Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Protestantism and Nihilism

Orestes Brownson
What is Nihilism?  And Why does Every Young Person Believe It?

We all know what nihilism is, though we may not all use that word to describe it.

It's the philosophy of pretty much everyone under the age of 35 in the Western world.  "There is no God, there is no anything, whatever you do is fine, follow your own subjective desires, never stand in anyone's way, there is Nothing worth living for and certainly Nothing worth dying for, love is mere lust, beauty is an illusion, truth is relative, and the only thing for mankind to do is to make the best of a miserable situation, for we come from Nothing and we return to Nothing and if we tell ourselves there's something, it's only because we're too scared to stare Nothing in the face, and we need a benign illusion to pacify us.  So whatever."

I tutor a fifteen year old home-school student.  Every single person her age that she knows believes this philosophy down to the core of their bones.

But they're "good nihilists" as Tom Martin calls them.  Although it's not logically consistent to be a "good" anything when all is Nothing, these kids are nevertheless "nice".

That answers the first question, "What is Nihilism?"  As to the second question, "And Why does Every Young Person Believe It?" ... read on.


Their Parents Disdain Reason - and the Reason their Parents Disdain Reason

We all know what the Irrational is, at least those of us who are foolish enough to argue on the internet.

Tell me if this sounds familiar ...

Convict [your opponent] from tradition, and he appeals to the Bible; convict him from the Bible, and he appeals to reason; convict him from rea­son, and he appeals to private sentiment; convict him from private sentiment, and he appeals to skepticism, or flies back to reason, to Scripture, or tradition, and alternately from one to the other, never scrupling to affirm, one moment, what he denied the moment before, nor blushing to be found maintaining, that, of contraries, both may be true. He is indifferent as to what he asserts or denies, if able for the moment to obtain an apparent covert from his pursuers.

A more modern way of saying that would be ...

Convince your opponent that the Catechism forbids Lying, and he'll say that Scripture encourages it; show him that Scripture clearly condemns it, and he'll say that reason excuses it; show him that reason despises it, and he'll say that circumstances warrant it; show him that circumstances can never warrant it, and he'll say that the act in question is not technically "Lying"; show him that the act is undoubtedly Lying, and he'll say that the Catechism is fine with it; convince your opponent that the Catechism forbids Lying, and he'll say that Scripture encourages it ... and so on.

Now that is just me updating the first quotation, which was written by Orestes Brownson in a marvelous essay in 1840 called Protestantism in a Nutshell.  

Hilaire Belloc a hundred years later echoed Orestes Brownson when Belloc spoke of the modern contempt for reason ...

But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction. It merely affirms. It advances like an animal, counting on strength alone.

So that shows you how we disdain Reason, but it doesn't show you why.  Read on ...


The Blog Author Recongizes his Protestant Companions

I had recognized the devotion to the Irrational as a hallmark of the Modern Heresy since reading Belloc, but I had never put the label "Protestant" on it until reading Brownson.  And while neither Brownson nor I am saying that all Protestants are "irrational" (read on), still something struck me - not about Protestants but about many of my fellow Catholics.

Good heavens!  I thought.  "Arguing with Catholic Lying apologists, or Catholic Torture enthusiasts, or Catholic defenders of bizarre sexual teachings is just like arguing with Protestants."

Now, I had said something similar a few months ago, but then I read further and Brownson emitted what to me was a thunderclap.

The principle common to [all Protestants], and the only one we can al­ways be sure they will practically adhere to, is, that the end justifies the means.

Whoa!

That is clearly the one common thread that my opponents have been true to in all of the various arguments we've had.

Protestant readers, I ask you sincerely, are there any of you who do not believe that a good end justifies a bad means of attaining that end?  We call this consequentialism (the mistaken belief that the "consequence" determines the morality of the act), and almost all Americans fall for it, as do (I'm afraid) most Catholics, although the Church condemns it.

At any rate, I began to think that Orestes Brownson was on to something, and so I did as I encourage you to do.  I read on ...


