Nihilism in the Book of Wisdom
The beginning of this chapter totally sounds like it comes from a nihilist: Nothing truly matters because we were nothing when we were born and, eventually, we’ll go back to that state when we die. Therefore, we ought to enjoy all the good things this life has to offer, and we ought to enjoy them for ourselves. And if we enjoy life for ourselves, who really cares about those who cannot fully enjoy these same pleasures–the old, the sick, the poor, the marginalized? These people will only slow us down. “Let our strength be our norm of righteousness; for weakness proves itself useless” (Wis 2:11).
But wait, who are these people who are talking about God? Why do they chastise us for enjoying ourselves? Don’t they know that this is our best lives? “To us, [they are] the censure of our thoughts…because [their lives are] not like that of others, and different are [their] ways…[they judge] us debased…” (Wis 2:14-16).
The Dangers of Nihilistic Thought
Why is nihilistic thought dangerous to us? It is only Darwinian to think so!
We need only to look in the last two centuries to see the issue. In the 19th century, especially during the Industrial Revolution, those who were strong were treated semi-well (at least they were open to promotion). But even if one injury fell upon them and they were rendered unable to work in the factory, they were seen as useless. (Go back to Wis 2:11.) Where was human dignity there?
In the 20th century, we saw some of the worst atrocities seen by mankind, particularly in
the Shoah/Holocaust committed by the Nazis and the labor camps by the Soviets. In the former, people were reduced to a lowest denominator and, by that denominator, were sent to their deaths like swine being led to the slaughterhouse. In the latter, people were just seen as expendable: It was the attitude of the Industrial Revolution taken to the extreme (ironic, seeing as the Communist Manifesto was a response to the Industrial Revolution). Of course, and unfortunately, there are many more examples of people during the 20th century being treated as mere objects, able to be killed on a whim–these examples include the the lynchings of people of color in the US, genocide of the Cambodian elite by the communists, the horrendous conditions of trench warfare during the earlier part of the century in World War I, etc. Where was human dignity there?
Now, the counter-argument would be that the 21st century is a different century and that we have evolved beyond this–we have laws to protect workers, we condemn genocide, and, in general, we have a much stronger world organization to keep each other accountable. But do we really, though? I think we have seen otherwise in the US in the last six months alone.
In the last six months, we have seen such a surge in mass-shootings, especially in schools. In the last six months, we have seen teachers speak out (as if in response to the shootings taking place) because students can neither learn nor be formed as proper citizens in general in under-funded schools/classrooms that basically look like lower-income prisons. In the last six months, we have seen asylum-seekers and other migrants dehumanized because the law [of the US] is the law, period. And in the last week, there has been an explosion in concern that Roe v. Wade will get overturned–an explosion that has seen an ever-growing list of defenses for abortion, all of which ignore the other party involved: the child. So how are we people of God a censure to these thoughts, and how are our lives (supposed to be) different?
The Definition of “Holiness”
Let’s examine the end of Wisdom 2. We are a censure to these prevailing thoughts because these thoughts do not reward holiness in its true meaning (cf. Wis 2:22). Often, the justification for the ideologies of today involves a defense of character: “As long as people are generally good people and are not hurting others, it’s ok.”
Here, we see the contemporary definition of what a “good person” is: A good person does not hurt people. It is as if that is somehow holy–which means “special” or “unique.” Not hurting people is not unique–or it shouldn’t be; why should something we expect out of 3-year-olds be the standard? It should be the bare minimum! And what do we call those who meet only the bare minimum? Mediocre. Unpopular opinion: Mediocre is not holy.
We are a censure to these thoughts because we proclaim Christ crucified (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). A symbol of weakness and embarrassment is our source of strength, something that nihilism can never conclude. And why did Christ suffer on that cross? “…The image of his own nature he made us” (Wis 2:23). This, (un)ironically, is also the answer to how our lives are (supposed to be) different from everyone else.
Living in Holiness
We Christians view humanity in imago Dei, which means that there is a dignity much
much higher than human dignity; it is divine dignity. Human dignity, which is a relatively new concept, is but a frail one. Why? Because a mortal identity can trump another mortal identity, whether or not the first one is a universal one. Sure, the Republicans/Democrats on my social media are human beings, but, come one, they are such Republican’ts/Democraps. Sure, those asylum-seekers are human beings, but they are lawbreakers. Sure, those high school kids are human beings, but they are kids–what do they know? Sure, the fetus will be a human being someday, but it is only a clump of cells for now. Divine dignity, though, so long as our limited minds can retain that idea, cannot ever be trumped. Whether a person is a lawbreaker, kids, or a clump of cells in the womb, s/he is still an image–a reflection–of God. And that alone deserves greater dignity, a greater respect, than I alone can ever give.
We are also (supposed to be) called to be different by actually acting on that dignity. Yes, a divine dignity is deserving of something greater than anything any human can give. But that’s what the Sacraments are for; that’s what grace is for; that’s what the Holy Spirit is for. Much like it requires the Holy Spirit to proclaim Christ crucified (cf. 1 Cor 12:3), we require the Holy Spirit to be truly good. This is why we need to go to Mass often: It is more than just a reconnection with the greater community–which consists of everyone, whether rich/poor, left/right, etc.; it is a reconnection with our Lord Himself.
“By the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wis 2:24). “Ally” does not necessarily mean a Satanist; Simone de Beauvoir got it right when she said that fence-sitters side with the oppressors. How does one fence-sit? By setting our bar too low; by fighting for some rights and not others. Reconnecting with our Lord reminds us of key aspects of our identity that require us to set the bar high again and courageously jump off the fence.
As children of God, we are reminded of our vocation to action. We are reminded of our vocation to holiness. We are reminded of our status in imago Dei. And that is why the bar is so high: The bar itself is divine. It is only through God’s Providence that we can meet it. Let us be worthy of the name which we share with Christ: Christian.