In a recent newsletter on Jean-Luc Marion’s account of vanity and boredom, I mentioned Conor Cunningham’s fascinating book, Genealogy of Nihilism. It’d been a while since I’d thought about this book, so I’m selfishly revisiting my notes here in the hopes that you’ll see why his argument intrigues me so.
Materialism as a Reductionism
Cunningham offers a “genealogy” of nihilism. The first part of the book traces the pedigree of nihilism from ancient Neoplatonism up through contemporary philosophy. But his constructive proposal is articulated in a second part where he reads nihilism as a distinctly modern “possibility.”
He suggests that the very “form” of nihilism amounts to a descriptive reductionism. So a curious inversion goes on here: while the nihilist wants to reject transcendence and face up to the “reality” that this is all there is, the result is that this actually ends up reducing the world to less than it is. Or, to come at it from another angle: nihilism is usually bound up with a rabid materialism, even a physicalism. So one might expect such materialism to, in a way, glorify immanence, amplify the physical. But Cunningham shows that, in fact, such a materialism chops up the world to the point of nothingness—the world disappears.
Cunningham offers a Tolkien-esque example: how do we describe a leaf?
If we describe a leaf, looking to modern discourse to provide such a description, we will see nothing. We will see nothing but the disappearance of the leaf as, and at, the utterance of every ‘word’. The leaf will always be subordinated to structures and sub-structures. The leaf will never be seen or said. Any apparent sightings will be but nominal-noumenal formalities, that is, epiphenomenal results of concepts or ideas. […] The leaf is carried away through its discursive subordination to the structures and sub-structures of systems of explanatory description. By explanatory description is meant that a particular entity will be explained away by the descriptions its being suffers, for it will be reduced to a list of predicates, properties, and so on. The inherently excessive nature of a being will be ignored.
So while we might expect nihilism and materialism to be a celebration of immanence, in fact they end up eviscerating immanence. The reductionistic tendencies of materialism explain away the incarnate fullness of the material.
“What would the opposite look like?,” Cunningham asks.
It would look like the immanent–a leaf; an appearance that could not be subordinated to knowledge systems, for its visibility would be anchored in the Divine essence as an imitable example of that transcendent plenitude. It would be an imitability located in the Son, as Logos. We could then speak of cells, molecules, and so on. In nihilistic discourse even the cells of a leaf are further reduced, methodologically, ad infinitum (ad nauseam). […] For only through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be.
Immanence can only be properly celebrated to the extent that is “suspended” from transcendence. Without a metaphysics of participation, whereby the immanent participates in transcendences, everything dissolves into nothing. (Here we recall that Cunningham’s book was published in the Radical Orthodoxy series.)
I Love In Order to Know
Nihilism eviscerates materiality and thus ends up diminishing difference—everything becomes grey. This is a central part of Cunningham’s critique: nihilism cannot actually think difference because it has no metaphysical basis for recognizing distinctions between things: the plane of immanence becomes a monotonous repetition of the same. This is “the de-differentiating effect of nihilism. Bodies come apart as different discourses carry limbs away.”
In contrast, Cunningham argues that “only love knows difference.” Contrary to the valorization of “dispassionate” observation in the Enlightenment, “to know properly involves love, for only love will allow for difference.” Trinitarian difference is a difference of love within the Godhead, and creation—which yields the Creator/creature distinction—is created ex amore (as my mentor Jim Olthuis once put it). “We know that God creates out of love, which is God’s difference; the articulation of which is the co-eternal Son. And this Son, as beauty, call, and re-calls, all creation back to life.”
Love Creates Out of Nothing
In a provocative footnote, Cunningham suggests that “theology approaches nihilism in that they are similar in at least one respect” (209n.41). That “one respect” is taken up in chapter 10 where he considers “nihilism’s similarity and difference with theology.” We might simply summarize the similarity with the theological claim that creation is (almost) nothing. Or perhaps better: unhooked from the Creator, creation would disappear into nothingness. It “is” nothing on its own.
“Theology construes creation as gift,” Cunningham reminds us, “and does this not mimic nihilism’s nothing as something? In other words, does the presentation of creation as pure gift resemble nihilism’s endeavour to have nothing be as something?” The nothingness of nihilism’s world is close, then, to the nothingness of a creation independent of God. But this also presses us to be careful in formulating our theology of creation. We don’t want to grant creation a kind of autonomous, independent “givenness.” In other words, nihilism can prompt theology to remember the precarious contingency of creation: “The theologian conceives of creation as gift, but this gift is not conceived purely in terms of efficient causality, because the gift points to the giver, and so to the Good. This means that the radical nature of the gift, its utter participation, articulates itself more in the qualitative terms of final causality. [T]he creature remains as donated gift…it subsists in an ecstatic manner.”
So finitude, on this theology of creation, is actually “opened up” to transcendence, and thereby properly affirmed as immanent and finite. It is given room to expand and be celebrated as such, as gift. “Being” is “nothing but love.”