First, However, the Author Inserts a Caveat

Although I'm about to agree with Brownson on his scathing critique of the philosophy of Protestantism, I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing individual Protestants, who are (as we call them) our "brothers in Christ".

You see, Catholics believe that Protestants, by virtue of our shared baptism, are members of the Catholic Church, though not in full communion with it.  This is because there is only one Church that anybody can be a member of, the Church that Christ established.  Catholics understand that this Church was established by Jesus with Peter as its rock (and first pope), and with the apostles and their successors (the bishops) exercising authority to teach infallibly on matters of Faith and Morals, by virtue of the Holy Spirit.  We Catholics call this teaching authority the Magisterium and we recognize its decision on certain matters to be authoritative.  Even Protestants acknowledge certain teachings of this authority, for it is an authority that compiled Holy Scripture and that proclaimed the Bible to be inerrant - an infallible proclamation that until recently all Protestants accepted.

And while the Magisterium has always taught "no salvation outside the Church", this Church includes Protestants and even perhaps (in a mysterious way) all those who seek to do good, who "seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him" as St. Paul says.  Therefore we humans are not to judge the ultimate fate of the soul of anyone, and yet we recognize all the same that the sacramental life, which includes full communion with the Body of the Christ, is the most effective way of attaining God's grace and His gift of everlasting joy - and sacramental life can be found only in the Catholic Church.

Having said all that, and reminding you that I was a Protestant for many years myself, let me move on to what I think is a profound insight on the connection between the Protestants of 1517 and the nihilists of today.


Beware the Leaven - Tiny though It May Be

Brownson points to the gaping hole that was the foundation of Protestantism: a denial of the external authority God has granted to the Catholic Church, and an insistence upon mere subjectivism.  For while Protestants believe that the Holy Spirit can guide each individual believer, that guidance carries with it no guarantee of infallibility, as does the Spirit's guidance of the Catholic Magisterium (as the Catholic Church boldly claims).  The proof of the Magisterium's infallibility is at least suggested by its more-than human consistency, its teaching of doctrines that have remained the same (though they've developed in their expression) for over 2,000 years.  By contrast, we see around us the proliferation of Protestant sects - tens of thousands of them, with new ones popping up all over in Brownson's day and still in our own day, each one presenting a private interpretation and teaching a peculiar doctrine that contradicts the other.

Brownson saw this Protestant denial of external authority as the mortal blow that was eventually to kill the whole body.

In philosophy, this Protestant subjectivism led to Descartes and Kant and Hume and the sickness of a thinking that is no thinking at all - for a thinking that denies the reality of three things - the subject, the object, and the perception and thought that passes between them in a kind of communion - is a thinking that is navel gazing at best, but one where even the truth of the navel is ultimately in doubt.

And in culture the Protestant rejection of authority led to, even in his day, the notion that marriage was outmoded (for without some authority beyond our own changing natural desire, life-long marriage is impossible).  It led to the concept that the family needed radical reform, with children being forcibly removed from their parents and shaped and molded for socialistic utopian ends by the State (for without external authority, human nature is therefore malleable).  It led to unconstrained capitalism and wage slavery ("man vs. man is hard enough, but man vs. man-with-money is impossible" as Brownson said, and without external authority only power - money - remains).


Brownson even Claims that Protestantism Resists Truth 

And beyond this, one suspects that perhaps Brownson had a vision of the Anglicans of our own day, who have glibly abandoned all pretense of doctrine and any connection with the perennial teachings of the Church from which they broke apart.

Protestants have no real belief in, or attachment to, the particular doctrines they profess, - not only [do] Protestants profess a false doctrine, but ... they are insincere, and destitute, as a body, of real honesty in their professions. If they believed their doctrines, they could never tolerate the changes they undergo. New sects might, indeed, arise among them, but no sect would suffer its original doctrines to be in the least altered or modified. The members of every sect, if they believed its creed, would, so long as they adhered to it, be struck with horror at the bare idea of altering or modifying it; for it would seem to them to be altering or modifying the revealed Word of God. 


Again, a Word of Caution

Again, let me be careful to say that not every individual Protestant resists truth.  Some are very devoted to it and to seeking more of it.

