When I published Teddy a couple of weeks ago, one of my friends commented that its nihilistic outlook and my Christian faith might seem at odds. My response was that I believe that nihilism and faith are not so far removed from each other as it might seem.
The concept of Nihilism is largely associated with Friederich Nietzsche, whose philosophies form the undergirding of quite a lot of contemporary thought. Rightly so, in many instances, although I think there are some fundamental flaws in the assumptions underpinning his critique of Christianity.
Crudely summed up, Nihilism is the process of stripping away our preoccupations with finding meaning, rejecting absolute truth, and recognising that nothing has essential value (That is not a new thought, by the way. If you read Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s writing follows very much the same train of thought. Only his conclusion is different). Nietzsche argues that there are no facts, only interpretations of the world around us: “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” In other words, the groups that hold power in society – culturally, economically, politically – get to decide what “truth” is. And truth, for Nietzsche, is merely “a lie agreed upon”.
All truth, then, is constructed by the powerful in society, in order to preserve that power. For much of modern history, that has been the church. For Nietzsche, because Christianity positions itself as the interpretation, ultimately, it must fragment and fall apart as it realises that it is itself a construct. If a person can survive the resulting existential despair, he/she emerges a stronger being.
For the most part, I agree with him. The God we worship is in our heads. I believe that is inevitable. By very definition, a true god would have to be unbound by the constraints of that which he had created. This would mean that any god who had created our universe would have to be outside of our three dimensions. He would be outside of time and space as we know it. Because of the limitations on our physical beings, we can only understand the universe through a very narrow range of sensory experiences, which provide us with a woefully incomplete picture of the whole. Even our logic and thinking are bound by our dimensional constraints. We cannot ever see beyond them because we cannot conceive of dimensions beyond our own, nor can we interact with those dimensions through our own efforts. This means that God could never be accessed through human endeavours. His existence or non-existence could not ever be logically inferred or deduced through human efforts simply because a multi-dimensional being could never – by very definition – be accessed by a being limited to very few dimensions.
To compensate for this, I think humans fill in the gaps. We manufacture in our heads a God that meets our psychological needs. Because we associate good behaviour with good character in most societies, the tendency is to project a god that values good behaviour above all else. We interpret our own actions in the light of that, and use the God projection to assuage our guilt or to justify our actions. Our God projections provide comfort for loneliness and give meaning to a suffering-filled existence that would otherwise seem devoid of it. That is why people are so resistant to examining their God-constructs: to do so would be to expose very deep psychological needs – a series of fears and desires that they have barely come to understand themselves. Something that provides external answers – no matter how inconsistent they may be or how harsh their demands – is easier to face psychologically than the vulnerability of existential nakedness.
So I think the Gods we serve are always constructs of our minds. Where I differ from Nietzsche is that for me that does not preclude the existence of a real God. It does not follow that simply because we incapable of knowing God or absolute truth that these do not exist. It simply means that if they exist we cannot know them.
Nor do I agree with Nietzche’s association of Christianity with a moral code. It is an understandable error, because that is where Christianity has placed its emphasis. But that does not mean that this is what Christianity is. As I have repeated often before, one cannot judge Christianity by the actions and beliefs of its most misguided adherents, even though they form the overwhelming majority of Christians. Even Nietzsche wryly remarked that “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”.
I have walked the road of Nihilism. Any thinking person must. I have come to understand that Christianity is indeed a construct. But whereas Nietzsche states that “[t]here are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe”, I cannot see belief and knowledge as binary opposites. They are part of a spectrum. Belief begins where knowledge ends. And it must end, because we are finite beings. Our philosophies and sciences cannot explain the universe to us because they are birthed in our limitations. When we come to the point of accepting that knowledge fails us, we choose to believe in something. Most go for love as a sort of higher value. Even Nietzsche did. It is ironic, given that this is where Jesus Christianity places it emphasis. For me the crisis point is this: once you have rejected Christianity, what do you do with Jesus?
I would argue that the only way we could ever experience a real God would be through revelation. That God would have to show himself to us. And because He would be unbound by our dimensional constraints, much of what He did would appear to us to be miraculous but would actually be normal when our dimensional constraints did not apply. That is what I believe Jesus is – a revelation. Sure, we still mythologise him and make God-constructs of Jesus too, but the fact of his existence speaks to me of a God for whom interaction is more important than good behaviour (else why reveal himself at all? Jesus’ teachings would support this.) No human could ever understand another human, let alone a God, without reconstructing that being according to one’s preconceptions. So I do not believe that God insists on “right belief”. If that were a prerequisite for communion with God, it would be beyond all of us. Logically, communion with God should be beyond all of us. But revelation brings hope that perhaps it is not.
Do I understand these dynamics? No. Any certainty about God would reinforce that the God was a construct, because a God outside of our dimensions must by definition resist proof. But when I stare into the abyss, and I feel the weight of the abyss staring back at me, when my knowledge collapses around me in ruins and find myself unsure of how to make sense of it all, I do what everyone – even Nietzsche – does. I choose something to put my faith in. For some it is Science, for others Philosophy, for others Art, for yet others, religion. In other words, reverting – ironically – to our own ways of knowing. What is so problematic, then, about my choosing to put that faith in Jesus, choosing to believe that he is who he says he is?