Posted by: Ascentury | Sunday, 14 September 2008

Nihility: A brief response to Nishitani

Keiji Nishitani was a Japanese philosopher who tried to enfold Zen and existentialism together, briefly.  This is a response to a claim of his about the Christian dichotomy between God and man.

Keiji Nishitani asserts that the greatest error of Christianity is the identification of meaning with something completely “othered”, removing meaning from the individual and placing it apart (in the Christian case, with God).

I challenge this as an oversimplistic view of true Christianity. Meaning, in the cosmic sense, collides with the individual before God, a God who has submitted completely, upon the cross, in order to reconcile the gap between God and man–in other words, to “de-other” Himself. “God’s transcendence is absolutized” (Phillips, 6), but so, ultimately, is man’s. This paradox is what brings together the Othering and the Atonement. Apotheosis answers nihility (non-being, roughly) completely and unequivocally. This is not pantheism or panentheism, but a mysticism which recognizes the germs of divinity within each as contiguous with God’s own divinity. “Light cleaveth unto light” (D&C 88:40).

Kierkegaard insisted that despair is the “sickness unto death”–the peculiar prerogative of a believing Christian face-to-face with the terrors of existence and the infinite qualitative difference, Angest beyond Weltschmertz. In his conception, however, the truest and deepest relief from despair was thus also within the Christian’s ken, as a grace of God. (I commented to my wife the other day that boredom is not Weltschmertz; although I’m certain I don’t feel the full brunt of Weltschmertz, I also face the awful immanence of it, as a stage through which we must pass to move from infinite resignation to true religiosity and faith.)

Two questions follow from this thought and each other:

What is meaning objectively, and what is meaning mystically? In other words, how does meaning change based on perceptive, phenomenal experience, whether external (objective) or internal (mystical)?

What, if any, part of us is prior to time and thus more in contact with our meaning? What part of ourselves, what part of our minds, are prior to time? The last point occurs to me because, having had a sharp knock on the head and a few days of amnesia, the time was gone, as if it had never passed, to me.  Memory, and thus time, is somehow prerequisite to much of our experience.  However, although I behaved somewhat aberrantly due to a concussion, my recognition of those around me and my interaction with them still held something of my reason and personality during that time I “lost”.

How does the Atonement answer the otherwise-inevitable “standpoint of emptiness” that arises facing the abyss? Faith, of course, as Kierkegaard and the prophets remind us, but what is the Atonement/Apotheosis wrought by Christ which enables faith, and how does it completely overcome nihility?

Phillips, Steven H.  Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to “Nihilism”.  Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 75-104.



  1. My first response to my first question is that experience contextualizes meaning.

  2. You hit a nice analysis off of someone else’s oversimplification. It is so easy to run into a new system of thinking or philosophy, oversimplify it and then make the wrong conclusions, and you’ve done a great job of breaking out the right analysis.

  3. […] Nihility: A brief response to Nishitani. How does the Atonement answer the otherwise-inevitable “standpoint of emptiness” that arises facing the abyss? […]

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