What I would have you see, dear Protestant reader, when you read a passage such as Brownon's above, is not an attack on your religion, but an attack on a dark spirit that you know as well as I do your fellow believers have a share of - a spirit which breaks your churches into factions and which makes even mainstream denominations alter their doctrine so as to become more and more anti-Christian over time.  Indeed, as I said before, even most Catholics have a share in this dark spirit!  Though the Church, as a whole, resists it.

And so if the term "Protestant" or "Protestantism" offends you, then substitute "Subjectivist" or "Subjectivism", for that is really what Brownson is saying.  He's saying Protestantism is essentially Subjectivism - but it's the Subjectivism he despises, not the spirit of Reform.


So How does Protestantism - or Subjectivism - Lead to Nihilism? 

Brownson is very clear on this, though there's no way of saying it so that non-Catholics will easily swallow it. I'll let him speak.

Why, then, does [the Protestant] rush into nihilism? Simply, because he is seer enough to see, that, if he admits that anything exists, he will be driven ultimately to acknowledge the truth of Catholicity. Rather than do that, he will sell his soul, as well as his shadow, to the man in black, and consent to deny his own existence. Almost every day, we meet intelligent Protestant gentlemen who frankly acknowl­edge that there is no alternative but Catholicity or no-relig­ion, and yet who just as frankly tell us that they will not be Catholics.

This is hard to swallow for us relativists and modernists, but bear with me.  What Brownson is saying, and what Catholics believe is ...


  • God is Truth - not the Inner Light alone, but an Outer Light, the source of all light.  He really does exist - and not just in our hearts.  He is real and the source of all reality.  He is objectively real.

  • God became man at the Incarnation.  After His death and Resurrection, He sent His Spirit among us and established the Catholic Church, which (like Jesus) is both human and divine - its divinity being the grace it conveys by means of the Sacraments, its divinity being as well the actual presence of Jesus on the altar at the Mass, and its divinity being expressed in the infallible teachings of its Magisterium on matters of Faith and Morals - its objective and external authority.  The Incarnation continues in the form of a Church that is the Body of Christ and that carries on His work and proclaims His truth; and that slowly but surely (if we cooperate) sanctifies us and gives us each as individuals a share in His divinity.

  • To deny this Church is to deny God's presence on Earth.  To deny God's presence on Earth is eventually to deny any valid external authority, any authority that is more than merely human (and hence shifting and false), and is thereby to fall back on individual caprice and fancy.  

  • To deny the fullness of God's revelation now that it has been given to us is ultimately to deny reason, to deny God Himself, and with God, truth, beauty, goodness and even the reality of being.  "To deny that God exists is to deny that anything is," as Brownson says.

To be Protestant is ultimately, according to Brownson, for the body of Protestants over the centuries if not for the individual Protestant during his lifetime - to be Protestant is to cease to believe. 

Again, this does not mean that every Protestant will eventually become a nihilist.  But it does mean that the Protestant sects in particular and Protestant culture in general will, over the generations, become Adherents of Nihilism and Devotees of Death.  This is because while individuals can avoid the implications of their philosophies, cultures sooner or later cannot.

Protestants, it is well known, are able to keep up the self-delusion that they are believers only by obstinately refusing to push their principles to their legitimate consequences 


A Plea to the Reader to See Where This is Going

Now just the other day I said to my friends that I was going to stop blogging altogether - at least about anything other than commercials for my own productions.  Certainly this would have been an answer to the prayers of many!  Including my wife.

I went into why I was toying with not blogging here - but if I do keep blogging, I want it to be "kinder and gentler" - or at least something that is not narrowly focused and non-productive, filled with the anger and bitterness my opponents (who lob stones and bricks and then tell me I'm "uncharitable") engender in me.

So this is kinder and gentler?  This attack upon the entire Protestant population, and even upon my Protestant-in-spirit Catholic brethren?

Bear with me.

