What we now defensively regard as constituting individuality is likely to be significantly refined (Maxwell, The Inexhaustible Gospel, 200).
It has been my perennial temptation (fiercely resisted) to atheism and formless nihilism. Nihility, the perceived ground of meaninglessness I meet behind the façade of civilization, I cannot interpret otherwise than as God’s peculiar challenge to me to create meaning, to invite Him to manifest Himself through my unbelief—my unrighteousness commending the righteousness of God (Romans 3:5). Despair of this sort may, indeed, be His challenge to our age, the idols of the ancient Philistia replaced with the eidos of the modern.
Enlightenment thought enshrined doubt, and thence sprang the latter-day despair. So many of our brethren and sisters feel that there is no existential significance, and that there is thus no ultimate hope. Let us not balk from their assertion, but set ourselves to firmly answer for the greater glory of God. Unless and until we face the void of civilization, we cannot empty it with truth.
The great paradox of the gospel is that it seeks to individually dissolve the individual. The man or woman who stands alone before God must alone bow the knee, submit the will, and covenant with the Lord of all mankind. Every son and daughter born into this world must face this task, ultimately, alone, standing without and apart (and thus within), meeting the terrible questions and their terrible answers, meeting God and gods and discerning.
Then what truths do I propose to lift away from the “philosophies of men”؟ How does the individual stand in relation to the absolute that is God؟ Existentially, we must encounter existence. Despair may be replaced by hope, and that is one miracle of the Gospel.
… The overcome of this pessimistic nihilism represents the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times (Nishitani, 47).
I will proceed by examining anew the separation of the creature from the Creator, and the design which abolishes that separation, the Gospel. An Atonement was wrought, and the individual must ultimately encounter it in every act as the old man dies and the new lives, the Gospel new and everlasting—Christ, and him crucified.
“There is a great gulf fixed.”
Man was created into a paradise a paradisiacal creature. In the innocence of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed “the cool of the day” (Moses 4:14) and the fruit of “every tree of the garden” (Moses 3:16; AVGenesis 2:16). We know little of their idyllic state. All are familiar with the Eden narrative, the story of our first parents’ expulsion from the presence of God and the consequent entry of mankind into a world drenched in the “sweat of [his] face” (Moses 4:25, 5:1; AVGenesis 3:19).
We know little of their idyllic state, and why? Because it is completely and utterly foreign to us, born and bred into a world of opposition, failure, and disunion. Death and sin entered at once into the world with the Fall, and remain perpetually with and within us here.
In the common sense, death is the separation of the spirit from the body. More broadly, death is separation—from God, from others, from Christ-within-us.
¶ “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” saith the Lord. •“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (AVIsaiah 55:8–9).
For who hath known the mind of the Lord? (AVRomans 11:34).
The divide between heaven and earth, the sacred and profane—between man and God—is not merely that of degree, as if on different rungs of a ladder. We are not on a continuum; heaven is a fundamentally different thing than earth. All this earth is fallen, and all this earth must be redeemed and quickened.
Redemption is the reversal of death, the world turned upside down (Acts 17:6), and refers to the death of which Jesus spoke:
Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. •He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal (AVJohn 12:24–25).
Quickening is the triumph over death, the dominion over all things cast down, the weak things made strong.
Jesus is the corn of wheat which has fallen into the soul of our souls, to bring forth fruit. Are we able to follow His example in dying, that we may not abide alone, but at one؟ We, of ourselves, are not. We are no more capable of building a bridge across that abyss than we are of walking a tightrope to the Sun.
Death presses towards us like a looming juggernaut, wider than the world and colder than winter. Do we realize that that death is but a type of the death through which we pass every day? Inasmuch as we do, and as we are taught not to fear death as a terminus but to embrace it as a gateway, we accept it as a natural part of our mortality. Shall I rest here?—or shall I press forth and recognize that, more than this, death “shall give [me] experience, and shall be for [my] good” (D&C 122:7)? This is one of the truest strengths of the Latter-day Saint worldview today, but each individual must grapple with it alone and come to terms with death, not as an abstract principle, but as his or her own impending veil.
Death is sin; or, sin is death. Each is a parable of the other, and so often they are spoken of in the scriptures in the same breath, in the same terms:
O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of … death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10).
The separation in my will from that of my Father is a manifestation of death, as is my refusal to wholeheartedly embrace the Atonement and plead with God for the full measure of faith to be meted unto me. The very death against which I stand, however, is the complete delimitation of the world by its impossibility and futility. The only word sufficient is nihility.
Nihility refers to that which renders meaningless the meaning of life. … The appearance of this nihility signals nothing less than that one’s awareness of self-existence has penetrated to an extraordinary depth (Nishitani, 4).
Many do not feel this void above our head, and beneath our feet, and at our side, and in our soul. Whether this is by will or ignorance or grace I cannot say; I may be permitted to envy them their security. But stare into the abyss I must, and though it stare back into me, it will encounter only itself. But God may look through such a piercing hole, and I hope I might look back. The mind is a hall of mirrors—to look outward is to see projections of myself; to look inward, the same. I do not mean to imply that we can see other than “through a glass, darkly,” in this life; I mean to imply that it is a worthy goal.
