A Twilight World

1 02 2011

The feel of an age is in the air you breathe, the books you read, the jokes you tell… and the ‘feel’ of this age is something like anesthetic nihilism. The point of life seems to come down to ease and comfort and convenience. We call it happiness and thus appease ourselves: what’s wrong with wanting to be happy, right? Human comfort, human flourishing ~ finding your bliss… nothing of love or sacrifice or duty or virtue, but who cares? Long as I’m happy.

Turns out, all this talk of happiness and comfort is just the unbridled, frenetic pursuit of mediocrity. We see it in education, in our tastes for entertainment, in our social commitments, in our religious beliefs. And then, every once-in-awhile, nut jobs become completely unhinged and shoot senators in the head, and we hang our collective heads in disgrace and wonder why. How, in a culture’s mindless pursuit of distraction and mediocrity, could anyone possibly snap? I mean…

Welcome to the age of anesthetic nihilism, where you don’t die, you’re just slowly put to sleep. How did we get here? Atheism? Hardly. For all of its bluster, atheism is a bit late to the dance. Nihilism (the amor e morte of atheism) has been deeply entrenched in human culture from the beginning. It’s just gotten cuter and more clever in the last 500 years ~ perhaps even a tad more respectable. Or more common. Either way, the reason atheism showed up in the first place was because the Church created a space for it; all but invited it in to take up residence in the form of providential deism. Sure, scientific naturalism had its say, but make no mistake: the real cause of the rise of atheism in this secular age rests at the narthex and in the pews and pulpits of the Church. Pick up the gravity-bending book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor and gird your loins: In just over 800 pages he lays this argument out detail by painful detail. Nor is Taylor alone in this assessment, although his study is the most well-regarded. He’s also a committed Christian. Imagine that.

Nihilism is in the air these days, it just often doesn’t look like itself, all gussied up in fancy clothes, innocuous truisms, and funny sketches. It’s no longer merely relegated to the dark corners of culture or packaged in menacing new video games or Industrial Metal music or creepy satanic worship. It’s moved into our perpetual twilight world and is adjusting its eyes. But mark this: it will go no further. A creed like atheism cannot stand the scrutiny of the full light of day, and so will remain a fringe movement and find its popularity mainly among that set who find their primary identity from being outsiders, folks in perpetual adolescence who are usually over-indulged and are intellectual or social snobs. Independents, they often call themselves. Mavericks. Rogues. Outliers. They play to an audience of one, who they generally find while looking in the mirror.

Mirrors only reflect what’s looking at them. They shed no light of their own. They are eternally condemned to react, respond, and reflect only what is nearby. They have no images or ideas of their own. What they see is who they are. And in a world where mirrors have become the hitching post for a culture’s identity, you have to wonder what we’re reflecting back to ourselves. We’re like moons, only able to reflect light but not embody it. And there’s always a dark side that forever remains hidden. There’s a reason, G. K. Chesterton reminds us, that the term “lunatic” is related to lunar.

In a twilight world, things are mere reflections, borrowed ideas, distorted desire. Nothing is original. All is virtual. Nothing is real. Everything is bathed in moonlight. The sun has gone. It is almost night. Continually.

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