Which is worse?
1. A Postmodern dismissal of any universals, claims to truth or sources of authority that can be trusted
2. A Fundamentalist grasping after non-negotiable doctrines that creates a small and controllable deity
Neither option seems a good one. Where’s the beef? Or boy, have I got a beef.
Let’s just start by saying that the cultural void of nihilism is as profoundly deficient as fundamentalisms that wring every bit of mystery of of the life of faith.
Cultural Nihilism celebrates the subjectivity of nothingness.
But fundamentalistic faith is merely ascent to a list of propositions. Believe this doctrinal list (underline the word believe) and you have the truth and it sets you free. It’s the religious counterpart to the scientific proofs of modernity. We’ll be respectable because we have a logical (or illogical) system. Grant your ascent to it and you have the system and it has you. All is safe and sound. Until it starts leaking, that is.
For cultural nihilism not having anything is celebrated as having something. For religious fundamentalism certainty acts a substitute for faith, even for having God. I have a system about God, but it may actually keep me from God.
Which is it? Neither.
There is reality that exists even when I don’t know about it. There is something rather than nothing. My knowledge of it, my experience of existence, is always subjective and always limited. But we do find pathways to the nature of this reality and our place in it. Those pathways come from different directions and ways of knowing. Science is one, also limited in its powers of observation. And faith is another, full of ways of apprehending the nature of existence in ways that science cannot. They both know things, differently. And in the house of knowledge they sometimes even share a common wall between their two rooms.
This faith thing isn’t as naive and simple as it once may have been. The unquestioned authority of church as spiritual hierarchy is gone. But truth-telling stories of faith continue to guide entire communities and individuals as they are informed by and in conversation with living traditions. This is something, not nothing. And the pathways, though not absolute, are nevertheless pathways. Millions have traversed them. This requires faith, not simply intellectual ascent. And as Henri Nouwen has said, this journey requires moving from untrue certainty to true uncertainty. That’s hard. And it’s worth the effort.
Rabbit trail: A Muslim writer and psychologist, Dr Naif Al- Mutawa, has just composed a whole schema of superheroes based on the 99 attributes of Allah. In this collaboration between DC Comics in the US and Teshkeel Comics in Kuwait each hero exhibits one of the traditional qualities lifted up in centrist Islam: mercy, generosity, beauty, justice … and it’s sweeping the Arab world.
A tradition lives on, but in superhero form. The Ancient becomes Modern. There couldn’t be anything more relevant for this time. It’s not nothing, and its not absolutely certain. It depends on faith encountering tradition, which asks more of us and is harder. But it’s worth the trek.
The truth of things has a way of prevailing and enduring. It lasts because it has something worth keeping. Take Jesus’ sayings, for instance. Or the example of his life. Or the lengths to which people will go for the sake of love, or justice or just being a part of the mysterious story of faith.
The answer is out there, as the X Files used to say. Out there and also in there. But it will neither be found with some lazy and unhelpful nihilism nor with the untrue certainties of those who claim to have a corner on the God market.
Deliver us from both.
And deliver us to a new way of faith that asks more of us than either a knee-jerk suspicion or some unthinking adoption of religious systems that are dying faster than the rain forests.
The world deserves more. So do we.