Christ and Nothing (Part IV)
By David Bentley Hart, October 2003
The word “nihilism” has a complex history in modern philosophy, but I use it in a sense largely determined by Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom not only diagnosed modernity as nihilism, but saw Christianity as complicit in its genesis; both it seems to me were penetratingly correct in some respects, if disastrously wrong in most, and both raised questions that we Christians ignore at our peril. Nietzsche’s case is the cruder of the two, if in some ways the more perspicacious; for him, modernity is simply the final phase of the disease called Christianity.
Whereas the genius of the Greeks—so his story goes—was to gaze without illusion into the chaos and terror of the world, and respond not with fear or resignation but with affirmation and supreme artistry, they were able to do this only on account of their nobility, which means their ruthless willingness to discriminate between the “good”—that is, the strength, exuberance, bravery, generosity, and harshness of the aristocratic spirit—and the “bad”—the weakness, debility, timorousness, and vindictive resentfulness of the slavish mind. And this same standard— “noble wisdom,” for want of a better term—was the foundation and mortar of Roman civilization.
Christianity, however, was a slave revolt in morality: the cunning of the weak triumphed over the nobility of the strong, the resentment of the many converted the pride of the few into self-torturing guilt, the higher man’s distinction between the good and the bad was replaced by the lesser man’s spiteful distinction between good and “evil,” and the tragic wisdom of the Greeks sank beneath the flood of Christianity’s pity and pusillanimity. This revolt, joined to an ascetic and sterile devotion to positive fact, would ultimately slay even God. And, as a result, we have now entered the age of the Last Men, whom Nietzsche depicts in terms too close for comfort to the banality, conformity, and self-indulgence of modern mass culture.
Heidegger’s tale is not as catastrophist, and so emphasizes less Christianity’s novelty than its continuity with a nihilism implicit in all Western thought, from at least the time of Plato (which Nietzsche, in his way, also acknowledged). Nihilism, says Heidegger, is born in a forgetfulness of the mystery of being, and in the attempt to capture and master being in artifacts of reason (the chief example—and indeed the prototype of every subsequent apostasy from true “ontology”—being Plato’s ideas). Scandalously to oversimplify his argument, it is, says Heidegger, the history of this nihilistic impulse to reduce being to an object of the intellect, subject to the will, that has brought us at last to the age of technology, for which reality is just so many quanta of power, the world a representation of consciousness, and the earth a mere reserve awaiting exploitation; technological mastery has become our highest ideal, and our only real model of truth.
Christianity, for its part, is not so much a new thing as a prolonged episode within the greater history of nihilism, notable chiefly for having brought part of this history’s logic to its consummation by having invented the metaphysical God, the form of all forms, who grounds all of being in himself as absolute efficient cause, and who personifies that cause as total power and will. From this God, in the fullness of time, would be born the modern subject who has usurped God’s place.
I hope I will be excused both for so cursory a précis and for the mild perversity that causes me to see some merit in both of these stories. Heidegger seems to me obviously correct in regarding modernity’s nihilism as the fruition of seeds sown in pagan soil; and Nietzsche also correct to call attention to Christianity’s shocking—and, for the antique order of noble values, irreparably catastrophic—novelty; but neither grasped why he was correct. For indeed Christianity was complicit in the death of antiquity and in the birth of modernity, not because it was an accomplice of the latter, but because it alone, in the history of the West, was a rejection of an alternative to nihilism’s despair, violence, and idolatry of power; as such, Christianity shattered the imposing and enchanting façade behind which nihilism once hid, and thereby, inadvertently, called it forth into the open.
~David B. Hart, “Christ and Nothing,” First Things, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/10/christ-and-nothing, Submitted by John Bonadeo.
David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian. The original version of this article was delivered as a lecture at a conference on the Ten Commandments held at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota, June 15-17, under the joint sponsorship of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and the Society for Ecumenical Anglican Doctrine. Submitted by John Bonadeo.