All readers of this blog, Catholic and Protestant alike, are sick and tired of the modern decay.  We live in a culture of abortion, contraception, "gay marriage", assisted suicide and depravity.  We live in a culture where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, where our Federal government is becoming more and more like Big Brother, and where sex, drugs and rock and roll have tainted every aspect of our public entertainment and our private lives.  Our children are nihilists, and our grandchildren will never be born, for our sons are spilling their seed before their computer screens and our daughters are using the pill or using Planned Parenthood's vacuum hose.  We are teetering over the abyss.

We can no longer pretend that truth is relative, that the individual is capable of making his own reality.  We must begin to see that sanity and health even in this life can only return to our culture if we live the way the Catholic Church (Jesus Christ on Earth) teaches us to live.  We must follow what the bishops say and not what they do, for even our best bishops are hypocrites and our most well-educated Catholics are excusing away their hypocrisy.

You see, this isn't just a problem with Protestants.  It's deeper than that.

Brownson himself realizes the issue is deeper and older than Martin Luther or John Calvin.

Protestantism is nothing more or less than that spirit of lawlessness which leads every one to wish to have his own way ... It imagines that the sovereign good is in what the law forbids, and opposes the Church because she upholds the law, - hates the law because the law restrains it, duty because duty obliges it; and since, as long as it admits the existence of God, it must admit duty, it denies God; and since, as long as it admits the existence of anything, it must admit the existence of God, it denies everything, and lapses into nihilism. ... 
The source of this impatience of restraint, and this desire to have one's own way, is the pride natural to the human heart, the root of every vice and of every sin.  "Your  eyes  shall he opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil," said the serpent  to  Eve; and  she reached forth her hand, plucked the forbidden fruit, ate, and sin and death were in the world.    Pride is, on the one hand, a denial of our depend­ence, and,  on the other, the assertion of our own sufficiency. Here you may see the origin and the essential characteristic of Protestantism, which is as old as the first motion of pride or of resistance to the will of  God.



It's Not Just the Protestant - It's Every Man

So it's no surprise that many of our fellow Catholics are de facto Protestants, rejecting the infallible teaching of Christ's Church and insisting upon


  • Contraception
  • Abortion
  • Fornication
  • Lying
  • Torture
  • The Oppression of the Poor
  • Factionalism
  • Lust
  • Etc. etc. etc.

And while Protestantism may lead to Subjectivism and Nihilism, so does all sin, so does all pride, so does all rejection of the Reality of God.

And so I end quoting St. Peter, the first pope, in the Church's first sermon, delivered on Pentecost Sunday the year they crucified Our Savior.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." (Act 2:38)


7 comments:

Nate Winchester said...

Protestant readers, I ask you sincerely, are there any of you who do not believe that a good end justifies a bad means of attaining that end? We call this consequentialism (the mistaken belief that the "consequence" determines the morality of the act), and almost all Americans fall for it, as do (I'm afraid) most Catholics, although the Church condemns it.

First of all, I believe you are making a categorical error. This question would only be applicable to what we might call "high-functionary" believers. That is those who actually do think a lot. A lot of people in the world have just given in to sloth and don't bother thinking much, they have sold their God-given intellect to become little more than animals. A lot of people are also perfectly fine and are too busy actually working (many for the betterment of the world and humanity's soul) to bother with any of this philosophy. For many, "consequentialism" is rarely a factor in their lives. They do what they need to do.

Second of all, well, to set aside lots of other things for the time being, if you really are against consequentialism in totality, then the only logical resulting political position would be libertarianism (if not some of its extreme forms). i.e. "It's wrong to take someone else's property." - Which would include via force with taxation. Nope. I already know you're about to provide some counters but then that would make you a consequentialist (and set you on the circular path you outlined at the start of the post). There can be no caveats, extenuating circumstances, etc.

Just saying, how far you ready to go to avoid consequentialism completely and totally?

Scott W. said...

Just saying, how far you ready to go to avoid consequentialism completely and totally?

It seems you are confusing consequences with consequentialism. Kevin is not saying that ends, context, and circumstances don't factor at all in the morality of chosen acts and thus they must be avoided at all times or "off the table" so to speak. Rather that they are subordinate to the nature of the acts in and of themselves.

