Tuesday 23 March 2021

III. The Theology and the Spirit of Nihilism


Our inquiry thus far has concentrated upon definition and description; if it has been successful, it has identified the Nihilist mentality and furnished some idea of its origins and extent. All this, however, has been but necessary groundwork for the task to which we must now turn: an exploration of the deeper meaning of Nihilism. Our earlier examination has been historical, psychological, philosophical; but the Revolution, as we saw in the last chapter, [23] has a theological and spiritual foundation, even if its "theology" is an inverted one and its "spirituality" Satanic. The Orthodox Christian finds in the Revolution a formidable antagonist, and one that must be fought, fairly and thoroughly, with the best weapons at his disposal. It is time, then, to attack the Nihilist doctrine at its root; to inquire into its theological sources, its spiritual roots, its ultimate program, and its role in the Christian theology of history.

Nihilist doctrine is not, of course, explicit in most Nihilists; and if our analysis to this point has had to draw out implications that were not always obvious to, and often not intended by, Nihilists themselves, our attempt here to extract a coherent doctrine from the literature and phenomena of Nihilism will seem, to many, to carry us to yet more tenuous conclusions. In this task we are, however, greatly aided by systematic Nihilists like Nietzsche, who express unequivocally what others only suggest or attempt to disguise, and by acute observers of the Nihilist mentality like Dostoyevsky, whose insights strike to the very heart of Nihilism and strip aside its masks.

In no one has the Nihilist "revelation" been more clearly expressed than in Nietzsche. We have already seen this "revelation" in its philosophical form, in the phrase "there is no truth." Its alternative, more explicitly theological expression in Nietzsche is the constant theme, significantly, of the inspired "prophet," Zarathustra; and in its earliest occurrence in Nietzsche's writings it is the "ecstatic" utterance of a madman: "God is dead."[24] The words express a certain truth: not, to be sure, a truth of the nature of things, but a truth concerning the state of modern man; they are an imaginative attempt to describe. a fact no Christian, surely, will deny.

God is dead in the hearts of modern man: this is what the "death of God" means, and it is as true of the atheists and Satanists who rejoice in the fact, as it is of the unsophisticated multitudes in whom the sense of the spiritual reality has simply disappeared. Man has lost faith in God and in the Divine Truth that once sustained him; the apostasy to worldliness that has characterized the modern age since its beginning becomes, in Nietzsche, conscious of itself and finds words to express itself. "God is dead": that is to say, "we have lost our faith in God"; "there is no truth": that is to say, "we have become uncertain of everything divine and absolute."

Deeper, however, than the subjective fact the Nihilist "revelation" expresses, lie a will and a plan that go far beyond any mere acceptance of "fact." Zarathustra is a "prophet"; his words are clearly intended as a counter-revolution directed against the Christian Revelation. For those, indeed, who accept the new "revelation"--i.e., for those who feel it to be their own self-confession, or who live as though it were--an entirely new spiritual universe opens up, in which God exists no longer, in which, more significantly, men do not wish God to exist. Nietzsche's "madman" knows that men have "murdered" God, have killed their own faith.

It is decidedly wrong, then, to regard the modern Nihilist, in whatever guise he may appear, as "agnostic." The "death of God" has not simply happened to him as a kind of cosmic catastrophe, rather he has actively willed it--not directly, to be sure, but equally effectively by preferring something else to the true God. Nor is the Nihilist, let us note, really atheistic. It may be doubted, indeed, if there exists such a thing as "atheism," for no one denies the true God except to devote himself to the service of a false god; the atheism that is possible to the philosopher (though it is, of course, bad philosophy) is not possible to the whole man. The Anarchist Proudhon (whose doctrine we shall examine more closely in the next chapter) saw this clearly enough, and declared himself, not an atheist, but an "antitheist";[25] "the Revolution is not atheistic, in the strict sense of the word ... it does not deny the absolute, it eliminates it...."[26]  "The first duty of man, on becoming intelligent and free, is to continually hunt the idea of God out of his mind and conscience. For God, if he exists, is essentially hostile to our nature.... Every step we take in advance is a victory in which we crush Divinity." [27] Humanity must be made to see that "God, if there is a God, is its enemy."[28] Albert Camus, in effect, teaches the same doctrine when he raises "rebellion" (and not "unbelief") to the rank of first principle. Bakunin, too, was not content to " refute" the existence of God; "If God really existed," he believed, "it would be necessary to abolish him."[29] More effectively, the Bolshevist "atheism" of our century has been quite obviously a war to the death against God and all His works.

