Summer Reading Group: “God, Nihilism, and Flourishing”

This is the final post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2016 Summer Reading Group. Each post was drawn from chapters of the book Flourishing by Miroslav Volf. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

“A specter is haunting the world,” Miroslav Volf writes in his epilogue to Flourishing, “the specter of nihilism.” By “nihilism” Volf does not mean widespread and explicit rejection of morality or religion. He is concerned instead with what he calls a “stealthier kind of nihilism.” Sometimes it “wears a clean, ironed, and buttoned-up uniform of moral order” and sometimes it “romps around pushing against the parameters” of this order. In all cases, however, it drains the world of meaning and leaves us “with the crushing burden of an unbearably light existence.” Consider, for example, both the “passive” and “active” nihilisms recently on display amid the leafy suburbs of Silver Spring, Maryland—the nihilism, as startling as it may sound, of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s 2016 Annual Council meeting.

According to the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the moral and spiritual trajectory of Western civilization has culminated in the rise of those he called the “Last Men”—mindless consumers incapable of heroic striving and entertaining themselves to death, all the while imagining themselves to be the highest exemplars of humankind. We need not accept Nietzsche’s atheism to see that religious institutions and people are by no means immune from the malaise he diagnosed. His indictment of our market-driven “herd-morality” offers more penetrating insights into the life of the church than we might care to admit.

Attending just one day of this year’s Annual Council as a lay observer, it was difficult to shake the feeling that one was indeed in the presence of history’s “Last Men,” albeit not in the sense they themselves imagined. The delegates sitting near to me grew most animated not when some of their fellow believers offered carefully reasoned and heartfelt pleas with them to pause in their rush to vote upon a vaguely menacing document just handed down from on high. Instead, they came most alive during the sales pitches by representatives from two cities vying to host a future General Conference. “St. Louis or Indianapolis? Which will it be? Watch these promotional videos about their entertainment and dining venues and then decide!” Here was a group of men (for they were almost entirely men) blinking and voting in blocs on matters of momentous importance to the entire Adventist community. But many of them appeared to care more about having two options of where to go shopping than they were with the fact that they had just been presented with a single option for understanding the church’s ecclesiology and doctrine of unity.

If the passive nihilism of the Last Men is one of the specters haunting our world, there is a second type of nihilism that Nietzsche did not diagnose so much as embody. This is the active nihilism of those who Volf calls “today’s high achievers.” “They work hard, they compete hard, and they walk over the bodies of the vanquished with smug indifference.” For them, life is all about “bending the shape of the world to align with their needs.” They are the ones who are not bound by the same rules that apply to others, for “nothing has authority over” them. They decide on the exceptions to the rules. Or, we might say in the language of a recent document from the General Conference Secretariat, they are the ones with “plenary power” over everyone who happens to be “lower” than them in the grand scheme of things.

Unfortunately, all of the perils of will to power—what St. Augustine called libido dominandi, the lust for domination—apply to Adventist officialdom no less than to any other fallible human institution, as anyone who has lived close to church politics and has any sense of realism knows. It is possible for the General Conference president and all the president’s men to lead not by building consensus across differences but by consolidating and expanding their own power. It is possible for those in the Inner Circle to attempt to bend the church to their own wills through procedural maneuvering, pressure tactics, and backdoor dealings. It is possible for them to refuse to submit to the teaching authority and tempering wisdom of the church’s theologians and biblical scholars. It is possible for them to forget that they have been appointed as valued functionaries with strictly administrative rather than priestly, apostolic, or ecclesiastical titles. It is possible for them to mistake “winning” by sheer majoritarian votes with building actual unity in the body of Christ. And it is possible for them to do all these things with blinkered confidence that God is always on their side.

Perhaps the greatest evidence that even church officials can be active nihilists at heart can be found in the bold claim we now hear being made by some individuals that obedience to Christ is virtually synonymous with obedience to the Working Policy—the one book they themselves have the power to write and re-write. Active nihilism might best be summarized as the notion, in Volf’s words, that “meaning lies with us.” When we are parched for meaning, we end up projecting our own power onto others—whether this power appears in a secular or a religious guise—in an attempt to fill finite goods and fallible institutions with ultimate values.

