Gospel-Driven, Nietzche, Nihilism, & Kant

October 29, 2009


 gospeldrivenlifeI’m just a few pages into Michael Horton’s new book A Gospel-Driven Life.  He starts by contrasting the outward call of the Gospel against the inward reaching tendencies of modern thought.  Good reasoning so far.  We’ll have more on this later in the form of a review, but for now, have a look:

[page 25]  At the beginning of the twentieth century, English poet, satirist, and novelist G. K. Chesterton routinely sparred with friends like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, who shared the perspective of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Nietzsche’s legacy has been especially felt in the more extreme forms of existentialism and postmodern thought and it is often identified as nihilism. In this sense, nihilism (literally, “nothing-ism”) does not mean that there is no point to life, but that there is no point to life that I don’t create for myself. Only the individual’s will is sovereign. “That my life has no aim is evident from the accidental nature of its origin,” said Nietzsche. “That I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.”2

[page 33]  Like Adam, we have preferred to write our own script and to create our own plot. In the modern age, it was thought that we had finally matured from the dregs of superstition into the enlightened era of universal reason. Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that the individual is “meant to produce everything out of himself.”7  No external authority—no Word outside of us—can be allowed to judge or save us. However, under the banner of autonomous reason we unleashed more devastation, oppression, violence, and genocide than in all of the centuries combined. Reacting against rationalistic arrogance, our age is drifting into irrational skepticism disguised as humility. Chesterton spoke of the “dislocation of humility” in modern thought and it works as well as a description of what many people are calling postmodern:

By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. . . . But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled on the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself.8 

Today what we doubt is not ourselves but God’s Word. Chesterton’s friends had assumed, with Nietzsche, that Christian orthodoxy was a blight on humanity, a curse upon life and happiness. However, it is nihilism that has despair at its heart. […] Its chief article is that life has no transcendent meaning or purpose[.]

My purpose for showing these two excerpts was to illustrate that the argument hasn’t changed much since the time of Augustine and Pelagius. On the one hand you have “Command what You will and give what You command,” meaning that God provides everything needful for salvation, even repentance, and on the other hand, “Let us approach the secret places of our souls,” Pelagius’ curved-in approach to holiness.  The Gospel requires that we bring nothing of ourselves; that is, at least nothing but our faith (even so,  that is via the Holy Spirit).  Fallen man requires that our purpose come from within ourselves, there is nothing beyond death (ironically this leads to death).  These points Paul fleshes out over and over throughout the Epistles.  Furthermore, this “dislocation of humility” is a brilliant observation.  Sadly, it is pervasive at the academic level and commonplace in politics and business.  Michael Horton goes on to describe more fully the fallacy of this thinking; if it weren’t so tragic, the humor of the whole situation would be flooring.  Horton continues:

[page 34]  The new humility paralyzes people from actually moving in any direction, despite all  the talk of progress, innovation, and forward-looking excitement.  “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table…Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.”  Chesterton adds, “An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another… You might as well say that certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.”

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