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Christ and Nihilism


I would like to share with you this evening what I perceive to be the hidden meaning of two passages of scripture which both use the image of light shining forth from darkness at the very moment of creation.

The first is the Priestly account of creation in Genesis One. In it we read that God uttered "Let there be light!" And the light, which did not yet exist, nonetheless did not deem that a sufficient excuse to delay obeying the Almighty voice.

The second is the introit of the Gospel of John in which all is created by the Word, the Logos, of God, and that Light was the light of reason, that which enlightens everyone who enters the world. In this latter text what we see is that the creative utterance of God in the Genesis passage has been filtered through the Stoicism of Philo and the Hellenistic Judaism of the day. The Word has become a semi-autonomous divine entity alongside God.

What is a word? It is to speak one's mind. The Word, or Logos, comes in Hellenistic philosophy to be nearly synonymous with the mind. It is God's mind, and it enlightens us as well. As St. Augustine would put it, we see all things by the light of the Divine Intelligence.

But both passages mention not only light but darkness as well. Darkness is the nearly tangible, obtuse bulwark against which the light flares forth in the dawn moment, when utter chaos gives way to the light of reason.

Behold, I show you a mystery: that darkness which light dispels is the very medium of light, for the light needs the darkness in which to shine. Without darkness to dispel, light would be invisible. It can only be seen for what it is in its difference from the darkness in which it shines.

Think of it like fire. If there were no air, there would be no fire. It cannot exist in a vacuum. Fire needs oxygen to burn. Even so, darkness is the oxygen of light. Light means nothing, and would be nothing, without its twin and opposite, darkness.

And in the same way we must admit that darkness is logically prior to light. Darkness is there first, and then light bursts forth. Chaos is prior to order, randomness to meaning. "Thou whose almighty Word / Chaos and darkness heard / and took their flight." Chaos and darkness were already present when the Word first sounded.

Tillich put it this way. Being and Nonbeing are opposites. But of the two, Nonbeing is older, because in every moment, Being is an affirmation of itself over against Nonbeing, which hence must be prior to Being, at least logically, if not chronologically.

All this, it seems to me, is quite biblical. And yet we have never acknowledged the theological, ontological implications. But I think Jacques Derrida has appeared in a prophetic role, much like Nietzsche's mad prophet, to tell us the implications, like them or not.

Derrida calls attention to the "logocentric" nature of Western philosophy. This means that the light of reason is exalted over everything, and that there is a rational truth about all things, a "logos-structure" as Tillich calls it, which makes it possible for there to be an over-arching truth to understand, and for the human mind, eventually, to understand it.

There is a universal light of intelligibility to things, and it appears reflected like light in the mirror of the rational human mind. The task of philosophy, according to logocentrism, is simply to polish the mirror of the mind so that we may reflect the truth more clearly. So that we do not see in a glass quite so darkly. That is what philosophical and theological argument is for.

But Derrida brings the idol of logocentrism crashing down. First he points out that the Logos, a rational meaning, simply cannot be prior to the world it supposedly explains and underlies. Why? Because the very condition of the phenomenon of "meaning" at the same moment undermines meaning! How?

Think back to what I said a moment ago: light seems to be the opposite of darkness. The two words would seem to be as different from one another as two things could be, right? But light means nothing without darkness to shine in! It requires the presence of its opposite in order to be, to mean, anything at all!

This is true with every signifier, even with everything supposedly signified. All meaning is differential in character. It is like the binary language of computers. A is not non-A. But it is thus entirely dependent upon non-A for its meaning as A! A has meaning only as the opposite of non-A. We cannot say what either A or non-A is, except by reference to the other. Each is the defining, the originary trace of the other. Each is integral to the meaning of the other.

Every meaning implies its opposite. As Tillich always maintained, faith is the opposite of doubt, and yet it includes doubt, it does not banish it! If it did, it, too, would fade away. One word's differing from its neighbor, and only in this way attaining any meaning at all, means that there can never be any clear truth as opposed to error. To speak of a rational order is to say that something has been artificially ordered! To say that God is one, as does the Shema, undermines the unity of God, since the very notion of ­oneness­ demands a prior notion of many against which the assertion of oneness is made. One--of many! One--instead of many. A narrowing down of many to one. An exclusion of other gods, not an absence of them. Light, reason, order, meaning, then, are not ultimate. Right reason, the Logos of God, is the tip of the iceberg of madness.

To assert one overarching meaning is only made possible by the condition of meaning, namely differance. Unless meaning were an unstable arc of tension back and forth between opposites, there could be no meaning, and since this is so, ambiguity, randomness, difference are more ultimate, more fundamental.

If there is a light of the world, it can comprehend the darkness no better than the darkness can comprehend it. And in fact it is the darkness of chaos which can be said to create light.

What of human reason? Does it reflect the light of truth? Does not truth seem self-evident to the mind? That was good enough for Descartes: what presents itself as clear and distinct to my mind must be true. But Derrida says this, too, is an illusion. The self-presence of the mind in the present moment, as David Hume saw long ago, is an optical illusion.

The present moment receives the apparent meaning and color it seems to have only by virtue of remembering the past and anticipating the future. By itself the present is empty, blind and naked. In the same moment we embrace the conclusion of an argument as clearly true, we have already begun to forget the steps that led us there. We have to go back over it in our minds to remind ourselves and be convinced again. And again.

Even our self as we appear to ourselves is largely a product of censoring and editing by the subconscious mind. Others can see what we cannot. Others know us better than we know ourselves. If we cannot see even the eye that sees, how sure are we that we are really seeing anything else?

