Prophets Who No Longer Believe in the Lord: Why We Need More than Sentimental Nihilism

I once came across a quote from Gianni Vattimo: "Humanism is in crisis because God is dead."

Here's what that quote means.

I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who have become post-Christian. By and large, they have taken their previously held liberationist vision of Christianity and have gone on to unpack that vision in wholly secular, liberal, and humanistic terms. Keep the liberationist and prophetic moral vision of Christianity--which is broadly appealing to the woke, social justice warrior elites in the intellectual and creative classes--but reject the metaphysics of the underlying Christian belief system. Keep the social justice kernel, along with some environmental activism, and discard the religious husk.

I have a lot of sympathy for these friends and acquaintances. In the early years of this blog, I was a practiced guide in this exact sort of demythologizing liberationist deconstruction. But as I've spent more time in these progressive Christian spaces, and watched the post-Christian drift, I've found the newly-arrived-at post-belief, post-religion, post-metaphysical worldview deeply incoherent. 

To put the matter bluntly, a lot of my post-Christian friends and acquaintances still want to be prophets but they have been reduced to sentimental nihilists. 

By "sentimental" I mean here the argument made by Alasdair MacIntyre in his seminal book After Virtue. Basically, my post-Christians friends espouse a suite of beautiful and lovely virtues and visions of human flourishing. Capitalism is destroying the climate. Black Lives Matter. F*** the patriarchy. Oppression is systemic and intersectional. 

And lest there be any misunderstanding here, I agree with all that. But here's the critical difference. My friends used to believe these things were wrong for metaphysical reasons. The true, beautiful and the good, these were ontological realities. But with those metaphysics rejected, replaced by a materialistic worldview with an opt-in-or-out, choose-your-own spiritual-but-not-religious adventure, my post-Christian friends now believe in all this stuff for sentimental reasons. Their values are deep convictions they passionately hold, but at the end of the day passionate convictions are, at root, sentiments, subjective states that can vary from person to person. 

That post-Christian, post-metaphysical liberationist ethics are romantic and sentimental does not make them incoherent. What makes the situation incoherent is that my post-Christian friends, as I said, still want to be prophets. Christianity raised these friends to be prophets, and they retain that fire. And that is the problem. Prophets are metaphysicians. Prophets speak a Word of the Lord. Prophets pronounce judgment. 

By turning away from metaphysics, my post-Christian friends have subjectivized their convictions. They have rejected meta-narratives. 

My post-Christian friends aspire to be prophets, but they no longer believe in the Lord. They are former prophets who have become romantics. They share good news they no longer believe in. They proclaim justice but deny the long arch of history. They proclaim an abundance their materialism refutes. They try to squeeze hope from nihilism. 

Let's say you're a creative, artistic, intellectual post-Christian type who sets before me, with pathos and intellectual flair, a vision of a "better world." Well, why should anyone give two f**ks about your vision? Why should corporations turn away from rapacious greed? Why should white people care about black lives? Why should we listen to the wisdom of the earth? Just because you say we should?

The root issue is that "should." Sentimentalism, while artsy and romantic, can't create the moral traction of a should. And without that traction there is no judgment, just a difference of feelings. You feel outrage where I yawn. I don't need to pay attention to the prophet busking on the street or the artist in the coffee house. I can opt for different emotional entrainments. The capitalists and the White supremacists have their worldviews, and the coffee house artists have theirs. Who is to adjudicate between them? 

This is the point of Vattimo's quote. Without metaphysics, the values presented by the sentimental artist and thinker come under crisis.  

Much of that crisis is caused by the nihilism of sentimentalism. Sacrificial moral action, which is the only way we're ever going to get to a better world, demands a metaphysics of hope. There's a reason economics is called the "dismal science." A wholly materialistic worldview implies an economics of scarcity that necessarily privileges self-interest. Sentimentalists, still running on the fumes of Christian hope, love to gesture toward economies of "abundance." But their post-metaphysical worldview, which reduces the world to material competition in a world of scarce goods, actually lends support for neo-liberalism. As I describe in The Slavery of Death, as finite creatures in a world with finite resources, we are inexorably drawn into rivalry, fear, and violence as we try to allocate scarce goods. So if you're going to ask anyone in this struggle--individuals, corporations, or nations--to lay down their arms to embrace communitarianism and mutualism, along with creation care, well, you're going to need more than artistically expressed angst. You need to be right.

Put simply, if the world is going to change you need to proclaim a transcendent vision of the true, the beautiful and the good. This is true and this is false. This is right and this is wrong. This is beautiful and this is ugly. Prophets are not sentimentalists. Prophets are metaphysicians. Prophets speak a Word of the Lord. Prophets stand on the firm ground of transcendent value that brings the world under judgment. My post-Christian friends aspire to be prophets, but they no longer believe in the Lord. They are prophets who have slowly become sentimental nihilists. And their entire post-Christian worldview is in crisis because God is dead.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply