Escape from nihilism…
There is no difference between good and evil—this is just something made up by human beings. In any case, we’re not responsible for what we do since everything we do is the result of prior causes.
Can a good argument for these nihilistic propositions get you a university teaching job? Evidently they can. Or, at least they did in one case in the early 1980s.
Sixteen years ago [c. 1980] I stood in the Government Department of the University of Texas to give a talk. I was fresh out of graduate school, and it was my here’s-why-you-should-hire-me lecture. I wanted to teach about ethics and politics, so as academic job seekers do everywhere, I was showing the faculty my stuff.
So what did I tell them? Two things. The first was that we human beings just make up the difference between good and evil; the second was that we aren’t responsible for what we do anyway. And I laid out a ten-year plan for rebuilding ethical and political theory on these two propositions.
Does that seem to you a good plan for getting a job teaching the young? Or does it seem a better plan for getting committed to the state mental hospital? Well, I wasn’t committed to the state mental hospital, but I did get a job teaching the young.
J. Budziszewski didn’t begin life as a nihilist. He grew up in a Christian home, walked the aisle, and was baptized at age 10. But in college, while in his early 20s, he lost his faith completely. He became a socialist and only later a nihilist.
At this point two things must be clearly understood. The first: One might think that my arguments for nihilism were what led me to become a nihilist, but that is not true. I was committed to nihilism already, and cooked up the arguments only to rationalize it. The second: One might think that my recognition of the holes in the arguments were what enabled me to “escape” nihilism, but that is not true either. I saw the holes in my arguments even at the time, and covered them over with elaborate nonsense like the need to take an ironic view of reality. Good and evil just had to be meaningless and personal responsibility just had to be nonexistent. The arguments were secondary. I was determined. …
[E]verything goes wrong without God. This is true even of the good things He’s given us, such as our minds. One of the good things I’ve been given is a stronger than average mind. I don’t make the observation to boast; human beings are given diverse gifts to serve Him in diverse ways. The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of going wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught these things to students; now that’s sin.
It was also agony. You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself—well, if you are like I was, maybe you can–what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense. St. Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is “written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness.” The way natural law thinkers put this is to say that they constitute the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?
Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God’s image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God’s image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how much he pulls out, there’s still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focused. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. Of course I was the fool.
Fortunately for Budziszewski, his pulling out panels never got him “to the motherboard.” Divine intervention came in the form of horror—a terrible sense that his condition was terribly wrong.
How then did God bring me back? I came, over time, to feel a greater and greater horror about myself. Not exactly a feeling of guilt, not exactly a feeling of shame, just horror: an overpowering sense that my condition was terribly wrong. Finally it occurred to me to wonder why, if there were no difference between the wonderful and the horrible, I should feel horror. In letting that thought through, my mental censors blundered. You see, in order to take the sense of horror seriously—and by now I couldn’t help doing so—I had to admit that there was a difference between the wonderful and the horrible after all. For once my philosophical training did me some good, because I knew that if there existed a horrible, there had to exist a wonderful of which the horrible was the absence. So my walls of self-deception collapsed all at once.
At this point I became aware again of the Savior whom I had deserted in my twenties. Astonishingly, though I had abandoned Him, He had never abandoned me. I now believe He was just in time. There is a point of no return, and I was almost there. I said I had been pulling out one component after another, and I had nearly got to the motherboard.
The rest of J. Budziszewski’s story, “Escape from Nihilism,” can be found here.
J. Budziszewski is a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, Austin. He is a widely sought-after lecturer on university and college campuses. He writes for a wide range of publications, from academic journals to Boundless, the webzine of Focus on the Family. Dr. Budziszewski is the author of several books, including What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2003), Evangelicals in the Public Square (Baker Academic, 2006), Natural Law for Lawyers (Blackstone Fellowship, 2006), and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (Intercollegiate Studies Institute Press, 2009).