Nature, Nihilism, Nationalism, Morality,and the Existence of Superiority….

sorrieu


Most of the time I find social media, especially Facebook, insufferable and I grow increasingly impatient with the incessant stream of inconsequential fodder posted under the pretenses of ‘content’. Yet, as many times as I’ve wanted to pull the plug, and as close as I’ve come to hitting that deactivate button the one thing that keeps me clinging to my account begrudgingly is the rare opportunity to actually engage in intelligent discussion. Below is a snippet of one such conversation. My sparing partner, a Facebook friend with whom I differ in opinion greatly, is someone I respect and consider to be a very intelligent and learned individual. We were participating in lively yet very respectful debate/dialogue regarding nationalism, the supremacy or superiority of some cultures to others, nihilism, morality, and the recognition of good and evil. The gist of my friend’s proposal was that history reveals that there are indeed superior cultures, that superiority finds its basis in nature, and that, amongst many other topics lol, nihilism does not supply a push towards betterment in the same way that morality does. Below is a summation of my response, I’d love to know what you think.
As crass as this may seem one must begin by asking what is ‘superiority’? What does it mean for something to be superior, especially in relation to an alternative? What is the methodological criteria by which to judge superiority? Who is it precisiely that decides/judges and by what authority have they been deputized to do so?Is the means by which to do so objectiviably verifiable and tangible? What is it’s legitimating determination?
Or, is it simply a question of the majority or the greatest number? Here, even utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill, with their ethical calculations, are suspicious, seeing the totalitaran ability of the ‘many’ to encroach upon the liberty of the ‘few’ as unavoidably authoritarian and un-ethical.
Also, I’m not sure its conducive to propose the presence of ‘superiority’ in nature, the categorization being an entirely anthropocentric notion/description. In nature it is more accurate to speak of genetic ‘fitness’ and environmental ‘adaptability’. Even if we do, for the sake of argument, accept the terminological idea to have ‘natural’ (for lack of a better term, *I must note that the division between nature and society is a false dichotomy) implications we can see that while there are certainly creatures that are superior in the ‘particular’ they are not superior universally, i.e. there may be superior swimmers, superior, climbers, superior runners, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that a species is superior  in every way or superior to all other species. (This kind of notion of superiority and supremacy seems to waft of a kind of implicit fascism and despotism, is it not this same kind of thinking that was used to justify slavery and the oppressive subjugation of indigenous peoples, seeing them not as ‘people’ but as an inferior species and less than human?). It would also seem less than ‘natural’ to then conclude that because one species is ‘superior’ to another it should then be the only allowable species in an environment, this would certainly produce a definite and potentially catastrophic  “imbalance.” The idea of human-supremacy has lead to our current ecological state of disaster.
I can personally attest (at least from my own experience) that nihilism and ethicality are not mutually exclusive and are perfectly compatible. As perhaps something of a nihilist/cosmic pessimist myself (perhaps in the Schopenhauerian sense, here I’m also a bit of a misanthrope), I think that existence/life is both arbitrary and meaningless. But, it is precisely this void that has created for me an ethical urgency and a moral imperative. If existence is ‘meaning-less’ than we are faced with the absolute responsibility for ‘meaning-creation’. In this regard, to say that something is ‘meaning-less’ is not the same as to say that there is ‘no-meaning’ or there can be no meaning, there is simply no definitively intrinsic or inherent meaning .
“Meaning”, like morality, values, etc. is simply a technology/tool utilized in our survival – the capacity for symbolic abstraction (neural plasticity). In this regard, can we accurately say that morality “exists”? ‘Exists’ on what plane? On what level? To what degree? To what extent? In what way? Is its status of existence objective? Here, then, ‘good and evil’ are also not found in nature but, are of human invention, “good and evil” has no reality beyond human construction (symbolic abstraction – meaning value creation) and more often than not created as a means to ostracize and demonize the Other (Nietzsche’s example of Slave Morality may be helpful here). It’s interesting that in the realm of religion there are many religions that operate without a god but, almost  none without a devil. It seems that we necessitate a ‘villain’ far more. But, as Michael Shermer explains “[E]vil is not a fixed entity or essence. It is not a thing. Evil is a descriptive term for a range of environmental events and human behaviors that we describe and interpret as bad, wrong, awful, undesirable, or whatever appropriately descriptive or synonym for evil is chosen”. “Morality” is, at best, only ‘provisional’, applying “to most people in most cultures in most circumstances most of the time” (Shermer). (*quotes are from the book “The Science of Good and Evil”)
I’ve spent the entirety of my academic career and the entirety of my personal research studying and examining religion, culture, society, ect. and I cannot come to the conclusion that there are cultures as a whole that are objectively superior, especially not absolutely superior in every conceivable way. Like the nature example above, we could reasonable say that some aspects of cultures are superior (infrastructure, economy, judicial systems, etc.) and it is not to say that one, ‘in hind-sight’, may not find one culture preferable to another. Rome had a superior military to Greece but, the ‘thought’ of Greece was far superior to that of Rome (never mind the gluttonous corruption of the Empire, lol) Roman society could be considered superior to that of the Goths but, this did not stop the overthrow of Rome by the ‘Barbarian Horde’. In the same way, European society, as the arbiters of civility and civilization considered themselves superior to the native peoples but, who seems to have had the more harmonious civilization? History is not devoid of the influence of power relations, after all history has been written by the winners, lol (here I recommend the work of Michel Foucault).
It seems then that I’ve simply come full circle arriving back to the very questions of superiority  with which I began, lol. That is, objectively defining the grounds, parameters, and legitimacy of supremacy in a tangibly verifiable capacity.
I should say that these are not necessarily questions of outright disagreement but, questions of ultimacy and validity.
As Socrates once said “I know one thing: that I know nothing.”
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Nietzsche: An Affirmation of Life After the Death of God

