Friday, November 20, 2009

Sliding into Nihilism

A friend recently sent me a link to Jean Bethke Elshtain's essay published in First Things entitled "While Europe Slept." Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. I find her essay for First Things both fascinating and disturbing. Here are some excerpts:

In the great cathedrals in Europe, a few people—usually elderly women—can be found at worship. Everybody else is a tourist, cameras hanging around their necks, meandering through. I was recently in Scotland, and I read a newspaper story commenting on three hundred deserted churches dotting the Scottish countryside, asking if they should be destroyed or turned into bars and cafes. Europe herself, in her proposed constitution, refuses to acknowledge the heritage of Judaism and Christianity—although Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment are acknowledged.

Europe cannot remember who she is unless she remembers that she is the child not only of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the Enlightenment but also of Judaism and Christianity—the child, therefore, of Catholicism and the Reformation. If Europe abandons her religious heritage, the idea of Europe dies. And Europe has abandoned, or forgotten, her religious heritage. Europe is now “post-Christian.” What does this mean? What does it portend?

If a culture forgets what it is, as I believe Europe has done, it falls first into an agnostic shrugging of the shoulders, unable to say exactly what it is and believes, and from there it will inevitably fall into nihilism. Detached from its religious foundations, Europe will not remain agnostic. The first result is manifest in those ideologies of multiculturalism that make “difference” a kind of sacred, absolute principle, although no principle is considered to have any such status. Difference tells us nothing in and of itself. Some ways of life and ways of being in the world are brutal, stupid, and ugly. Some a human rights-oriented culture cannot tolerate. A culture must believe in its own enculturating responsibility and mission in order to make claims of value and to institutionalize them in social and political forms. This a post-Christian Europe cannot do.

Multiculturalism is then, in practice, a series of monoculturalisms that do not engage one another at all; rather, the cultural particulate most enamored of gaining and holding power has an enormous advantage: One day, it proclaims, we will bury you. A sign carried by radical Islamist protestors in London during the fracas over the Dutch cartoons proclaimed, “Europe is a cancer / Islam is the answer.” A perverted idea of Islam confronts a Europe that has lost a sense of who she is and what she represents.

For that Europe, the window to transcendence is slammed shut. Human values alone pertain. But these human values are shriveled by a prior loss of the conviction that there is much to defend about the human person, and they are seen as so many subjectivist construals without any defensible, objective content. Unsurprisingly, what comes to prevail is a form of reduced utilitarianism that rationalizes nihilism.

The territory as one's own property is the self itself, or an understanding of the self shorn of any encumbrances of the past, any shackles of old defunct moralities. The self blows hither, thither; it matters not, if it blows my way. The question of what the self is, and whether it has any transcendent meaning, is answered with a shrug. ...

Ironically, while Catholicism has become a champion of human rights and democracy as the political form that supports human dignity most fully and bids to be the political form within which human flourishing is most likely to take place, much secular reason has increasingly manifested itself as secularism. And secularism—a rigid cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world—has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing.

No good has ever— ever—come from narrowing and constricting our understanding of humanity in this way. The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God—the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely—all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God.

Without God, without some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living at all. And others have the power to decide whose life is wretched based on utilitarian criteria. The utilitarian ethic would annihilate the Christian ethic in the name of progress and decency and the ending of suffering. ...

Europe suffers from many self-inflicted wounds—the wounds of indifference, the wounds of self-absorption. Will Europe be able to deal with all the daunting challenges she faces, including destabilization, economic stagnation, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and all the rest? Only if she remembers who she is, with something precious and valuable to offer, which means accepting her religious heritage and its normative constraints on what people are permitted to do and how they may do it. Only if Europe can sustain principles and commitments that are historically derived from presuppositions of divinely sanctioned human dignity. I speak here not of faith but of sustaining cultural memory, including that which resolutely rejected the view that we are all forced to choose between faith and reason, which would rule Europe's historical dialectic irrelevant. ...

When I was an undergraduate more than forty years ago, I attended a lecture by Sir Julian Huxley, scion of the Enlightenment, a distinguished branch off the tree Huxley, a proponent of scientism, enthusiastic about eugenics as the forward march of progress. Without qualification of any kind, he pronounced that by the year 2000 religion and nationalism will have disappeared, having been supplanted by the total victory of scientific rationality and a benign world order. The view of the human person celebrated by Huxley was that of the sovereign individual, ruler of his own domain, master of all he surveys. There is no soul to fret about, only mastery to achieve.

Four years ago in April, a beloved Pope John Paul II lay in repose in Rome. As his body was carried into St. Peter's, the pallbearers made a circle through the crowd and then carried his body into the basilica as the people wept and applauded and the litany of the saints rang out with its beautiful, haunting chant that tells us we are not alone on our earthly journey.

Here we witness another sort of reality, another future, even another international order embodied. The view of the human person celebrated in the litany of the saints and honored by the presence of the millions, many of them young people, who poured into Rome to celebrate and to mourn, is very much that of the ensouled body, keeping body and soul, spirit and flesh together. This life is exquisitely social, its meaning and purpose immanent yet framed by the transcendent.

Which represents Europe? Huxley's optimistic view of a vision of progress unencumbered by faith and moral fretting, or John Paul II's “sign of contradiction”? There could scarcely be a wider gap than that between a view of human life as encompassed entirely by birth and ending definitively with death, with both birth and death coming increasingly under rationalistic and scientist control, and a view of human life as a gift and a blessing, given meaning because we understand that our good is not ours alone but a good that links us to a world of others, our brothers and sisters, although they may be foreign and strange and even hostile.

That Europe should wind up poised between two such powerful and contrasting worlds results from no incoherence, as a moral philosopher might claim, but rather from the intrinsic telos embedded in each distinctive understanding and deeded to it by its history. Europe was defined for centuries in and through an energetic dialogue between belief and unbelief and, having lost belief, finds nihilism.

Read it all.


Mike in FL said...

...and here, but for the sovereign grace of God, will go the whole rest of the West...

JC Fremont said...

Many good points in your excerpt, but I didn't see one thing that deserves greater attention (I'll check the whole article when I have time; maybe the point is there)...there's an economic aspect to how the nihilism got its foot in the door. When capitalism decided it could coexist with nihilism (because the consumption would be uninterrupted) and people accepted the idea that they were "consumers" rather than "citizens", and the concept of the global economy became paramount...

After all, people who believe in nothing will buy anything, as a friend of mine says.

JC Fremont said...

I was just reminded of another set of concepts that have some bearing on this issue:

If you take the living God out of Christianity, you get Humanism.

If you take the living God out of Judaism, you get Existentialism.

If you take the living God out of Islam, you get Nihilism*.

*When nihilism is defined as "a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility".
--Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

(This is not the same thing as anarchy: Woodstock was anarchy, Columbine was nihilism.)

Steve Hayes said...

I get scared when people speak of multiculturalism as if it were somehow evil.

We had a government who thought that. And they devised a policy to counter the evil of multiculturalism. They called it their policy apartheid, and even fifteen years after the policy was abandoned, we are still feeling its evil effects. Please don't go there.

Bryan Owen said...

Perhaps what you are describing, Steve, is the polar opposite of the politically correct celebration of multiculturalism as an unqualified good. Insofar as such a celebration embraces cultural and moral relativism, it undermines its own capacity to criticize evils like apartheid.