Monday, April 2, 2012

More on Christianity, Modern Nihilism, Existential Leaps, Faith, and Suicide

That title is sufficiently descriptive.

This post is a continuation of one from a few days ago, as perhaps I have now gained greater clarity, or at least a more concrete resolve or vision, from those thoughts.

In my last post, I mused that if Christianity necessarily leads to nihilism in the modern subject (something I think the most honest of us can attest to at our darkest moments), then it is cowardly to try to deny it through concluding that we must have made a "wrong turn" or that Christianity must be adapted or "evolved" in order to "un-nihil-ize" it in the face of the modern godless void of secularism. At least when the "adaptation" takes the form of abandoning orthodoxy or traditional morality (usually people are thinking the sexual); pastoral approach is a different question.

No, if Christianity becomes nihilism in the modern context, we must lucidly accept that and everything that it implies. The answer, in that case, is not to change or adapt, but rather to go down nobly and bravely with the ship.

As a young contrarian teenager, I was once arguing with my secular humanist father against the godlessness of modern democracy by saying something like, "But it's clearly unsustainable, it will collapse in its own decadence, by its own lack of God!" and he said something like, "Ah, but if it makes or has made hundreds of millions of lives free and happy in the meantime, who cares if it eventually collapses, even by its own inner logic? Would we fault the Roman Empire's contributions to humanity or advancing civilization just because it only lasted a while and then became corrupted by its own success and at last collapsed? No, nothing lasts forever, even we are only born to die."

At the time I did not appreciate the wisdom of this, and saw it as purely near-atheistic drivel. What I did not understand, at the time, was that Christendom likewise contained modernity, so if I'm going to fault democracy for decadence by its own inner logic, I have to take it back a step and fault Christianity too. This other half of the logic has been shown to me recently, and we should not be surprised; indeed, as I've said a few times before, Christianity always predicted the General Apostasy and rise of Antichrist. The Christ-event contains Antichrist by its own inner logic. That is how things must unfold.

There is an arcsis and thesis in life, great arcs that ideas take in their trajectory. And yes, in some sense, they all crash and burn in the end. Like a rocket, their highest point is always the beginning of their decline, by the very logic of gravity. And yet, it is the high point we seek, and we don't stop launching rockets higher and higher just because they all crash in the end, and nor do we conclude that we've failed because of it. No one would say we must idealize old age or death just because it is the natural outcome of the inner logic of youth. We must accept them tranquilly, but only as we also "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Christians (at least in the modern or even now post-modern West) must accept that Christendom had its day, and that history has now naturally unfolded into the modern world, and we must be sadder but wiser for it. However, just as the patriotic Roman under the most corrupt emperors at the end of the empire held to the ideals of the Republic (or, perhaps, the golden age under Augustus, etc), and just as someone like my father, even given the monstrous infanticidal capitalist dystopia of godlessness it has become, still holds to his liberal ideals (of liberty, equality, fraternity) in their brief golden youth of Jeffersonian or Jacksonian too, the Christian cannot abandon our ideals, our logic, just because they have necessarily played-out into the hedonistic baby-murdering godless void of the modern.

No, Christendom must still be kept alive in our hearts. Just because youth led to the ravages of age by natural progression, doesn't mean we look back bitterly and conclude that youth was wrong, or that we should not idealize it, or that we should "go gently into that dark night." No, in fact, the only correct thing to do is to hold to the ideal and fight for it even in "the long defeat," even after it's day is past, is to refuse to abandon the glory of the acme, even as the rocket begins its long descent.

There must be no changing of trajectory, no regrets, no thought of abandoning or revising the original logic just because, pushed to "old age," it ends up self-defeating. Indeed, that is how life itself works; it ends in death, and yet things go on living until their dying day, they do not conclude in old age, "Well, a love of life was clearly misguided because it led to death, therefore we must revise our ideals cynically to conform to this conclusion."

And this, I think, brings me back, perhaps ironically, to my point about the modern Christian, and nihilism, and suicide. It is naive and bad faith fundamentalism for Christians to put on rose-colored glasses and pretend that Christendom is still here. This is like an old man who is not merely a "child at heart," but who truly pretends, pathetically, like so many Baby Boomer celebrities, that he really is still a youth and so acts with the irresponsibility of such. Such a person has the worst of both worlds; the decay of age and the immaturity of youth. So too, Christians who pretend we are still in Christendom have all of the triumphalism but none of the actual social expansiveness, and so wind up a sectarian ghetto of paranoia.

However, those who would cynically conclude that, because Christianity has led to the modern situation, we must therefore "reconcile" Christianity to it...are cowards, and bound to be disappointed in their efforts anyway. These people think, like the generation of Vatican II, that if only we "update" Christianity to make it more relevant (like, by dropping some of those pesky moral teachings) that we can conform it to The World and it will somehow survive.

Of course, what these people end up finding is that while they or their generation may have felt some need to "salvage" Christianity out of sentimental attachment (or sense of indebtedness) and bring it into the very frankenstein modern world it birthed...the next generation (my generation) simply sees no need for that, as the post-Christian world has already appropriated what it needs from actual Christianity, and so sees no need to maintain the previous evolutionary stage, and will discard it outright as so much "scaffolding," seeing attempts to make it "relevant" as phony and impotent and pathetic as when the older Elvis tried to re-brand himself on the model of the later rock musicians who were, in fact, already his artistic descendents, whose own advent "stood on his giant-shoulders" but also signaled his obsolescence or being-surpassed. Giants who try to stand on their own shoulders just wind up falling down like fools, their legs twisted around their necks.

