Vanity of Vanity
The case for two antithetical worldviews
Last time we looked at Kant’s moral argument for the existence of God where he came to his conclusions from a practical approach. Kant concluding that we must live “as if” God is there. Kant was agnostic from a rational and scientific point of view where Kant said we couldn’t know whether God can be proven. But we must assume that He is for the reasons so life can be meaningful and for society to function and be possible. We looked at how Kant worked through this by his Categorical Imperative. But in his day and beyond not all agreed that you had to act as if He were there.
There were many cynics who said that you may think that it would be grim for society if there was no God but that doesn’t mean you should pretend it to be so. Now Sproul pauses here and says, that in theoretical thought you can distinguish maybe 1,000 philosophical theories and movements through out time. You find these to be along the continuum between the two polar extremes on the issues. You have full bodied theism and on the other side nihilism. The ideas taken from nihilism are that there is no God and therefore life is meaningless, no significance and no sense to human existence. All others are on a continuum between these two poles.
The Qoheleth and Kant
You can look at historic Judaism and Christianity where in their scripture in the ‘Wisdom’ literature and find where a writer wrestles with these two antithetical worldviews. Two different approaches are explored where one is ‘under the sun’ and one ‘under heaven’. If we could translate this as we transition back to modern theories of Kant where Kant explores the noumenal world, that is the realm of God, and the phenomenal world, that is where we observe things by our senses and where science takes place. Between these two was great wall. This was a divide between the transcendent and our present world. If we take Kant’s view and move it backwards into the Wisdom literature you could compare these two notions with ‘under heaven and ‘under the sun’, the noumenal and the phenomenal. The crux of the conflict that the Qoheleth is speaking of in Ecclesiastes is that life ‘under the sun’ ends in the final analysis, if there is no God, and is strictly in the phenomenal realm, it would be termed and called “vanity of vanity – all is vanity”. Which is an expression depicting a superlative. In Hebrew when you use the term King of Kings or Lord of Lords you are exponentially raising the term to the ‘supreme’. So ‘vanity of vanity’ is an extreme position to conclude that everything is vanity or transient or futility. It is not to be understood for looking in the mirror inordinately. So the author of Ecclesiastes along with the ideas of Kant and the phenomenal, i.e. without reference to God -- if there is no god then in the final analysis the encounter would be termed futility of futility. Everything that we do is futile. Life is a vicious circle with no beginning and no purpose, no teleology and no significance. The sun rises and the sun sets, over and over; and as Hemingway stated in his book, “The Sun also Rises” he is declaring that we are going nowhere and are of no significance. This is the underlying philosophy of nihilism and the opposite end of theism.
How can cosmic accidents ask for dignity?
They’re few philosophers who were willing to go to that extreme. Most who have rejected full-bodied theism have sought to develop a worldview or philosophical system somewhere between these two poles of “theism <----- or -----> nihilism”. If you land somewhere in the middle you are borrowing from one or the other polar extremes. There is always this that can be said about humanism, that in the final analysis, “ Humanism which is so popular today is so extremely naive. Because the humanist tells us there is no God and that our origins come from nothing, accidentally, from a meaningless series of events and that our life’s our moving quickly towards annihilation.” So the humanist dwells in the ideas that even ideas are meaningless at our origins and meaningless at our destiny but the humanist fights, in defiance to their core beliefs, for human rights and human dignity or somewhere in between these polar opposites. Where Sproul engages and tells them that they have their feet firmly planted in mid air. Or as Francis Schaeffer used to say, “you are on a roller coaster ride without brakes.” A humanist wants to have meaning between these two poles but is not willing to go in the direction that they’re atheism must drive them – full bodied nihilism. [This is why we spent so much time in previous sessions with the 4 principles of knowledge and that they should never be negotiated away.
Humanists want to have meaning
That is one example where philosophic systems in between these poles will have to borrow the capital of the two. For how can cosmic accidents ask for dignity? Well, they are borrowing from Judeo-Christianity while totally rejecting the source of where human dignity comes from. We are showing that there’re compromise positions are contradictory but they try to latch onto on or the other when convenient. This is what Kant saw in his moral argument and the Categorical Imperative. This is what Fyodor Dostoyevsky saw when he said that if nobody is home here in the pole of theism, then, we are to conclude and know as a result of no creator that anything is to be permitted. His saying without Christ: without hope.
