Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Descent of the West from God: From Theism, Naturalism, to Nihilism and Existentialism


We see a slide taking place in regard to worldview. For human history some form of religion or deism was the chief worldview. Yet over the history of humanity, we see the descent of human worldview, as if one were taking steps down a flight of stairs, from theism, the original underpinnings of western civilization, to deism, then into naturalism, and naturalism in turn gave birth to nihilism, and in response to the emptiness of nihilism, existentialism came to attempt to restore meaning. This is the descent from theism. We will consider the effects of this descent of worldview on contemporary humanity in western civilization, particularly the United States. We will see how the descent of worldview led to existentialism, and in turn existentialism split in two directions, one deeper into the abyss through the lenses of self, and one which led back toward God on uncertain footing. We will also see that nihilism and existentialism have a divided hold in the United States, vying for power and philosophical authority with the remnants of theism which previously held dominance in western civilization.

What is the trajectory taking place? First, we see theism, Christianity and Judaism and the influence they’ve had in western civilization. This worldview indicates that there is a creator of the cosmos, but not only that, he actively sustains the cosmos, has a moral right to judge the cosmos, and is personal and knowable by humanity. This is the perspective upon which documents like the declaration of independence and the constitution were founded. All humans have value because they are created by a personal God. Man should not murder. Man should not steal. Man should not commit adultery. These concepts were placed into the laws of the nation. Laws that make littering illegal, laws that make animal torture illegal, laws that make stealing illegal, laws that moderate speed limits on roads, laws that protect children, laws that mandate legal counsel for the accused, laws that make perjury illegal, all of these laws are built on the bedding one might say, of theism. God is moral. Humanity is moral. Humanity is made by God. All humans are equal and have basic intrinsic value. These are expressions of the theistic worldview being lived out in human society.

But then we see the descent to deism. If deism is true, there is a creator of the universe, however, this creator made the universe and simply disappeared. This creator has no current interaction in the universe. There are no miracles in which the creator intervenes in the universe. There is no final moral judgment. There is no heaven or hell. We can already see the effects that this worldview would have on laws and conditions of society. Is every human life sacred and equal if the only creator is one who created the universe and disappeared? Wouldn’t that perhaps lead to the conclusion that humanity is of little or no value, if the creator who made it desires no contact with the lifeforms he created? If that’s the case, why should humanity bar things like stealing or adultery or perjury or racketeering? Once one has lost the moral personal God and the value of humanity, this leaves deists to try to find the basis for absolutes and moral imperatives in nebulous concepts like natural law, and later, legal positivism. As soon as the moral personal God is removed, it’s as if we see an entire nation, buildings, people, land, animals, and water, being flooded away and off a cliff, like a dam has burst.

With naturalism we see the codification of the descent away from theism. Why even bother with any sort of deity? It isn’t needed. So here we find the concept that the only things that are real are the natural world, and human reason. There is no god. There is no spiritual realm. And the slide produced by the breaking of the dam truly surges in power in this departure from theism and deism. However, questions of morality, meaning, truth, and justice are largely left unanswered, or left to human reason, as the ultimate deducer of all things. But soon philosophers realized, “How can we trust human reason if there is no ontic referent?”

So next we see the development of the worldview of nihilism. Nihilism rejects all previous worldviews and regards itself as “the righteous and honorable resistance of a people crushed under an iron rule” (Gertz, 2019, p. 2). The iron rule being referenced are previous worldviews like theism and deism that often-regarded human nature as sinful or bad, or allowed for economic oppression or slavery (Gertz, 2019, p. 2-3). The solution to this problem of previous worldviews then, according to early Russian Nihilists, was to “destroy the society as a whole in order to build a new society out of whatever survived their destruction.”

How would this be achieved? “The Nihilists first attempted to destroy society by advocating for the destruction of social practices and traditional values, such as private property, marriage, and religion” (Gertz, 2019, p. 3). But as far as nihilism as a philosophy, it’s generally considered to be a worldview that sees the culmination of all things stated in the world to be nothing. It’s not as much an attempt to define nothingness, but more so a rejection of all current worldviews as nothing (Gertz, 2019, p. 8). When considering nihilism, it seems to me to simply be the logical outworking of naturalism. If Darwin was right, and the universe is nothing but pitiless indifference and all creatures are evolved from stardust, to the primordial soup, through the zoo creatures, to humanity, then truly, nihilism is logical, because nothing became something and something shall most certainly one day become nothing again, because from nothing the universe came and toward nothing the universe does now head.

And out of this inexhaustible vacuum came a worldview reacting against the nothingness of nihilism, existentialism. Existentialism comes in two forms, theistic existentialism and atheistic existentialism. Existentialism generally regards all of the key concepts of nihilism to be true, as well as general tenants of naturalism, the only difference being that an existentialist would say that one can find meaning, morality, and purpose through self-referencing. The existentialist believes that by looking inward, and seeing the value of the self, one can find personal meaning and value in life and the world. It gave birth to subjectivity. Something could be true, at least to one person, because they believed it. But it failed to provide a referent outside itself for morality (Sire, 2020, p. 120).