What then can we do? I think, now, the answer is that if the inner logic of Christianity leads to nihilism, we can only "stay the course" and hold to the ideals of Christendom "to the bitter end" even if it means our own self-destruction. We cannot abandon them, certainly, as if once the climax is reached, we can then escape the descent by "bailing" or selling out. As if somehow we can have the revelry without the hangover, the symbolism without the substance. This would be cowardice. No, authenticity demands that we follow our logic doggedly even when that logic leads off a cliff.

This, perhaps, is real faith. Abraham's absolute obedience to God wound up leading, seemingly, to the absurd conclusion that he should slay his own son (whose conception was the whole point of his obedience to God in the first place!) Abraham was prepared to slay Isaac nonetheless. If one is committed to ones values, then integrity and authenticity demand following them even to their absurd conclusions, even to their own self-defeating destruction.

Likewise, I can say that I do not regret the self that I have created in my life. I have made many mistakes and sinned very often, but the fundamental "orientation" I have chosen for my life is absolutely something I am dedicated to and do not regret. I am convinced it is correct. And if, at some point, the playing out of the inner logic of that self-hood seems to be incompatible with life in this world, seems to be leading right off that cliff, then it would be cowardice (and, indeed, impossible to accomplish with any sort of self-respect) to "turn around" or revise my values or alter the logic in order to not face the consequences of those values.

No, we must become what we have made of ourselves, and if we are committed to our values, if I am convinced they are correct, then I must follow them even into absurdity. If holding to traditional Christianity in the modern world seemingly leads to nihilism, and thus suicide, then it really is a martyrdom for the Christian to hold strong to those values nonetheless and follow them with eyes wide open into that suicide.

And, perhaps, we will learn, like Abraham...that God stays our hand at the last moment, and rewards the obedience. Perhaps, though the "track" seems to be leading off the cliff (when viewed from a distance), we will find that it surprisingly "turns" at the last minute (but we are only able to learn this if we abandon ourselves to the "point of no return," where we would no longer be able to "stop the train" even if the track doesn't turn). Perhaps, if we follow the logic right off the cliff in sheer blind trust and abandon, we will find that there is actually a "glass bridge" or that the height of the cliff is an illusion or that there is a net to catch us and that the logic in fact continues on to somewhere wonderful after that.

But we can never know if we pull back or abandon our dogged pursuit of the logic of the ideal before that, if we "blink" in fear. Maybe it will all work out, and God will stay the hand of Abraham as it is about to stab. And if not, then at least we stood by our values with authenticity, even to the absurd end, and if there's no miracle waiting on the other side, then life probably wouldn't have been worth living in the first place.

If we come to the realization that Christianity is at a "change or die" juncture in either the world, or in ourselves, that these are the only alternatives to a fundamentalism that sustains itself by refusing to see its own logic all the way to its final conclusions...then this still doesn't mean we must change. Rather, it means we must go down with the ship; we should choose to die.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

Somewhat in line with "he who puts his hand to the plow but looks back is not fit for the Kingdom". If one wants to be coherent with one's Faith, then he must take it to its logical conclusion.

Aric said...

A friendly dissenting voice:

"This is the final fact, and it is the most extraordinary of all. The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end. It is obvious that it has survived the most savage and the most universal persecutions from the shock of the Diocletian fury to the shock of the French Revolution. But it has a more strange and even a more weird tenacity; it has survived not only war but peace. It has not only died often but degenerated often and decayed often; it has survived its own weakness and even its own surrender. We need not repeat what is so obvious about the beauty of the end of Christ in its wedding of youth and death. But this is almost as if Christ had lived to the last possible span, had been a white-haired sage of a hundred and died of natural decay, and then had risen again rejuvenated, with trumpets and the rending of the sky. It was said truly enough that human Christianity in its recurrent weakness was sometimes too much wedded to the powers of the world; but if it was wedded it has very often been widowed. It is a strangely immortal sort of widow. An enemy may have said at one moment that it was but an aspect of the power of the Caesars; and it sounds as strange to-day as to call it an aspect of the Pharaohs. An enemy might say that it was the official faith of feudalism; and it sounds as convincing now as to say that it was bound to perish with the ancient Roman villa. All these things did indeed run their course to its normal end; and there seemed no course for the religion but to end with them. It ended and it began again.

`Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.' The civilisation of antiquity was the whole world: and men no more dreamed of its ending than of the ending of daylight. They could not imagine another order unless it were in another world. The civilisation of the world has passed away and those words have not passed away. In the long night of the Dark Ages feudalism was so familiar a thing that no man could imagine himself without a lord: and religion was so woven into that network that no man would have believed they could be torn asunder. Feudalism itself was torn to rags and rotted away in the popular life of the true Middle Ages; and the first and freshest power in that new freedom was the old religion. Feudalism had passed away, and the words did not pass away. The whole medieval order, in many ways so complete and almost cosmic a home for man, wore out gradually in its turn: and here at least it was thought that the words would die. They went forth across the radiant abyss of the Renaissance and in fifty years were using all its light and learning for new religious foundations, new apologetics, new saints. It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch it, it grows."