Dreyfus and Kelly’s book, All Things Shining, adequately details our contemporary nihilism. Though each chapter is a long read, Dreyfus and Kelly do a fine job of delineating how our society has gotten to where it is in its contemporary nihilism through the analysis of multiple major literary pieces, which each piece reflects the truth of the age it was written in. Ironically, however, Dreyfus and Kelly are anti-nihilist nihilists. The book can be depressing as it is evidently self-contradicting.
Pure Nihilism: No One Actually Holds to It
David Foster Wallace is indicative of pure nihilism, which Dreyfus and Kelly delineate in great detail. Wallace is the embodiment of true nihilism. Wallace recognised the utter fecklessness of all things—even the fecklessness of choosing your own meaning—and as a result became depressed and killed himself.
Nihilism essentially says, “Nothing matters because there is no external truth out there, so just do what’s good and right for you.” True nihilism, then, is pure relativism—both culturally and morally.
True moral relativism believes there is no moral truth—that nothing is objectively right or wrong; a person simply chooses to believe what is right or wrong. True moral relativism is to say, “I choose to believe that the Holocaust was wrong because I choose to believe murdering people for any reason is wrong; but you can choose to believe the Holocaust was right because what you think is right is different from what I think is right since there is no objective, universal, absolute truth.”
This is pure moral relativism—and thus true nihilism—but it’s interesting that those who hold to the tenets of moral relativism do not purely hold to it. With the example above, no person who claims to be a moral relativist (even without realising that’s what they are) will say it’s acceptable for there to be people who believe the Holocaust was right. Therefore, no moral relativist is truly a moral relativist and no nihilist is a true nihilist, since they still hold to absolute morality and making morally absolute statements whilst claiming there is no objective, absolute morality.
Similarly, with cultural relativism, the claim is that no culture is more correct than another culture; what works for one culture is right for them even though it may not work in another culture. This is why cultural relativists (i.e. nihilists) will also say no one religion is more correct than another, since religions are (apparently) deeply interwoven into a particular culture and that religion, therefore, is only right for that one culture and not necessarily all others.
Again, however, no one who holds to cultural relativism is purely a cultural relativist (i.e. nihilist). A culture might still practice child sacrifice to the pagan god Moloch, but cultural relativists will say this is evil; they will not say this cultural practice is right for their culture and we must accept it.
The Hopelessness of Nihilism
Hardly anyone, then, is a true nihilist. A true nihilist would be Wallace who, after realising the fecklessness of human existence even after attempts to choose his own meaning, becomes terribly depressed and kills himself. Lost in hopelessness, the only way out was death.
Herman Melville also captured this in Moby Dick (according to Dreyfus and Kelly’s literary interpretation). Representing the monotheistic God, the great White Whale is enormous, unknowable, pure white, and indifferent towards man. Ahab, representing mankind, endeavours on a perilous search for this great unknowable being. In the end, his search is utterly feckless; Ahab doesn’t matter; the White Whale couldn’t give a rip about Ahab.
Spoiler alert: Ahab sinks his javelin into Moby Dick who, indifferent to Ahab’s presence, dives into the bottom of the ocean where Ahab disappears. Then Moby Dick turns around, destroys Ahab’s ship (indifferent to its presence), and it sinks into the depths along with the eagle (representing Christianity) that happened to crash into its mast.
True nihilism is this: there is no point to human existence, so just give up.
The problem is that no nihilist actually holds to this. Not even Dreyfus and Kelly. As I said above, Dreyfus and Kelly are anti-nihilist nihilists. Nietzsche’s nihilism (the true nihilism I speak of) describes the herd mindset.
The best way to describe this is to think of sports fans inside a football stadium. An athlete makes an amazing, unbelievable play and all the fans stand up and cheer as the opponents are in an uproar of disbelief. This is the herd mindset. To sit down in indifference (which is what I would do) is to be wrong. The herd does what everyone else is doing. It is to “follow the crowd,” and this gives you meaning.
Dreyfus and Kelly, in the attempt to deal with this nihilism, formulate their own herd mentality. Life consists of “wooshing up” moments—like the amazing play at a sports game, the feeling of unity around a Thanksgiving dinner table, opening presents on Christmas Day, etc. This is part of something that’s “out there.” It’s not God—or gods—but there is something out there that we all just know and experience in various “wooshing up” moments.
Yet the point, according to the authors, is not to live from wooshing moment to wooshing moment, but to participate in what they call “craftsmanship,” such as woodworking, creating pottery, writing, making a painting, working on cars, etc., and we must be careful not to let technology hinder such human creativity.
