Saturday, December 29, 2012

What is Nihilism?

12/29/2012—Next week, I will be speaking at a Conference on Christian Legal Thought that is parallel to the AALS Convention in New Orleans. The Conference Topic is The Statement on the Nature of Law from Evangelicals and Catholics. My response to the statement considers it an inadequate attempt to refute the nihilism of our day. But what is nihilism?

In an essay Martin Heidegger developed during the period 1936-1940 and delivered in different formats in 1943, Heidegger confronted nihilism through Nietzsche, The Word of Nietzsche: “God is Dead”. Nietzsche overturned mataphysics, turned it upside down, leaving it in inessentiality. Metaphysics is the relationship between the sensory world and the ideal or suprasensory realm—the realm of God, spirit, goodness etc. In nihilism, the suprasensory “is transformed into an unstable product of the sensory.” This debases both the suprasensory and the sensory, leading to a neither/nor of the relationship of the two. It culminates in meaningless that metaphysics attempts to block “through a mere assigning of sense and meaning.”

These words are hard to fathom, but I believe the movement Heidegger is seeing can be illustrated in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century’s treatment of the Bible. (this analysis is based on two lectures from the Teaching Company).

First, Horace Bushnell, who, in the words of Jay Williams, in 1869, published an article commenting on the Bampton Lectures offered by Edward Garbett who was one of many theologians of that time who devoted themselves to extracting “sure and certain” doctrines from Scripture. Bushnell, who entitled his essay “Our Gospel: A Gift to the Imagination,” reminds his readers that the language of the Bible, indeed all language, is highly metaphorical and symbolic. Much of the Bible is poetry, parable, and folk tale and must be read as such. Forget the doctrines and dogmatic certitudes, he says, and use your imagination. Faith has nothing to do with accepting a particular set of dogmas.

In other words, the Bible is poetry.

Now consider the conservative theologian Charles Hodge, who through Common Sense Realism, viewed the Bible as a collection of facts, much as he viewed scientific investigation as a collection of provable facts. In 1841, Hodge published The Way of Life, which set forth his understanding of scripture. Hodge was influential in the development of the inerrancy doctrine of the Bible in what came to be known as Fundamentalism. Hodge was followed at Princeton Theological Seminary by his son, A.A.Hodge, and B.B. Warfield, who further developed his thought.

The influence of Hodge can be seen in the five fundamentals adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1910 that came to define Fundamentalism in the U.S.

• The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture as a result of this.
• The virgin birth of Christ.
• The belief that Christ's death was an atonement for sin.
• The bodily resurrection of Christ.
• The historical reality of Christ's miracles.

Now think about Heidegger’s account. The New Testament is clear that the resurrection was something real but also something mysterious. Jesus eats and drinks but is not recognizable. The resurrection is presented as neither poetry nor fact. This is the neither/nor that nihilism leaves us. We can choose to be liberal or conservative, assigning sense and meaning, but either choice is an act of will—-an option we choose. Neither is true to the matter. The resurrection is suprasensory now reduced to an unstable product of the categories of the sensible world—-poetry or fact. Thus does nihilism debase the sensory and the suprasensory.


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