God is undead
It was not Nietzsche who killed God.
He was severely bruised by Copernicus, who found that the earth revolves around the sun, and so threw God out of heaven. He was emasculated by Darwin, who found that humans evolved from apes by accident, and so made the Creator redundant. He was blinded by Heisenberg, who found that the universe is inherently random, so even God could not see the future.
But it was consumerism that killed God. God’s job, before he died, was to provide form. If you want form, consumerism has a better product: 628 channels of high-definition digital entertainment; 13 million knick-knacks you can buy on e-Bay; 373 squintillion web pages full of dubious factoids. God fed on our desire for form; when we switched to mass entertainment, he finally died of starvation and neglect.
God’s carcass walks. Fundamentalism is driven by fear of emptiness. That uncanny fear artificially animates the mindless zombie. His colossal corpse, a blind idiot god, staggers across the earth, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
Buddhism, by celebrating the inseparability of form and emptiness, can put the corpse of God to rest, and can dissolve the twin demons of fundamentalism and consumerism into thin air.
The death of God left a hole in the heart of Western culture. We had used God as the source of meaning, purpose, value, ethics. Consumerism can provide endless form, but it cannot provide meaning. When we look for something beyond the superficial, it is desperate to distract us—“never mind that philosophical junk, here’s the new Britney Spears video!”
Various movements have tried to plug the hole by proposing new sources of meaning. Science, Progress, Reason, the march of History, Socialism, nationalism—somehow all were supposed to do God’s job. They couldn’t.
Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God. Religious people responded by shooting the messenger—but Nietzsche, too, saw God’s demise as a potential disaster. He was first to face facts: God could no longer provide the ultimate source of meaning, because religion could no longer be taken seriously by educated Europeans.
Nietzsche had the courage to stare into the hole at the heart of our culture, and what he saw was emptiness. He saw that no stop-gap god, like Democracy, Compassion, or Enlightenment, could provide a replacement source of meaning. He saw that all values were ultimately null. He saw that there are no absolute truths. He saw that there can be no fundamental basis for ethics.
Nietzsche was far ahead of his time. He prophesied three possible reactions to the death of God, when the news eventually entered popular consciousness: nihilism, consumerism, and the “transvaluation of all values.”
Nihilism is the denial of form. It is the mistaken idea that because there is no ultimate truth, there is no truth at all; that because there is no ultimate purpose, our lives are pointless; that because there is no foundation for ethics, all acts are morally equal. Nihilism leads to rage or despair. If everything is meaningless, you might as well kill yourself—or everyone else. Nietzsche feared that when the death of God became generally recognized, people would fall into nihilism, which could potentially lead to total social breakdown. Western culture was built on Christian foundations, and when they fell out, there was nothing beneath: only emptiness. However, nihilism requires a perverse intellectual and moral courage that few possess. To be a nihilist, you must stare into the abyss of emptiness, and act on what you see there. Actual nihilists remain extremely rare.
safe entertainment is Nihilism Lite™
The second possible reaction Nietzsche saw was consumerism—the prophesy that has come to pass. Consumerism might be called “Nihilism Lite™.” To avoid squarely confronting the implications of emptiness, we distract ourselves with trivial entertainments. In the absence of any God who could inspire passionate commitment and acts of greatness, we accept mediocrity and are preoccupied with comfort and safety. Consumerism wrongly supposes that the death of God implies that there is no meaning beyond the mundane; it does not have the courage of true nihilism to see that the mundane is equally meaningless. Having lost the foundation for ethics, we have no motivation for moral courage. We adopt the ethics of the herd, in which one is moderately good, when not too inconvenient, because that is the way to get along with the herd—not because we are committed to coherent moral principles.
Consumerism’s insatiable hunger for novelty, for continually more form, has an edge of desperation. Consumption, like fundamentalist fervor, tries to cover up a fundamental anxiety: the fear of emptiness. We know that God is dead, but we refuse to deal with the news. Consumerism is hiding your head under the blankets in hopes that if you can’t see the nihilist zombie, it won’t eat you.
At the end of his working life, Nietzsche saw a third, hopeful possibility. He described it as the “transvaluation of all values” by a hypothetical “Superman.” Unfortunately, he did not have time to work this idea out, and it is not clear quite what he meant by it. Some of what he wrote seems clearly wrong. However, this possibility seems intriguingly similar, in some respects, to the Vajrayana Buddhist conception of enlightenment as nobility or heroism.
Philosophy at the heart of the culture
. . . philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct . . . academic scribbler of a few years back.
