The Passing of a Shadow: the Modernist Fallacy

Diverse commentators, pundits, and cultural critics seem to relish pointing out that Western societies and cultures, including the American, are rapidly sloughing off the remaining trammels and traces of their Christian heritage. These people proclaim that we are living in a “post-Christian” age, a term that fits the post-modern, post-colonial, post-structuralist mould. While Friedrich Nietzsche, they say, killed God, Michel Foucault killed man, so humanity is left facing the void. Life has no meaning and never did. We are carbon-based bipeds whose dioxide emissions are making the planet uninhabitable for all life forms with the possible exception of bacteria. People are the real blight. There is no objective, perennial truth, apart from nihilism. Such a conclusion, according to best-selling British atheist writers, is the logical result of wealth, intelligence, education, technology, liberal democracy, and common sense, the culmination of modernity.

But is it really? Might nihilism be just another variation on the theme of rebelling against God?

Scripture shows us, in so many instances, that nothing is really as new as it is touted to be. The Old Testament demonstrates, in addition to the glorious self-revelation of God, that the people God chose had a terribly difficult time following him. Sometimes they grew impatient or resentful and forgot or neglected him. Repeatedly they transgressed his love by devoting themselves to idolatry, to objects foreign and man-made, giving into their own passions and treating their neighbors unjustly. Scoffers, skeptics, know-it-alls, and the proud all made the same error: they talked themselves out of God’s loving righteousness.

A passage from the Book of Wisdom (2:1-11) shows us that today’s prevailing nihilism is an old-hat set of attitudes:

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.

Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.

Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat.

For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

Does this sound familiar? The ultimate triumph of death, the meaninglessness of life? The conclusions inevitably following these premises might also ring bells, those of ruthless, consumerist hedonism.

Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.

Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us.

Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.

Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot.

Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged.

But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Who is surprised that nihilist beliefs lead to selfish behavior, a culture of entitlement, wanton exploitation of valuable resources, and the abuse of the weak by the strong? It was true in the first and second centuries B.C., when the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Jews, lived under the thrall of Hellenistic kings. The tension between the Jewish faith and the beliefs and values of the predominant culture pulled some people’s hearts this way and that. Some Jews no doubt went with the signs of the times and assimilated; others headed in the opposite direction. Most probably tried to muddle through.

On what basis did these people over two millennia ago deny the after-life and declare human life a pointless exercise in futility? In order to restrict the mysteries of existence to what we can see before our noses – “what you see is what you get” – one hardly needs high technology, mounds of money, an easy lifestyle, or verbose philosophers. One only need to close the mind and the heart. The temptation is as old as humanity. If the first human being was the one who looked toward the heavens and asked in prayer, “God, where are you?”, the second probably retorted, “What are you blathering about? There’s no one but us down here.” In the twenty-first century A.D., those who deny God and the mystery of love eternal probably do so because they cannot buy it, grab it, or measure it with any device. Atheism is not a sign of sophistication.

Aggressive skepticism, hard-line empiricism, and nihilism are as modern as they are ancient. We find such ideas in every era, especially among those who confine reality to what our five bodily senses can detect. Thinking this way does not make one more advanced or progressive or civilized or ahead of anyone else on this earth. All too often, those who restrict existence to the purely material make themselves the center of the cosmos and disregard others accordingly.

Christian teaching, after two millennia of struggle, still stands: God exists, we are to love him, and love of God is incompatible with self-adoration. Self-centered hedonism, literally “self-fulfillment” (the filling the self with, by, and for the self), leads to nothing. Those who live that way will die that way. To love God in his mysterious majesty requires an act of will, a humble act, a self-opening, to and for God and others. The rewards speak for themselves, both in this life and on the other side of eternity.

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Dr. Brennan Pursell is Professor of History at DeSales University and the author of The Spanish Match (Sophia Institute Press, 2011), History in His Hands: A Christian Narrative of Western Civilization (Crossroad Publishing, 2011), Benedict of Bavaria: An Intimate Portrait of the Pope and His Homeland (Circle Press, 2008), and The Winter King (Ashgate, 2003).

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