Nihilism, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and Horse Feathers


Allow me to be a hipster for one second: My favorite band is probably a band you’ve never heard. They are Horse Feathers, a mix of Americana, Indie, and folk, so if you’re into that kind of thing they’re worth checking out. What I really appreciate about the band is the depth of their lyrics (and the banjo, I’m a sucker for a banjo).

Regardless, they released their new album “Cynic’s New Year” (which, in my opinion, is their best album to date). On the album they have a song called “Last Waltz” that musically is brilliant, but the lyrics just stand out to me. Now, I don’t know what Justin Ringle (or whoever wrote the song) meant by the lyrics, but they make a point that I really want to stress. Here are those lyrics:

I’ve seen the end
All I have loved had broke and won’t mend.
Call in the doctor the day may have died.
There’s a thimble of light for an acre of sky.

Darling we play the dunce,
There’s changes ahead,
coming at once.
I don’t like to lie,
There’s a divorcing sea.
Where will we go if there’s nowhere to be?

Call in the Doctor and break the news,
We’re sick in the head, our hearts’ got the blues.
Where in the world, oh where is the sun?
There’s a blackness that’s bit, it’s bitings not done.

Darling we play the dunce,
There’s changes ahead,
coming at once.
I don’t like to lie,
There’s a divorcing sea.
Where will we go if there’s nowhere to be?

Old friends withering away,
Just like the cliffs found down by the bay.
I don’t like to lie it’s a terrible thing.
Time’s got a way to take more than it brings.

Before hitting that point, I should point out that I also just finished reading Nihilism by Fr. Seraphim Rose. In the book he points out how Nihilism removes the meaning from life by removing God. Whereas atheism is simply the statement that God does not exist, Nihilism seeks to destroy the idea of God wherever it is found, it actively tries to “kill God.” In doing so, all meaning is lost.

Thus, it’s probably no surprise that when I read the lyrics of Horse Feathers, I see modern man plastered all over them. I think of Nietzsche’s monologue in The Gay Science, where taking on the role of the madman, he writes: 

“Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, foreward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?”

This is why the line “Where will we go if there’s no where to be” resonates so deeply with me. Modern man is a beast looking for a shelter on a stormy night, but he’s burned down the shelter. Where will he go? He will go nowhere, because what he hopes for no longer exists. In killing God, that is, in removing Him from our lives and ignoring Him, we have become planets without suns, drifting into an ever darker, colder, and emptier universe.

Songs like this remind me so much of what our sin has cost us. Sin is the act of rebelling against God and this rebellion begets nothing more than angst and despair. We wish to say that we create our own meaning, but this position simply is not tenable. Let me share a very real life example:

Today I saw a woman with a black eye that was obviously caused by a fist. She sat at a table in a restaurant with a man that I assume to be her husband or boyfriend. The man fit the stereotype of someone who would hit a woman. I noticed  his hat said “Fourth Reich” on it and his arms were covered in White Supremacist tattoos.

If we follow nihilism to its logical end, if there really is no where to be, then who can condemn this man? He has created his own meaning for life and is following it. Now, some might say, “Well that’s absurd because…” but before they can finish their sentence, the madman cuts them off and says “life is nothing but absurd!” The critic must hang his head in shame. Only the more ignorant supporters of this nihilism will continue their objection, noting that we can find our own meaning so long as our meaning doesn’t harm anyone. The madman laughs as such naiveté, pointing out that they’re still attempting to attach themselves to a sun, they’re still trying to have a universal moral code. Some have murdered God, but leave His decomposing body in the streets, a remnant of what once was. Thus, some will still seek out the absolute, but the true nihilist has buried God and moved past His decomposition; he needs no absolute. The idea that one wouldn’t harm another in seeking one’s meaning is laughable. The only reason a man wouldn’t seek to harm a woman is if it would in turn bring him harm.

When we cast ourselves away from God this is the world we end up with. Certainly we still have saintly atheists and criminal Christians, but in the grand scheme of things the universe is quite indifferent to it all (and Nietzsche would argue that there is no good or evil, there are no saints or criminals). The atheist hears the cries of a suffering child and rushes in to help her. The corrupt Christian hears the cries and says it’s not his problem. The universe hears her cries and doesn’t care either way. Where will we go when there’s no where to be? Who do we turn to other than ourselves when we encounter the realities of this apathetic universe? And no matter what our answer, what does it matter when in a few billion years the sun will expand and eviscerate our planet? Of course, our species will be long gone by that point, via evolution, asteroids, comets, the death of the planet, or nuclear war.

I think to the man I saw who obviously beat his wife. When she cries at night, if there is no place to be, then her tears are nothing more than salty bodily secretions that happen to end up on a pillow. The cold universe doesn’t care or even know of her suffering. If there’s no place to be, then she will eventually die as will her abuser and 4.6 billion years from now the universe will continue on without having ever noticed.

If, however, there is someplace to be, if God does exist and He is the beginning of everything, then her tears mean something. If there is someplace to be, her tears are seen and felt by a righteous God who burns with absolute anger towards the actions of her abuser. While we can question why God allows it to happen, we can still know there is a sense of right and wrong; under nihilism not only can we not question why evil occurs, but we must question if good actually exists.

The reality is that for humans to continue to grow we must act as though our life has meaning. We must act as though there is a purpose to everything. The nihilist will say there is no ultimate purpose, but then tell us to create our own purpose. But why? If there is no purpose, why must we create one? “So we can get through the day.” And this is what gets me: If you have to act like something is true just so you can live, and every single person has to do this, then that something is probably true. If you have to “delude” yourself into believing there is a purpose for our lives in order to live then there probably is a purpose. If you can’t function without something then that something exists.

If there is a purpose then there is someone who has given that purpose. That Someone is God. We have murdered God by removing Him from our lives. But He had risen from the grave before and He can rise from the grave within our lives as well. Where will we go if there’s no where to be? We will go to God, because He is the “where” we need to be.

To finish with a quote from Fr. Seraphim Rose concerning nihilism and Christianity:

God has called us, not to the modern “heaven” of repose and sleep, but to the full and deifying glory of the sons of God; and if we, whom our God thinks worthy to receive it, reject this call, – then better for us the flames of Hell, the torment of the last and awful proof of man’s high calling and of God’s unquenchable Love for all men, than the nothingness to which men of small faith, and the Nihilism of our age, aspire. Nothing less than hell is worthy of man, if he be not worthy of Heaven.

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