The problem of new nihilism

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Does life have meaning? Or, as the new nihilists suggest, is life meaningless? A new book, The Sunny Nihilist, by writer and journalist, Wendy Syfret, puts the case for nihilism as an antidote to the obsessive search for meaning and purpose that many modern people experience.

She argues that nihilism can give us much-needed perspective and free us from self-centred, stressful searches for meaning. As she rightly points out, this quest has been crassly commercialised and reduced to ‘masturbatory first-person narratives’, especially online.

In particular, she argues we need liberation from an oppressive conceptual world that exploits meaning and promotes an ‘obsessive individuality.’ According to Syfret, everything is ‘futile and meaningless’ because of the insignificance of one’s life about which ‘no one would give a shit’ in a hundred years. Recognising the pointlessness of life can help us focus on what we really value, she argues, ‘because if nothing matters, we might as well be happy and good to each other.’[1]

Syfret presents fundamental problems that humans, particularly moderns, face. Her answer, like other nihilists, is to sweep the carpet out from under us: take meaning away, get rid of the world that is just ‘made-up’, and we’ll (finally!) be happy. Nihilists confront the idols of our egos, and construct — or deconstruct — meaning as toxic. While Syfret still seems to hold a place for personal meaning, she argues that it is best contextualised ‘in a sea of pointlessness.’

Nihilism is an extreme kind of iconoclasm, yet it both mistakes the problem and proposes an unrealistic solution. Meaning — even ultimate meaning — is not the source of our existential angst and suffering. Rather, it is how we engage and use meaning, especially in a self-centred, limited way, that is our stumbling block.

Humans cannot help but be immersed in meaning. Even those who claim to be nihilists can’t avoid it. Nihilists like Syfret argue that life is meaningless by using the very structures of meaning (that is, language) to make universal truth claims.

 

'Nihilism is an extreme kind of iconoclasm, yet it both mistakes the problem and proposes an unrealistic solution.'

 

While Syfret denies ultimate meaning, humans necessarily engage the world through such meaning in their everyday lives. Whenever we make any decision about how to act, it involves expressing a preference about what is ultimately good and meaningful. For example, when I choose to teach a class, I decide that it is better and good to help others learn, rather than choose other options, such as going down the road and stealing from a petrol station. My action expresses what I judge to be a better and more meaningful way of living — both for me and for others. It expresses something fundamental about what I believe is ultimately good about living.

Our decisions in life show us that we act out of (and form) frameworks of meaning that give an overall context to our lives. They help us to address our deepest desires and questions: about who I am, where I come from, where I am going, why I exist, why there is evil, and how to relate with others. Meaning structures are not just ‘made-up’ but are the lens by which we come to know reality and better understand and engage in it.

Science is a clear example of a structure of meaning whereby we engage the physical world through meaning-filled hypotheses and experiments to better understand it. Medical science in particular has enabled humanity to better understand reality and make huge advancements in quality of life. Is all this knowledge and understanding ultimately meaningless? Is saving a child’s life from a horrible accident or disease not touching on a fundamental meaning and purpose to life?

If life is meaningless, it is difficult to see how one can value anything or do good. Why would it follow that ‘we should make the best of it’, enjoy life, respect other people or value anything at all? Why even write about nihilism or speak at all? Life becomes arbitrary and bleak, not sunny and bright.

As most can intuit, nihilism ultimately leads to a dark path. To state that ‘life is meaningless, so make the best of it’, sounds positive but does not come to terms with the sophistication of our lives immersed in meaning and the full panoply of our experiences, capacities, achievements, hopes, and desires. In this sense, it does not come to terms with the value and dignity of human life and our struggle to lead good, meaningful lives.

 

'It seems more reasonable and likely that if meaning is inherently part of our lives and universe — as even Syfret acknowledges by suggesting we should still pursue personal meaning — then there is a source for meaning that is reasonable and universal.'

 

How, then, can Syfret hold a ‘sunny’ view of nihilism? Syfret seems to be rejoicing in a kind of detachment. Her remedy for self-idolatry makes sense, to a degree, as it ultimately centres on an existential or mystical detachment that moves beyond categories. Humans need to cultivate habits of detachment, as many wise religious and philosophical experts have suggested, so that they don’t get caught in unhealthy habits, ignorance or error, and pursue distorted goods.

Yet, Syfret’s nihilism mistakes a certain experience or stage of personal growth – when we confront the insignificance of our lives, particularly at midlife, and cultivate greater detachment — and turns it into a universal truth about the pointlessness of all reality. Such nihilism wants personal detachment without structure or purpose and combines spiritual detachment with the atheism of modernity.

To state that life goes nowhere and ultimately means nothing neglects the meaning we sense in the world and invest in it. This kind of attitude goes against our everyday lived experience: we expect the value and purpose we discover in life to make a difference (especially in a moral and existential sense) and to take us somewhere — to a more fulfilled way of living. And even when we aren’t concerned for ourselves, most of us are concerned with the promotion of happiness and fairness for our loved ones or the oppressed.

Thus, the world of meaning which we inhabit must either be denied or embraced. It either points to a deeper structure and source or to pointlessness. Most of us make assumptions one way or the other so that we can function meaningfully in the world. It seems more reasonable and likely that if meaning is inherently part of our lives and universe — as even Syfret acknowledges by suggesting we should still pursue personal meaning — then there is a source for meaning that is reasonable and universal; that our intelligible universe is imbued with logos (ultimate reason or meaning). The ‘laws’ of nature, discerned by science, reflect this logos. Without logos (as the ancient philosophers knew), there is a troubling and unreasonable inconsistency between our personal experience of meaning and the universal reality of the universe.

