31 July 2016

Nihilism picks away at faith

Audio File Link

18th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP


God says to the man who would store up his treasures in this world, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Forget – for a moment – about the things that you store up. And forget about to whom they will belong after you die. This night your life will be demanded of you – to whom do you belong? Your things come and go. Your things aren't immortal. But you are. So: who owns you? Who rules you? Our Lord is asking a question that demands much more than just a promise of allegiance, or a statement of mere belief. He's asking you and me to decide where we stand in this world while we prepare for the next. Christ is asking you and me to make a choice: me or the world? Your life will be demanded of you. It's your choice. We can look to our assets, our earning potential, and we can do a quick calculation. We could be better off submitting to the world – if this world is where we hope to find our end. But this world is passing; it's temporary. And finding your hope here – among all these fading away things – is foolishness. And yet it appears that we are living in an age of foolishness. To survive, listen to Paul: “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly. . .”

When we live to accumulate the things of this world rather than to serve the Lord for His greater glory, we swear ourselves to the service of Nothing. Nothing is our god. We love Nothing. We have absolute faith in Nothing. Nothing matters. And Nothing is our purpose in life. As we watch this world slowly grind itself to its bloody end, we can depend on Nothing to spare us; Nothing will provide what we need. Why is Nothing so accommodating, so solicitous of our desires? Because Nothing has nothing to lose by promising us everything we imagine that are we entitled to. Nothing has nothing to give, so promising us everything costs nothing. When we live by the values and philosophies of this world rather than the the Word of God and His Church, we sell our souls to the spirit of the age, giving ourselves away cheaply to both new and ancient falsehoods. The greatest lie of this generation – one we can see celebrated in every element of our daily lives – this lie tells us that we are nothing but random bits of matter accidentally arranged by impersonal cosmic forces, thrown haphazardly into sentience, and destined for nothing more than complete annihilation after death. This lie – both its new and ancient versions – is the creed of nihilism, the worship of Nothingness and the negation of life.

It might seem that our preacher, Qoheleth, is a nihilist. He laments life's futility, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” But the vanity of the life that Qoheleth laments is simply how we mere mortals see the workings of the world. He's not celebrating life as futile, or holding out vanity as the only truth. At most, he's regretting what he sees as the overall unfairness of it all, while wanting life to be truly just and purposeful. To achieve that end, Paul offers the soundest advice, “Put to death. . .the parts of you that are earthly; immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” While Qoheleth wails against the futility of striving in a world that cannot reward striving, Paul suggests killing in ourselves anything that binds us too closely to the world. When the world passes, or when we pass from the world, our ties should easily unknot and see us safely free. To believe that there is Something More, that there is Someone More waiting for us when we are set free is the antithesis of nihilism. To live now in the belief that Someone More wants us with Him forever is what keeps us striving toward holiness and away from the Nothing's altars.

You might wonder how a good Catholic can be tempted to nihilism? Perhaps some of us here tonight have been seduced in some small way toward offering Nothing a pinch of incense. Paul names a few of the temptations: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and idolatry. Maybe, for example, some of us believe that sexual behavior outside marriage isn't all that bad. Or that two men or two women can be truly married. Or maybe, someone here privately believes that abortion is bad but that the State shouldn't have a say in the matter. Or maybe, that we should only allow certain races of people across our borders, or that we as a people have no responsibility to take care of God's creation, or that there are no differences btw men and women, therefore we can pick our own sex; or that science has the answers to our all problems. Each one of these tempts us to embrace an earthly lie and leads us toward renouncing our pursuit of holiness. How? By showing us how to pick away at our foundation, our faith in God. Whether we are tempted to embrace the idolatry of gender politics, or demean human life in the act of abortion, or degrade a person b/c of race, or reject the life-giving gift of sex – whatever the temptation, underneath is a rejection of God and His providential rule. Underneath is Nothing.

So, Christ asks again, “This night your life will be demanded of you. . .to whom will [your things] belong?” Forget the things you own. And answer instead: to whom will you belong? To whom do you belong now? If you belong to the things, the ideas, the values of this world, then you will follow your owners in passing into nothingness when they pass. If you belong to Christ now, then you will pass into life eternal. If you belong to Christ now, then the temptations of Nothingness seem foolish and Qoheleth is right, “All is vanity!” But if you find yourself in the company of nihilists – and you will – the pressure to submit to the Spirit of the Age will be intense, maybe even irresistible. Turn you heart and mind back to God and remember your true purpose here on Earth: to serve Him by serving His people, to always seek His will for your life, and to bear witness to His mercy for all sinners. Nothing can promise and cajole and tempt, but Nothing cannot bring you to freedom, or place you at the banquet table. Only Christ Jesus brings us peace forever.

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  1. Cheery little homily! I'm commenting on the audio: There were parts which I found hard to follow. It was much easier to understand your content in the written post than the audio. However, the overall point came across well and with clarity. Even if I was left scratching my head in a few places, you picked up steam and hammered your point home in the other places. I thought it was well-delivered and should have left people thinking.

    1. "Cheery little homily" is exactly right. About half-way thru I realized that this one sounded Doom & Gloom. The original was even worse! Thanks for the feedback. . .