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Posts Tagged ‘Nihilism’

There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.

Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.

We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.

And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.

So what’s the alternative?

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.

I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.

And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.

Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.

I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.

As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.

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I’m taking a class on Jurisprudence this semester in law school, and it is unquestionably the most interesting class I have.  Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law, and the class is taught by a professor from the philosophy department at the main campus, as opposed to a law professor.  All things considered, this is a good thing.  I have generally found the academic study of law to be tedious, although I am interested in actually practicing law.  But this is really a philosophy class, so it’s fun.

An issue that keeps coming up–a core issue in jurisprudence, really, almost a given–is the existence of morality.  This isn’t an ethics class, so we don;t really spend a lot of time talking about what morality is, where it comes from, etcetera, but whenever we talk about morality, those kinds of questions become preeminent in my mind.

Actually, this isn’t just about my Jurisprudence class.  I think about the existence of morality all the time, and for me, it has become my core theological problem.  I spend a lot of time grappling with what I think is the very real possibility that nothing means anything, that morality is a purely human invention, that there’s nothing behind it but arbitrary preference.  That morality does not exist as anything other than a social construct, and thus has no implications for anything other than society (and, well, psychology to the extent that psychology is informed by sociology).  Simply put, if values and morals are culturally relative, then they do not really exist at all.  Thus, the gaping abyss.  I do not buy Utilitarianism.  I do not buy Kant’s categorical imperative (because why should I act only on that maxim which I can at the same time will to be a universal law? ).  They are toothless.  They are inventions.  They have no real weight.  We have to assume them in argument, because they don’t hold in virtue of themselves.

What I am getting at is this: if there is not actually a universal ultimate morality that exists outside of human beings and the human mind, then there is no real morality at all.  If morality or values are not absolute, then morality and values cannot exist.  Any argument to the contrary is, in my frank opinion, complete bullshit.  Morals and values invented by human beings are utterly arbitrary.  Even if they are practical, there is still no pressing reason for any individual to follow them.

So there I am, staring into the gaping abyss, wondering what is going to save me from complete nihilism.  And I’ve got nothing.

C. S. Lewis’s inference of ultimate morality from general human consensus and a universal existence of “ought” is not unreasonable, but it does not convince me.  I think you can rationally infer that since most people think that, say, torture is wrong, then it’s likely that there may actually be an absolute moral principle behind it.  But it’s not a slam-dunk.  Consensus may be compelling, but the consensus can still be wrong.

So there are either absolute values, or there is nothing but the abyss.  I would prefer absolute values, but where are they?  Where do they come from?  And if they aren’t really there… then it’s the abyss, and the abyss is terrifying.  It is total nihilism.  It is nothing at all, but it swallows up everything else.  There is no meaning, there is no truth, there is nothing.  There is nothing, and it is absolutely terrifying.

The easy answer would be “God,” and if I had an easier time believing in God, I would just say that.  but I don’t; I have a hard time believing in God.  My confidence that God exists is actually less than my confidence that Lewis’s argument from consensus is correct.  If I was sure of God, then I could easily see God as the creator of the universe and thus the source of everything–including truth, value, and morality.

Maybe this is really why I can’t leave religion alone, why I can’t just not worry about it.  I have to worry about it, because this abyss is looming open in front of me.

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One of the funny things about this blog, wherein I document my spiritual journey to some kind of truth or meaning or whatever, is that whichever twist or turn I take, there’s always a chorus of cheerleaders telling me I’m doing the right thing. That’s why when my journey then takes me away from whatever detour it had me wandering through, I’m often reluctant to say so, in fear of disappointing the people who were excited that I stopped by.

I first noticed this with paganism. When I was looking into neopaganism and druidry, I attracted many neopagans and druids who were excited by the path my journey was leading me down. When it then led me back away from paganism, they mostly kind of faded into the woodwork (with some exceptions- I’ve picked up some good friends along the way). And I was sad to say that I didn’t think paganism or druidry was going to be where I ended up, because I knew those people would be let down in a sense. On the other hand, pagans tend to be really nice, nonjudgmental people, and as long as I’m not making fun of them or damning them to Hel, I’m pretty sure they’ve still got my back.

However, this dilemma was much more acute with atheism. When I ultimately spiralled into nonbelief, I was greeted with accolades and cheers from some of the internet’s atheists, for finally freeing myself from the shackles of atheism and being a mature human being who didn’t need deities as crutches anymore. When I decided that atheism wasn’t going to really work for me, I was reluctant to say so. For starters, accolades are nice. And the opposite of accolades is scorn, and I didn’t really want that.

Of course, I wasn’t really going to let how other people decide how I believe or don’t believe, but there was a minute where I was at least a little bit cagey about saying anything. I was getting so much support for declaring my atheism, and when I recanted, that support would probably vanish.

I say all of that by way of introduction tot his post. My goal hereis to explain why I stopped believing in God and why I started again. This might be a long post, so hang on to your hats.