For many years now—in literature, film, and music—we have witnessed increasing expressions of a profound sense of what has come to be called existential despair, a hopelessness beyond hope. Granted, the human scene also includes many individuals who go happily about life’s labors untouched by these feelings. But the holocausts and the wars have taken their terrible toll of hope among twentieth-century man. Said one eminent scientist, “The most poignant problem of modern life is probably man’s feeling that life has lost its significance, … [a] view … no longer limited to the philosophical or literary avant garde. It is spreading to all social and economic groups and affects all manifestations of life.”
One need not question either the reluctance or the sincerity with which some despairing individuals have come to such wrong conclusions. In fact, one feels compassion and desires to reach out to them in genuine entreaty!
… But such poignancy of view is no guarantee of the accuracy of the view. Moreover, in human affairs, erroneous and unchallenged assertions sometimes assume an undeserved aura of truth. While a response to this hopelessness may not create conviction in disbelievers, it can bolster believers against the silent erosion of their own convictions (Maxwell, Neal A., “‘Shine As Lights in the World’,” Ensign, May 1983, 9).
Inevitably, many feel estranged by the apparent pessimism of atheistic existentialism in the vein of Heidegger and Sartre, and many are unfamiliar with Kierkegaard and the mystics (Eckhart, Boehme, Julian of Norwich, etc.). What existentialism might have to truly offer contemporary Latter-day Saint theology is, however, a sense of nihility and a deeper context for connecting with those who have lost their own sense of purpose, purpose which all the television advertisements in the world cannot rekindle. Such a nihilism invites modern sophisticates to step away from the narrow orthodoxy of the Enlightenment, not backwards into a naïve medievalism but forward into an awakening, such that recognition of the divine challenge of nihility compels us as Christians to meet it with hope.
Our collective cultural nihilism manifests itself today in a thousand blaring diversions, to ‘decoy … [our] minds’ (Brigham Young, Millennial Star, 39:372) away from facing the abyss and recovering meaning from its meaninglessness. Too much do we live like martyrs and die like lemmings.
Nihility lurks beneath the contemporary tendencies of great masses of people to devote themselves passionately to the races, to sports, and to other amusements. Though it merely float about in the atmosphere of life without clearly coming to awareness, yet it is there—as a ‘crypto-nihilism’ (Nishitani, 86).
A crypto-nihilism—designed to transfer the burden of creation away from ourselves, projecting it onto our sports gods and phosphor goddesses. Video games, popular culture, and even education can be manifestations of this nihilism—to face away from the impossibility of existence and its attendant horrors, the burden of decision (de-cision!) and the burden of consequence. Activities creative and meaningful in the correct context become vain and devoid outside of it. If life’s activities are not pursued with the intent of creating meaning, life sinks into oblivion and retreat.
The awareness of our separation and the desire for reunion, latent or not, compels us to seek peace. Indeed, we sin because we seek to fulfill a legitimate, genuinely felt need with an illegitimate means—although “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19), it is, after all, our nature to crave redemption from sin.
Sin is an irreconcilable gulf set between us and God, but we are nevertheless—nay, therefore!—reconciled by Jesus Christ. All mankind are subject to the law, and the Fall—even our little ones are denoted not as intrinsically pure, but as made alive in Christ. Thus Mormon:
Little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me. …Little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world (Moroni 8:8, 12).
Whether or not a child is in herself capable of conscious sin, she rests under “the curse of a broken law” (Moroni 8:24) in Adam’s fall, not in her own (Moses 6:55); she is “alive in Christ” insofar as the Atonement was effected from the “foundation of the world.”
So there is a curse in Adam’s fall. Latter-day Saints, however, do not excoriate him or Eve for the necessary transgression, preferring to focus on the positive effects. As Eve proclaimed after the expulsion from Eden, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11). Death is a necessary backdrop; sin is the context of this world; nihility is the ground upon which we stand—and thus do not stand.
For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfill the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must … be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must … come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord (2 Nephi 9:6).
Death hath passed upon all men, and there was a Gospel written before the world was made: a Gospel which invites men to face the Fall and accept the Atonement, made in time in order to transcend time. Every individual dies daily, whether it be the death of frivolity and vanity or the death of discipleship.
The plan of redemption—the plan of happiness—the plan of salvation—is the intention and design of God in this world. The flesh is to be overcome by the spirit, the natural man by the spiritual, the old man by the new:
And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God (2 Nephi 9:23).
Faith is the starting-point of the Gospel, and whither it returns continuously, the atmosphere in which man may begin to receive the Atonement in full, beyond the physical redemption and quickening to the spiritual. Thence the working of God engenders repentance, baptism, and perseverance unto the end, a Gospel which radically challenges the individual in new ways and forces our proud knees to bend and yield before the sovereignty of our Lord Jesus Christ, intermediary and intercessor for this world. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
The following conventions have been used for scriptural citation.
AV – Authorized, or King James Version
IV – Inspired Version, or the New Translation; partially available in the 1981 LDS Bible JST excerpts
RV – Revised King James Version
References to Barth are from The Epistle to the Romans, Oxford University Press: 1957. References to Nishitani are from Religion and Nothingness, University of California Press: 1983. I am indebted to Kiersten Davis and Jeffery Dean for their input.