What follows is an excerpt from a recent paper composed for an Undergraduate course in Religious Existentialism. I would just like to emphasize my status as an undergraduate student and one who is, to a large extent, philosophically inept and unlearned. With that being said, and now with the bar set bearably low, please read on. Feel free to comment. I welcome your thoughts and critiques.

 

L. Nathan Oaklander prescribes that “Nietzsche’s famous slogan that ‘God is dead’ means, first and foremost, that there are no objective values.”[1] It seems that as Travis Elborough describes, “Without God, Nietzsche argued, there was no point clinging to old morality.”[2] Thus, “Nietzsche’s main concern in this parable is with suggesting the nature of a world that is, in effect, now meaningless.”[3]

Oaklander goes on to elucidates,

 In asserting that ‘God is dead,’ Nietzsche is not merely claiming that we cannot know which value judgments are true. He is making the more radical claim that we must reject the very idea of a World in itself that could serve as the ultimate standard or foundation for the truth of any value judgment.[4]

“There was no ultimate meaning or value,” as Karen Armstrong illustrates, “and human beings had no business offering an indulgent alternative in ‘God.’”[5] Alone amidst a vast and endless expanse, set adrift on a horizonless sea of infinitude, the individual is lost without compass or guide. As the author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”[6]

Though the death of God is marked by anguish, it is not ultimately a nihilistic proclamation. This is a moment of clarity, traumatically joyous, tragically celebratory, and tumultuously liberating. “If…God is dead, the effect is exhilarating.”[7] We see here, as Karen Armstrong displays, “Nietzsche’s madman insisted that the death of God would bring about a newer, higher phase of human history.”[8] The moment of awakening that occurs as a result of the death of God may be frighteningly terrifying but, it brings with it the priceless gifts of freedom, possibility, and the knowledge that the individual alone holds the responsibility of existential decision. “We can become legislators of our own values…we can become masters of ourselves.”[9] We are our own makers, and none other.

“[Nietzsche] believes that by creating our own values the world can have meaning. It is just a case of casting aside the stodgy intellectual hunt for truth and embracing a better, in the sense of life-affirming, wisdom.”[10] The meaningless world is not an abysmal void of barrenness, utterly absent of substance but, rather Nothingness pregnant with everything, a clean slate, a blank canvas, marble yet to sculpted, clay yet to be fashioned, an empty page upon which is yet to be written. “The free-spirit is creating, shaping, changing power whose tireless process of recreation resists the temptation to rest on one’s laurels or to be an imitator or parasite of others.”[11] Above us only sky, below us only earth, God is dead and we have only just begun to live.


[1] L. Nathan Oaklander, Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 77.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Oaklander, Existentialist Philosophy…, 77.

[5] Armstrong, A History of God…, 357.

[6] Ecclesiastes 1:2 (New International Version)

[7] Oaklander, Existentialist Philosophy, 77.

[8] Armstrong, A History of God…, 356.

[9] Oaklander, Existentialist Philosophy…, 77.

[11] Oaklander, Existentialist Philosophy…, 83.

Absolutes…?

