An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at least occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.
This is the opening description of what philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call “Our Contemporary Nihilism.” In their recent book, All Things Shining, they outline the modern American condition as being rootless and rudderless, an existence founded on nothing common or sacred and conducted in meaningless lives of individual autonomy, leading “at least to wickedness or tragedy, and more likely to nihilism and even suicide.”
They set out to offer a solution to this cultural malaise and despair: return to the polytheism of Homer and pagan antiquity. Just as the “first” philosopher Thales proclaimed that “All things are full of gods,” so these two eminent philosophers are calling us back to a polytheistic vision where one “will live a life attuned to the shining things and so will have opened a place to which all the gods may return.”
A wise mentor once told me, “It takes a lot of truth to float an error,” and I think there is a lot of truth in what these philosophers have to say, even if I don’t agree with their polytheistic conclusion.
First, it is true that contemporary American culture seems to be moving in a more nihilistic direction every passing day. This is true whether one reads academic tomes like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or merely watches the latest reality TV show highlights on the Internet. People are certain of less and less; Dreyfus’ and Kelly’s diagnosis of a culture with an overemphasis on freedom leading to a form of suicide strikes me as prescient. As the Dominican tradition is wont to emphasize, freedom of indifference is no substitute for the true freedom of excellence, which is the freedom which comes not from our whim but from Truth.
Secondly, I think Dreyfus and Kelly are correct in recalling us to a life filled with “shining things.” Jesus says: “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Today’s materialist reductionism leads to a truncated sense of life. Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion talks of the “saturated phenomena” where the content of revelation overwhelms our finite capacity to receive and interpret. The world is so saturated with meaning that even the banal events of everyday life should be filled with significance. As Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This saturated sense may not be possible at all times, but if it is not present in the Christian life something is certainly amiss.
Although I agree with both the diagnosis of American culture and the goal of “shining things” which Dreyfus and Kelly desire, Christianity provides a better solution to these problems than their proposed pagan revival for at least two major reasons.
First, the ecstatic response to the gods that the authors offer is not necessarily a good thing. As they say, the response to Lou Gehrig’s famous speech is hard to differentiate from the response to one of Hitler’s rallies. “So the power of the whooshing up [their term for ecstatic response] phenomenon is revealed to be Janus-faced.” This ambiguity is necessarily a part of a “polytheistic” foundation – who knows if all the gods are good? Are there not demons as well as angels? Jesus says: “You will know them by their fruits.” We can be sure of when the ecstatic response is from God because it recalls the very life of God-become-man as it has been handed down to us.
Secondly, they end their book with a story of two students. The first says: “Perhaps I will never be filled with happiness and joy, because I am simply unable to find all things shining.” The second responds: “All things are not shining, but all the shining things are.” As Christians we can go further than this, although difficulties abound. The Homeric gods knew nothing positive of suffering; tragedy was excluded from the heavenly realm and remained a mortal issue. But for Christians who follow a crucified God, tragedy and suffering are not outside the realm of the heavens; they are not merely mortal affairs. In the suffering of the world and of individual lives, hope and meaning can be found through the cross of Christ, even when this seems impossible.
The sun god of antiquity may have been blotted out on Calvary, but we believe that even on the cross the Lamb is the light of the world. All things may not be full of gods, but because of the Son all things can reflect his glory and truly shine.
Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII