Dr. Sean Kelly, who holds a chair at Harvard’s philosophy department, recently wrote about Nietzsche’s nihilism and how such a nihilism opens up the culture for other narratives. He reflects on Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead” and how this actually referred to a culture without meaning; that such a culture actually paves the way for other narratives. After all, if humans are judged outside of God, we can be quite a bit more inclusive in our society.
Unfortunately for Dr. Kelly – and I say this hoping it’s not too presumptuous – he needs to re-read Nietzsche. I would say, “Who am I to question a professor of philosophy at Harvard University,” but such a question would go against everything Nietzsche stood for. For one’s degree does not matter to Zarathustra, merely if one is a free spirit, an emerging man, a Übermensch. Thus, the degree doesn’t count as much as the knowledge. With this knowledge, I set out to challenge Kelly’s understanding of Nietzsche.
Did Nietzsche truly pave the way for a society of multiple orders and values? The answer, quite simply, is no. Note what Kelly says here concerning the implications for the “death of God” in modern society:
Whatever role religion plays in our society today, it is not this [a central, fundamental role] one. For today’s religious believers feel strong social pressure to admit that someone who doesn’t share their religious belief might nevertheless be living a life worthy of their admiration. That is not to say that every religious believer accepts this constraint. But to the extent that they do not, then society now rightly condemns them as dangerous religious fanatics rather than sanctioning them as scions of the Church or mosque. God is dead, therefore, in a very particular sense. He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live. Nihilism is one state a culture may reach when it no longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground.
The idea that Nihilism somehow paves the way for a heterogenic society that succeeds is absurd. Rather, as John Caputo correctly notes, Nietzsche bought into a type of heteromorphism, whereas what Kelly is supporting (or so it seems) is far more heteronomic. The two words refer to two different types of nihilism (if nihilism can be a type, if nihilism can be split). Both acknowledge that nothing in the world matters, that 4.5 billion years from now when the world comes to an end, the cosmos won’t care two bits about what you did, that the stars we gaze at now do not gaze back at us, because we do not matter to them. But where they differ is that heteromorphism, “…is unresponsive, unmoved by the call of the other (alter), the response to which it says is essentially reactive. (pg. 67)” Nietzsche wanted to avoid being reactive to another because to be reactive would force one to be a slave to the other, which ruins the idea of the Übermensch. How can I be a free spirit if I am constantly obliged to the other?
What Kelly supports is far more heteronomic, once that calls for multiple viewpoints in a culture that creates what Caputo would call a “beautiful poetic.” Under such a culture, I have an obligation to the other because the other places the obligation upon me. I do not seek out the obligation, I do not create the obligation, it simply happens to me.
So when Kelly makes the following claim about Nihilism, one must look upon Kelly with the greatest amount of skepticism:
On the positive end, when it is no longer clear in a culture what its most basic commitments are, when the structure of a worthwhile and well-lived life is no longer agreed upon and taken for granted, then a new sense of freedom may open up. Ways of living life that had earlier been marginalized or demonized may now achieve recognition or even be held up and celebrated. Social mobility ─ for African Americans, gays, women, workers, people with disabilities or others who had been held down by the traditional culture ─ may finally become a possibility. The exploration and articulation of these new possibilities for living a life was found in such great 20th-century figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Simone de Beauvoir, Studs Terkel, and many others.
Can one really imagine Nietzsche, the writer of honest works such as Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality to support such heteronomism, such openness, especially towards groups that Nietzsche lambasted?
Though it may not matter to continental philosophers and nihilists, heteronomism is an illogical leap; a grand non sequitur to the nihilism Nietzsche presented the world. If nothing ultimately matters, then all that matters is what I say matters; thus, the autonomous free spirit, the one who is capable of transcending obligations and living for one’s self and causing others to live the same way, that is, the Übermensch, this is the one who creates a new society and founds a new freedom. Can we honestly say that Nietzsche had women in mind when he compared them to cows? Would Nietzsche care about women liberation? The answer is no, because to him, feminist liberation was akin to a type of moralization that brought about obligation; I allow the woman to be free because I am obligated to do so. Thus, I become a slave to the woman. Nietzsche’s mustache would twitch violently at Kelly’s suggestion.
The nihilism Nietzsche presents us with, the de omnibus dubitandum es (everything is to be doubted) leads to the second axiom ergo, omnis licet (“Therefore, everything is permissible”). This is why heteromorphism – living life for one’s self and one’s freedom, only helping those when one feels like it and not because one sees the need and feels obligated to help – is the only logical end of nihilism. Consider the metaphysics, or properly said the anti-Metaphysics, of nihilism when Caputo paints a sober picture of how Nietzsche and other nihilists view the world:
“Far from filling me with awe, the starry sky above speaks to me of the frailty of our condition and of the indifference of the stars to our fragile mortal fates. Four and a half billion years from now, when our little star has cooled off and congealed, and has dropped back into the sun, when the solar system itself has dissipated, the call of justice will have sunk into oblivion…That is Nietzsche’s accounting of the disaster…You and I stand on the surface of the little star and shout, ‘racism is unjust.’ The cosmos yawns and takes another spin. There is no cosmic record of our complaint. The cosmos feels no sorrow and has no heart on which to record our complaint. The stars pay us no heed. ‘Racism is unjust’ is a bit of noise tinkling in the midst of ‘the great cosmic stupidity,’ a complaint lodged against an indifferent world, under the stars twinkling in a void. The call of unjust suffering, of little, ontic, concrete disasters, falls on deaf ears.” (pg. 17)
That is the nihilism of Nietzsche. In such a nihilism, can a Martin Luther King Jr truly rise up? Can there be equal rights? Can there be great social movements? Such movements rely on two things (at least these two things): Justice and Obligation. If either does not exist, then social movements ultimately mean nothing. If Nietzsche is correct, then let us be honest; the only difference between Martin Luther King Jr and a KKK Grand Dragon is the method in which they convince others to follow them. The only difference between Nelson Mandela and Joseph Stalin is the method. For Nietzsche, true differences only exist when one lives for one’s self. Thus, Nietzsche is far more apt to respect Dionysius than Jesus, mostly because the former taught to live for one’s self while the latter taught us to die to ourselves. To Nietzsche, since ultimately there is no justice, no obligation, and the cosmos simply stares blankly upon the plight of humans, why die to one’s self?
I even wrote a parable concerning Nietzsche’s view of the world. If there truly is no king and no castle to throw our stones at, then why not forge our own destiny that is free from any moral obligation? Why not move beyond good and evil? Who cares if I oppress people? Why should I pay heed to any supposed obligation in the first place?
A Solution To Kelly’s Dilemma
Kelly is faced with a dilemma, he must either abandon nihilism in order to support social causes, or he must abandon social causes in order to support nihilism. He cannot do both, as both are mutually exclusive. If he abandons nihilism then he must embrace that there is a purpose to the universe. To accept purpose is also an acceptance of Theism (all other choices can be reasoned out), and to accept Theism means there are moral laws we are supposed to follow. Thus, not all groups would be acceptable and we couldn’t achieve the heterogeneity Kelly desires. This is not to say that theism promotes a mundane culture that has no differences, but instead allows for differences within ethical combines.
The other horn of the dilemma is for Kelly to embrace nihilism and abandon his concern for the other. When he sees the child dying of AIDS in Africa he cannot call for us to help the child because this would make us a slave to the child. We would lose our will in the process and if we lose our will then we cannot transcend the absurdity of this world. Furthermore, even if Kelly takes the logical leap from “purposelessness” to acting as though there is a purpose, on what grounds does he force us to partake in him with this leap? While he might give into his obligation, why should the US government or a private organization or his best friend? Why should we become slaves to both Kelly and the child? If that child’s suffering won’t even matter when the universe dies out and entropy takes over, then why should I care now?
The above might sound cold-hearted, but that is its intention. One could argue that we all feel the sense of obligation and therefore it’s absurd to deny it. But the fact is, we don’t all feel that sense of obligation. If we did, there would be no starvation, no genocide, no exploitation, no violence, and so on. We must sometimes be told that what we are doing is wrong. While a sense of ethics is known a priori, not all ethical codes are known a priori and therefore we must learn them.
The condition of humans, of people who have ethical sensibilities, but don’t always have the correct actions, of a people who act as though their existence has purpose is predicted by Christian theism. Christianity teaches that we are all made in the image of God, meaning that we have certain traits that we share with God (albeit in a infinitely lesser form). As Pascal taught, humans have a desire for perfection because such a desire is innate within us; we know something is wrong because we know we were meant for more. The Reformer John Calvin spoke of the sensus divinitatis (“sense of God”), the idea that we knew the Divine existed and cared for us by virtue of being human persons.
Nietzsche was afraid of a God who died for His creation, for this would make the God a slave to His creation. But in many ways, the Incarnation unabashedly admits that Christ came as a servant and it is to this that Nietzsche blushes. Zarathustra comes down from his mountain to see this weird Jew healing the sick. Zarathustra says, “How can you be God when you help the poor? A true God, an “ÜberGott” would get others to serve his needs.” To this, Jesus responds, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…” At this, Zarathustra must retreat with embarrassment.
Christian metaphysics and ethics center on the love of God; it begins with the love between the Trinity and then God’s love for us, so much so that He would send His only begotten Son to die for us. This is true power and true reasoning. “Why should I help the orphan with AIDS?” asks Zarathustra. The Son of Man responds, “Because God has created that orphan.” With a twitch of his mustache, Zarathustra shoots back, “And why would God create a being only to suffer?” The Son of Man, with the holes still freshly in His hands, responds, “Because He loves him.” To this, Zarathustra throws up his arms having faced true mysticism and walks away.
The universe does not stare blankly upon our concerns and our cries of injustice do not fall upon deaf ears. Rather, the universe sings the praises of a loving and creative God, to whom all glory and honor is due, but even among this symphony of praise that stretches billions of light years and goes back to the day of creation, the cries of the suffering are heard. The African AIDS orphan does not die alone, but rather in a host of angels as the Son of Man lifts up his body and elevates him as a co-heir in His kingdom. The lost and alone do not stare up into a cold blank sky, but instead into the face of a God who loves them.
True power is found in sacrifice, for by sacrificing one’s self, one has proven he is ultimately free from everything. The logical end of Nietzsche’s nihilism is the care of one’s self under the view that nothing else really matters. We give meaning, meaning is not discovered. But when this happens, one must fear the loss of such a freedom. One must fear the loss of meaning, for such meaning is finite. But when a man gives up everything and become self-sacrificial, he has shown that he does not fear what can be taken away. He has appealed to the universal, which is love (love that flows from God), and such love cannot be destroyed. Writing well before Nietzsche’s time, Paul inadvertently wrote a response to Nietzsche’s fear of true freedom, writing:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:31-39 ESV)
If nothing can separate us from the universal love of God, then true freedom is found in pursuing God’s love and then living in His love once it is found.
The universe does not stare blankly upon us, thus both Nietzsche and Kelly are incorrect. We do not act out for our own interest simply because nothing matters, nor do we act as though everything matters, but instead we recognize that everything does matter because God has created it. Most importantly, He has created us in His image and therefore we have a purpose.
So, with apologies to Nietzsche and Sean Kelly, God is not dead, but instead the Immortal One who raises us nihilists from the vapid night of death.