Nihilism and the Passion of Our Lord

COMMENTARY: The noise of mob rule can leave no one at peace — a peace which is only found, ultimately, in union with Christ.

Passion of Christ.
Passion of Christ. (photo: Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).)

The present civil unrest in American U.S. society is the culmination of a long descent from the Judeo-Christian ethic — a descent which began in earnest with the onslaught of World War I.  Europe committed spiritual suicide in a war which led to casualties on a massive level and ended in an equally devastating pandemic of influenza (which historians note, was spurred on, in part, by the close-quartering and mass-movement of troops throughout the U.S. and Europe during and after the war).

World War I was the fruit of nihilism — the denial of objective truth — already begun in the 19th century.  I have used the word “nihilism” for this denial because when nothing is absolutely true then there is no certain path in either reason or faith. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI referred to this as the “dictatorship of relativism”. Anarchy is its political equivalent.

The denial of objectivity was characterized by two things a century ago which have gained more ascendancy with the passage of time: the discovery of relativity in science which indirectly led to a relativity regarding all truth and especially moral truth. (As Catholic historian Paul Johnson notes, Einstein himself protested against making this leap from objective science to the moral realm.)   ````Nonetheless, however unfairly, Einstein’s scientific discovery was coupled with Sigmund Freud’s psychological discoveries, which together with the rising popularity of Marxism and Darwinism, brought the whole issue of personal responsibility into question. Indeed, the philosophical relativism of the 19th century embodied by Marxism and Darwinism, affirmed that all universal truths were either a result of the projection of human need or human emotion – or some invisible and inhuman force – but not objective thought grounded in sense experience and in the fact that a transcendent God does exist and does take an interest in human affairs.


Relative to Catholicism

Naturally, then, this denial of objective truth, when applied to Catholicism, has had very destructive results. Reflecting on this, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave a talk published as Difficulties confronting the faith in Europe Today (May 2, 1989) when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in which he recounted that there were three basic areas of difficulty in Catholic doctrine today caused by this relativism of truth.

The first regards the “complete disappearance of the doctrine of creation” from theology. “The demise of metaphysics goes hand in hand with the displacement of the teaching on creation. Their place has been taken by a philosophy of evolution (which I would like to distinguish from the scientific hypothesis of evolution). This philosophy intends to discard the laws of nature so that the management of its development may make a better life possible. Nature, which ought really to be the teacher along this path, is instead a blind mistress, combining by unwitting chance what man is supposed to simulate now with full consciousness” (Difficulties). The results of this denial blur the distinction between God and the world so that the world becomes God.

The second area is a new idea of Christ. If one denies a transcendent deity and yet claims to be a Christian what does one do with Christ? He says there are two models, both equally disturbing. One sees Jesus as just a good middle class male who preaches a simple doctrine of love and pacifism, and never challenges anyone to anything. The other is the failed revolutionary.  “Now in both these versions there runs a common thread, namely, that we must be saved not through the Cross, but from the Cross. Atonement and forgiveness are misunderstandings from which Christianity has to be freed” (Difficulties).

The third unfortunate consequence is the denial of the afterlife. If there is no transcendent God and Jesus need not have suffered the cross to redeem us then the afterlife described in Scripture is one we create here ourselves by better social structures. This is the “better world” of Utopia. “Where the Kingdom of God is reduced to the ‘better world’ of tomorrow, the present will ultimately assert its rights against some imaginary future. The escape into the world of drugs is the logical consequence of the idolizing of Utopia. Since this has difficulty in arriving, man draws it to himself or throws himself headlong into it” (Difficulties). Young people have been imbued with this escape from reality because there is nothing certain they can hold on to as truth.


Toss Out the Cross?

The results of the new Christology, which presents a Christ without a Cross is to humanize Jesus so much he ceases to be divine. The Cross and all his suffering during the passion become a regrettable incident he could have avoided. The Cross is called absurdity itself, not in the sense of St. Paul who contrasts its higher wisdom with Greek philosophy, but in the sense that it is senseless. Jesus did not choose the Cross but only suffered the humiliation of Golgotha because the politics of the time were not ready for his revolution. As a result, he threw himself into the blackness of the unknown as what might be supposed an “irrational” act of faith — which itself is anti-intellectual. He hopes against hope that God will make sense of this meaninglessness and his cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” expresses the fact that he really has no idea why he is there.

This interpretation of Jesus’s passion and death — culminating in an ultimate cry to his father — is completely contrary to Catholic teaching on the subject. Jesus did not have faith because he did not need faith. He is the only person in Scripture to whom faith is not attributed. Traditional Catholic theology, even expressed in the teaching John Paul II, affirms that Jesus has the vision of God in heaven in his human mind from the moment of his conception. He does not merit heaven for himself but only for us. He is always in command even in his passion. “No one takes my life from me, I have power to lay it down and take it up again.” (John. 10:18)

Though Jesus feels abandoned on the Cross does he think this to be the case in what we call his higher intelligence? How could he be deserted by God — by himself? He cannot cease being the second Person of the Trinity, nor God made man, nor a sinner, nor lose the Beatific Vision once he has it. He is only abandoned externally to the will of his enemies and though he feels this deeply (the Passion was a matter of horrific suffering) he knows he is not. Catholicism has always expressed this as: God withdrew his protection but preserved the union. The cry from the Cross is the first verse of Psalm 22 — and if one reads the psalm through, the innocent psalmist is suffering terribly, but his concluding verses are very far from a cry of despair. “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord!” proclaims David near the end of the poem.


Nowhere Peace but in Christ

For those who do not believe in the afterlife or the Beatific Vision, their attempts to create Utopia lead to a dead end. Pope Benedict thought it was to explain their despair of saving themselves that modern culture has taken refuge in drugs. More recently, and at an alarmingly increasing rate, secular society has indulged in a new sort of drug: “Rage.”  “Rage” which destroys the other as other (thus, racism, abortion, etc.) is a convenient scapegoat for the inability — the impossibility — to save oneself. Stupid rage which destroys property and society is like a drug and like a drug it must be controlled. As with the other deadly sins – pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth-- if one must ascetically challenge and control sex, one must control anger with an aesthetic discipline grounded in the cardinal virtues. To strive for such virtues, however, requires a return to objective truth — which culminates, theologically speaking, in the Cross and resurrection.

If faith is true, then reason can enter the soul again. Satan loves noise because it rejects and corrupts the ability to think. The noise of mob rule can leave no one at peace, and even if protests at injustice are accompanied by the best motives, the noise in a soul inhibits the objectivity necessary to carry out such protests with peace of mind and peace of soul — a peace which is only found, ultimately, in union with Christ.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady’s latest book is Captivated by the Master: A Theological Consideration of Jesus Christ (EWTN).