son was becoming disillusioned with the fact that so many fellow humanities students didn’t care about the big life questions anymore. Nihilism can strike hard among the brightest minds in the humanities. They were settling for cynicism. J.I. Packer & Thomas Howard wrote about this in their constructive vision Christianity: the True Humanism: “Cynicism is the disposition to believe that truth-claims cannot ever be trusted, that virtue, however apparent, is never real, and that hopelessness is the only real wisdom. As a state of mind, it is a child of disappointment.” This is all too common in today’s university communities. Is it because we are taught by Nietzsche that we are to give up discernment and embrace good and evil equally as the only intelligent stance? This would entail a bigger tragedy of the soul, a tragedy of culture, a tragedy of the intellect. Even Nietzsche worried that we would become insects or lose all culture, all value in the West. Who has cannibalized these young minds and hearts? Who stole their dreams of a better world, better relations?

We wish to protest! Nihilism will not carry the future; it is deaf to our pain and suffering; it has no discernment for good and evil or justice; reason is exploited by will to power; it is a spiritual dead end which ends in an abyss or emotional black hole. This is nowhere, no future.  In a terrible, gut wrenching illustration of this, Joseph Goebbels and his wife murdered their own young children with suicide pills in the Berlin bunker as the war was coming to the end; they saw no future outside of their false dream of National Socialism. They along with Hitler committed suicide and had their bodies burned. Ashes was the end product of their vision. They showed us that we had entered a Dark Age of the Enlightenment in the twentieth century. In fact, it was the opposite of enlightenment.

Christian faith does offer an alternative. According to Anthony Thiselton’s major thesis in New Horizons in Hermeneutics, it is a transformational experience for the individual. Rather than being trapped in or reduced to its situatedness, the self can have a fresh experience of being human. Job can choose God over the nihilist advice of his narrow thinking advisors. The forces of society, economy, and interest-groups are real, but they can be transcended. Biblical resurrection offers the possibility of re-centering the self, of re-constituting the self as Jesus was re-constituted at the resurrection, after the most terrible brokenness on the cross, including all that human nihilism could throw at him.

A life of happiness will also necessarily involve considerable pain. Flourishing involves knowing how to deal with and respond to setbacks. If you think about it, happiness will lose its meaning without its opposite. (Darrin McMahon, Professor of History, Dartmouth)

The Christian is a new creation, a renewed earthling (Romans 8). By this transcendent philosophical turn, the late modern self is thereby set free from its victimization, free to move into the future in a fresh way, by means of God’s grace. There can be healing from damage done in the past. David Kelsey and Frances Young ascribe to biblical texts as Christian Scripture, the capacity to shape a person’s identity so decisively as to transform them ( quoted by A. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, p. 604).

Christian theology agrees with many poststructuralist thinkers that the human self can fall victim to the forces which overwhelm it, damage it, imprison it and manipulate it. Human speech can be distorted and subverted by a manipulative sub-text, by lies marketed as the truth. But, from the vantage point of Christian revelation and faith, a far wider range of inter-personal relations (a horizon including the transcendent). Richer worlds of language help constitute identity anew. There are indeed external forces that serve to change, to transform, reconstitute the self than those of the social, political and economic type. The game is actually bigger, more complex, than the here and now immanent frame (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). These larger spheres provide us with optimism that the self can transcend the circumstances and recover from the hurt and even to recover the past itself–to experience narrative healing. The re-connection with the past will also provide needed perspective on deeper currents in one’s life and offer lessons for the future. There is hope for substantial healing at all levels.

Nihilism is extremely pessimistic about possible restoration of the self and society. There is much ado about nothing, about playing the victim. That’s a passive aggressive power move in itself. This can be a form of escapism from taking responsibility for one’s life or for one’s social calling. It can even become a power-wedge itself to separate people into tribes: virulent opposing camps of loathing and fear. It is quite counter-productive re: healing, renegotiation of trust and true freedom. Nihilists, narcissists, white supremacists, kleptocrats, racists often want others to suffer for them. Lots to ponder here.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD, Dissertation: The Search for Identity in Late Modernity: a dialogue or dialectic between two prominent philosophers: Michel Foucault & Charles Taylor

See the new 2016 book by Gordon Carkner which addresses head on our modern day cultural and personal nihilism. Beauty will not save us. The right kind of faith is the answer if we are brave enough and persistent enough to explore it to its depths. This is a book to rock your world: The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. (2016)


See Globe & Mail article on Judy Graves, Vancouver Homeless Advocate, for an alternative to Nihilism, someone who “kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight”. It is her faith that is her moral driver. Human suffering inspires her to visit the homeless under the Cambie Street Bridge to see if she can help.

Duke Philosopher Alex Rosenberg offers a good example of how scientism and philosophical naturalism actually leads to nihilism. Nihilism seems to be bad for the mind as well. See his February 1, 2013 debate with William Lane Craig at Purdue:

See also my post on Higher Education, Truth & Power:

Andy Crouch, Playing God: redeeming the gift of power. (IVP, 2013) Major alternative discourse to Nihilism.

Miralsov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.

Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God.

Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain.

Antony Flew, There is a God: How the World’s most Famous Atheist Changed His Mind

Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering.  Debate Between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams @ Oxford Union

Dr. Ravi Zaccharius on Incoherence within Atheism

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism. Read the notes to his his lecture “The Creative Challenge of Christian Humanism” on February 27 at 4 pm in Woodward IRC Room 5 UBC.

Gulag Work Camp Siberia


English: Auschwitz I concentration camp

English: Auschwitz I concentration camp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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