Revolutionary Nihilism stands irrevocably and explicitly against God; but philosophical and existentialist Nihilism--a fact not always so clear--is equally "antitheistic" in its assumption that modern life must henceforth continue without God. The army of the enemies of God is recruited as much from the many who passively accept their position in the rear guard as from the few active enthusiasts who occupy the front ranks. More important to observe, however, is the fact that the ranks of antitheism are swelled not only by active and passive "atheists," but by many who think themselves "religious" and worship some "god." Robespierre established a cult of the "Supreme Being," Hitler recognized the existence of a "supreme force," a "god within men," and all forms of Nihilist Vitalism have a "god" something like Hitler's. The war against God is capable of a variety of stratagems, among them the use of the name of God, and even of Christ. But whether it is explicitly "atheist," or "agnostic," or takes the form of a worship of some "new god," Nihilism has for its foundation the declaration of war against the true God.

Formal atheism is the philosophy of a fool (if we may so paraphrase the Psalmist);[30]  but antitheism is a profounder malady. The literature of antitheism, to be sure, is as full of inconsistencies and contradictions as is formally atheist literature; but where the latter errs through childishness (and the most sophisticated man in one discipline can easily be a child in theology and the spiritual life) and through plain insensitivity to spiritual realities, the former owes its distortions to a deep-seated passion that, recognizing these realities, wills to destroy them. The petty arguments of Bertrand Russell (though even his atheism is, of course, ultimately a kind of antitheism) are easily explained and refuted, and they are no danger to a secure faith; but the profound and determined attack of Proudhon is a different matter, for it is born not of bloodless sophistry but of great fervor.

Here we must face squarely a fact at which we have hinted before now, but which we have not yet fully examined: Nihilism is animated by a faith as strong, in its own way, and as spiritual in its root, as the Christian faith it attempts to destroy and supplant; its success, and its exaggerations, are explicable in no other way.

We have seen Christian faith to be the spiritual context wherein the questions of God, Truth, and Authority become meaningful and inspire consent. Nihilist faith is similarly a context, a distinctive spirit which underlies and gives meaning and power to Nihilist doctrine. The success of Nihilism in our time has been dependent upon, and may be measured by, the spread of this spirit; its arguments seem persuasive not to the degree that they are true, but to the degree that this spirit has prepared men to accept them.

What, then, is the nature of the Nihilist faith? It is the precise opposite of Christian faith, and so not properly called "faith" at all. Where Christian faith is joyous, certain, serene, loving, humble, patient, submitting in all things to the Will of God, its Nihilist counterpart is full of doubt, suspicion, disgust, envy, jealousy, pride, impatience, rebelliousness, blasphemy--one or more of these qualities predominating in any given personality. It is an attitude of dissatisfaction with self, with the world, with society, with God; it knows but one thing: that it will not accept things as they are, but must devote its energies either to changing them or fleeing from them. It was well described by Bakunin as "the sentiment of rebellion, this Satanic pride, which spurns subjection to any master whatever, whether of divine or human origin."[31]

Nihilist rebellion, like Christian faith, is an ultimate and irreducible spiritual attitude, having its source and its strength in itself--and, of course, in the supernatural author of rebellion. We shall be unprepared to understand the nature or the success of Nihilism, or the existence of systematic representatives of it like Lenin and Hide, if we seek its source anywhere but in the primal Satanic will to negation and rebellion. Most Nihilists, of course, understand this will as something positive, as the source of "independence" and "freedom"; but the very language in which men like Bakunin find it necessary to express themselves, betrays the deeper import of their words to anyone prepared to take them seriously.

The Nihilist rejection of Christian faith and institutions, then, is the result, not so much of a loss of faith in them and in their divine origin (though, no Nihilism being pure, this skepticism is present also), as of rebellion against the authority they represent and the obedience they command. The literature of 19th-century Humanism, Socialism, and Anarchism has as its constant theme the non serviam: God the Father, together with all His institutions and ministers, is to be over thrown and crushed, and triumphant Man is to ascend His throne to rule in his own right. This literature, intellectually mediocre, owes its power and its continuing influence to its "righteous" indignation against the "injustices" and "tyranny" of the Father and His earthly representatives; to its passion, that is, and not to its truth.

This rebellion, this messianic fervor that animates the greatest revolutionaries, being an inverse faith, is less concerned to demolish the philosophical and theological foundation of the Old Order (that task can be left to less fervent souls) than to destroy the rival faith which gave it life. Doctrines and institutions may be "reinterpreted," emptied of their Christian content and filled with a new, Nihilist content; but Christian faith, the soul of these doctrines and institutions and alone capable of discerning this "reinterpretation" and effectively opposing it, must be completely destroyed before it can itself be "reinterpreted." This is a practical necessity if Nihilism is to triumph; more, it is a psychological and even a spiritual. necessity, for Nihilist rebellion dimly senses that the Truth resides in Christian faith, and its jealousy and its uneasy conscience will not be appeased until the total abolition of faith has Justified its position and "proved" its truth. On a minor scale, this is the psychology of the Christian apostate; on a major scale, it is the psychology of Bolshevism.