When the passive nihilism of the middling managers and the active nihilism of the dynamic powerbrokers come together in the name of Church, the result is often a soul-crushing fundamentalism and—in the Adventist context—the worst of two possible worlds: endless speech-making and pro forma voting but without any of the robust checks and balances of a healthy democracy, combined with a religious hierarchy in which those at the top claim ever growing authority in theological matters but without strong theological qualifications or intellectual accountability. The great virtue of an ecclesiastical as opposed to a managerial hierarchy is that at least a conclave of bishops carries with it the authority of hard earned erudition. Not so a conclave of bureaucrats.

Volf’s book is primarily addressed to those who have grown skeptical of the possibility of a generous and peaceful religious engagement with the urgent political crises of our age. Yet many of his insights can also be applied to believers who are full of confidence in religion’s importance. His answer to the challenge of contemporary nihilism—both in and out of the church—is a recovery of sacramental theology. To see the world as a sacrament is to see it as a gift, and “To think of a gift,” he writes, “you must, of course, think of a giver.” Volf freely acknowledges that this theological vision is entirely contestable. However, he argues, the Christian narrative, if true, “makes possible a unity of meaning and ordinary pleasures.” It frees us to encounter the world not as something to dominate and control but as a space in which we might still be surprised by joy. It leads us out of the traps and masks of nihilism to a theology of Sabbath rest. “On this one day of the week, a day toward which all days are aiming and from which they all gain meaning, human striving comes to an end, and the joy in the world as the gift and in God as the giver reigns supreme…we come to experience ordinary things as extraordinary—as the Lover’s gifts—and therefore rejoice in them all the more.”

For Adventist readers, Volf’s book comes as an essential reminder that our flourishing as individuals and as communities does not finally hinge upon whatever happens to be voted by men in dark suits at the General Conference. Whether or not the church remains faithful in its visible, institutional forms, our flourishing remains anchored in God’s ongoing care for all of creation. When nihilism seeps into even our church life, Christ still offers us the warmth of authentic human community at the margins and the peace of Sabbath rest.

___________

Ronald Osborn is a wandering philosopher and the author of "Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7702
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Bravo, Ron! The threat of nihilism is real and must not be ignored.

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Thanks, Ron. Loved your take on the chapter and appreciated your first person account and analysis of the recent meetings. The sharp contrast between the two parts of the meeting you describe was not so obvious to those of us who watched online. One thing I found disturbing was the one-sided nature of the discussion–80% of the speakers making their cases were against the motion. I kept wondering “Where’s the other side? Surely, those who see things differently are equally passionate. Why the relative silence?” Then the thought came to me that there’s no need to argue your case if you already know that things are going to work out in your favor; what’s the point? I got the sense that the necessary conversations had already been had and minds were already made up.

The other possibility is that there was some sort of language barrier, with English not being the first language of those supportive of the motion. If this is the case, though, what is the basis for the voting that followed? Was there translation being provided of the nuanced and compelling arguments by NAD and TED leadership?

All this to say your hermeneutics of suspicion may be warranted.

On a brighter note, I found Volf’s phenomenological analysis of gifts and argument that experiencing reality as a divine gift adds something to life beyond that of secular flourishing to be creative and brilliant!

It may be getting dark in here but the sun continues to shine on the just and unjust.

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Doesn’t this apply both ways, to representatives of first class divisions as well, finding Working Policy loopholes to justify non-compliance to a majority vote cast by those coming from third class divisions?

Interesting point Joselito. Perhaps if the unions in question but more importantly the women pastors in these unions were in a position of dominance and power over the rest of the church the analogy would hold. But I have a hard time seeing these women and the people who support them in the same terms as powerful men who deny them a seat at the table. Zane’s reflections on an earlier chapter by Volf might also help to clarify some of the differences.

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An excellent and deeply insightful essay by Ron Osborn! Thank you for a wonderful piece of writing, full of wisdom and truth.

Who would have thought that Nietzsche’s prophetic nihilism could function as a helpful deconstructive tool of the ‘bishops and popes’ in the SDA hierarchy in Silver Spring?

They surely have something to learn from Nietzsche’s fundamental view, without having to adopt a purely relativistic view of truth, that ‘human knowledge is interpretation’; to know is to interpret. There is no ‘knowledge in itself’. What we can know as human beings will always be conditioned, because as knowing subject we are always in a relationship with the world. We are always viewing the world from somewhere, not from nowhere, that is from a perspective. That is why human knowledge is always conditioned. To understand this is therfore to embrace diversity as a basic human condition for any notion of unity. Plurality is always prior to unity.

