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Dancing Towards Nihilism: First Sketch

  • To do right is to do that which is admirable (to me).  That which I find admirable is sharing abundant life with others.  Thus, being life-giving is right in my eyes.
  • To do wrong is to do that which is despicable (to me).  That which I find despicable is taking life from others or barring others from abundant life.  Thus, being death-dealing is wrong in my eyes.
  • Apart from these two things, nothing else matters (i.e. is of significance to me).  Or, rather, it is only in the context of these two things, that anything matters (i.e. is of significance to me).  Any belief, any value, any moral, any law, any story or text, any ideology, any construction of meaning or of identity–none of these things have any intrinsic significance (in my eyes).  They are only significant as far as they are life-giving or death-dealing and their significance carries no farther than that (but it does carry that far).
  • Here, what is of foremost importance (to me),  are one’s actions.  Again: beliefs, values, constructions of meaning–these are only significant to the extent they they impact one’s actions in relation to that which is life-giving or death-dealing.  Beliefs, values, and constructions of meaning, do not matter (to me) in and of themselves.  Their sole significance (to me) is the way in which they influence what we do.


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  1. How do you define “life-giving” or “death-dealing” and “abundant life,” if beliefs, values, and constructions of meaning do not matter? Don’t beliefs, values, and meaning give flesh to what these terms mean?
    Nick Hill

  2. Hey Nick (good to hear from you… we should grab a beer when I’m next in T.O. if you’re still around there),
    Few remarks:
    (1) I did not say that beliefs, values, and constructions of meaning do not matter at all. They matter, in my opinion, to the extent that they impact our actions and make them more or less life-giving or death-dealing. So, sure, I can play language games that give me more or less conceptual clarity about certain matters, but that clarity (or lack thereof) is only significant to the extent that it impacts what I do.
    (2) Of course, that’s just my position, and it is an ideologically-loaded position — just like any and every other position people take (it’s all ideology… something I intend to get into in a future sketch). That’s why, when I do define “life-giving” and “death-dealing” at the beginning of the post, I define those things in the sense of those things which I personally find admirable or despicable. Of course, that’s just more ideology at work, and all definitions are really tautologies at the end of the day (thinking of Wittgenstein here), which also points to the weakness, or the deadness, of language games (ditto).
    (3) Because I don’t think that beliefs, values, and meaning “give flesh” to anything, and saying that some words can “give flesh” to what other words means seems like a bit of obfuscation to me. Then only thing that gives flesh to Life or Death is our bodies and our actions (lest I be accused of forgetting the plants and animals by making this statement I would respond by saying that I have no way of knowing that those folks understand or experience “Life” and “Death” in the same way we do, and in the way I think of those things when I write of them). We are the word made Flesh, and we should not revert back into the habit some theologians have developed of turning the Flesh into the word.
    Further thoughts?

  3. Never mind that Christianity became the world dominant religion because at both the individual and collective level it systematically and even deliberately broke all of the Ten Commandments.
    All backed up by the aegis and bloody imperative of Constantine’s Sword.
    And in the case of the brutal invasion and plunder of the America’s by Papal Bulls “authorizing” all of that as “God’s” will.
    All who thus inevitably resisted were “lawfully” raped, slaughtered or cast into slavery.
    Ah I love the sound of screams, the smell of and sight of human blood, and stench of burning flesh.

  4. I can understand this move, I am struggling with similar questions. But why do you admire the things you do? Don´t you admire what you call “live-giving” because of the specific moral/theological values you have been taught? (For example the value that death is something mainly negative, an enemy, to speak with a certain apostle.) And if that´s the case, is this move really a step away from moralism, or is it just covering it up, making it harder to see?

