Monday, July 23, 2012

Nihilism and the Slaughters in Colorado

                As Ross Douthat remarks in the NYT Review of July 22, 2012( 12), “(T)hose older enemies – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China – represented a different form of evil: institutional rather than individual, strategic rather than anarchic, grasping and self-interested rather than unpredictable and nihilistic.”
                 I believe “nihilistic” is the operative word. He remarks that “By vanquishing or outlasting them (the older enemies), we won a great victory for civilization. But we ushered in an era in which evil seems to take on a more elusive, almost elemental form. Instead of goose-stepping Nazis, it’s technology hating recluses or furious young men with machine guns. Instead of super villains seeking money or world domination, it’s the Joker with his head leaning out of a police car, howling as a city falls apart.”

                I would suggest that the evil that is now appearing has always been present in our nice apple pie-vanilla ice cream-grandmother American individualist capitalism camouflaged under the cover of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. It is the pernicious evil of the collapse into the self, a pernicious black hole that sucks in and devours the very reality of the Higgs Boson.

                The collapse into self removes from reason the only being reason needs to feed on: the self as imaging a God Who is three Relationalities as Father, Son and Spirit.  Face it: we are dealing with a first rate outbreak of nihilism in the young. As Ratzinger entitled an article in 1993, “And Marxism Gave Birth to… Nihilism,” he wrote: “Today, Marxism is crumbling and liberal ideology is so split into fragments that it no longer has a common, solid, coherent view of man and his future. In the present situation of emptiness, there looms the terrible danger of nihilism, that is to say, the denial or absence of all fundamental moral reference for the conduct of social life. This danger becomes visible in the new forms of terrorism.”

                It could be interesting to insert here that our man James Holmes at the theater massacre, as well as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the Columbine High School murders, were all loners. David Cullen in the same New York Times section wrote that Harris’s journals were simply psychopathic “hate-hate-hate” but that Klebold’s were different. Ten pages are consumed with drawings of giant fluffy hearts. Some fill entire pages, others dance about in happy clusters with ‘I LOVE YOU’ stenciled across. He was ferociously angry. Had one primary target for his anger. Not jocks, but himself. What a loathsome creature he found himself. No friends, no love, not a soul who cared about him or what became of his miserable life. None of that is objectively true. But that’s what he saw.”

                You see, the self has no identity or reality as “I” if there is not another to give it to us. Again it is Joseph Ratzinger who has been able to theologically perceive and popularize the anthropology that the Magisterium is trying to get across to the Church, particularly now with the “Year of Faith.” He wrote that “The root of man’s joy is the harmony he enjoys with himself. He lives in this affirmation. And only one who can accept himself can also accept the thou, can accept the world. The reason why an individual cannot accept the thou, cannot come to terms with him, is that he does not like his own I and, for that reason, cannot accept a thou.

            “Something strange happens here. We have seen that the inability to accept one’s I leads to the inability to accept a thou. But how does one go about affirming, assenting to, one’s I? The answer may perhaps be unexpected: We cannot do so by our own efforts alone. Of ourselves, we cannot come to terms with ourselves. Our I becomes acceptable to us only if it has first become acceptable to another I. We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else.[1]

            If we pursued this point into its philosophic underbelly, we find Karol Wojtyla explaining the very consciousness of the “good” coming from the experience of the self as imaging the God Who alone is good (Mk. 10, 19: “No one is  good but only God”). Negatively, he writes that “guilt is the lived experience of a moral evil of which I myself am the author…The experience of guilt always involves the efficacy of my personal self.”[2] Hence, I experience the good in consciousness by experiencing myself as doing good and therefore being  good. Therefore, the person who is alone and not experiencing the giving of the self as the expansion of being, does experience the good, and with that lack does not experience any sense of absolute.

            The result is the dumbing down of reason to the positivistic state in which we now find it, groaning under the weight of an infinity of information, facts and data bases. And no absolute. Ratzinger offered this state as the cause of positivism, the dictatorship of relativism and now nihilism. As he wrote, “only what can be tested and proved appears as rational. [Sensible] experience has become the only criterion guaranteeing truth. Anything that cannot be subjected to mathematical or experimental verification is regarded as irrational. This restriction of reason has the result that we are left in almost total darkness regarding some essential dimensions of life. The meaning of man, the bases of ethics, the question of God cannot be subjected to rational experience, verified by mathematical formulae. And so they are left to subjective sensibility alone. This is serious because if, in a society, the bases of ethical behavior are abandoned to subjectivity alone, released from common motives for being and living, handed over to pragmatism, then it is man himself who is threatened.” And then, he hastens to the point that we are at:  “Even though perverted, the political, social terrorism of the 1960’s had a certain kind of moral ideal. But today, the terrorism of drug abuse, of the Mafia, of attacks on foreigners, in Germany and elsewhere, no longer has any moral basis. In this era of sovereign subjectivity, people act for the sole pleasure of acting, without any reference other than the satisfaction of ‘myself.’ Just as terrorism that was born from the Marxism of yesterday put is finder on the anomalies of our social order, in the same way the nihilistic terrorism of today ought to show us the course to be followed for a reflection on the bases of a new ethical and collective reason.”

                As Benedict XVI, Ratzinger renewed and intensified his topic of “expanding reason” from the Regensburg Address (2006) to his address at the La Sapienza University (2008). In telegraphic terms, the direction of his mind concerning the crisis of faith can be summed up in the phrase, “not Informative, but Performative.” By that he means that reason becomes truly reason and in possession of the absolute when the person goes beyond himself in gift to Jesus Christ in faith and in the service of others. This, and this alone, will be the solution of the now regnant nihilism that is at the core of the present terrorism.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Principles of Catholic Theology,” Ignatius (1987) 79.
[2] K. Wojtyla, “The Problem of the Theory of Morality,” Person and Community Lang (1993) 137.

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