This logos — the inexhaustible mystery that exists outside of our structures of meaning bound by time and space and which many feebly call ‘God’ — gives reason to the universe and ultimate context to our lives. Rather than pointlessness or nothingness, Monty Williams SJ argues that ‘emptiness’ is the key state for entry into the mystery of logos, so to achieve human fulfillment. When we are fully emptied of our egotistical attachments and idols, we are opened up to relationship with the ultimate reality — who personally and gratuitously imbued us with inherent value and unique purpose. Nihilism, by contrast, is one last gasp of the ego to protect itself from the adventure of meaning and control meaning by denying it.

 

 

 

Joel HodgeJoel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University and a Jesuit novice. 

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, nihilism, meaning, Wendy Syfret, purpose, iconoclasm, The Sunny Nihilist

 

 

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To genuinely understand what Wendy Syfret was trying to say, Joel, I suppose I'd really need to read her book, rather than trying to understand her through you, because we all have our biases. It is possible to see life as 'meaningless' and then to come to faith, either Christianity as you present it as a primarily philosopho-theological construct, very Roman and very Scholastic, or, just as easily, a Faith which accepts the Void and sees beyond it, as in Buddhism. There are similarities between Buddhism and Eastern Christianity, not exact, but still there. For the 'rusted on' Catholics who will read you, I should point out the are Buddhist thinkers in all schools who will tell you that Buddhism doesn't necessarily deny the existence of God. BTW I have no problem with the concept of God, in fact I believe in Him as revealed in the Abrahamic Tradition. I would love to have Chesterton's creation Father Brown come to life and talk to you about Wendy. He would probably tell you that, in her doubt, she is very close to Faith. Her nihilism should not be confused with the dreadful, destructive, Marxist-based Nihilism Blessed Seraphim Rose wrote about in his book on the subject.


Edward Fido | 05 October 2021  

So much fun, I might have to read it again... You've gotta love "nihilistic logic" argued by a nihilist; their logos generally is a metaphoric ladder that has a few rungs missing on the way up and then swapped around on the back way down. No matter how carefully approached, there's a deliberate drop to an abyss coming. Supposedly, Syfret's greatest fear must be fame; being recognized like Freud or perhaps Kierkegaard and thus surviving that 100 year septic sentence; "damn, my expertise on nihilism meant something afterall." Where an ordinary mortal might take some solace in their improbable, implausible success, the self-defeating notion of wanting to prove meaninglessness usually results in some: "but nobody cares", or "it doesn't really matter"; often an ego needing attention in an extraordinary reverse psychology. Perhaps that's the awful trap for the unwary; entering into an argument to dispel the notion of worthlessness and being inadvertantly drawn to say sooth to the protagonist of the pointless. Never trust an old nihilist; if they've managed to dodge all of life's dangers then something about life that matters to them. Hand them a fork if the toaster gets stuck...if they don't believe in God maybe the ELP fuse can choose their fate.


ray | 05 October 2021  

The denial of "logos" leaves us humans prey to subjective, isolated illusion about our place and purpose in the world and life itself. Joel Hodge's recognition of this philosophical and theological reality is welcome and timely.


John RD | 06 October 2021  

A most thought-provoking article. I agree with Monty Williams SJ that emptiness is the key state for entering into the mystery of logos. The words of Phil 2:6-8 are deeply resonant for anyone wanting to find purpose and meaning in their life. But I'm also a believer in God searching for us relentlessly. Thus, we are freed to encounter life in all its complexity.


Pam | 06 October 2021  

Nihilism is a prudential calculation that Hell does not exist. Moral nihilism is a prudential calculation that because, statistically, it is unlikely that the nihilist can be a top dog from birth to death, it is more sensible to promote a kind and gentle world so that if the nihilist falls on bottom-dog times, a Samaritan who believes that, statistically, it is unlikely that a Samaritan can be a top dog from birth to death, and that it is more sensible to promote a kind and gentle world, will make an insurance premium on the belief. Amoral or immoral nihilism is making a bet that the amoral or immoral nihilist won’t end up as a Stalin bedwetting himself or, perhaps more relevantly, as a Gaddafi on the wrong end of a bayonet. Christian nihilism is a prudential calculation that God exists but not Hell, and that in a world where, statistically, anyone can fall on bottom-dog times, it is sensible to promote a kind and gentle world but, if this world does not eventuate when you need it, the narcotic of God, like chewing coca nut when cold, will get you through the bottom-dog times.


roy chen yee | 06 October 2021  

Searching for answers is not the problem. It's the questions.


john frawley | 06 October 2021  
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‘Searching for answers is not the problem. It's the questions.’ Indeed. What Wendy Syfret is responding to, even if, as a non-Christian (as she must be), she can’t see it, is the idolatrous search for meanings ‘outside’ God. Some response is required but nihilism per se is excessive. She just needs to trim it back a bit. God made the Earth to be enjoyed. As he isn’t a dog in the manger, he’s happy for people not to have to fixate on him all the time but to find joy in all the islets of fun and learning he has embedded in this world. Know any dextrocardiacs with a fund of wartime stories I could share a lemonade with?


roy chen yee | 07 October 2021  

Agreeing with Edward Fido's comment that perhaps I should read the book before commenting on it, nevertheless, I focus on Joel's opening paragraph as the nub of the problem with some current approaches to meaning:
"She argues that nihilism can give us much-needed perspective and free us from self-centred, stressful searches for meaning. As she rightly points out, this quest has been crassly commercialised and reduced to ‘masturbatory first-person narratives’, especially online."
Two points: (1) The commercialised and narcissistic narratives readily accessible on line is more the problem than whether or not to concern oneself with meaning; and (2) the concept of a "search for meaning" is in itself a problem - a search for meaning reduces agency of the individual person. Rather than searching for meaning, we create our own meaning from the multiple observations, areas of knowledge, forms of influence, which life places before us. That way, we have meaning which can always be amended as we, individually I, judge necessary in light of changing circumstances. Meaning is not necessarily something fixed for life; meaning is something negotiated with life; otherwise, my system of meaning at 75 years would be unchanged from when I was 25 years old. And that would be pretty sad!


