Monday, March 10, 2014

Are We Becoming Nihilists?

In my first years of teaching at BCOM I wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (which they did not publish) expressing a concern that has only increased over the years and has, in many ways, become a life cause. It certainly stands as one of the central motivations for the writing of my book. The concern is that we in the West, whether we know it or not, are rejecting God and embracing nihilism. The consequences will be disastrous for our culture.

At the time I wrote the letter (1992) I chose the word "nihilism" for its shock value, and to confront my generation with the ultimate consequences of the secularism that had come to dominate our society. In thinking of the present state of our culture one is reminded of Nietzsche's "Parable of the Madman" (quoted on page 55 of my book) in which the madman attempts to warn his audience of the perils of their unspeakable crime: they have murdered God. As the madman sees that his warnings are falling on deaf ears, he laments that he has come too early, before the consequences of the loss of God are evident to all. We are just like Nietzsche's fictitious audience. We have tossed God off the stage of our culture and have no idea of the terrible price we will have to pay for this crime. We consider ourselves "educated" and "scientific," and all the while we are planting the seeds of our own destruction. What we fail to see are the damages directly tied to our rejection of religious influence. We fail to see that we are undermining our values and culture, and that we are planting the seeds of the destruction of Western civilization. Contrary to our perceptions, we are not embracing a scientific and humane worldview, but rather a deeply nihilistic philosophy that has the power to take us into an age of darkness.

Historically the word "nihilism" arose with the agnosticism that marked the later phases of the enlightenment. It is often associated with the German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche because of his reference to the death of God in Western thought and his emphasis on the will to power. He actually recognized the nihilistic problem and sought to solve it by creating a powerful philosopher king, the superman, who would give stability and order to the world. As a philosophy, nihilism is the belief in nothing; no God and no purpose, value, or significance of anyone or anything. In nihilism, life is a meaningless absurdity. Albert Camus was a French existentialist (existentialism was also an attempt to escape the nihilist dilemma) but he described nihilism perfectly, "If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is not pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong.  We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice" (see page 60 of my book).

When we look at this definition, we can understand why most observers of our culture would disagree with calling Western culture nihilistic. We, after all, believe in values and meaning.  Our politicians repeatedly speak of right and wrong, of our moral obligation to the poor, and our responsibility to future generations. But as I said in my letter to the editor over twenty years ago, there is another definition of nihilism. It was stated by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamozov, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." It is this definition of nihilism that describes our culture, and stands as the means by which we are undermining the foundations upon which it stands.

The goal of our culture, founded on our official creed of secularism, is to allow everything to be permitted. We consider this approach "tolerant" and modern without ever asking what will be the long term effects of the "hook-up" culture and the continuing degradation of our public and private moral standards. We are already seeing the devastation caused by the rise in single parent families which is the single greatest determinant for lack of achievement in school, drug use, gang membership, criminal behavior, and inter-generational poverty for the children born in those households. This problem is already at crisis levels, and yet we see our culture becoming more and more coarse. One need only look at the tragic saga of Mylie Cyrus to see how we are progressively pushing the envelope of decency and decorum. And, we must ask, to what end? Are we not moving ever closer to the day when "everything is permitted?

Here's the great irony in all of this. America is still one of most religious nations in the world. The vast majority of Americans tell survey takers that they believe in God, yet our society grows ever more decadent. One can only assume that our faith has been separated from our actions, and while we profess belief in God, many people live as if He does not exist. It is important, therefore, for those of us who do take our faith seriously to take a stand, not just for moral values, but for the God who gave us those values. As I wrote in my letter long ago, "Belief in God - the personal, redemptive God of Christianity- formed the foundation of our civilization. Our belief in God is directly related to our fundamental belief in goodness. We simply cannot have the good without God." Christians, therefore, must defend their faith in this secular age not just for the sake of the church but even more for the sake of our nation.