A rejection of Nietzsche’s notion of truth as perspectival knowledge, is the notion of truth as Absolute and undisputable; truth as Truth: a merely replicate of the voted state of affairs by the «Last Men» obsessed with their self-proclaimed divine authority.

This is the specter that haunts the SDA Church, advocated by the present GC hierarchy: essentialist theologies that suffocate plurality, shutting off dialogue, leading to a total blindness to a world constituted by the lived reality of human beings. It is a strong devaluation of the created and incarnational character of human existence and of the biblical notion of truth.

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Passionate and insightful essay! Replies that keep us thinking!

Thanks so much.

Consider George Knight’s historical essay, showing how unions came into being as a hedge against “kingly power.” It was published on the weekend before the vote in the background here, and for a document of its length received a very wide readership.

But the church’s powerful, who now embrace (!) kingly power, do not bother to respond. I haven’t heard, at least, that any of Knight’s arguments evoked even an attempted refutation from those in Silver Spring who disagree with him.

Lording it over wins. Again. But thanks to a host of faithful women, and also to Ron and others like him, the resistance will persist.

Chuck

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Thank you Ron very much for pointing out that this dispute is not about faithfulness to Scripture or the alleged ethical responsibility the losers have to accept the majority decision. This is obviously about too many male church leaders not relinquishing the most trivial amount of power they have “over” women. “Women can keep doing ministry” they argue. Why must they be ordained?

Those in administrative authority cannot experience the world from the point of view of the oppressed without their resistance collapsing. If ordination means “nothing” then they should give it up in their own ministries. This would mean they cannot occupy the various roles they play which guarantee their seating at Annual Council and the GC in session.

“Power over” people is always evil, especially in a church which believes God would rather go to the cross than exercise such power. Divine (and disciple) power is always “power for” the creation and the creature. We are not wielding power for women but over women, and it is completely inconsistent with the gospel.

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Does not the NAD, and the union and local conferences that constitute it, occupy a “position of dominance and power” over the rest of the church? Look at the representation at the Annual Council by all NAD union and local conference presidents, for example, compared to representatives from the other divisions of the GC. Perhaps it’s worth nothing that, until recently, the NAD and the GC were one and the same.

As far back as 1918, church leaders at the headquarters defined the subordinate status of union and local missions that constituted overseas divisions of the GC. It’s data George Knight, perhaps inadvertently, omitted in his otherwise fine presentation regarding the historical relationship of unions to the GC.


I’m afraid I don’t follow your logic. In 1918 there were hardly any Adventists at all outside of the United States so that is a strange point of comparison. Since at least the 1990 vote by the world church against the NAD’s request for regional variations when it comes to women’s ordination, North America’s power vis-a-vis other parts of the globe has been on the decline. At the recent Annual Council meeting about 60% of the delegates voted in favor of the document being urged by the GC president threatening action against unions that have ordained women. This was in the face of strenuous opposition by NAD as well as European leadership. Of the more than 100 union presidents who attended as delegates only nine were from the NAD. This is not the North American Division (let alone the Pacific or Columbia Unions) exerting “dominance” over “the rest of the church”. The question is, will GC leaders strive to preserve the unity of the world church by working to build consensus across differences (following, for example, some of the proposals put forward by the Norwegian Union)? Or will they simply seek to mandate conformity to policy (which is not the same thing as doctrine) even when it violates the deep moral convictions of hundreds of thousands of members through sheer majoritarian votes, failing to understand that even if they were able to force conformity it would not be the same thing as unity?

In 1918, church membership in NA compared to the rest of the world field was like so:


North America… 2,251 churches 91,972 baptized members
Outside NA… 1,980 churches 70,595 baptized members

Fact of the matter is, delegates to the Annual Council from the NAD have always included all union conference and all local conference presidents which is not the case with those who came from abroad. That was true then and is still true today. Since when has the will of the majority become synonymous with “majoritarian” rule? When it became obviously clear the NAD could no longer carry the majority vote. So they’ve chosen other social means to exert their “dominance and power” by citing the right to deviate and refuse compliance.

So judging from these tables, in 1918 there were approximately 92,000 Adventists in North America and another roughly 48,000 in Europe and Australia (i.e., about 140,000 out of 162,000 Adventists were from Anglo-European parts of the world, the great majority from the United States). I still fail to understand what any of this has to do with recent actions by some GC officials or with the voting we witnessed at the Annual Council meeting. If there is any value in reflecting back on the days when Adventists of Anglo-European descent were still in the majority, though, I would suggest that it is the value precisely of remembering the injustices of white privilege and the dangers of sheer majoritarian rule.