Ian Fraser | 06 October 2021  

I would be very wary of attempting amateur psychoanalysis long distance on anyone, Ray, let alone someone as interesting and complex as Wendy Syfret, who, from reading of her and her experience at a relatively young age, seems to have acquired a considerable amount of wisdom and life experience. As I tried to explain to Joel, there are in fact several different viewpoints which group themselves under the heading 'Nihilism'. If Blessed Seraphim Rose - in some Orthodox jurisdictions regarded as a saint - were alive today, I think he would see that Wendy is not like the people he wrote about who destroyed Christian civilisation in Russia with the full intention of doing so. We have people like that today, who have infiltrated the universities and education systems with their Neo-Marxist Deconstructionalism. They really want to bring our society to an end and launch into their version of Big Rock Candy Mountain, which is really Brave New World in disguise. I do not think Scholastic Philosophy, with its concepts and way of dialogue is much use in trying to understand an intelligent young person of the 21st Century. It goes wide of the target. John Colet, Catholic Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in Henry VIII's time, a friend of Erasmus and one of the great men of the English Renaissance, thought similarly of it then.


Edward Fido | 06 October 2021  
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Edward, thanks for your reply. While I do identify Syfret as an individual it's purely in relation to the (nonsensical) quote that "no one would give a shit" in a hundred years. Nihilistic ideas and the -ism itself aren't psychological disorders, however it is something that persons with disorders may choose as an orientation. Syfret's trendy interpretation defies structured risk assessment of real life tasks or actions; if nothing matters then consequences become undefined. This type of thinking can lead to irresponsible behaviours and misunderstanding mitigation controls. I'd encourage you to try doing a risk assessment with a nihilist just for laughs. Perhaps you can apply Syfret to #BLM and see if the two are compatible.


ray | 07 October 2021  

Is Joel’s ‘nihilism’ the same as Wendy’s 'nihilism' ? Or more to the point, is Joel’s portrayal of Wendy’s ‘nihilism’ an accurate one ? Like Edward, I’m reluctant to accept that it is. Joel provides a couple of hot links to what other people have said about Wendy’s book, but none to what Wendy actually says herself. Like, for example, this one <
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/aug/27/nihilism-can-make-you-happier-even-in-the-covid-era-no-really-let-me-explain > . I would be interested in what my fellow posters on this thread (and Joel too, if he's still around to dialogue) would make of that article.


Ginger Meggs | 06 October 2021  
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‘There’s a game I like to play: spot the meaningless meaning. It refers to the increasing desire for every brand, product or service to present itself as somehow meaningful. Sometimes it’s a podcast advertisement that talks about community, memory, nostalgia and values for two minutes before revealing it’s talking about mortgage insurance. ‘ Strawman.

‘Ironically, in a reality constructed to make everything feel overly significant, that actually leaves us anxious and miserable, insignificance offers a strange sense of peace.’ Strawman.

‘Approached this way, nihilism makes me wonder about what I do and don’t pay attention to. Is what another person thinks of me as meaningful (or meaningless) as a brush of jasmine tumbling over a neighbour’s fence? Not really. So why am I consumed by one while ignoring the other? The only difference is one leaves me feeling stressed, the other delivers a fleeting but pure moment of pleasure.’ Strawman.

There are some things which are canonically good or evil. An identity towards them is essential. Other things are prudential.. Their truth or falsity is a matter of analysis and experiment. An identity towards them would be good but different people are called to be interested in different things.


roy chen yee | 07 October 2021  

A canon is a construct Roy, a human construct. The bigger it gets the less defensible it becomes.


Ginger Meggs | 08 October 2021  

For those who don't believe, any canon is a human construct. So?


roy chen yee | 09 October 2021  

Dear all, thanks for your comments. In terms of my representation of Wendy's arguments, I have quoted directly from her (either from her book or ABC interview). Apologies if this was not clear by the links. I have tried to represent Wendy's key arguments but cannot give a full account in a short article. As Edwards suggests, reading her book would give you a full sense of her position. My article seeks to identify the similarities and differences between her kind of nihilism and an apophatic spirituality.


Joel Hodge | 07 October 2021  

Thank you Joel, you are one of the few authors of articles to ES who is prepared to return to the fray.


Ginger Meggs | 08 October 2021  

Within walking distance of where I live in suburban Adelaide, there are more shops selling spirituality (of the New Age variety) than there are Christian churches. What a pity people searching for meaning and spirituality (= all of us, as this article correctly claims) aren't seeing the cross of Jesus because they have been thoroughly inoculated against Christianity by the simplistic judgementalism, arrogant self-righteousness and downright hypocrisy of the public face the institutionalised church and the Australian Christian Lobby.