The systematic Bolshevik campaign to uproot Christian faith, even when it has clearly ceased to be a danger to the stability of the atheist state, has no rational explanation; it is rather part of a ruthless war to the death against the only force capable of standing against Bolshevism and of "disproving" it. Nihilism has failed as long as true Christian faith remains in a single person; for that person will be a living example of Truth that will prove vain all the impressive worldly accomplishments of which Nihilism is capable and will refute in his person all the arguments against God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Man's mind is supple, and it can be made to believe anything to which his will inclines. In an atmosphere permeated with Nihilistic fervor, such as still exists in the Soviet Union, the soundest argument can do nothing to induce belief in God, in immortality, in faith; but a man of faith, even in this atmosphere, can speak to the heart of man and show, by his example, that what is impossible to the world and to the best of human intentions, is still possible to God and to faith.

Nihilist rebellion is a war against God and against Truth; but few Nihilists are fully aware of this. Explicit theological and philosophical Nihilism is the preserve of a few rare souls; for most, Nihilist rebellion takes the more immediate form of a war against authority. Many whose attitudes toward God and Truth may seem ambiguous reveal their Nihilism most clearly in their attitude toward--in Bakunin's words--the "cursed and fatal principle of authority."[32]

The Nihilist "revelation" thus declares, most immediately, the annihilation of authority. Some apologists are fond of citing "corruptions," "abuses," and "injustices" in the Old Order as justification for rebellion against it; but such things--the existence of which no one will deny--have been often the pretext, but never the cause, of Nihilist outbursts. It is authority itself that the Nihilist attacks. In the political and social order, Nihilism manifests itself as a Revolution that intends, not a mere change of government or a more or less widespread reform of the existing order, but the establishment of an entirely new conception of the end and means of government. In the religious order Nihilism seeks, not a mere reform of the Church and not even the foundation of a new "church" or "religion," but a complete refashioning of the idea of religion and of spiritual experience. In art and literature the Nihilist is not concerned with the modification of old aesthetic canons regarding subject-matter or style, nor with the development of new genres or traditions, but with a whole new approach to the question of artistic "creation" and a new definition of "art."

It is the very first principles of these disciplines, and no mere remote or faulty applications of them, that Nihilism attacks. The disorder so apparent in contemporary politics, religion, art, and other realms as well, is a result of the deliberate and systematic annihilation of the foundations of authority in them. Unprincipled politics and morality, undisciplined artistic expression, indiscriminate "religious experience"--all are the direct consequence of the application to once stable sciences and disciplines of the attitude of rebellion.

Nihilist rebellion has entered so deeply into the fibre of our age that resistance to it is feeble and ineffective; popular philosophy and most "serious thought" devote their energies to apology for it. Camus, in fact, sees in rebellion the only self-evident truth left to the men of today, the only belief remaining to men who can no longer believe in God. His philosophy of rebellion is a skillful articulation of the "spirit of the age," but it is hardly to be taken seriously as anything more than that. Thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were as anxious as Camus is today to do without theology, to base A their knowledge on "nature." But if "rebellion" is all the "natural man" may know today, why is it that the "natural man" of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment seemed to know much more, and thought himself to be a much nobler being. "They took too much for granted," is the usual answer, and lived on Christian capital without knowing it; today we are bankrupt, and know it." Contemporary man, in a word, is "disillusioned." But, strictly speaking, one must be "disillusioned" of an illusion: if men have fallen way, not from illusion, but from truth--and this is indeed the case--then profounder reasoning is required to explain their present "plight." That Camus can accept the "rebel" as the "natural man," that he can find everything "absurd" except "rebellion," means only one thing: he has been well-trained in the school of Nihilism, he has learned to accept the fight against God as the "natural" state of man.

To such a state has Nihilism reduced men. Before the modern age the life of man was largely conditioned by the virtues of obedience, submission, and respect: to God, to the Church, to the lawful earthly authorities. To the modern man whom Nihilism has "enlightened," this Old Order is but a horrible memory of some dark past from which man has been "liberated"; modern history has been the chronicle of the fall of every authority. The Old Order has been overthrown, and if a precarious stability is maintained in what is unmistakably an age of "transition,)) a "new order" is clearly in the making; the age of the "rebel" is at hand.

Of this age the Nihilist regimes of this century have given a foretaste, and the widespread rebelliousness of the present day is a further portent; where there is no truth, the rebellious will reigns. But "the will," said Dostoyevsky, with his customary insight into the Nihilist mentality, "is closest to nothing; the most assertive are closest to the most nihilistic." [33] He who has abandoned truth and every authority founded upon that truth has only blind will between himself and the Abyss; and this will, whatever its spectacular achievements in its brief moment of power (those of Hitler and of Bolshevism have so far been the most spectacular), is irresistibly drawn to that Abyss as to some immense magnet that has searched out the answering abyss within itself. In this abyss, this nothingness of the man who lives without truth, we come to the very heart of Nihilism.

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