Summer Reading Group: “God, Nihilism, and Flourishing”

This is the final post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2016 Summer Reading Group. Each post was drawn from chapters of the book Flourishing by Miroslav Volf. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

“A specter is haunting the world,” Miroslav Volf writes in his epilogue to Flourishing, “the specter of nihilism.”  By “nihilism” Volf does not mean widespread and explicit rejection of morality or religion.  He is concerned instead with what he calls a “stealthier kind of nihilism.”  Sometimes it “wears a clean, ironed, and buttoned-up uniform of moral order,” and sometimes it “romps around pushing against the parameters” of this order.  In all cases, however, it drains the world of meaning and leaves us “with the crushing burden of an unbearably light existence.”  Consider, for example, both the “passive” and “active” nihilisms recently on display amid the leafy suburbs of Silver Spring, Maryland—the nihilism, as startling as it may sound, of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s 2016 Annual Council meeting.

According to the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the moral and spiritual trajectory of Western civilization has culminated in the rise of those he called the “Last Men”—mindless consumers incapable of heroic striving and entertaining themselves to death, all the while imagining themselves to be the highest exemplars of humankind.  We need not accept Nietzsche’s atheism to see that religious institutions and people are by no means immune from the malaise he diagnosed.  His indictment of our market-driven “herd-morality” offers more penetrating insights into the life of the church than we might care to admit.

Attending just one day of this year’s Annual Council as a lay observer, one would find it difficult to shake the feeling of being, indeed, in the presence of history’s “Last Men,” albeit not in the sense they themselves imagined.  The delegates sitting near to me grew most animated not when some of their fellow believers offered carefully reasoned and heartfelt pleas with them to pause in their rush to vote upon a vaguely menacing document just handed down from on high.  Instead, they came most alive during the sales pitches by representatives from two cities vying to host a future General Conference.  “St. Louis or Indianapolis?  Which will it be?  Watch these promotional videos about their entertainment and dining venues and then decide!”  Here was a group of men (for they were almost entirely men) blinking and voting in blocs on matters of momentous importance to the entire Adventist community.   But many of them appeared to care more about having two options of where to go shopping than they were with the fact that they had just been presented with a single option for understanding the church’s ecclesiology and doctrine of unity.

If the passive nihilism of the Last Men is one of the specters haunting our world, there is a second type of nihilism that Nietzsche did not diagnose so much as embody.  This is the active nihilism of those who Volf calls “today’s high achievers.”  “They work hard, they compete hard, and they walk over the bodies of the vanquished with smug indifference.”  For them, life is all about “bending the shape of the world to align with their needs.”  They are the ones who are not bound by the same rules that apply to others, for “nothing has authority over” them.  They decide on the exceptions to the rules.  Or, we might say in the language of a recent document from the General Conference Secretariat, they are the ones with “plenary power” over everyone who happens to be “lower” than them in the grand scheme of things.

Unfortunately, all of the perils of will to power—what St. Augustine called libido dominandi, the lust for domination—apply to Adventist officialdom no less than to any other fallible human institution, as anyone who has lived close to church politics and has any sense of realism knows.  It is possible for the General Conference president and all the president’s men to lead not by building consensus across differences but by consolidating and expanding their own power.  It is possible for those in the Inner Circle to attempt to bend the church to their own wills through procedural maneuvering, pressure tactics, and backdoor dealings.  It is possible for them to refuse to submit to the teaching authority and tempering wisdom of the church’s theologians and biblical scholars.  It is possible for them to forget that they have been appointed as valued functionaries with strictly administrative rather than priestly, apostolic, or ecclesiastical titles.  It is possible for them to mistake “winning” by sheer majoritarian votes with building actual unity in the body of Christ.  And it is possible for them to do all these things with blinkered confidence that God is always on their side. 

Perhaps the greatest evidence that even church officials can be active nihilists at heart can be found in the bold claim we now hear being made by some individuals that obedience to Christ is virtually synonymous with obedience to the Working Policy—the one book they themselves have the power to write and re-write.  Active nihilism might best be summarized as the notion, in Volf’s words, that “meaning lies with us.”  When we are parched for meaning, we end up projecting our own power onto others—whether this power appears in a secular or a religious guise—in an attempt to fill finite goods and fallible institutions with ultimate values.

When the passive nihilism of the middling managers and the active nihilism of the dynamic powerbrokers come together in the name of Church, the result is often a soul-crushing fundamentalism and—in the Adventist context—the worst of two possible worlds: endless speech-making and pro forma voting but without any of the robust checks and balances of a healthy democracy, combined with a religious hierarchy in which those at the top claim ever growing authority in theological matters but without strong theological qualifications or intellectual accountability.  The great virtue of an ecclesiastical as opposed to a managerial hierarchy is that at least a conclave of bishops carries with it the authority of hard earned erudition. Not so a conclave of bureaucrats.

Volf’s book is primarily addressed to those who have grown skeptical of the possibility of a generous and peaceful religious engagement with the urgent political crises of our age.  Yet many of his insights can also be applied to believers who are full of confidence in religion’s importance.  His answer to the challenge of contemporary nihilism—both in and out of the church—is a recovery of sacramental theology.  To see the world as a sacrament is to see it as a gift, and “To think of a gift,” he writes, “you must, of course, think of a giver.”  Volf freely acknowledges that this theological vision is entirely contestable.  However, he argues, the Christian narrative, if true, “makes possible a unity of meaning and ordinary pleasures.”  It frees us to encounter the world not as something to dominate and control but as a space in which we might still be surprised by joy.  It leads us out of the traps and masks of nihilism to a theology of Sabbath rest.  “On this one day of the week, a day toward which all days are aiming and from which they all gain meaning, human striving comes to an end, and the joy in the world as the gift and in God as the giver reigns supreme…. We come to experience ordinary things as extraordinary—as the Lover’s gifts—and therefore rejoice in them all the more.”  

For Adventist readers, Volf’s book comes as an essential reminder that our flourishing as individuals and as communities does not finally hinge upon whatever happens to be voted by men in dark suits at the General Conference.  Whether or not the church remains faithful in its visible, institutional forms, our flourishing remains anchored in God’s ongoing care for all of creation.  When nihilism seeps into even our church life, Christ still offers us the warmth of authentic human community at the margins and the peace of Sabbath rest.

 

___________

Ronald Osborn is a wandering philosopher and the author of "Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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