Peter Schulz | 06 October 2021  

Looking up Wendy Syfret’s site, I found nothing there of real value. However, in our shallow age I have no doubt that many will find her “sunny” nihilism attractive, just as in an earlier age Sartre’s Existentialism was immensely attractive to a disillusioned generation. Max Horkheimer called Sartre “a crook and a racketeer of the philosophical world” but his chief publicist, Jean Paulhan, was correct when he said Sartre was “the spiritual leader of thousands of young people.”
Fantasies are easily sold. Simone Weil wrote that “nothing is so beautiful” as the good, and nothing “so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil.” However, “with fantasy it is the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive and full of charm.”
It took someone from the Marxist East, not the Christian West, to expose the fantasy of communism, and it’s cost in blood and tears to condition man to a purely terrestrial existence. Solzhenitsyn clearly and eloquently stated the great proposition upon which Christianity is founded—that it is through love not power, in humility not arrogance, that we can best understand our creator’s purpose for us here.


Ross Howard | 06 October 2021  

It is interesting that there has so far been only one lady amongst all the gents commenting on Joel's article: Pam and she did it succinctly and with the much needed note of Hope, one of the prime Christian Virtues. I don't think it is anyone's place to mentally bludgeon Wendy Syfret, who is nothing like that dreadful  Sartre. The phrase 'too clever by half' strikes me about the article and many of the comments. Ian Fraser is quite correct, our opinions and attitudes do change with age. Wendy is still young: it was a tentative, exploratory piece from what I understand. I was a contemporary of Peter Singer's at the University of Melbourne. As a philosopher, he discusses the value of human life and euthanasia. He provided for his ageing, ill mother in an excellent nursing home. I don't think he would agree to have her euthanised if that had been legal at the time. It was the inherent  righteousness of his triumphing over the arid philosophising of Parkville. One of the things quite absent from many of the heavy philosophisings here is the Christian note of Joy. Perhaps it is because Post-Counter Reformation Latin Rite Catholicism concentrates so much on the Passion and Penitence rather than the Glorious and Triumphant Resurrection, which they do in Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholicism.


Edward Fido | 07 October 2021  

You could also have listed 'smugness' Peter.


Ginger Meggs | 07 October 2021  

Thanks, Joel, for your review and the discussion it has elicited. As a Jesuit novice, you might reflect on the extent to which your views are hijacked by others (in Jesuit journal!) to counter much that is essential to a contemporary Jesuit charism. I think here of mimesis and its deliberate attempt over recent years to rid Christian culture of the violence associated with many aspects of its history, such as towards women and children and its link with patriarchy and many other magisterial positions, interrogated by contemporary critical theologians and thinkers, such as Horkheimer. It may be that, as a woman, Syfret has abandoned interrogating a life-world that is so androcentric and seeks refuge in a nihilism that offers an escape from a moral universe of agency, character and action that is also socio-culturally and economically contingent and which is part of the ethical landscape favoured by contemporary Jesuits like Arrupe and Bergoglio. Its precisely because so much of this conversation errs on the side of meaning-making that associates Syvret with neo-Marxists that one must cite the critical theorists who contribute to theology here and who are disdained by conservative male discussants deploring the absence of women 's voices.


Michael Furtado | 07 October 2021  

The reaction to Wendy Syfret by Joel and many, not all, commenters on his article, most of these I contest male, middle aged +, rusted on Catholics with a penchant, particularly Ray and Peter Schulz, to use the heavily padded tribute to their own learning, which seems to be of a rather over-intellectualising sort, as an intellectually and morally self-righteous bludgeon, reminds me of the reaction in the Anglican Church to both Donald Robinson's 'Honest to God' when it came out years ago and the recent furore about the supposed position of Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh. Some of the best commentary on 'Honest to God' was by Catholics who understood their own genuine Christian Mystic Tradition and The Dark Night of the Soul. Many of those, particularly priests of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who criticised Holloway for supposed 'heresy' failed to see what a creative place genuine, questioning religious doubt has in the Anglican tradition, particularly as exemplified by the poets John Donne and George Herbert, neither of whom were 'heretical' in the least. I value Syfret's openess and honesty. I don't see her as a 'nihilist' but as a modern agnostic who is searching for faith. She is, basically, asking for bread and what do these commenters give her? Stones. I think they should hang their heads in shame.


Edward Fido | 08 October 2021  
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I agree, Edward, except that your accusation of over-intellectualising leaves you somewhat out on a limb, straddling two mutually opposed positions, as it were, with the kind of strain on your leotard that brings a tear to the eye. Robinson (Marlborough & Trinity Cantab) and Holloway (Kelham & UTS NY) were/are liberal theologians whose world views don't in any way correspond with that of Sydney's Anthony Fisher, either philosophically or pastorally. Ask anybody, Catholic or otherwise, and allowing even for the intersectionality of theology and character, they'd agree. Additionally, I don't find Peter and Ray obfuscating but crystalline in their expression and meaning, even though I generally agree with Peter and not with Ray. The problem here is that they employ a style that irritates you and which, rightly in my view, refuses to indulge in cliches of the kind that use culturally-outdated terms such as 'Neo-Marxist Deconstructionalism' as a form of abuse rather than description, which invites explanation. There is, apropos that, no disciplinary field, since when you left university, that hasn't moved on to accommodate the questions of context that the postmoderns have raised, especially in theology, and which one expects to be addressed in a Jesuit journal.