When I first started seriously questioning the Mormon church last summer, my initial criticisms were centered around my feeling that Mormonism wasn’t Christian enough- Mormonism and Mormon scripture didn’t track closely enough with what I thought Christianity was all about (based on the New Testament, Church history, and the true Christians that I had come across over time). I felt like Mormonism was not leading me closer to Christ, but actually keeping me away from Him. Thus, in leaving Mormonism, my initial question was “what kind of Christian should I be?”

When I started this blog, my wife and I had only recently decided to actually leave Mormonism behind us, after struggling with it for some six months. I had also just read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and I felt like becoming a Christian was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. For some reason I didn’t feel like I already was a Christian, like I was already really committed to Jesus.

The problem was that my reasons for believing in Jesus, and in fact my reasons for believing in God at all, were basically the same reasons I believed in Mormonism. That is, I had simply been raised to assume that they were true, and this assumption was backed up by emotional “spiritual” confirmations. In deciding that those bases were insufficient for continued belief in Mormonism, I also took out the foundation, as flimsy as it may have been, for my entire belief in God. In other words, the same conclusions that made me question my belief in Mormonism made me ultimately question my belief in Jesus Christ and in any kind of God whatesoever.

I was waiting for some kind of mystical experience, some kind of contact with the divine that was the real deal, not the easy “warm fuzzy” self-delusion of Mormonism’s Holy Ghost. I was waiting for God to reach out and shake me, to let me know that he was real, to give me some kind of contact. But it kept not happening.

With that in mind, I began giving a loud voice to my innner skeptic. I started reading Ebon Musings’s essays on atheism, which are honestly extremely compelling and very difficult to dispute. Eventually, I was in a place where I had to admit that I had no real reason to believe in God other than wishful thinking, and if I was to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that I simply did not believe.

It seemed like a destination of sorts. It wasn’t what I was shooting for when I set out towards Byzantium, but maybe the place we intend to be is often a lot less realistic than the place we really wind up. I wasn’t a nihilist or anything; I still had some core beliefs that I was more or less confident in. But I could not say that I affirmatively believed in God.

The thing was, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I actually like religion! Specifically, I was (and still am) convinced that while an aheist can be a very good and moral person, and that a religious person can be a complete jerkwad, nevertheless for me personally, religion in general and Christianity in specific were going to have a much greater potential to make me the kind of person that I wished I was. I could be a good person and an atheist, that was never in question. But no atheist philosophy was going to actually transform me into a New Man. And Christianity made that promise.

But my problem was that if I was going to believe something, it would have to be more intellectually honest than my beliefs had previously been. No putting doubts on the shelf. No convincing myself until I was convinced. Nothing like that. I wanted to believe, but I didn’t want it so bad that i was willing to delude myself into believing.

So I went about tentatively trying to figure out how I could believe in God despite my loud internal skeptic (but without squashing him and pretending he didn’t exist) and despite the very good and compelling logical arguments against God’s existence, and the generally weak and limp logical arguments for God’s existence.

I read some Kierkegaard. I thought about how God and logic would interact, if there was a God. I thought about doubt, and whether there was a place for it within faith. I read Brian McLaren’s Finding Faith. I thought about hope.

In the end, I made a place where I thought I could theoreticaly believe in God. I had room for God in my framework again. However, having room for God, i.e., acknowledging the possibility of God, doesn’t equal belief in God. If, at that point, I had simply declared myself a believer, I would have been guilty of doing the very thing I was most loathe to do: talking myself into believing. Instead, I let it simmer for awhile.

At the same time, I started thinking seriously about Jesus Christ, and I found him extremely compelling. Christianity still kind of gave me the heebie jeebies, so I was still reluctant to even express interest in the religion. But the man? The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt like there was something to him. Something more. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I knew I liked it, and maybe I even needed it.

I then let this stew for a bit. The more I thought about God, the more I thought that maybe God exists after all, despite my efforts to logic him out of existence. And the more I thought about Jesus, the more he seemed electrifying, powerful, important. Much more so than a simple wise moral philosopher, however great he may have been.

When I read C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, I finished the book and realized that after reading it, there was no way I could ever say that I do not believe in God. I can’t explain it very well, because the book touched me on an extremely personal, maybe even primal level. But it completely evaporated all of my defenses. It didn’t resolve my concerns or wipe away all of my doubts or anything, but it spoke loud and clear to me: nevertheless, there is a God. It was a life-changing experience that I can’t do justice in writing or even in speaking- it was so strange and powerful that I have a hard time articulating exactly what it was about the book that changed my whole way of looking at God.

Once I had made room for the possibility of God, Till We Have Faces showed me that God was a sure thing.  All of my anger, my logic, my insecurity, my waffling, and my careful arguments are made completely insignificant when faced with God’s existence.

In any case, that’s where I am now. I am sure that there is a God, and I suspect that Jesus might actually have been God. I’ve not got a lot more than that. I suppose it’s a start. I can’t really be the poster child for honest atheism anymore, but I probably never should have been. I’m not at my destination yet- in fact I don’t know if I’ll ever really “have arrived”- but I like where I’m sailing right now, and I’m interested and excited to see what’s ahead.

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