But what about theistic existentialism? Theistic existentialism is an entirely different animal. It reflects all the key tenants of Christian theism, and yet it makes many subtle adjustments on how Christianity is perceived. While atheistic existentialism was a reaction against dead nihilism, theistic existentialism was a reaction against dead religion. Many of the concepts of theistic existentialism can be seen in modern evangelical Christianity, the concept of following God is seen as a relationship, not rules to follow, the Christian life is seen as to live a life pleasing to the Lord, not simply obeying commandments, forgiveness is seen as a renewal of fellowship rather than simply the cancelling of a moral guilt (Sire, 2020, p. 125). History is viewed as less important in detail and more important as something to be presently lived in theistic existentialism, reason less important than faith, the personal experience more important than the words on the page, knowledge is seen as more subjective and paradoxical, and humans as alienated from the universe facing a difficult struggle to come to belief in God (Sire, 2020, p. 122-128).

So here we find two reactions to the bankruptcy of nihilism, atheistic existentialism and theistic existentialism. These are incredibly different departures from nihilism. Atheistic existentialism reacts away from nihilism by seeking out reason, morality, and truth in the subjective human experience, while theistic existentialism reacts against nihilism by climbing all the way back up the steps to Christian theism, but reviving it from dead religion to a living relationship. Yet, we also see certain concepts friendly to nihilism also forcibly inserted into Christianity, like subjectivity, the value of personal experience (above revelation), and a diminishing of the value of reason as well as history.

The first reaction to nihilism seems entirely useless as far as I can tell. It’s as if someone embraced all the core tenants of the very problem itself, nihilism’s emptiness, and while careening off the cliff turned inward and said, “Well, if I exist then at least that’s something.” They reference self, which, in itself seems to hold little value for finding renewed meaning. All they’ve done is deify the self, which in a pitiless universe means nothing, when death comes, the meaning is once again burnt out permanently.

The second reaction is much more interesting. One reacts against nihilism’s darkness by returning to the source, the original, the Christian theistic perspective, but tweaks it to find new life in what once was dead religion. This is of much more value in regard to solving the problems of nihilism. But it’s as if the individual solves the problem by returning to Christian theism, but also brings some of the material left over from nihilism, and molds it together with Christian theism. One would think of the statue depicted in Daniel chapter two in which the feet are made of iron mixed with clay, the iron being strong, but the clay mixed in weakens what might otherwise be a strong base for the structure.

From there, we see the theistic existentialist perspective split off into two camps. In one group we see liberal Christianity, progressive Christians, people like Rob Bell, who claim to be Christians but deny one or more of the key tenants of Christianity. This is the case in which theistic existentialism diverts too far toward nihilism, and ends in disaster, either apostasy (rejection of the key tenants of the authentic Christian faith) or a sort of a vapid milquetoast therapeutic deism, in which all things are acceptable, all roads lead to heaven, and no one is necessarily wrong about anything they do. This to me is a clear dead end. The elements of nihilism combined with Christianity have distorted and destroyed what Christianity actually is. In the second camp, I think we see a revitalized living, Spirit filled Christianity based on relationship, deep feeling, connectedness with Christ, and mystical experience, but all of these areas tempered and checked and balanced by scripture. We see Christians who find a new balance to their faith, balancing concept like rules and relationship, balancing theological truths like faith and works, repentance and renewal, heaven and hell, grace and truth. Out of the deep feeling, introspection, and communal focus of theistic existentialism comes a stronger faith, a faith balanced between hard truths of the scripture and the loving relationship between a gracious God of justice and the redeemed heirs of eternal life.

Could one even go back to the beginning of the fragmentation of worldviews, from deism, to naturalism, to nihilism, and existentialism and see that the descent began because of an experience of dead religion in the world? That may be a bridge too far. The truth is humanity is prone to wander, apart from whether Christianity was dead or spirit filled. But a dead religion may have encouraged the wandering. As always, there is a way back. But there is also a way out too. God gives all people free will, to seek Him, or to refuse Him.

Finally, we consider the present day effects on society of these worldviews. I see a society in the United States deeply divided in worldview. We see the remnants of theism, biblical Christianity, mainline Protestantism, Judaism, theistic existentialism and other theistic worldviews attempting from various angles and approaches to keep the USA tethered to concepts like objective morality, biblical authority, natural law, God given rights, and personal liberty. We see the slightly dominant worldviews of naturalism, nihilism, atheistic existentialism, and various secular forces attempting to change and rewrite society, jettison past norms of society, remove reference of God from government, and rework the laws and politics of the United States to center on more equality-based concepts of justice, law, and reason. Many of the intellectual elites of this movement would much rather jettison the current US system all together and start from scratch, which reminds one of the idea of tearing down society and starting anew which is prominent in the nihilistic worldview. Meanwhile many of the theistic perspective would rather see a society based entirely on biblical principles, and religion at the center of all public life. Here we see the worldviews splitting between warring factions, as fragmentation of worldview continues in the country, we see a country in deadlock, unable to move forward, because there is no longer near as much common ground to find, and so little of a shared vision of the future to work toward. And indeed, how can there be? Can there be anything more diametrically different than the concepts of the future described in worldviews like nihilism and atheistic existentialism when compared with Christian theism? Many consider the divide irreconcilable, and in fact it may be just that.

In any case, we see how the descent of worldview took place drifting from theism down the steps to deism, naturalism, nihilism, and existential. We see the paths split from existentialism, one road leading deeper into the abyss of the rejection of theism, and the second road leading back toward theism, either into a compromised milquetoast religion or into an energized biblical Christianity. And we see the battle of worldviews taking place in the United States as western humanity wrestles with who we are, who we were, what we are, and where we’re going. The struggle rages on and on to this very day.



References

Gertz, N. (2019). Nihilism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sire, J. W. (2020). The universe next door: A basic worldview catalog. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press.

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