Michael Furtado | 08 October 2021  

‘strain on your leotard that brings a tear to the eye.’ To persist in arguing as a lion with spots or a leopard with a mane could certainly bring a schizophrenic tear to the ‘ I ’.


roy chen yee | 09 October 2021  

Stones? Well, it has been commented previously on ES that I "roll boulders" over articles; mere stones are not my speciality but let's run with the criticism. Somewhat like your remonstration of me, to not play long distance psychoanalysis, perhaps equally deplorable is your decision Syfret needs or asks for your metaphoric bread; where's the evidence? The only indication is the Fido-ism that you have decided she's not a nihilist but agnostic; does she accept that appraisal? More to the point, is the Fido-ist suggesting that the bread she's going to get has a liberal serving of religious beliefs generously included? I'm not aware that Syfret has sought guidance to lead her from her ways; I have no doubt she'd like to debate her position apropos her chosen identity - vehemently. Typically, the nihilist approach is "prove me wrong" (show me it matters) rather than fix me up; I think you've taken a liberty to reclassify her agnostic searching for faith. Perhaps that identity matters to her.


ray | 08 October 2021  

‘I don't see her as a 'nihilist' but as a modern agnostic who is searching for faith. She is, basically, asking for bread and what do these commenters give her? Stones. I think they should hang their heads in shame.’ Wendy Syfret says she is a nihilist. She has a book which maintains over many pages that she is. Edward, who, as far as I know, has not surmounted a publisher’s gauntlet to publish a book, pats her on the head and mansplains that she is really an agnostic. The commenters may have given Wendy Syfret’s nihilism stones but Edward, to use Michael Furtado’s phrase from another post, has roiled a boulder over Wendy Syfret’s agency (not to mention, the publisher’s). Proofread before posting, old chap, because hanging a head in shame is less of a contortion than extracting a foot from a mouth. Of course, there could be another situation at play, in which proof-reading does not produce proof-seeing. In that case, the foot cannot be redeemed from its conjoined twin, the mouth.


roy chen yee | 08 October 2021  

To clarify my post: as an ethicist and having read Syvret, I think she's divided between the too-easy indifference of the evangelicals, who disdain social action, and the morally earnest who tend towards social justice and not personal responsibility. Considering the mystery of indifference is the starting point of ethics. Indifference has many sources: political, psychological and social. Tragically, though, one of its most persistent sources is theological and religious. Theologically informed personal piety of the kind preached by Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson is especially venomous and impervious to change, as in, say 'I may be indifferent, but if that indifference is sanctioned by God, I'm virtuous.' Not only is this view promoted by biblical fundamentalists, but also by Manichean & Gnostic dualists. Among some Catholics there are several 'Augustinians' who incline to this view and as for Luther? Well! In contemporary society its the cowpokes of the Wild West who support this view: rugged individualists, they love Ayn Rand and detest the #BLM. 'Growth & Progress' is their catch-cry and the Prosperity Gospel their religion. Freedom from the State, Freedom from Reason and Nature, Freedom from Others: no wonder Syvret chooses nihilism in preference to engagement.


Michael Furtado | 08 October 2021  
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‘Considering the mystery of indifference is the starting point of ethics.’ It could be a starting point but that sounds more like your morally earnest denying personal responsibility. More likely is the situation a ‘try not to be indifferent and it still doesn’t work’. ‘The poor will always be with us.’ Why so? In fact, why the statement as properly restated: ‘A pocket of the people will always be poor’? It stays a pocket because society is not indifferent. But, the pocket is always there. Some of the pocket comes and goes and, really, is only a statistical feature. Some people fall into the pocket because of transient circumstances in their lives but because those circumstances are transient, due, in part, to the non-indifference of society through its many social services, and the rest from something you could call a personal spirituality, they climb out and are gone from it. But some look as if they will be trans-generationally stuck in it. That’s not because of society’s indifference. That’s because they are under a spiritual succubus and when the infection is from spirit, the medicine has to be from spirit too. We know, as individuals and as groups, from our intellectual work in culture and technology, too much about ourselves not to be able to see the future with some degree of assurance. Every individual has a life cycle, each stage of which can be almost predicted to the T by an ‘if so, then what, otherwise, what else?’ bit of scenario-building. The next time you’re accosted by a panhandler, the question to be thought by you is whether the panhandler is showing some initiative to get out of a temporary sticky spot, or whether he has a miasma in the shape of a succubus on his shoulders putting him in a permanent sticky spot. Or, if you like looking at big pictures similar to BLM, 54 years ago, a long time in any individual’s spiritual life, Aborigines became full human beings by an amendment to the Australian Constitution. 54 years and billions of dollars later, a sign, if anything, that society is not indifferent, how things are going depends on whether Ken Wyatt and his peers and predecessors federal and state is minister for distribution of goods and services or whether the real job description is minister for succubus disinfection. Well, if that’s the latter, he’s on a hiding to nothing because that job belongs, by subsidiarity, to individuals having the nous to sense the weight on their shoulders.


roy chen yee | 12 October 2021  

Alas, Michael Furtado, (7/10) your Eureka Street tutelage of Joel Hodge appears to be en retard: evidently, the fledgling Jesuit recognises already the longevity and significance of "logos" in philosophy, scripture and Catholic theology.


John RD | 09 October 2021  

There is a joke, John RD, about someone meeting his old Classics master years later and saying to him: 'Father, you taught Latin not just as a dead language, but as if it had never lived.' Such was the effect of Ray's rambling, disjointed discourse on the Logos on me. St Thomas Aquinas probably split his sides laughing in Heaven at this travesty. Only because you can't weep in Heaven. The beginning of St John's gospel puts it so beautifully and so simply. It is strange, when on another thread in ES, Dr Nimmi Candappa, bright, young, alive writes so beautifully and so hopefully about the current Plenary Council, that we are subjected to this tosh. This talk about the Logos here seems to me a very 'in' discussion with no real relevance to the plight, should I say existential despair, of a young person such as Wendy Syfret. I think Joel was off the mark initially and then the real rot set in. Peter Schulz, I think got it a bit wrong, but then he talked with real understanding about the tripe posing as genuine spirituality young people are exposed to and it's not just young people, either. What we need here is Christian Witness, not Christian Witless. Oh for a contemporary C S Lewis, G K Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc!