Imagine that a majority of Adventists in 1918 believed in white racial superiority. Imagine that these beliefs were codified in a policy barring persons of color from certain positions of leadership in the church. Imagine that hundreds of thousands of Adventists in several unions in Africa and Latin America declared that the policy violated their deep moral and theological convictions and announced that they would no longer follow it. Imagine that church officials commissioned a study by leading theologians and biblical scholars from around the world to clarify the church’s position on race. Imagine that most of these scholars, to the disappointment of prominent church officials, came to the conclusion that the discriminatory practices of the church were not a matter of biblical teaching or church doctrine but of history and culture. Now imagine that white church officials, by sheer majoritarian vote, upheld the discriminatory policy barring persons of color from key leadership positions. And imagine that when several unions continued to defy the policy, these same officials laid plans to punish them, proclaiming that all unions must “submit” to all voted General Conference policies lest they stand in “satanic” rebellion against Christ himself.

This analogy is unfortunately not nearly as fanciful or hypothetical as we might wish. African Americans were effectively barred from leadership positions for most of the church’s history. The General Conference cafeteria was segregated until the early 1960s. The Adventist handbook to ministers advised against interracial marriage until, incredibly, 1992. Facts like these led African Americans to finally demand the formation of regional conferences in which they could assume leadership positions and pursue evangelistic methods that would be most effective within their own communities. If you had been a white leader in the Adventist church in the 1960s and 1970s, then, would you have supported African American church members in their calls for racial justice and recognition of cultural and regional differences? Or would you have condemned them for disrupting church “unity” and “refusing compliance”?

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There are different ways to approach this abstruse topic of" nihilism" as applied to Jewish/Christian modes of religious beliefs. Jews ,at least those I have spoken with, seem to believe that Yahweh is the one worthy of moral emulation and religious praise ,and that there is only ONE true TESTAMENT which is authorised by him, the Judaic compilation popularly known as the Holy Bible.The so-called Christian Testament is, in this view an illegal attempt to usurp the authority of Yahweh and may therefore be a form of passive nihilism, which presents salvational danger to those who follow Christian views which are largely RCC promoted…that is the very empire of people who executed Jesus. They further contend that God could not be executed by lowly mankind , and therefore the fact that Jesus was both tortured and executed by primitive mankind shows that he not part of any Godhead. Can’t have it both ways! The Jew argued that if Jesus were a part of the Godhead , he would therefore be equivalent to Yahweh himself; if Jesus could have been killed, then Yahweh can also be killed. If then Yahweh can be killed by humans and he were truly the creator of the universe , what then? man could destroy the universe? If these premises are valid it would therefore mean the hierarchy of a CHURCH/ Religious body would have as much authority themselves to make rules and regulations governing the modus operandi of such body(ies) as Jesus himself and would therefore be constrained only by what Yahweh himself would be deemed to have approved.BUt how to determine what Yahweh himself would have us do?Jewish reporting by itself has shown no accuracy or understandable transparency in these matters. To take the matter of male supremacy: Female equality seems to be a characteristic of the high celestial beings. During the creation of man operations during which a female geneticist calle NINTI or MAMI performed a leading role (along with assisting the "snake, a male geneticist), Mesopotamian narratives emphasise that it was Mami who did the crucial procedures which ensured that the creation exercise was successful:There were fourteen beings created at first , seven male and seven female:She pinched off fourteen pieces of clayand set seven on the right, seven on the left; seven created males, seven created females. But there was a hitch, there was late birth. :When the tenth month came , she slipped in the staff and opened the womb. Her face was glad and joyful.She covered her head, Performed the midwifery, Put on her belt, and said a blessing.The Elohim were very grateful to her “We used to call you MAMI,but now your name shall be Mistress of all Gods” Thus records the ATRA HASIS Sumerian text of the creation of man. Today we call our mothers MAMA in her honour.But was man created from clay? The Akkadian word for ‘clay’ is TI.IT later shortened to ‘tit’. In Hebrew ‘tit’ means ‘mud’ but it has a synonym ‘bos’ which shares a root with ‘bisa’(marsh) and ‘besa’ (‘egg’). So man was created from an EGG and not from mud…