Dreyfus and Kelly’s proposal creates another problem. If nihilism is true—if there is nothing out there—then there is no use to their offered herd mentality, or any herd mentality for that matter. Nietzsche’s nihilism would respond to Dreyfus and Kelly, “If that works for you, good for you, but so what? There is utterly nothing out there. You’re just making stuff up. There is absolutely no point to your ‘wooshing up.’ It accomplishes nothing because there is nothing.”
Not even Dreyfus and Kelly are actual nihilists, hence the depressing and self-contradicting nature of their book. If one is to take nihilism’s axiom, “Nothing matters because there is nothing” seriously, there is literally no use to reading All Things Shining, let alone its having been written. Nihilism, in its true form, presents utter hopelessness since nothing is true, nothing is right, and nothing is wrong.
How Can the Church Respond to Our Contemporary Nihilism?
This presents an immense challenge to the tenets of Christianity. As I read the book, I nearly had a crisis of faith. My constant questioning was, “How the heck do Christians respond to the nihilism present in our contemporary era? How can I respond as a pastor some day?”
Merely reading the book made me begin to feel hopeless. I was asking myself, “If nothing matters, how can I even argue against this since nihilists believe there is no objective, absolute truth? Furthermore, how can I be certain that the Scriptures are the objective, absolute truth? If people just make stuff up, how do I know Christianity isn’t made up—the greatest farce of all time?” I was on the verge of a crisis of faith until I remembered who God is.
There can never be “nothing” because there never was “nothing”; there was, is, and always will be God. Before the world was, God is. God created ex nihilo (from nothing). Materially, there once was nothing, but now, by the unimaginable power of God, there is stuff. Yet even though there once was materially nothing, God was, and He is, and He always will be. This is difficult for the human mind to fathom, but that is precisely what it means to be human; and the human inability to fully fathom this reality of God’s isness drives nihilists crazy, and it is their Achilles heel.
This gives a whole new meaning to, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Traditionally, this means God can literally do anything, which is a right interpretation I hold to. Yet I think another way to understand this is: Nothing, as a concept, is impossible with God. That is, with God, there can never be nothing. God, therefore, utterly destroys the concept of nothing because He is. As He said, “I AM WHO I AM,” or more accurately from the Hebrew, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” (Exodus 3:14).
Because God is, there is absolute truth, which He has laid down. Because God is, there is meaning to life, which He bestows to us via Baptism—life as a beloved child of God who can approach the throne of grace with utter confidence in order to receive God’s mercy and grace in our greatest times of need (Hebrews 4:16). The attempt to choose meaning for yourself inevitably fails, as exemplified in Wallace’s life of true nihilism.
Thus, what can the Church provide in our age of nihilism? The Church provides meaning in a world that says there is no meaning. In this way, the nihilistic world we live is right: there is no meaning. That is, without Christ, human existence is devoid of meaning.
God created human creatures, from whom all meaning comes. To be devoid of God, therefore, is to be devoid of meaning. “Are you saying that if I don’t believe in God, my life is meaningless?” Yes, that is what I’m saying. Without God, your memory and your existence merely fades away into the obscurity of history. Without God, you will merely die and be forgotten; there is no meaning to such an existence. “But the people I loved will remember me!” So what? They, too, will die and be forgotten; and your memory will die with their memory. With God, you have eternity—and it is eternity with your Creator who loves you so deeply that He became a man and died for you.
It is the Christ-event, therefore, that gives us full meaning. It is faith in this Christ that gives reconciliation between God and man. Furthermore, it is the means of grace Christ instituted that provides further meaning. The means of grace are Word and Sacrament. These means of grace are the proclamation of the Word (with proper Law & Gospel distinction) and the sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.
It is in faith and Baptism in which full meaning is given to us as a gift of God. By faith, you are restored (reconciled) to God the Father; in Baptism, the Holy Spirit makes you a child of God the Father in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As God’s child, you possess a friendly, right (= righteous) relationship with God. As God’s child, Christ invites you to His table where you partake of His body and blood to receive forgiveness of all your sins, for you are a member of God’s family. As God’s child, you can boldly and confidently approach the throne of grace to receive God’s absolution at no cost except confession.
As the Church provides these means of grace, the Church, then, provides meaning as a child of God. Outside the Church, this meaning cannot be provided, for it is the Church’s sole duty to distribute the means of grace: the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.
©The featured image is a selected art piece from Margaret Lansink’s gallery, “borders of nothingness.”