    • Hi Jonas, always nice to chat with you,
      I suppose that I admire that which I call “life-giving” because of a variety of things. Yes, I’m sure that my own background, and some of the things I have been taught contribute to my understanding of these things in some ways — although much of what I have been taught is now filtered (and accepted or discarded) through the lenses described in this post. But they are not the only contributing factors.
      You also raise a good point about Death — sadly, our ways of sharing life together are sometimes so fucked up that Death can be a friend to us (rather than an enemy). Still, I think that your emphasis is appropriate in describing my view of Death — that it is “mainly negative” ()f course, that good old Apostle had a bit of a conflicted view, too, didn’t he? What with his desire to die but his willingness to continue to live so that he could try to participate in that which was life-giving for others.)
      Additionally, I’m not intending to cover up any sort of moralism. As far as I can tell, every position is a moral position, every ideology has implications for ethics… and it’s all ideology (as I suggested to Nick above).

  5. It’s not clear that this is a “dance towards nihilism” as it just the start of an explanation of it. Once you accept the “(for me)” claim as being the only thing that matters then you’re already dancing with it – not towards it.
    Just to continue with the metaphor, why would one to pick up nihilism as a dance partner in the first place?

    • “With it” or “towards it”, I’m not sure what the distinction is that you are trying to create. Are you suggesting that my willingness to own my beliefs as my own beliefs is, somehow, already an expression of nihilism? That would be odd (to me).
      As for why the dance, well, I try to make sense of this life that I have lived and the world as I have come to know it (in my own little way) and sometimes nihilism seems to present a pretty compelling case. To continue the dance metaphor, s/he is a somewhat seductive dancer. Those willing to actually look around at where we are, can’t help but notice her/him. Plus, s/he is a good dancer, and even if we don’t end up being a long-term dance partner, we certainly may be able to pick up a few steps from her/him.
      That you appear to be unwilling to look that way, suggests to me that you may also be aware of the compelling nature of the case nihilism presents but, instead of being curious, are too afraid to venture closer. Just a random guess, as I have no idea who you are, so take it FWIW.

  6. This post calls for more depth than I feel able to come up with just now.
    I’m writing as someone who completely left the church at 16 because “what was of foremost importance to me are one’s actions”. I felt like a hypocrite so I chose to enroll in a dozen bits of social work here and there. I was okay at all of them, but I felt dead inside and increasingly so.
    I found my way back -it’s a long and miserable story- but I now believe that the church is largely right to do what she does. The church will not spend all of its time exhorting you towards more activism. And the church’s purpose is not “to influence what we do”. Her job is to root us in the presence of God.
    Of course there is a chance that those who are rooted in the presence of God will be transformed and empowered to an extent to be more life giving. But it takes time and a lot of loving. There is a saying by Goethe which I really like and it says that the gardener, when planting a sapling, knows the fruits it will bear.
    Now what I’m trying to say it that by being stridently exhortatory all the time, you encourage the young trees to lauch themselves into service while they don’t have any roots yet. Maybe it’s important to nurture the roots. And do it a lot! The fruits will pop up on their own, on some but not all of the trees, with very little exhortation.
    For this reason, I think your statement that “beliefs, values, constructions of meaning–these are only significant to the extent they they impact one’s actions in relation to that which is life-giving or death-dealing” is dangerous.
    It is dangerous because it bypasses the sacramental life of the church, and without it your trees will have no sap.I’m not sure I make sense, but on the off chance that I do, I’ll contribute this thought anyway.

    • Hi Dany,
      It’s always nice to hear from you. Your comments make sense to me… but within a very limited circle. I have found many who have deep roots and rich sap outside of “the sacramental life of the church.” So, sure, a lot of what I may be saying is dangerous — as far as I can tell the life of those who seek to emulate Jesus is dangerous — but maybe we never grow roots and never discover the sap that feeds us best, until we step forward into action. You (quite literally) don’t know how deep your roots are and how rich your sap is until you step out into action.
      Besides, nobody said the work we do, or the life we are called to as followers of Jesus, has to have any longevity. If we burn out or blow up along the way, so be it. To quote the words of a song — some of us are fast explosions, some of us are slow-burning embers. So it goes.
      Here’s the song:

    • Also, I would add that sometimes the purpose of the church is not to “root us in the presence of God” but to remind us that we are situated within a context of godforsakenness.