Nihilism, freedom and interior decorating

There are an awful lot of prejudices masquerading as arguments, David Bentley Hart believes, in the writings of Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and co. The scientific arguments they offer are not scientific (he pours particular scorn on Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, whose appearance is learned but whose substance is fatuous), and the moral arguments show no sign of moral reflection. These writers are zealous, Hart argues, but despite this – or, possibly, because of it – they

…are doing nothing more than producing rationales – ballasted by a formidable collection of conceptual and historical errors – for convictions that are rooted not in reason but in a greater cultural will, of which their arguments are only reflexes … all the manifestations of the currently fashionable forms of principled unbelief are understandable only within the context of a larger “project”: the largely preconscious (or, at any rate, prerational) will of Western humanity toward the values of modernity and toward – more specifically – the modern understanding of human freedom.

This, it becomes clear, is one of Hart’s central concerns: that the unthinking, reflexive modernism one finds in the works of Christianity’s most strident antagonists is fundamental to the way such antagonism manifests itself. And this, I have to admit, I had never noticed until I read Hart (not even, I am ashamed to admit, while reading Terry Eagleton, who made exactly the same point in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution). The metanarrative of modernism differs from the classical one not primarily in its attitude to science and technology, nor in its philosophical method, but essentially in its understanding of human freedom, which is (Hart argues) fundamentally nihilistic:

Those of us who now, in the latter days of modernity, are truest to the wisdom and ethos of our age place ourselves not at the disposal of God, or the gods, or the Good, but before an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers: the original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world – and thus we are free.

For the modernist, freedom of choice is an absolute good in itself. It permeates to the very core of our society, with liberty to choose as the primary ideal not just in personal decisions on what to eat and what to wear, but also in ethical debates on matters like abortion and economics. In a truly modern society it is choice itself, as opposed to the choices that we make and their goodness or otherwise, that is the ultimate good. This, at root, is a nihilistic position.
In contrast, for many writers in the classical period and beyond (from Plato and Aristotle to Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas), human freedom was bound up with being free to flourish, free to realise one’s true essence – and one of the things holding us back from such true ‘freedom’ was our uneducated and carnal passions, our fruitless and evil choices. Human beings therefore become free, according to such thinkers, when we become what we were originally intended to be; and frequently it is our evil wills, or what Paul would have called our lives kata sarka, from which we need to be liberated. We progress towards human flourishing by learning, being trained, developing character, virtue, and so on, and we are freed, in part, from our former selves, in the same way that the Pieta is ‘freed’ from the marble by Michaelangelo. As such, whereas for the modernist it is choice-in-itself that is the highest good, for many ancient philosophers, not to mention Christian writers, it is the choices that we actually make – their goodness or otherwise – that cause us to become what we were intended to be, and thus render us truly free.
The modernist account of freedom is very different:

The story the modern world tells of itself now is the story of how we Westerners finally learned to be free, for the first time ever; and so it is also necessarily a story about the bondage from which we have escaped. After all, the freedom we now possess in the aftermath of Christendom has vouchsafed us (has it not?) so many and such prodigious marvels: free inquiry, which has given rise to all the marvellous achievements of modern science, technology, and medicine, and which (we are told) the church once violently discouraged; all those political liberties that only a secular polity can guarantee and that (as we all know) the church always feared and strove to suppress; the freedom from sectarian violence and ‘wars of religion’ that only a rigorously secular regime can preserve and that (obviously) Christian society was unable to provide; and the immense wealth produced by modern market economies …

This story of what true freedom is, and how the modern West found it, is so deeply embedded in modern culture that it can be easy to forget that it is not self-evident to everybody. But it isn’t. And more importantly, if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it certainly shouldn’t be.
The reductio ad absurdum of this modernist concept of freedom, in which choice is paramount and the human will is constrained by precisely nothing, is New Age religion:

Here one may cultivate a private atmosphere of ‘spirituality’ as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a volume of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Robert Graves, a Nataraja figurine, a purse of tiles engraved with runes, a scattering of Pre-Raphaelite prints drenched in Celtic twilight, an Andean flute, and so forth, until this mounting congeries of string, worthless quartz, cheap joss sticks, baked clay, kitsch, borrowed iconography, and fraudulent scholarship reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion has become indistinguishable from interior decorating.

As such, New Age religion holds up to the modernist story an amusing, yet recognisable, parody of its exaltation of Choice above all the gods. Disturbingly, it leaves us wondering whether our absolute freedom of choice might not, in fact, be freedom at all.

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