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Choice: the current mask of nihilism

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 7 July 2006


It is of the nature of evil that it is always presented as the good. How else could we be seduced by it? Recent illustrations of how this happens have been provided by the novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World but this insight goes back to the tempting of Eve with the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

The serpent says to her: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Similarly, when Jesus is tempted by the devil in the gospel of Matthew (Chapter 4) he presents him with the desirable things, bread to ease his hunger, miraculous power and absolute political rule. Where Eve failed Jesus resisted.

So when someone wants to convince us of something they invariably dress it up to look like the good. One of the highest goods is freedom, a dominant theme in the Bible. Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Jesus quotes from Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry:

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The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. (Luke 4:18,19 NRSV)

It is a sign of the moral depravity of a society that they begin to use the highest goods subversively. When the Howard Government labels new industrial relations laws, which swing power in the workplace massively towards the employers, “WorkChoices” we know we are in the area of propaganda. For many, the only choice involved is to shed benefits or lose the job.

We kill our unborn babies under the rubric of choice. Never mind the closure of a future that the new born will bring with it or the haunted mothers and grandparents who wonder about that future. Never mind the sexual and emotional disorder that has brought about the pregnancy in the first case. Never mind the wishes of the potential father. Never mind the fact that we are teetering on the brink of demographic extinction. No, the only thing that is important is the choice of the mother, hence to be pro-abortion is to be pro-choice.

I first knew that the notion of choice could be used to cover up a moral abyss when attending a conference on religious education in Uniting Church schools I overheard a besuited principle tell his colleague that the admirable thing about church schools was that they provided choice. This set me wondering what his sponsoring denomination would have thought of such a weak excuse for running a school.

The celebration of choice is a mask covering the underlying nihilism that our quest for ultimate freedom has brought us. In the absence of God and a seminal story of identity and purpose, the only thing we have to turn to is the desire of the self, epitomised by the notion of the free individual who may choose.

At the end of the modern period freedom is understood as the stripping away of any allegiance. To be truly free is to cancel all authority, escape from any informing story, disband any sense of duty and look to what the self wants, to choose between a range of value neutral options.

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We tell our children they must follow their dream while simultaneously removing anything that might form that dream. Anything else would be an encroachment on the child’s right to make up their own mind, so they make it up in a vacuum and we wonder that their aspirations are so shallow and so narcissistic.

Choice has become a word that signifies that we believe in nothing. The theologian David Hart makes the point that Christianity, in its spread through the ancient world, emptied the shrines of all the old gods and adopted and transformed what was useful in the ancient philosophies. In short, it overcame the ancient world, leaving nothing left that still invoked the old authorities.

The thoroughness with which the Christian tradition swept the world of impossible belief left us with nowhere to go but to Christ. As Simon Peter declares, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:68 NRSV). Hart concludes that Christianity set the stage for modern nihilism simply by emptying the world of all viable alternatives. So when Christianity is rejected even the old baptised authorities of the ancient world must also be rejected.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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