The apostle Paul said that if I follow and live my life for Christ and Christ is really a dead man, then, don’t hate me but pity me. For we are to be felt sorry for if we behave with out proof. If we are believing, working and devoting one’s time to invisible constructs that have no true evidence then you shouldn't be mad at us – one should console us. For if we can’t have any basis for establishing confidence for the God of the universe then one can have no foundation for hope - what so ever. You must then come to the place of true hopelessness and deal with existence there.
Face the facts of nihilism
Albert Camus the 20th century existential philosopher said that the only serious question for existential nihilists to explore was that of suicide. Because when you awaken to the reality that there is nothing to God and no absolutes, then, you have to understand there is no ultimate meaning. Which for many may sound fine. The feeling you might have when School is out and we can go about and do what we like. For a time we have a vacation from the God of the Bible and now we can say we are free from those arbitrary constraints. We can do our own thing. But what is the price tag? If you are not accountable then you really don’t count and it doesn’t matter.
John Paul Sartre titled one of his books “Nausea” which spoke to his final thoughts on the human condition. He defined man as a ‘useless passion’. A loaded concept because we are not automatons or robots but are living, caring, breathing, thinking, choosing people. Human life is marked by passion and care. What if all your passions are useless and all your care is meaningless and comes to nothing? Then your passions are futile and your hope is worthless. What if you faced the fact that all your cares come to nothing? This is the methodology of Sartre and his view of Nausea where he said you are a ‘useless passion’. This is the opposite pole to theism.
Nietzsche came to his views after Kierkegaard and Kant where he explored the concept of nihilism. Saying if we can’t know that God exists, it is not enough to build our faith by crossing our fingers and hoping someone is up there. If the evidence is to the contrary if it is really true that life has come out of a swamp, then, we need to have the moral courage to face the grim finality of these results. Stare it in the face. OK, you are right, I came from the slime and I will shortly go back to the slime. I’m a germ sitting on one cog of one wheel in the vast expanse of some cosmic machine that is running down towards annihilation.
Don’t escape the razor sharp grim reality
So, stare it in the face. Face it head on and don’t turn to religion as an escapist fool. But we must realize that in our modern way escapism is the driving force in contemporary culture. Where the philosophy of hedonism maintains that you find and maximize pleasure and minimize your pain. Tim Leary one of Harvard’s famous faux-thinkers said what hedonism was for himself, “tune in – turn on – drop out.” Let’s go to la-la land where I don’t have to think. For then you won’t have to deal with the nausea of reality. For scientists tell us that we are beasts with clothes on and then resort to telling kids as they grow up this message over and over. You are only material and that is all you are.
Escapism and the opiate of religion
Many drown out the consequence of these ideas with various means of escape. So the skeptics and Nietzsche said this was not the only drug of escape. The supreme drug to escape nihilism according to 19th century atheism was the opiate of religion. If you’re a Christian haven’t you been told that you are using your religion as a crutch? They say, get real to your true intentions. It helps you function and be mobile because in reality you are a cripple. This crutch is a psychological source because we can’t bear the message we are being driven to. So we go to religion as the ultimate source of escape. It is the ultimate drug, the narcotic and deliverer of the masses. To escape the futility of the real existential world we will pursue this antidote to pain.
The 19th century skeptics were not working that hard to disprove the existence of God through the logic of ideas. Because their first assumption was that there was none. The problem of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre among other titanic thinkers was they came to the table with the posture of; “since there is no God why is it that human beings are incurably religious?” They asked why man shouldn’t be described as both Homo Sapien and also Homo Religiousus. Where ever we go humans are involved in a wide berth of religious endeavors. So these thinkers said that the phenomena that answered the universality of this question of religion came to humans through psychological fear. The main reason for belief’s is they are afraid of the consequences if there might be a God. We create God in our own image as we understand to be. Which ties to nihilism, which if true, we act to escape this even though we are doomed and in a hopeless situation. We can’t bear the idea of being a ‘useless passion’. So we manufacture a bromide and narcotic to dull or distract our senses from this painful fact. This wish for theism was all the result of the psychological need of naïve people, according to the great thinkers of the 19th century.
Next time Sproul will discuss these notions from a Christian perspective and see if these conclusions are not really on the other foot, that the ruse is the other way.