Derrida was concerned to upheave the edifice of Western philosophy, which he has done to my satisfaction. He began with Plato, a devout servant of the rational Logos. Plato said that speech is always better than writing, even better than a written account of the same speech, because the speaker is the father of the Logos, of the word. (Does that phrase have a Christian echo to it?)

The speaker has a definite idea in mind and seeks to communicate it by word, helped along by voice, stress, gesture. He is present in his utterance, and if he speaks well, his intended meaning is present in his words as they enter the mind of the listener.

But the father of the word, when he commits his word to paper, is sending out a prodigal son which may not stick to the intended path. The text meets readers without benefit of the presence of its author. Readers must make of the text itself what they can, and they may get a totally different meaning out of it. That is a built-in liability of a written text. It speaks for itself, no matter what you had in mind, and it may not say the same thing. The meaning of a written text is uncontrollable.

But Plato's condemnation of writing, to which even he had to resort, is too little too late. He is locking the barn door after the horse has got out and run away. Derrida's accomplishment is to point out that meaning itself, the whole system of language itself, is already a field of chaotic text even as it is written into your subconscious. You are always saying many unintended things every time you open your mouth. The word is immediately like a can of worms that cannot be got back into the can. The fatal ambiguity of writing has always already attached itself to speech, too--in fact, to all language as such.

The Bible implicitly recognizes this linguistic chaos when it says that for now "all is in parables," i.e., nothing is definitively clear, all is equivocal. The light of the world may shine on everyone who comes into the world, but it is evident that we are seeing it in a glass darkly.

The Christian claim, however, is that one day the truth, the clear light of the Logos, the meaning of the world intended by the Father of the Word who spoke it into ordered existence, will appear plainly. This will be the full presence of truth to the mirror of the intellect. It will be the Parousia, or "presence" of truth, and on that day we will "know even as we are known."

Language will no more be misleading and ambiguous. Meaning will no more lie in the eye of the beholder. "I have said this to you in figures," the Logos of the Father says, but "the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but will tell you plainly of the Father." A glorious Parousia of authorial intent!

Is there such a single truth, a central sun of Logos, meaning, about which everything else revolves? That, alas, is the very error of logocentrism which Derrida has debunked, whose bluff this mad prophet has called. By the very nature of truth as a function of ­differance­, there can be no one truth, no truth prior to error, no objective truth.

As Nietzsche said, as his madman screamed, God is dead! The earth has become unchained from the sun of meaning about which it once orbited, or seemed to orbit! The Logos-center has been shot out of the sky like a clay pigeon!

There is no truth independent of language, standing outside it or above it, no Transcendental Signified. There is no meaning outside that could be imposed onto this field of signifiers, this ocean of words, of text. Reality is a word-search puzzle, an abstract painting, and the only meaning it may have is what you project onto it. That is what God did, after all. He decided that it would mean thus and so. But that is only one opinion. There is no central truth to the thing itself!

Reality is, paradoxically, full of meaning for you to find there, simply because it has no one­ meaning! If it did, it would be a cold, dead thing, a mere stone. But it can mean anything because there is no one definitive meaning at all! This is the Nihil, the crater. It is the Nothingness that is no thing, no-one-thing.

Some have quailed and become sick at the prospect that reality is an empty canvass, that there is no picture painted upon it. But, as Nietzsche knew, the knowledge of the Nihil is a joyous knowledge! Because you face the virgin canvas as God did on the morning of creation! A palette of paint is in your hand! The picture is for you to paint! The world of meaning is for you to create! Who else could do it?

The Nihil, the pulsating Void that is full of potential because it is nothing actual, is in some ways like the traditional idea of God. It has a kind of phantom ultimacy, precisely because it is no one penultimate thing. It bears the will-o'-the-wisp trace of holiness, a kind of echo of transcendence. We face the abyss of metaphysical nullity and exclaim, slack-jawed, "Why is there Nothing rather than Something?" And thus there is a kind of negative worship left unto us. A Via Negativa.

The Logos is dead. That should be a familiar notion to us here on Holy Saturday. But that is by no means the end of Christ. If we embrace the Nihil, we renounce forever the notion of Truth. We admit hence forth that all is fiction, and that is a gladsome realization! A cause to celebrate! From this point on, we say that all meaning is fiction. A meaning of our own creation. A story which provides meaning as we act it out. Does it correspond to ultimate reality? No, because nothing can: there is no ultimate reality.

Fiction is the only kind of truth there ever was. And we can adopt the fiction of the New Testament, the wondrous tale of a Messiah who set forth the conditions of discipleship and said "Follow me!" Did he do miracles? Did he even exist? Who knows! But we understand the story, "the old, old story," and we know well enough what discipleship to this Christ entails. We can  choose to live his story. We can choose that meaning for ourselves. If others choose another fiction to act out, fine: let them. We can only tell them they are welcome to join in our Mystery Play should they wish.

The Empty Tomb of Christ is the Void left by the absence of any central, objective meaning of things. That Christ, that Logos that is the Only Truth and the Only Way, is dead. In fact he is doubly dead, never having existed in the first place, retroactively dead. But Jesus died on the cross, and rose into the Gospels. The flesh was made word, and we dwell amongst it as we adopt for ourselves the fiction of Christ and Christianity.

Do you, then, stand upon the brink of the universal crater, facing the Nihil? Then you do what God did on the first day of creation. Speak and create!


Robert M. Price

Holy Saturday 1993




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