Nihilism has a bad rep. For many the word signifies anarchy, destruction, meaninglessness, bombs thrown by black-garbed acolytes of Nothing. (I copied these images from nihilist web sites; it’s nice not to have to worry about copyright laws; nihilists don’t sue, I assume.)
I have a “nihilism” wrist band. I don’t wear it very often, but when I do it gives me a good feeling when I glance down at it. Free. Independent. Open-minded. That’s what nihilism means to me.
I like the definition offered by the Catholic Encyclopedia: “a Nihilist is one who bows to no authority and accepts no doctrine, however widespread, that is not supported by proof.”
Well, I do bow to authority—if it’s garbed in a judge’s robe, police uniform, IRS agent suit, or such. However, if we’re speaking of religious authority then I am becoming more of a nihilist all the time. Proudly.
This morning I was reading Don Cupitt’s intriguing book, “After God: The Future of Religion.” Cupitt has some good things to say about spiritual nihilism.
It is very postmodern suddenly to realize that we no longer actually need roots, identity, stability, or a provenance. We can do without all those things. Me, I don’t want them anymore. I prefer to be without identity. I’d like to belong to no ethnic group, and to have no Other. They call me a nihilist: but I’m beginning to feel at ease, at home in nihilism.
A friend recently spoke about her churchless evolution. She said that after she stopped going to gatherings of her faith, there was a period during which she felt a sense of loss. Old beliefs were fading away. Old friends also, at least those whose friendship was conditioned on her remaining part of the religious fold (which means they weren’t genuine friends to start with).
The church newsletter kept coming in the mail each month. She’d look at it and feel some pangs. This and that was happening, meetings and celebrations that she used to enjoy being part of, and now she wasn’t. Then…
One day the newsletter came and she started to smile. And laugh. Glory, glory, free at last! Those old connections didn’t matter anymore. The past was past. Now is now. Not having a firm religious belief became joyful rather than problematic.
“Now I’m free to explore whatever sort of spirituality I want to,” she said. “I pick and choose from the spiritual smorgasbord, enjoying what is tasty to me.” She isn’t dining any more on what someone else has ordered for her. She’s trusting her own taste buds.
Nihilism comes from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing.” Yet to me and my friend, having nothing sure to believe in doesn’t feel like an absence. It’s a warm, energetic, exciting presence of limitless possibility, of explorable territory, of untapped potential.
Cupitt speaks about three tricks, heritages of the old religions, that are worthy of being kept. One trick is “The Blissful Void.”
The Blissful Void is the trick of relaxing completely, slowing oneself and one’s passions down until the self is, as it were, dispersed into the fleeting insubstantial emptiness of all existence. You must learn to experience nihilism as levity, lightness. The strange unexpected happiness this brings is a wonderful deliverance from the fear of death, loss, and suffering.
So, as I see it, nihilism is far removed from meaninglessness. As this definition points out, it’s a rejection of blind faith, not a rejection of reality. It’s a commitment to the “nothing” that remains when dogmatism, authoritarianism, intellectualization, imagination, and rationalization are swept away.
Buddhism and Taoism say that this suchness is what’s really real. I think they’re on to something.
Or rather, nothing.