Edward Fido | 10 October 2021  
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Edward, it is unfair that you continue to berate my comments in the manner you deliberately contrive. While ES is a forum run by Jesuits encompassing Christian values I anticipate there is scope to post articles and comments without the necessity to draw every concept back within your comfort zone of some religious connotations; while some may insist everything comes back to a benevolent Creator, at some stage a blacksmiths anvil is just that...an anvil, doxa prevails, and a nihilist similarly defined as stated, rather than processed into some malleable ecclesiastical DNA to suit yourself. You declared me a "rusted on Catholic" and academic; am neither corroded nor Christian and by grace certainly not constrained by academy. My thinking is my own, not justified by cross-reference to some other authority for their perceived credence. I don't expect an apology from you or Michael for the mispronounced ad hominem, I don't think it is within you, individually or combined. What I anticipate is loose coalescence of notions from a triumvirate of classic philosophers to feign a quartet of your authority and Michael's useful strategic deployment of his Stendhal escape hatch. Don't let being wrong about someone interfere with your judgment of them or shake your confidence.


ray | 11 October 2021  

Edward, as I understand it, "logos" in the Christian tradition has much to do with the scriptural account of creation by word ("God said . . . and it was"), and thus with the investing of divine purpose in creation and the assurance we mortals can have that meaning is available - the antidote perennially of relevance to the "existential despair" of a nihilistic conception of existence, and a way of viewing and experiencing life accessible by faith in Christ, the "Word made flesh" and reason for hope.


John RD | 12 October 2021  

Edward, funny that you mention Aquinus; I hope he gets a laugh. not that I place much importance to his works but he did identify that the human is condition shaped in response to its understanding of the environment in which it is placed. Nhilism wasn't conceived in 1300 and similar notions could be considered heretical. Not name-dropping but Neitzsche who 600 years later stated similarly of nihilsm as a response by those who can't deal with their environment and feeling insignificant...and used the term "abyss" in a famous quote on same. He considers the nihilist stares into this emptiness, I interpret they climb a shaky ladder above the abyss and invite others to nihilism to climb that same trap...my metaphor is stretched, the ladder is logic (logos in its true form, step-by-step, which this article loosely refers). I have discussed nihilism with protagonists and found their understandings of the corporeal differ to mine. There are works on the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) which may be helpful for you to decipher notional reasoning like Agrippa's or Munchhausen's Trilemma, particularly that you find my writing so objectionable you complain to others. Or perhaps you'll pull the horse out by your hair...


ray | 12 October 2021  

As far as I am aware, John RD, Jesus Christ is the ultimate Logos, as well as the Alpha and Omega. Human History would not exist without Him. Then we would really be stuck with all that Neo-Darwinian tripe a la Dawkins and C Hitchins. I actually find them quite boring, but then again I find the sort of dreadful, laboured stuff churned out by the likes of Ray utterly boring as well. It's like in the joke about the Latin teacher. Christianity is not dead. Clive James, an agnostic, said he was culturally a Christian and talked about its central role in our English speaking society. This is something we often forget. Most, not all, of the great English poets were Anglican and had been raised on the Authorised (King James) version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. I do hope my Anglican clerical ancestors, who were there about this time, did not bore their congregations. The Good News is ever exciting but we must not put it into old wineskins.


Edward Fido | 12 October 2021  
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Edward, I share your conviction in affirming the perfection of St John's "Logos" because John identifies "the Word" not only as being "with God" but as actually being God (Jn 1:1) - in Aristotelian/Thomist terms, uniquely self-sufficient, originate, or "perfect" in the possession of being: absolute existence. I don't see why it should be necessary for Aquinas to confine himself to Johannine procedure and terminology. John's form and method in his "good news" is kerygmatic: a proclamation or announcement, based on divine revelation received in faith, whereas Thomas's in his "Five Ways" is discursive, proceeding philosophically and prescinding from refence to revelation as he applies reason first to observable finite being, ultimately postulating in his argument from effect and cause a Being whose existence, unlike that of all finite beings, is necessary; in other words, whose very essence it is to exist: that in-finite being, analogously, we call "God". John's identifying of Christ as the eternal and uncreated "Logos" supports the bridge between faith and reason in the pursuit and articulation of truth characteristic of the Catholic theological tradition so well expounded by highly distinguished analytical Thomist Professor John Haldane of St Andrew's University, Edinburgh, who is currently delivering an online lecture series on the Catholic Church which addresses a number of the issues - philosophical, theological, social and cultural - that frequently appear in these columns. (I also accept, Edward, your reminders - as would, I should think, St Thomas - of the limitations of human reason in approaching the ineffable mystery of God).


John RD | 15 October 2021  

If Edward wrote that I'd buy him dinner. I'm inclined that John1 Logos is pre-Stoic but you've knocked in the nails and I bow to the concise package. I do respect you both for your devotion to both John and Aquinus's work... you get an after dinner cigar if you manage to bring it to MALL linear logic so we can let technology crunch it. Maybe the answer is 42? (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Cheers, JohnRD


ray | 15 October 2021  

Very gracious, Ray. Thank you.


