We continue to search for a reason for the Las Vegas shootings. So far, no “traditional” reason has emerged. Last week I suggested that the reason may be no reason. I outlined a philosophy that is becoming increasingly popular in our culture: nihilism. Is this ringing any bells as we learn more and more about Stephen Paddock? Might it be that he had obtained all which he thought could bring him meaning “under the sun,” and found it was meaningless after all? Might he be someone who so thoroughly embraced the Enlightenment that he lived the nihilistic worldview consistently? And if so, what should we learn from this?
What We Know of Paddock
We know Stephen Paddock had enough money to live comfortably and gamble at will (sometimes as much as one million dollars a night). But this did not seem to satisfy him. We know he was in a relationship with someone who cared for him, who has been described as “kind, caring, and quiet” and someone he “doted on.” But this did not seem to satisfy him. We know he had a successful career as an accountant and now enjoyed the leisure of retirement. We know he enjoyed flying (he was a private pilot with two planes) and traveling. But none of this seemed to satisfy him.
Connecting the Dots
The only reason for his shooting spree that seems to make sense, unless more comes to light, is that he was living as a consistent nihilist. If so, it would not be surprising that he chose to be the Übermensch and rise above the “quaint” and “obsolete” moral absolute of “Thou shall not murder” and impose his will on others. Without such objective values to constrain him, he chose to derive meaning and purpose from meticulously planning and then executing dozens of people for sport. For Paddock, it may have been equally meaningful to shoot 58 people to death from his hotel window as to spend the night out helping the homeless of Las Vegas. Such is the conclusion of nihilism.
Another Enlightenment assumption full bloom in nihilism is the belief that there is no such thing as an objective “human nature” that makes persons unique and special. Those who talk of such objectivity are just attempting to have power over others (as Nietzsche’s follower Foucault wrote much about). Therefore, why not rebel and, in the words of much contemporary (and nihilistic) advertising, “live your own life,” “take your own road,” and “be true to yourself”? Paddock, the nihilist, could choose to see the concert-goers as nothing more than ants, and he, the Übermensch, as the exterminator. In this case, he would have seen no problem with imposing his will on these “ants” from the thirty-second floor of the Las Vegas Mandalay hotel.
What Can We Learn?
I may be wrong, and we may find there was another motive for Paddock’s rampage. Even if so, I suspect it will not be long before we see another “senseless acts of violence” that is grounded in this nihilistic philosophy, which permeates our culture. What can we learn and how can we have a redemptive influence in this context?
1. Our Search For a Reason Points to the Transcendent
First, our search for a reason “why” is a reminder that we know there is a Grand Story. As C.S. Lewis argued, we get hungry because there is such a thing as food to satisfy our hunger. When we get thirsty, there is such a thing as water to quench our thirst. In fact, for every longing common to human beings, there is something that exists to satisfy these desires. Events such as this remind us that we also all share a desire to understand disparate events within a larger context—a Grand Story.
The author of Ecclesiastes indicates this when he says, “[God] has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We all long for “eternity”—that which transcends the here and now and gives our lives context, meaning, and purpose. Most of us are experts at pressing down and covering up this longing. But we must not be fooled—no matter what a co-worker, friend or relative says or how he or she looks “on the outside,” inside is a deep longing for ultimate meaning and purpose.
We must be willing and able to, at the right times and in the right ways, help our non-believing friends, colleagues and relatives identify this longing. We must ask:
- Why they believe there must be a reason for such “senseless” violence. If we are just evolved matter, what do they mean by “senseless”?
- Why they believe (correctly) that this was evil. If there is no God and therefore no moral absolutes, isn’t it up to each person to define what is right and wrong for himself (including Stephen Paddock)?
- Why they believe justice should prevail—why they long for redemption of the situation in some way.
On the Christian worldview, all these reactions make sense. But if God does not exist and all we are is matter in motion (all that exists is “under the sun”), there is no room for these “outdated” notions. The fact that they can’t help but believe evil exists, that there must be an explanation for this seemingly irrational action, and their desire for justice and redemption, are indications of “eternity in their hearts.”
(C.S. Lewis engages this so well in many of his writings, perhaps most poignantly in his fiction. In the Narnia series, it is seen in the longing to be with Aslan and all things to be put right. I just finished Lewis’ space trilogy, in which he again so well illustrated this universal longing in the desire for the Good and truly Meaningful to triumph over the Evil and ultimately Arbitrary, especially in the third volume—That Hideous Strength (Simon and Schuster, 1996).
2. Nothing “Under the Sun” Will Quench this Thirst
Second, also masterfully illustrated in Lewis’ fiction, nothing “under the sun” will adequately quench this thirst for the Transcendent. Throughout history, many, like Paddock, had it all and were still empty. Some of what is “under the sun” may satisfy this need for a while, but the honest seeker of meaning will eventually find it anemic and unsatisfying. If we are not able to share the true grounding of values, meaning, and purpose “above the sun,” many more will embrace nihilism, with its disastrous consequences.
In the words of Blaise Pascal (d. 1662), a French mathematician and philosopher:
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
–Pascal, Penses (Penguin Books, 1966; p. 75)
3. Understanding These Ideas Is Extremely Practical!
Finally, this is a reminder that what sometimes seems most impractical turns out to be most practical. Nihilism has taken root in our culture because we have tended to assume understanding philosophy and theology is unimportant. “That is so impractical—it doesn’t help us solve every-day problems.” However, it turns out that such “impractical” people like Nietzsche and his nihilism have life-and-death consequences. Ideas have consequences. It is only because we have not understood these ideas for what they are that they taken root unnoticed. As Lewis said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses; MacMillan, 1980, p. 28)
We must continue to pray for those affected by the 2017 Las Vegas shootings. We must continue to work for the common good in ways within our power. We must be willing to have the right conversations, in the right ways and at the right times, with those who wander in the wasteland of nihilism, sharing the true Hope they seek. And we must work harder to understand the ideas, which shape our society to have a redeeming influence on all that is “not as it should be.”
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading, James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue; Chapter 5—Zero Point: Nihilism