Posted on: February 8th, 2021 Christian Nihilim: the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

One of my favorite John Milbank quotations is: “Christianity is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”

And in my Introduction to Philosophy class I begin the entire class with a discussion of Parmenides and Heraclitus, Heraclitus who said that “All is flux,” and that “You can’t step in the same river twice.” (Cratylus, as we discuss in the class, “one ups” Heraclitus by insisting that “you cannot step in the same river even once,” and in this way his view is like “Heraclitus on steroids.”)

This view of Heraclitus is one of radical transience, in contradistinction to Parmenides, who insists that all is stable being. For Heraclitus, reality is fundamentally unintelligible, “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (in the words of Williams James). So much so that you cannot even point to items in the world, since there are no items to point to (hence we can say that, for Heraclitus, or more precisely, for Cratylus, the world is utterly non-indexible). There is also, by the way, no finger with which to point.

In this ontology of radical transience, we are reminded of the blooming, buzzing confusion of Genesis 1:2, just before Elohim brings order, form, and beauty out of the chaos: “and the earth was formless and void (tôhu vbôhu), and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” Especially when read through the lens of Church Fathers such as Augustine, we see here the truth of Heraclitan nihilism. A truth which Plato and Aristotle both honored, the latter with his notion of prime matter (hulê prima), about which the only affirmation the Staggirite can make is that it is spatially extended.

Do you doubt, dear reader, that such a nihilistic vision is, really and truly, included in the Christian approach to reality?

I stumbled upon it yet again this morning, in my daily reading of the Psalms of David:

LORD, let me know my end and the number of my days,

so that I may know how short my life is.

You have given me a mere handful of days,

and my lifetime is nothing in your sight;

truly, even those who stand erect are like a puff of wind.

We walk about like a shadow,

and in vain we are in turmoil;

we heap up riches and cannot tell who will gather them.

With rebukes for sin you punish us;

like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;

truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Psalm 39:5–7; 12 (Book of Common Prayer)

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