John RD | 18 October 2021  

Footnote* It took some detective work to discern Edwards objection to my interpretation of "logos" and the reason for his suggested saintly mirth. Joel writes of the logos of the ancient philosophers, a scientific principle - laws of nature. Heraclitus 500BC thought of logos as reason or account; tense sensitive. Stoic philosophy began around 300 BC, in which the logos was the active reason pervading and driving what was understood as the Universe. If we dissect Edward's ecclesiastical scoffs at moi with Occam's razor it can be understood that our friend Edward refers to the Logos of John; the Word of God bit in the Gospels. That was written about 60 AD, a few hundred years later... I don't interpret that Joel was referring to John's Logos in the article (he states the ancients) but perhaps he can clear that up. Perhaps this could emphasize my point that there is room at ES for earthly philosophical considerations without need for theological departures to explain the complex. Aquinas might get a giggle outta that, too... Enjoy your day.


ray | 13 October 2021  
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Pinch of salt, Ray. JohnRD does that too by hitting the heterodox with the Johannine construction of the Greek 'logos'. The Logos Foundation was a form of Christian ministry that once flourished in Australia under the leadership of Howard Carter. It was initially a trans-denominational charismatic teaching ministry, and primarily Protestant with ties to fundamentalist charismatic Catholic lay groups (Wiki). While Roy guns down everything in site with his construction of the magisterium, John aids and abets him with the old 'one-two'. The Logos Foundation moved to Toowoomba and the Darling Downs in the 1980s. Carter and his clique made links with Johannes Bjelke-Peterson in order to further their politico-religious goals. Logos enthusiasts, who have shamefully usurped Joel Hodge's use of that term in this essay, subscribe to an eschatology that is post-millennialism and unshamedly fundamentalist and conservative in nature. Lots of Carter's leadership team left the movement as his style became more authoritarian and cultish. The Logos Foundation was Reconstructionist, Restorationist, and Dominionist in its theology and works. All these 'impulses' (because one elevates them in calling them 'movements') are powerfully critiqued and dismissed by the very same Catholic Church that both Edward & John RD claim to defend.


Michael Furtado | 13 October 2021  

Spot on, Ray. John RD does that too by hitting the heterodox with the Johannine construction of the Greek 'logos'. The Logos Foundation was a form of Christian ministry that once flourished in Australia under the leadership of Howard Carter. It was initially a trans-denominational charismatic teaching ministry, and primarily Protestant with ties to fundamentalist Catholic lay groups (Wiki). While Roy guns down everything in site with his construction of the magisterium, JohnRD aids and abets him with this misconstruction. The Logos Foundation moved to Toowoomba and the Darling Downs in the 1980s. Carter and his clique established links with Johannes Bjelke-Peterson, while the latter was being toppled from his absurd Queensland fiefdom. Logos enthusiasts, who have plainly usurped Joel Hodge's use of that term in this essay, subscribe to an eschatology that is post-millennialism and unshamedly fundamentalist and conservative. Joel Hodge's well-known and published theological credentials are second to none: he is no fundamentalist! The Logos Foundation was Reconstructionist, Restorationist, and Dominionist in its theology and works. All these 'impulses' (because one elevates them in calling them 'movements') are powerfully critiqued and dismissed by the very same Catholic Church that Edward & John RD and Roy claim to defend.


Michael Furtado | 13 October 2021  

There are a few things, and only a few, that a Church must know. It must know what is an intrinsic evil. Having declared what it is, it can’t resile without losing all authority whatsoever to talk about the spiritual. Abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and the practice of homosexuality have been declared to be intrinsic evils. Succeeding generations of the Church Militant have no authority to change these teachings. Even capital punishment isn’t an intrinsic evil. Prudential matters are different. On those, you can bring out your textbooks and argue that the weight of logic favours your side. Even female ordination is really a prudential matter but the weight of evidence is such that the Church isn’t in a position to accept it and I don’t see, because of the evidence that is required, how it ever will be.


roy chen yee | 14 October 2021  

Michael, it'd be with shaky fingertips if I ever write "I agree" so I'll just acknowledge the preceding. Each as persons of Faith are determined to express that faith as they understand it and thus each named by yourself is absolutely entitled to their opinion and ownership of the associated logic (and otherwise). I try to dissociate from the emotional because of their beliefs; it can be exasperating to debate a person's beliefs and not offend them at a personal level. Nihilism occurs when the individual can't compute various aspects of their environment to a value proposition. The college of Babel (each certain of their dearly held beliefs, dismissing others) may inadvertantly contribute to nihilism's appeal. While various sects and religions disagree and dispute each other and their validity, those without compass can (rightly?) consider a path through the confusion to atheism and perhaps nihilism as an alternative which avoids conflict. I don't need to read Syfret to know she's "happy" by deflecting the responsibility of buying into a particular belief with clear, undisputed title.


ray | 14 October 2021  

Not for the first time, MF, you associate me with the presumably defunct "Logos Foundation", which, until you mentioned it in an earlier extended exchange on "logos" in the ES Education section ("What's the point of schooling?", July '21), I had never heard of. Since you've repeated it here, let me repeat this now, and say also that this latest associative polemical ploy of fancy and stereotyping does nothing to advance appropriately informed discussion.


