In the midst of the cheerful season of Christmas, The New York Times recently surprised again, this time with some powerfully nihilistic writing. The article, by Roy Scranton, is gloomily titled, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” The piece is worth a sustained engagement, because it clearly articulates a significant strain of the contemporary intellectual scene. Scranton is presenting for us not only the world as it appears from the vantage point of a wholehearted naturalist, but also the underlying nihilism diffused throughout a growing variety of popular media. These are dark themes, but “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
As Roy grimly sets the scene:
The time we’ve been thrown into is one of alarming and bewildering change — the breakup of the post-1945 global order, a multispecies mass extinction and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe…
Meanwhile, as the gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear: if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway.
You can feel this nihilism in TV shows like “True Detective,” “The Leftovers,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” and you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred. It defines our current moment, though in truth it’s nothing new…
Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world. Peril lurks on every side, from the delusions of hope to the fury of reaction, from the despondency of hopelessness to the promise of destruction.
Though we do face many problems, why is the analysis pushed to such extremes? Where is the note of hope? Why not a bit of optimism that humanity will overcome these challenges? Scranton articulates the problem nicely:
Scientific materialism, taken to its extreme, threatens us with meaninglessness; if consciousness is reducible to the brain and our actions are determined not by will but by causes, then our values and beliefs are merely rationalizations for the things we were going to do anyway. Most people find this view of human life repugnant, if not incomprehensible.
In other words, the perception of free will is an illusion. Just as the river cannot decide where its water will go, we cannot decide which direction to walk. The flow of water and the flow of neurons are material realities equally subject to the uncompromising laws of nature. The very sense that “I” may “choose” what to believe or do is nothing more than a pre-scientific fable. There is no soul, standing outside of the laws of nature, which may chart its own course. We are just brains in bodies that do as our genes and environment dictate.
Remove God, as Nietzsche did, and what other point of view is available to the educated person? The dominance of scientific materialism among our cultural elite is a powerful and growing force. But take a few moments and consider the pervasive implications of losing meaning, purpose, objective value, free will, and more, from your view of the world.
So why this human resilience, this irresistible drive to make meaning out of meaninglessness? Because it is how “humans have survived and thrived in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.” What a solemn tragedy: there is no purpose to our lives, but our search for purpose is one of our most powerful evolutionary advantages, and therefore biologically inescapable.
So what are we to do? Given scientific materialism, the choice is a vacuous one. We will do what the laws of nature, in combination with the empirical realities, determine will happen. Yet as it turns out, Scranton himself cannot help but urge us to bold action:
Yet it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it. Because if it’s true that we make our lives meaningful ourselves and not through revealed wisdom handed down by God or the Market or History, then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives — wholly, utterly — by changing what our lives mean.
Sadly, as we contemplate these stirring words, the conclusion doesn’t follow from his premise. That we imagine our lives meaningful because our brains are hard-wired to do so by overwhelming evolutionary force does not entail that ‘we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives.’ As Scranton has already admitted, “our values and beliefs are merely rationalizations for the things we were going to do anyway.”
In any case, given these premises, who cares? Objectively, our lives are meaningless. So whether we die after a long and happy life or via the catastrophes of the worst case global warming scenarios, it really doesn’t matter. The only reason some of us appear to care is because our brains persistently create these meaningless perceptions of meaning. If the cake does not exist, then it cannot nourish our hungry souls.
Thankfully, scientific materialism is a marvelously self-contradictory idea. As Lewis gently put it,
If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning (Mere Christianity, 39).
To look at it from another angle: if everything is entirely material, this would be a literally unthinkable situation. A deterministic, biological stimulus-and-response is qualitatively different from a thinker considering the logical connections between various reasons before arriving at a conclusion. For the sake of intellectual sanity, we must look for a larger frame than scientific materialism.
To be clear: reason and science are of the greatest importance, and we are responsible to use these powerful tools with care. But both of these gifts require a starting point, whether it is the substance of Creation or the mind of God.
And when it comes to the gift of meaning and hope, it is clear that we must receive this from Someone beyond ourselves, to find a way to look beyond our selfishness and our inevitable end. This is, in part, the joy of Christmas: God has come to save us. If this is no fairy tale, but the truest and deepest story of the world, then hope may confidently arise whatever our circumstances.
But perhaps the obstacle that we might find most difficult about this larger frame is not the rational challenge. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the hope of Christmas is our pride. Because, in the arrival of God as a helpless baby, our arrogant self-definitions are overthrown. For instance, Scranton proposes that:
We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.
His proposal, ironically, is a gloriously ambitious project. The establishment of a new global order by our cooperative effort is no small thing to recommend, even if it is done via the New York Times.
But if we are to open our eyes to the revelation of God among us, the effort will require a radical humility. To accept that a little child could be our Savior is to perplex our desire to be in charge and even to understand this strange world. This may be the hardest part of it all, but it is the doorway into a new world that is bigger, more beautiful, and more wonderful than we could have ever imagined.
Christmas is coming. It is an annual reminder of a reality beyond our own comprehension, of a love greater than our selfishness, of a promise that endures through generations, of a humility that can undo our pride. As we reflect on these themes, it seems most fitting to end with the prayer of a simple peasant girl:
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
(Luke 1:46-55, ESV)
Wherever you are spiritually, I urge you to ask your loving Father in heaven to personally reveal to you the gift of His Son. Christ has come for you. May you have a very Merry Christmas.