12/25/2016—I have been chided by my teacher, RT, that my carping on the theme of nihilism does not really capture what has happened here in America. Nihilism is a European phenomenon, he tells me, not an American one.
I think he is right. Nihilism as such requires a kind of intellectual history that Americans lack. It requires an openness to ideas. America is not oppressed by ideas.
But, the same experience of the death of God is present in America. Perhaps it has played out in America as the end of hope.
America has always been known as an optimistic culture. We were always a can-do people. Let’s call this kind of people, hopeful.
Where did this hopefulness come from? Originally, it came from Protestantism. Christ was our hope. Christ was America’s hope. This hope was born on Christmas. Certainly the conquering of death was always part of Christian hope, but I don’t believe at the beginning of American history it was as silly and literal as it later became. The second coming was the promise and no one knew when it would happen. It was not the promise of heaven—of life after death. It was mostly the promise of the kingdom of God on Earth, which was something Americans could instinctively work toward. This was the source of American earthly hope. This hope gradually merged into a belief in progress.
At some point, however, the Christian promise became one of personal continuation after death. Ross Douthat wrote about one such hope today in the New York Times—A.J. Ayer died and was resuscitated at age 77. He told about an experience of following a light and he said it gave him some suggestion that death might not be the end of him.
You don’t get much of that kind of suggestion in the Gospels. But it became so dominant in America that someone—I think it was Peter Berger, but maybe not—wrote that without an afterlife, the mother’s promise to the child that “everything will be all right” is a lie. There is no comfort without a heaven in which my ego will continue forever.
This hope has now collapsed culturally—some people still believe it, of course. But it no longer inspires this culture. And so the foundations of hope have ebbed away. It is in a hopeless culture that an opioid epidemic can grow.
The collapse of the Christian hope corresponds to the undermining of material progress as well as growth slows and its fruits become concentrated in the top 1%. A smaller percentage of Americans will be better off than their parents than ever before.
And then there is the graying of America as the baby boomers grow old and die. Cultures of the old naturally are not as hopeful as youth cultures.
And then there is the breakdown of the Pax America in the world—partly natural decline of a postwar dominance and partly the simple loss of American hope that had earlier allowed for unified American responses to world problems. Now we are divided.
So, not nihilism, but on this Christmas Day, a loss of hope. Can secularism retrieve hope? That is its challenge. [I don't usually review my previous writings, but the reader might be interested in a post written about a year ago--12/9/2015, I believe, about the movie Tomorrowland and its treatment of the loss of hope. So this theme has engaged me for awhile. There is also the last chapter of Hallowed Secularism itself, which I must now revisit.]