The sermon for week January 04, 2015
Darkness and Light; Nihilism and MeaningJohn 1:1-9
In the beginning there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Then something happened that we don’t understand, things came into being. Rocks formed and life happened. But this too will come to an end and there will be nothing as there was before and the space that happens between the nothing is as Shakespeare wrote, “a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (5.5.23-28)
All of our striving, all of our books, and technology and the joys and concerns of our lives are ultimately and cosmically meaningless. Life is a story we tell ourselves in the dark to comfort and shield ourselves from the fact that our consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. As HBO’s TV show True Detective states, “We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” (Cohle)
Good morning church! I thought I would totally depress you this morning by starting off with a healthy dose of nihilism. Nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles coupled with the belief that life is meaningless. It’s extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence or inherent meaning. As HBO’s True Detective’s character Rust Cohle put it, “In philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist. It means I’m bad at parties.” (Cohle)
Of all the articles and scholarship I’ve read on John 1, every author wants to pit light against dark, meaning against meaninglessness. And meaning always wins. But today I want to say that nihilism or meaninglessness does have a place in Christian theology and our lives. Yet ultimately, I will side like every other good preacher on the side of meaning. So if the first part made you uncomfortable, don’t worry. It will be all right in the end.
I think I was in 4th grade when I first learned about American slavery. I had heard of it before, but I didn’t know the specifics. I was floored. Absolutely devastated. How can people rip other people from their homes and families and sell them to someone else? How can they pack people on boats, mistreat them, and then make them work awful jobs, deny them education, and abuse them physically, psychologically, and spiritually?
And then I learned of Jim Crow Laws, the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, and the lingering effects of racism and slavery in this country. I threw up my hands, and I despaired. I wanted to fix it, I wanted to just tell people to stop it, and I couldn’t accept how trapped I was in this system. It was my first taste of nihilism. I couldn’t do anything, I was too small against this big problem and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t make a dent in what so many faced, so why bother? It would be meaningless.
Then I learned in college about white privilege. White privilege is the idea that life is a little easier because of the color of your skin. There are certain things you don’t have to think about if you’re a white, straight male than if you’re not. For example, I could get jobs easier than others. I could walk down the street holding the hand of my white girlfriend where I could be subject to scorn if I was a different color than my girlfriend, or if my girlfriend was a boyfriend.
Much of this was hard to swallow for me. I am a believer in the American Dream: Anyone from anywhere can make it if they work hard enough. But through college, working in the construction industry in Washington D.C. and even into seminary I kept hearing other people’s stories and what they faced. The slights, being followed in grocery stores, the subtle rejection from jobs, the glass ceilings that make promotions slide by to others.
Then I learned about Family Systems Theory. My colleague the Rev. Kevin Weikel describes Family Systems like this, “The idea is that our family backgrounds, not just our parents but generations and generations of our family make us who we are. In other words, if I had an alcoholic grandparent or a great, great, great grandfather who committed suicide, generations later my family would still be reacting to that in unconscious ways. Racism is the same way--we are unconsciously dealing with generations and generations of terrible racism in this country. There’s a deep racism in the history of my family, and maybe your family, too.” I don’t know about your family, but I grew up hearing jokes about the Polish, Italians and basically every ethnicity that wasn't Irish or Slovak. And there are not too many Slovak jokes out there… at least I don’t think there are…
The response to such massive and old systems and subtle prejudices that we don’t really see in our everyday life is to deny them and sink into a nihilism. We can feel guilty and overwhelmed, and our response is a lazy nihilism. We can feel really sophisticated saying that there’s no meaning to anything, no absolute truth and who cares. But notice how we say those things like we’re right.
We as Christians are to be salt and light to the world. We are to shine a light in the darkness. We are called to love reality, to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For love is patient and love it kind. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There’s a tradition in Eastern Christianity known as the apophatic tradition. Apophatic means “without images.” Apophatic knows that there’s a limit to the metaphors we use about God and reality. God is like a Father but with no body, God can’t hug you or send you birthday cards and take you to Chuck E. Cheese. God is a mighty fortress but a fortress without walls. Apophatics try not to get tied to one image of God but to go after the meaning: God is like a father in the sense that He caused your life to happen but not like a real life father. God is like a mighty fortress with the sense of security one has in prayer or inexplicable feelings of being loved and at home in the universe but not like a real fortress. Some will confuse the apophatic tradition with nihilists, but they are different. The apophatic tradition would state that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Nihilists would say “it’s dark. Who cares?”
