Friday, August 20, 2004

Nihilism revisited

Reader BH writes to say that the technical term for the repudiation of law referred to in World War 4 is not nihilism but antinomianism and quotes at length from Norman Podhoretz's 2002 book, The Prophets.

"Yet even by itself the idea that the moral realm is governed by law becomes something more than an empty abstraction when placed against the background of a culture that has for all practical purposes denied or repudiated that idea. The technical term for the denial or repudiation of law is 'antinomianism,' and it is antinomianism by which, more than any other single force, our culture has been shaped for some time, and is still being shaped today. But there are other names for antinomianism. The one under which the classical prophets so relentlessly fought it was idolatry. The one historians give it is paganism or polytheism. Today we know it as relativism." p. 344-45

Without wanting to get too much into this subject antinomianism is often used to describe a narrower phenomenon which has roots in the Christian theological debate, though not to the exclusion of Podhoretz's use of the word. The American Heritage dictionary defines it as:

1. The doctrine or belief that the Gospel frees Christians from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral, and that salvation is attained solely through faith and the gift of divine grace. 2. The belief that moral laws are relative in meaning and application as opposed to fixed or universal.

The underlying idea of antinomianism is that, having been saved by Grace, everything is permissible to the elect. Here's an entry from an extended discussion of the subject in Advent.

The term first came into use at the Protestant Reformation, when it was employed by Martin Luther to designate the teachings of Johannes Agricola and his secretaries, who, pushing a mistaken and perverted interpretation of the Reformer's doctrine of justification by faith alone to a far-reaching but logical conclusion, asserted that, as good works do not promote salvation, so neither do evil works hinder it; and, as all Christians are necessarily sanctified by their very vocation and profession, so as justified Christians, they are incapable of losing their spiritual holiness, justification, and final salvation by any act of disobedience to, or even by any direct violation of the law of God.

But antinomians recognize law -- except this law allows the adherent to put aside all lower laws. Nihilists, on the other hand, deny the possibility of law itself. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

In the current context, radical Islamists are better characterized as antinomians than nihilists. Having been anointed by Allah, they may perform any act, tell any lie, do anything and still regard themselves as being in the right. The Western Left on the other hand is philosophically much closer to nihilism. Nothing is inherently true and that makes it possible for a Leftist to believe two contradictory things simultaneously. Orwell gave this process a name: doublethink. In this mental universe one can burn the Flag and insist on its protection; work to destroy the Constitution and claim Constitutional liberty to do it; march in a Gay Pride parade in the morning and in a fundamentalist Islamic rally in the afternoon. Both are mentally wonderful places to be for those who wish to always be right; the first by definition and the second by virtue of the fact that wrong cannot exist. Personally, I wouldn't want to live there.