John RD | 15 October 2021  

Dear John RD, You miss my point entirely yet again. It is to illustrate that the term 'logos', as Ray explains, has many applications, and that you have yet to prove that your association of it with Joel's was as Joel intends, and not a misappropriation or, even, a mistake. I was keen to establish that. The use of the term 'logos', as you would now have to admit, is popular with millenarian Protestants, and with Greeks in other - sometimes quite secular - epistemological contexts. While Ray says he doesn't give a damn about those with whom he jousts, whether faithed or otherwise, you and I certainly do


Michael Furtado | 18 October 2021  

Thanks, Ray, for your rather gentle comeback at me. Perhaps I was needlessly condemnatory and heavy handed. My apologies. I must say I find the Ancient Greek philosophers and moderns such as Nietsche useful in a Christian context only if they add something to the Deposit of Faith. With John in his gospel, I think he has really condensed everything which the philosophers saw of the logos and applied it to what I consider the one true Logos which was always immanent, waiting to be manifest in Jesus. This is solely my personal opinion, which means something to me. I can quote no authority for it. I am not a philosopher, nor a theologian although I have done some study in both fields. I'm glad you are not a subscriber to the Scholastic point of view. I am one with my great hero of the English Renaissance, John Colet, quite a biblical scholar in his own right, who thought it outdated then. There are those, such as John RD, who subscribe to it and that is a perfectly valid position. I found your post a bit hard to unravel, so I'm glad you explained it. I still think there is a need for those in the Church to really listen to the likes of Wendy Syfret, try to understand what they are saying and reach out to them. That is why I took issue with Joel in the first instance. All the very best to you and everyone else here.


Edward Fido | 13 October 2021  
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Edwardo, I'll cut you some slack on the basis that you admit you're not a theologian or philosopher (I was not aware) but still expect you can adequately express the raison d'etre for both works; I'll give you a clue: reason and account. To help you grasp the concept let's consider something tangible like my personal favorite, a blacksmiths anvil. The anvil has both states of a reason to be and an account of being. "It is what it is..." is accurate but not evidence and incomplete. Aside from tense, there's a consideration for adequacy of logic; we've come a long way since the Stoics and there's a hint for you to present a case for Aquinus. I don't envy you putting yourself betwixt a rock and a hard place but my stock in trade is boulders and anvils and it was your choice to select the Saints in adversary. Heaven looks on with interest... God knows there's an opportunity for a timely existential proof to satisfy nihilists.


ray | 14 October 2021  

Dear Edward, riddle me this, my learned theologian friend... You've mocked my small thoughts on logos with humorous reference to Aquinus and espoused the elegance of John 1 the Logos. John specifically wrote the Logos to counter the earlier teachings of Cerinthus who believed that the world was created by a power far removed from being of God the Father, and that Christ descended upon the man Jesus at his baptism. Why, if John's Logos is as "perfect" (as you state, repeatedly), was it deemed necessary by Aquinus to prove the existence of God in his Quinque Viae (5 ways) of natural logic rather than just run with extolling the virtues of Logos. The two texts are incompatible in construction and method of proof, although both allege precisely the same existance. I think it's fair you defend the case for both yet explain the different reasoning by account without circular reference of either. The nihilists and campus wait with baited breath.


ray | 13 October 2021  

MF (18/10), Joel Hodge's article explicitly affirms accepted Catholic understandings of "logos": that the universe is intelligible because it is "imbued with logos" reflected in the "laws of nature", and also that the "logos" is "personal", "purposeful" and relational. These factors and qualities advanced by Joel all cohere with the understandings of "logos" presented in earlier submissions by Edward Fido (12/10) and by me (12/10 and 15/10).


John RD | 19 October 2021  
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In that case, JRD, let's set aside our agreement not to put Joel in the hot seat and invite him to clarify what he means. Remember that this contretemps was occasioned by a jibe from you about my response to Joel, who in his subscription to mimesis cannot possibly attach without critical qualification the importance you place on the traditional view of Logos, thereby secluding the mumbo-jumbo that any thoughtful person would discard, such as that employed by fundamentalists to justify the tottering quasi-religious regime in Queensland that Ray himself recently parodied in these columns. For the record, I vehemently disagree with Edward's conservative view as well as your's: mere assertion doesn't make such mystically rethought positions a sustainable and incontestable position other than that one based upon a slavish attachment to doctrine. There are many contemporary theologies that deal with the Cosmic Christ that reject the Johannine version for more contextually illuminating and relevant Judeo-Christian exegeses. The ethics of your magisterial claims are well and truly contested by Russell Reno in an essay called 'Eschatology & Ethics' in the Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics (2007). Reno's argument essentially privileges reason as explanation and not a blind endorsement of Revelation.




Michael Furtado | 20 October 2021  

MF, I regard contemporary determination to eliminate "logos" from Catholic doctrinal discourse
- as Joel Hodge, in introducing it, clearly does not do - not only atrophies understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, but also disconnects reason from its source in Divine Wisdom, and moral law from its participation in the eternal law and its revelation and knowability in history. As Pope John Paul II observes in "Veritatis Splendor" (II, 36), such a severing is the " . . . positing of a complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of moral norms regarding the right ordering of life in this world. Such norms would constitute the boundaries for a merely 'human' morality; they would be the expression of a law which man in an autonomous manner lays down for himself and which has its source exclusively in human reason."


John RD | 21 October 2021  

And of course, MF, "slavish attachment" in no way applies to your routine invoking of "contemporary theologies" and the zeitgeist channeled through a 'magisterium' of the social sciences.


John RD | 22 October 2021  


‘Russell Reno’: You certainly choose your standard-bearers. ‘The Catholic Church did not deliver me from apostasy and false teaching. I teach at a Jesuit University, so I am not naïve about just how insouciant about orthodoxy priests can be’: https:// whyimcatholic.com/index.php/conversion-stories/protestant-converts/anglican-episcopalian/item/86-episcopal-convert-r-r-reno


roy chen yee | 23 October 2021  

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