The darkness can come in through meaninglessness and nihilism. The darkness can come in when we don’t recognize the limits of our metaphors and systems and models we build to understand our reality. So both meaninglessness and the certainty of our meaning can be problems. The apophatic tradition tries to balances these two polarities.
When Jesus told his parables to the people, his disciples asked, why do you talk to the people in riddles? And his answer was: “So they won’t catch on. Because anything they could catch on to would be the wrong thing. As Isaiah said, seeing they don’t see and hearing they don’t hear, neither do they understand [Matthew 13:10-17]. That’s why I talk to them like this: because I don’t want them to have little lights go on in their heads. I want to put out all the lights they’ve got, so that in the darkness they can listen to me.”
Jesus wants our sole meaning to be about a love that lights up our world. That is going to look different for different groups of people. And that’s OK. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I was once a denier of white privilege. But through talking and talking and much patience of so many, I finally considered that maybe someone's story could be much different than my own just based on the color of their skin. It was a hard journey to get there, but once you consider this simple truth "Other stories can be different than your own just because of their skin color" then all sorts of crazy things start to come into focus. It's worth the risk. For me, it's worth it because I can hear anew, and I'm liberated from trying to deny anything, and I'm even free from guilt. Instead, I can honor, bless and be blessed, give and receive grace and take the radical steps to reconcile. And aren't those things part of the Good News?
And all it takes to start down that path is to simply listen and consider. That’s it. Listen and consider. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Don’t despair. We have our answer: God is love. It’s not our own feeble love we struggle to make, it’s God’s infinite love. The question is how do we show and reflect this love to others. And that takes passion, and hope and some wily creativity.
I told a story once about how I reconciled with my bully Larry (Lindon). I told about how he bullied me from 4th to 8th grade but we reconciled in 8th grade. But bullies don’t just stop cold turkey, they often shift their focus. So Larry’s gaze fell on the only black student in our grade and in our entire school: Greg. Larry started to pick on Greg. Until one day, we were at recess playing basketball and Greg scored the winning shot over Larry. Greg started to celebrate, and Larry threw him up against the fence over and over again. We tried to pull him off of Greg but the teachers had to interrupt.
Events were recounted, and the teachers' blame fell on Greg. Greg was a class clown and always flirting with trouble so it was obviously his fault. But I was there. I saw what had happened. Larry was the one who lost it. It was sour grapes because Greg nailed a high stress shot. There was something wrong with this. I love my elementary school teachers, they were a great bunch of ladies who really formed my life and taught me so much, but here is where that family system of racism reared its head. So I asked the others who were playing basketball that day to give their reports after class. That’s what we did. And Greg didn’t get detention after all, and Larry was reprimanded.
My cynical side says that the darkness of racism will never go away. It is only years removed that I can see how race and privilege played into the encounter between Greg and Larry. And that’s still there in my school and in myself. My friends and I didn’t settle anything that day, and our actions were meaningless.
But my hopeful side says, there was one instance where a dim light shone in the darkness, and the darkness didn’t overcome it. Because that encounter stuck with me, I kept turning it over and over again in my head and I will be more ready the next time something similar happens. Massive societal change begins in small encounters like this. A willingness to listen to how someone else goes through life. Just that willingness primes the pump for compassion to flow once it’s called upon. As my friend Corey Davies said, “If life means nothing, then why put forth any effort to improve it? White people are born with a certain hand of cards and black people another, that's just the way it is. However, if you're of the mindset that this chaotic human journey means something as I do, you will work to improve the human condition, in whatever small, incremental way you can. Because this journey, not only means something, it means everything.” (Davies)
For in the beginning, there was darkness. And then light shone forth. When you look at the night sky and see the stars, just remember “once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning” (Cohle).
Cohle, Rust. True Detective. Home Box Office Entertainment. 2013. Quotes from Season 1, Episode 1: The Long Bright Dark and Season 1, episode 8: Form and Void.
Davies, Corey. Facebook Message from December 19th at 12:26 p.m.
Lindon, Luke. “Enemy.” February 23, 2014.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Robert S. Miola. New York: Norton, 2004. Print. Norton Critical Ed.
Weikel, Kevin. Prepare Him Room. A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.