Tom Leith said...

Mr Winchester, we might have to adopt political Libertarianism extremely if we had already adopted Liberalism generally, but we haven't.

Catholicism denies liberalism, individualism and subjectivism are true, and (therefore) does not absolutize property and property rights as moderns do. Catholicism asserts the necessary existence of civil authority and denies it lacks authority to tax, via force when necessary to enforce compliance. Catholicism does assert that this authority may be abused, but this is not "agreement" with those who deny the civil authority lacks the power to tax in the first place or who deny the existence of any really-real positive duty towards another or towards the whole of society (i.e. some philosophical Libertarians).

In every field of inquiry, it is true that all things should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler. (And for every problem that is muddled by over-complexity, a dozen are muddled by over-simplifying.) Variously attributed, closely associated with Albert Einstein

Libertarianism, it seems to me, is one of a dozen oversimplifications of false ideas, chief among them being Liberalism.

Nate Winchester said...

It seems you are confusing consequences with consequentialism. Kevin is not saying that ends, context, and circumstances don't factor at all in the morality of chosen acts and thus they must be avoided at all times or "off the table" so to speak. Rather that they are subordinate to the nature of the acts in and of themselves.

Perhaps. Though that's why long ago I said consequentialism should never be an option of first resort, but a "tie-breaker" factor to utilize if one is caught in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

In every field of inquiry, it is true that all things should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler. (And for every problem that is muddled by over-complexity, a dozen are muddled by over-simplifying.) Variously attributed, closely associated with Albert Einstein

Libertarianism, it seems to me, is one of a dozen oversimplifications of false ideas, chief among them being Liberalism.


I actually largely agree. So +1 internets to you for getting that my comment was largely a protest of the blog author oversimplifying things as well. (which is part of my issue with where a lot of this "lying" debate has gone)

After all, if one is going to be purely rational and philosophical, then any time "necessary" is invoked, then that would seem to logically be invoking consequentialism. After all, what is "necessary" but the means required to obtain some end. Interesting considerations.

Tom Leith said...

> any time "necessary" is invoked, then that would seem to
> logically be invoking consequentialism. After all, what is
> "necessary" but the means required to obtain some end.

I am not talking about a necessary/expedient means to achieve some desired end.

I'm pointing to an objective reality which arises necessarily from another objective reality, in this case the objective reality of human nature, being The Divine Purpose of Humanity. So, no, I am not remotely invoking a Consequentialist justification for government-at-all.

I reject the formula "damned if I do or damned if I don't" as contradictory. It is more like "damned if I do, mightily inconvenienced if I don't". I hope I have the fortitude not to be damned.

Nate Winchester said...

I'm pointing to an objective reality which arises necessarily from another objective reality, in this case the objective reality of human nature, being The Divine Purpose of Humanity. So, no, I am not remotely invoking a Consequentialist justification for government-at-all.

Sorry, I should have clarified.

That was just idle philosophical speculation on my part, not any particular accusation against you. Though I will point out that some on the "pro-lying" side also invoke the objective reality of human nature. If the debate is over the fundamentals, then is any solution possible? After all, you can't exactly use mathematics to prove the nature of numbers' existence.

I reject the formula "damned if I do or damned if I don't" as contradictory. It is more like "damned if I do, mightily inconvenienced if I don't". I hope I have the fortitude not to be damned.

So, like Captain Kirk, you don't believe in a "no-sin" scenario? Or do you believe that inaction is always an option and never a "wrong" choice? If the former, then we can respectfully disagree and thank the Lord that you and I might never face a confirmation of such a challenge in our lifetimes. If the latter, then I would remind you of the parable of the sheep and goats, whereby the goats were condemned explicitly for inaction. (or the parable of the Samaritan - after all, what did the high priest and teacher of the law do wrong? nothing - and that's what was wrong, they did nothing)

Tom Leith said...

As long as there is debate over fundamentals there can be no solution.

Peter Kirk got the right solution to the Kobayashi Maru problem, not his uncle. Of course, Gene Roddenberry didn't write this story.