A few months ago I found myself stationed in a leather backed chair sitting before an ornate wooden desk being given an audience with the occupier of that desk. I was in the study of a local pastor. I was rambling incessantly or more accurately pulling myself into a thousand different conversational directions as I often have a tendency to do. A good friend suggested that even though I do seem to take the long way around or the scenic route as it were in getting to my point I do in fact make my point in the end. This was no doubt this was the case of this particular meeting. It’s hard for me to recount the specifics of my dialogue or the exact utterances of my elongated monologue I do know that in my mouth’s exhaustive attempt to maintain the pace of my mind I was trying to express the inexpressible and the insatiable nature of a hunger growing within. I was striving ,quite clumsily I might add, to explain an inexplicable awakening brought about by the better part of a year’s worth of soul searching, prayer, and intense reading of just about anything I could get my hands on grasping at an emerging truth. I was seeing for the first time, full of questions and loving every minute of it. I was eager to deconstruct the sacred cows and misconceptions held unquestionably dear and in their place build something beautiful in the divine reality of grace and justice and truth. I shudder to refer to these thoughts and feelings in the past tense as they encapsulate ever so clearly my current thoughts, feelings, and desires. I had discovered as David Dark so aptly and eloquently put it “the sacredness of questioning everything”.

Of the details that do stick out in my memory regarding this conversation was the pastor’s constant reminder that “you must remember there are absolutes”. If I can say that there was a central theme to his topical contributions it was this notion that there are “absolutes”. My recognition of the existence of “absolutes” seemed to be his chief concern and yet in my mind I was by no mean’s questioning that or was I? Although “absolutes” had nothing to do with what I was so deeply wanting to convey and though at first I didn’t disagree I have to admit that something just didn’t feel right about those statements. Something was amiss. Such a statement seems all to obvious given the fact that these events took place months ago and they still occupy a piece of my mental real estate. It raised an important question. I had to take a step back and ask my self “do I believe there are absolutes?”.

While there are those who are far more philosophically and theologically informed on this particular topic than I it has as of yet to stop me from chiming in. After much internal debating, which just so happens to be my favorite kind mostly just because it’s the only kind I can win, I came to believe that I don’t absolutely believe in “absolutes”. While it does seem like a bold move to take a stance disavowing the existence of “absolutes” perhaps I should elaborate.

It seems that throughout history man kind has been obsessed with forming absoluteness in the concepts of the workings of the world or the way we see it and what we believe about it. We seek out concrete rigidity and stern distinctions with a feverish ferocity unlike anything else. We live to categorize, rationalize, and any other -ize you could think of. At one point in time it was an accepted “absolute” truth that the world was flat. It was “absolutely” true that the Earth was the center of the universe. When Galileo first presented his notions that the Earth was not the center of the universe the Church surmised that based Josh 10:12 the Earth must be the universe’s constant and static center. They condemned him, declared him to be a heretic, and under threat of death forced him to recant. Nearly 350 years later in 1991 the Vatican finally declared that Galileo was right. To bring the story a little closer to home in 1954 the four minute mile was “absolutely impossible” until Roger Bannister did it. It has now become the standard of all professional middle distance runners. In the last 50 years the four minute barrier has been beaten again and again lowering the mile record by almost 17 seconds. Yet our culture and society as a whole still remains predominantly reductionistic. We must give up the pursuit of a singular answer. The way of faith is a journey not a destination, more questions than answers, and an open armed embracing of doubt rather than a discarding denial of it.

Destination mentalities are divisive. They center on an acceptance of a single commonality and the exclusion of everyone and everything to the contrary. They are based on deciding who’s wrong, who’s right, who’s in, and who’s out, a world of absolutes, bouncers, and velvet ropes.

As Rob Bell so aptly put it in his book Velvet Elvis, “Our words aren’t absolutes. Only God is absolute, and God has no intention of sharing this absoluteness with anything, especially words people have come up with to talk about him”. He went on to say that “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up , then we are in control. And so in passage after passage, we find God reminding people that he is beyond and bigger and more.”

This life, these faiths, this world, and especially it’s divine creator are “beyond and bigger and more”. Too complex to comprehend, too big to be reduced, it can’t be pinned down and our job is the very opposite. It is our task to keep moving forward. It is our duty to keep moving the mile markers further, to keep pushing the boundaries, to wrestle with absoluteness, and to fight certainty. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: the church reformed and always RE-FORMING. This is our destiny, our duty, our call, this is who we were and are meant to be.