Nihilism Begone!

Do you ever feel like everything is old, tired, has been done? Have you attempted to come up with something creative, only to stop with the feeling that others have done it already, better than you could do it? Do you feel bored? Do you find yourself secretly wishing for the annihilation of all that exists?

is this you?

Aristotle says that all philosophy begins in wonder. You are suffering from a lack of wonder. You’ve had a wonder-ectomy. You are experiencing the strange phenomenon only found in humans: hatred of being. You’ve seen all that there is and it leaves you flat. Things that used to be good are no longer good. Nihilism is creeping up to you on cat paws. Beware!

Nietzsche writes of eternal recurrence, the idea that all things have been and will be again, as "the highest formula of a Yea-saying to life that can ever be attained." The nihilist says abolish everything, it is better that it not exist. The opposite of the nihilist (the vitalist?) rejoices even in the eternal recurrence. It is good that things have been, and it is good if they happen again. See The Gay Science 341. What if someone said to you:

This life, as thou livest it at present and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh. . . Wouldst thou not throw thyself down and gnash thy teeth, and curse the demon that so spake? Or hast thou once experienced a tremendous moment in which thou wouldst answer him: "Thou art a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!"

If you are really a non-nihilist, or I would say a man of faith, you would agree with Nietzsche in this passage. Yes, I know Nietzsche was not a man of faith, but nobody’s perfect. You would agree with Julian of Norwich, to whom it was revealed "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Even the bad stuff is for the good, if only you could see it.

Another approach is given by G.K. Chesterton. You may be bored with life. You may say that all has happened before, that everything is tired and exhausted of meaning, that the cosmos is just so much vulgar trash strewn across the void. You are looking at it the wrong way:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The more joy you can take in things even as they are, with all of their flaws, the closer you are to the divine.

Hephaestus Shrugs

"Dammit. This is the last straw. I quit!" Hephaestus mopped his brow and damped the forge. He pulled out a scrap left over from the Prometheus job and set it out to cool, not even bothering to quench it. "Who cares."

Hephaestus limped over to the three-legged bench he had cast from bronze, inlaid with gold and silver figures telling of the great deeds of the sons of Zeus, and sat. His leg still hurt, ever since he’d been thrown out of Olympus for the crime of being ugly. Days he had fallen. If the islanders hadn’t tended him, he, an immortal god, would have died. "Or at least been so hurt death would have been a blessing," Hephaestus muttered to himself.

Death. Maybe it was a blessing. At least mortals got to stop working, eventually. Sure, their shades flitted around in the underworld, but they don’t have to meet deadlines or deal with impatient gods. "Where’s my new winged sandals?" says Hermes. "Hephaestus, I need more thunderbolts! Get it done!" thunders Zeus.

None of those Olympians can make anything. Well, Hermes and Athena could if they wanted to, but why should they, when they can just subcontract it with the hunchbacked lame god of fire? "I’m done. They can forge their own damned thunderbolts!"

Hephaestus grabbed his cap and his cane and made for the exit, a portico of gold, ivory, and horn, that he’d made in his spare time. He was almost to the door when he remembered his tools, and turned back to fetch them.

"Oh Hephaestus, I need a favor!" A voice rang through the hall, high and clear. It was Hera. White-armed Hera, the bitch-goddess of marriage. No wonder Zeus kept roaming, thought Hephaestus.

"I’m retired," he grunted. "Find someone else!"

"But my dear child, there’s no-one else. No one can make things like you do. I just need some armor, a mere trifle, and a shield," purred Hera.

"Mother, why should I make it?"

"Why, because I love you, my dearest son."

"You threw me off of Olympus!" shouted Hephaestus.

"But you were lame. How could we keep you? You can’t blame us. We didn’t know of your great skills then." She came closer, her gown rustling. She smelled faintly of anise. "I would never throw you off the mountain now." Hera enveloped him in her beautiful arms.

Hephaestus sighed. "But you’d all be helpless without me. You can’t do anything!"

Hera squeezed him to her chest. "But you’d be ugly without us. You need us as much as we need you."

He looked around his workshop, at the fine works, the forge, the stocks of metals, the bin of gems, the half-finished products, the girl automatons who served him while he worked.

"If I do this, can I come up to the main hall?"

"Why yes, my dear!" murmured Hera.

Hephaestus’s heart burned in his chest. "Will," he stammered, "will Aphrodite be there?"

Hera smiled. "Of course!"

"Automatons! Fire up the forge! Back to work!"

Architecture and Belief

Last weekend my family went hiking. I was given the task of picking the location. It took us about 90 minutes to drive there, and my competence was doubted. “Trust me,” I said. After a few minutes on the trail, we saw this:

photo credit: me

My wife and children couldn’t get enough. I was a hero!

The trail abounded in similar vistas. Dramatic changes of elevation, lush vegetation, and waterfalls created a mood, a feeling of transcendence. Any concerns about the daily outrages in the news faded away. Timelessness beckoned.

The attraction of such scenes has to do with what humans are. We are not merely animals, purely material beings who spend our lives gathering food to eat and reproducing. Rather, we are spiritual beings who spend our lives gathering food to eat, reproducing, and delighting in beauty. Maybe you won’t go that far with me; what, after all, is spirit? Just go with me a little further.

Look at this church. What does it say about the people who worship there?

It appeals to the same spirit, I think. Humans are creatures capable of being elevated, and the architecture takes that into account. God makes an appearance as well. The atmosphere is prayerful, as the builders intended. It doesn’t take much effort to recollect oneself in a building like this.

Such places abound if you know where to look. I make a point to seek them out.

We don’t build like this anymore. Why? I think it has to do with belief. A congregation that believes in the greatness of God and the spiritual nature of human beings builds churches like that. What sort of belief does this building evince?

anonymous church

Do they believe the same things as the other church? Judging from the architecture, they have nothing in common.