13 Jul

Radical faith in the nothing

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 07/13/14

David Bentley Hart on the nihilism of worshiping mere choice

“To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. This is not to say it is to have no beliefs: the truly modern person may believe in almost anything, or perhaps in everything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing — or, better, in nothingness as such. Modernity’s highest ideal — its special understanding of personal autonomy — requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is — to be perfectly precise — nihilism. . . .”

“Again, however, almost no one is entirely modern in this way, and very few of us are conscious or consistent nihilists, even of the extremely benign variety I have just described. The majority of us, if polls are to be trusted, even believe in God. And even the majority of unbelievers are aware that human nature and human society place not merely necessary but desirable limits upon the will’s free exercise. Nevertheless, we live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve. The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the highest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular ‘moral metaphysics’: that is, the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end. We are, first and foremost, heroic and insatiable consumers, and we must not allow the specters of transcendent law or personal guilt to render us indecisive. For us, it is choice itself, not what we choose, that is the first good, and this applies not only to such matters as what we shall purchase or how we shall live. In even our gravest political and ethical debates — regarding economic policy, abortion, assisted suicide, censorship, genetic engineering, and so on — ‘choice’ is a principle not only frequently invoked, by one side or by both, but often seeming to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.”

—from David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

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