Posted by: gcarkner | March 16, 2013

Nihilism is Not the Final Word

A Wager on Tragic Optimism

Nihilism does not have the last word. Life is difficult; we all agree. There is no facile formula that makes everything all better, despite what millions of pundits offer. To be human in our world (a very good, but also very broken world) means that we often witness and experience hardship, pain and suffering and violence against the neighbour. A local Vancouver pastor’s son was killed in a case of mistaken identity. Stupid, senseless violence swallowing the innocent, cutting short a whole life of potential. Will the killing and displacement (nearing two million refugees) and destruction in Syria ever quit?  The choices we have to make, the risks that have to be taken, the responsibilities that have to be carried are not easy. The formulae we learn early in life often break down. Life is a lot more complex than we once thought and dreamed To be human means to experience disappointments and broken dreams; one often hears of the post-university seven year run at the career wall. We don’t always get what we want, even when we train for it all the way to a PhD. There are no guarantees of high correlation between aim and achievement, expectation and event, merit and honour. To live is to suffer, like it or not, and sometimes it occurs by the hands of those we love, admire and trust most. To love well even at its best is to suffer, to be misunderstood. This can cause deep stress, even trauma. But it can also create the space in which true wisdom and character begin to emerge.

The critical issue seems to be our response to, negotiation of, the painful and disappointing experiences of life. Many of us try the irresponsible (impossible) route: to avoid suffering at all costs. However, to mature means that we must find meaning in our suffering and grow from and through it. This is the way of health: taking courageous responsibility to find answers to life’s problems, to confront the Big Questions. We must be constantly willing to grow and learn from our mentors. Rethink, revise, re-approach, re-engage life. Some of the great treasures of our human existence involve digging deeper than we ever thought possible. The narcissism of our day tempts us to give up, accept easy answers, throw in the towel far too quickly–a road to neurosis, un-health and perpetual immaturity. It is a cheap trick for those who don’t want to live deeply. Technology won’t work either, won’t make us more human or bypass pain. No deeper character will emerge without learning the art of negotiating suffering; we will continue to skate on the surface and grab onto the nearest mythology, ideology package or live a cliché. Deconstruction only goes so far and then we are left with nothing; without a sound worldview, without a centre, without reckoning with our narrative self, we can go all the way down and find only an empty fantasy.

It may be cool and chic to quote Ingmar Bergman, Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre, or Michel Foucault in Humanities undergrad, but where will they be when you face the greater challenges of life? Are they going to get you through your first depression, the death of a parent, the suffering of your child? “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless”, cries the teacher in Ecclesiastes. These prophets of despair can only tell you that yes, this is your personal hell on earth, and you are in it. You’ve arrived; you’re fully alienated. You now have the right to utter the primal scream with artist Edvard Munsch. Just being an intellectual doesn’t make nihilism any easier. At the end of the day, can a nihilist trust her own thoughts? Watch a debate between Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg and Bill Craig: There’s a terrifying tautology (a downward spiral) in consistent nihilism.

To live an integrated life, work from a deeper, thicker self, there must be a heroic commitment to transform tragedy into personal victory. It involves concrete, constructive responses, working from good, seeking out rich sources for the self. The heroes of our world, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Joni Eareckson, Romeo Dallaire stand out from the mob, show vision and make something good out of an evil situation. They find a redemptive way forward with a will-to-meaning, a will-to-compassion. They stop blaming the problem on everybody else; they take responsibility for themselves and their world. What is their source of  “tragic optimism”, optimism in the teeth of tragedy? That source must give them strength to take action toward the good in the midst of evil and suffering, within ­a stance of radical hope with hearts full of tough love. They face into the wind and operate from deep faith. They fight for constructive alternatives. Faithlessness is our enemy today (shallow self-interest and opportunism, consumerism and superficial greed) says Canadian writer D. A. Richards. Callow lies and deceptive myths about life are marketed virulently in late modernity. They are not the source of human flourishing.

A Wager on Love 

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern.

To give up on the possibility of genuine love itself is an unfathomable tragedy. Love empowers us as people; it has a way of reconstituting the chaos and alienation in our lives. Love is tough in the midst of tragedy, the secret to spiritual enrichment. The cynic gives up far too much when giving up on love, or any transcendent source of love or the good. Loving relationships are the context for inner healing; they offer productive hope, and deep personal challenge. Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s definition of love is “a commitment to the spiritual growth of another person.” Love builds and helps us to integrate our personality, while cynicism serves up psychic entropy, spiritual disintegration. Love sets a person free, while cynicism boxes a person in  with fear, anger and despair. Love is the highest possible human goal and the ultimate meaning of life, the ultimate ethical imperative. I’ll wager on weighty love over cheap despair or cowardly narcissistic escape any day. I’ll put my money on reconciliation and forgiveness as a vital life force.

We have held the cosmic trial. We have sentenced the divine fox and declared the death of God, the banishment of God. One take on us is that we late moderns are the courageous generation trying to live without God, live after God. Contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, declares that we still fear that God might exist. We have a cosmic authority problem. We don’t want God to exist. We are so brave. If God is dead, love does seem reducible to a human mutual self-interest contract or at worst brute survivalism and mutual manipulation for personal pleasure. Crass formula for human ethics and relationships. Reductionism is our enemy here.

But  biblical love is stubbornly grounded in God. “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in her.” (I John 5: 16). This is a decisive posture on life, a wager on tragic optimism. This music has not stopped playing, even in a secular culture. The radical theism of Christianity reveals a God who is familiar with human suffering, a God who has identified with the human community in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ, a God who has gone to the gallows for us, a God who promises to be there with us in our time of disappointment and broken dreams. The claim, in a nihilistic age, is that life integrated around God is a powerful argument (antidote) against cynicism and nihilism. Dr. Scott Peck constantly tries to help his clients to take God and self more seriously on the road to recovery and health, as does Alcoholics Anonymous with their concept of a higher power.