—Keynes (out of context)
Despite the vast proliferation of “isms,” there are only a handful of meaningfully different ways of thinking about life. Generally, they are produced—or at least first stated—by philosophers. Gradually these ideas work their way into the “thought soup” of popular culture. They become the girders and beams of the house of being. That is, we weave our lives, and the ways we experience living, around these few ideas.
Nietzsche was an academic philosopher. His ideas about the problem of nihilism are now a basic part of everyone’s way of thinking about the world—even though few people know their origin.
WOODY ALLEN: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.
WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.
WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?
In the 120 years since Nietzsche’s prophesy, many philosophers have wrestled with its implications. Currently, Western philosophy is at an acknowledged dead end: it has no answer for the problem Nietzsche announced. However, its exploration of the problem’s implications is, I think, highly relevant to the possible future role of Buddhism in Western culture. I can give only a brief and oversimplified version here:
- Nietzsche’s positive possibility—the transvaluation of values—has not been pursued seriously.
- Existentialism was a philosophical movement that was mainly concerned with the problem of nihilism. It tried to develop an alternative positive possibility, which it called “authenticity.” This proved to be unworkable and was abandoned.
- Existentialism lapsed into depression, and could only counsel gloomy acceptance of what it called “the Absurd”: that both belief in God and nihilism are untenable, but that there is no third alternative. This seemed obviously wrong, and existentialism was seen to have failed.
- Existentialism was replaced with postmodernism. Postmodernism observes that nihilism has not been the catastrophe it might have been. Life has gone on; Western civilization has not collapsed. So it seems safe to adopt Nihilism Lite™. Like the New Age, postmodernism refuses to deal with factual reality, insisting that all truth-claims are just a matter of perspective. Like consumerism and the New Age, it is obsessed with the trivial and silly, because it sees no way to judge importance. These three are all manifestations of the same strategy for avoiding a serious confrontation with the same problem: the emptiness of meaning.
- Postmodernism is widely seen to be a dead end; but no successor is in sight. Any way forward would have to deal directly with the apparent contradiction of the Absurd: that God is dead, with no replacement possible, but nihilism is clearly wrong.
The failure of philosophy is the failure of our culture as a whole. Our ideas about how to live, available in our thought-soup, make sense only if there is some ultimate source of meaning; but there is none. That leaves us without a positive mode of existence. Fundamentalism and consumerism, however problematic, seem the only options.
Nihilism, eternalism, and Buddhism
Buddhism never had a God. And, it claims not to have a nihilism problem.
Instead, Buddhism claims to have a powerful analysis of why theism and nihilism are both wrong, why both are attractive in some ways, and why the third alternative—nonduality—is hard to find. And it has concrete methods that it claims allow us to actualize that third alternative.
If that is true, and if Western philosophy is right that nihilism is a gaping hole in the heart of our culture, then it seems important to fit these pieces together.
The heart of Buddhist philosophy is the recognition that form is empty, and that emptiness is also form.
- “Eternalism” is the refusal to see the emptiness of form. “Eternalism” includes both belief in God, and belief in any “stopgap God” or other supposed source of ultimate meaning. Meaning itself is always empty: insubstantial, transitory, interactive, fragmentary, and ambiguous. This gives us freedom: open space.
- But emptiness is not non-existence. Nihilism—for Buddhism—is the refusal to see that emptiness is also form. The emptiness of meaning is not a problem. The ambiguity of purpose, value, and ethics is no cause for worry, much less despair. Meanings continually arise spontaneously. Their lack of any ultimate source does not make them any less real or compelling.
Because God never existed, the hole in Western culture is not God-shaped. Nietzsche stared into that hole and saw emptiness; but where there is emptiness, there is also form. Dzogchen is the non-duality of form and emptiness. There is a Dzogchen-shaped hole in the heart of our culture. Perhaps now we can put the puzzle piece in place.
(I say “Dzogchen” because I am a Nyingmapa. You could equally well substitute “Madhyamaka” or “Mahamudra.” What matters is their shared understanding of the ways we distort our existence by trying to separate form and emptiness.)
Nothing I have said here is new. Both Japanese Buddhist and Western philosophers have recognized the relevance of nonduality to the Western problem of nihilism for most of a century. They have written many books on the subject. Yet they have failed to influence either Buddhist or Western philosophy—much less the general culture. That is because they write in dense technical language. To understand them, you need to have studied both Buddhist and Western philosophy in depth. To be useful, the insight has to be available to people who have no interest in either.
Our culture fails to provide ways of thinking about life that do not implicitly assume an ultimate source of life-meaning. Buddhism has such tools, but they have not yet made the leap into the global thought-soup.
Perhaps we need a stealth Dharma effort, aiming particularly to resolve this problem.
[Update: I am now working on this, at Meaningness.]