Remember that it is only a personal, loving God who can be asked for an answer to evil and suffering, (Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God) or who has enough depth and history with the human condition to field the tough questions of ultimate meaning amidst suffering and personal exhaustion. The crisis of the late modern world is due in large part to its theological amnesia, a sad, broken memory of God. God did not die on the day we stopped believing in a personal deity. Genuine love did not die with the arrival of the carnival of nihilism. In fact, a personal relationship with God has helped millions confront the tortured reality of inner demons as well as the challenging reality of an imperfect and often unjust world.

Who’s on trial really? Is it God, or should it be us brilliant late moderns? It might be we who need to rethink our contemporary Nihilist Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford’s Terry Eagleton) and give account. Do we allow Nietzsche the last word about the last man? Or is it time to re-examine the philosophical and cultural black hole into which this philosopher has tended to lead us? Is it not like Shakespeare’s  Macbeth that we are lead through the streets humiliated  by a black vision of our history, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Have some of our late modern philosophies defeated us, deflated us, deconstructed us as well?

Modern Anthropology Needs Some Rethinking

The death of meaning is ironically connected to the displacement of God, entailing the substitution of self at the centre of the universe. Who do we think we are? Seen as the apex of evolution, humans are assumed to be getting progressively better in every way. This common assumption is due for deeper scrutiny and historical perspective–intense reflective honesty about the darker side of the human soul, the human condition. Knowing the good, the principled, the responsible way, we often do the opposite.

Humans are certainly capable of both great good and great evil, as the twentieth century and the 9/11 events illustrate in great and very grave detail. We are neither totally good nor totally evil, but a mixture of mystic and mutt, star-gazer and genocide caesar, benevolent and imperialist. Brilliance, creativity and compassion fight it out with deceit, selfishness and cruelty. Germany produces both Beethoven and Hitler, sophisticated medicine and eugenics. The nihilist wisely admits that we have found the enemy, and it is  us. We are all part of the problem of evil and suffering; we are all broken and in need of healing. This is realism. None of us do the best that we are able, or lives up to personal ideals or standards. We all cheat and are very skilled in the ruse. Victor Frankl says it powerfully:

Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good and evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths.

One of the root causes of cynicism is inflated, unrealistic expectations of others (a skewed or one-sided anthropology). Humans need the deep, realistic truth about themselves, or they can never fully flourish, go deep, live well, escape their dark death-dealing tendencies. Others are finite, needy, and somewhat broken just like us. They will fail us at times and surprise us as well. In fact, we all need redemption. Ancient saint Macarius writes:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and also lions.There are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels,  the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace–all things are there.

The cynical response is not fair to other people and not honest about our own wounded self; it will always victimize the Other (Girard) and project one’s personal evil onto other races, gender, social castes. We require the courage and honesty of Canada’s mass culture pundit Douglas Coupland from West Vancouver.

Now here is my secret:

I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again … My secret is that I need God–that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer  seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love. (Life After God. p. 359)

Many scholars today claim that multitudes of people in the developed world have lost their way and are living on half truths; secular humanism is running out of gas; they need to rediscover a rootedness to life, a ground for meaning, an integral humanism, a new embededness in something meaningful, to reacquaint ourselves with our rich Christian heritage (Jens Zimmermann, Brad Gregory, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jacques Maritain, David Bentley Hart, John Milbank, Oliver O’Donovan). Here’s David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.

For indeed Christianity was complicit in the death of antiquity, and in the birth of modernity, not because it was an accomplice of the latter, but because it, alone in the history of the West, constituted a rejection of and alternative to nihilism’s despair, violence, and idolatry of power; as such, Christianity shattered the imposing and enchanting facade behind which nihilism once hid, and thereby, inadvertently, called it forth into the open.

Of course, some fulfilment can be discovered in accomplishing a great work of art or a Nobel Prize in science, or winning the hundred metre dash at the Olympics, receiving a medal of honour. But ultimately meaning must be grounded in a higher power, a personal God, the most creative, life-giving and infinite source of meaning. Hope which is rooted in God is not false hope, superstition or wishful thinking, but substantive and eminently sustainable. There is irony in the deathbed words of mid-twentieth century grand pensée of Paris, Jean Paul Sartre: “Pour moi, I don’t see myself as so much dust that has appeared in the world but as a being that was expected, prefigured, called forth. In short, as a being that could, it seems, come only from a Creator.”

Easter reminds us of something absolutely vital to the core of our being. It is a reversal on nihilism, a paradigm shift on meaning. The risen Jesus is the Final Word! Andy Crouch says it powerfully:

Indeed one of the most dramatic cultural effects of the resurrection is the transformation of that heinous cultural artifact known as a cross. An instrument of domination and condemnation becomes a symbol of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed; an alternative culture where grace and forgiveness are the last word…. The cross, the worst that culture can do, is transformed into a sign of the kingdom of God–the realm of forgiveness, mercy, love and indestructible life. (Culture Making: recovering our creative calling., p. 146)

Approximately 1500 Vancouverites ages 18 to 35 meet weekly for worship at a large theatre in downtown Vancouver. They stand as robust, articulate eyewitness testimony that God is very much alive and relevant to life, with them in their suffering. Westside Church is going up against nihilism and refusing to let the irony and cynicism of Late Modernity have the last word. There are many others like it across the country.

~Gord Carkner  Lesslie Newbigin on Nihilism

Article on Thomas Nagel Vilification

Globe & Mail Interview: An Atheist’s Defence of Religion

Mountain Epiphany

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