Why ‘Sunny Nihilism’ Isn’t a Logical Option
Article by Malissa Mackey
“Standing on the side of the road I looked at the sky and thought: I’m just a chunk of meat hurtling through space on a rock. Pointless, futile, meaningless. It was one of the most comforting revelations of my life. I’d discovered nihilism.”
So begins the confession of Australian freelance writer Wendy Syfret in an article on “sunny nihilism” that will soon be published as a self-help book. The article is aimed at “burned-out millennials,” and though it was initially published three months prior to the start of the global pandemic, it’s likely to garner an even wider audience now that the world has been quarantined and wallowing in existential dread for the better part of a year.
But while the “sunny nihilism” worldview is wrapped in the pretense of humility and relativism, it’s actually making a bold claim about truth that relies heavily upon a faith commitment.
Product of Our Times
Despair that life might be meaningless is as old as time. The Preacher lamented in Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccles. 1:14). The gnawing sense of existential futility is nothing new.
What’s new is that we’re now in a secularized, pluralistic culture that has replaced transcendence with a dizzying, stressful array of options for how to make sense of the world. Sociologist Peter Berger observes that “we can now choose whom to marry and how many children to have, our occupation, our place of residence . . . our means of entertainment, our objects of worship . . . and even our identity.” Prior to modernity these questions were givens; there was no angst when their answers were predetermined.
‘Sunny nihilism’ is making a bold claim about truth that relies heavily upon a faith commitment.
No wonder Syfret and many of her peers describe themselves as “chronically stressed,” “overwhelmed by expectations,” and “grasping for a sense of greater purpose.” Sixty years ago, C. S. Lewis wrote, “In the conditions produced by a century or so of Naturalism, plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it.” But nihilism, as Syfret has discovered, has gone even one step farther than naturalism. Nihilism has not only given up on the search for truth; it has declared that knowledge itself is impossible and that life is meaningless.
Is Purpose Possible Without Transcendence?
Syfret’s decision to be “sunny” in the face of this meaninglessness is actually a denial of the logical consequences of nihilism. It’s an understandable, albeit temporary, coping mechanism. It’s one thing to renounce meaning and purpose theoretically; it’s quite another to live out its implications for a lifetime. The truth is, Syfret and others like her have not actually given up on meaning and purpose; they simply want to define it on their own terms. They aren’t rejecting the notion of purpose; they’re rejecting the notion of purpose as imposed by something or someone outside themselves.
“Purpose” has been a contested idea especially since the Enlightenment, when scientists and philosophers started to suggest the world was not governed by purpose, only by natural laws. According to these universally observable “public facts,” everything in the visible world can be broken into smaller parts and explained without reference to its purpose. Any explanation of purpose is to be regarded as a privately held value. These are the plausibility structures Syfret has inherited.
The decision to be ‘sunny’ in the face of this meaninglessness is actually a denial of the logical consequences of nihilism.
Syfret and other sunny nihilists attempt to find purpose by looking within. One Vermont high schooler she quotes—“optimistic nihilist” Elias Skjoldborg—says the meaninglessness of life is no reason to be sad, and that the main purpose of life is just to find happiness in your own way. But what happens when your idea of “happiness” conflicts with another’s? What happens when your definition of flourishing and purpose is not shared by others, or even contradicted by others? Self-styled happiness feels awfully burdensome, lonely, and . . . unhappy, doesn’t it?
Syfret notes that sunny nihilism is not self-serving, but rather frees one up to help others. “When your existence is pointless,” she writes, “you shift focus to things that have more longevity than your own ego.” But while this sounds altruistic, who determines what is helpful? And if every human life is “futile, meaningless,” then how is there any meaning in one human trying to extend or enhance (whatever “enhance” would mean) the life of another? When you think about it long enough, nihilistic altruism is a self-contradiction.
Purpose’s Origin Point
Lesslie Newbigin tells a story in which a person watches a building project and wonders what it will become. There are two ways of knowing, he suggests. One is to wait until the project is complete; the other to ask the builder to reveal its ultimate end and then accept that he’s telling the truth. This requires an act of faith. In the case of contemplating the meaning of the universe or the purpose of one’s life, waiting to make observations until the end isn’t a viable option. What, then, is the alternative?
Syfret says she’s making peace with being “just a lump of meat on a rock,” but what if there is a higher being that stands over and above this “rock” and has actually defined purpose for these “lumps of meat”? If one cannot find purpose in this world, perhaps it’s because purpose comes from outside it.
“The LORD has made everything for its purpose” (Prov. 16:4). What if the only way to discover the purpose of something is to find out from its Creator? Cosmic purpose will never be found by observing the universe or by creating it for ourselves. Purpose can only be revealed by the One who created the cosmos—and then it’s ours to, by faith, accept or reject.
Purpose can only be revealed by the One who created the cosmos—and then it’s ours to, by faith, accept or reject.
Nihilism says life has no purpose, and this world is all there is. The God of the Bible declares that our existence was planned before the creation of the world, that he knows how many hairs are on our heads (Ps. 139), that he has given humanity meaningful work to do (Ps. 8), and that he made a way for us to know him now and enjoy him forever.
Purpose Requires Faith
We’re all people of faith. The only way Syfret can reach her “sunny nihilism” conclusion is because she’s accepted some things, by faith, to be certain. She even describes her discovery of life’s meaninglessness as “one of the most comforting revelations of my life” (emphasis added).
Syfret is staking her existence on a revelation she has chosen to accept by faith and orient her life around. Far from the seemingly humble indifference of her nihilist conclusions, she has boldly risked commitment to the truth claim that she is nothing more than a “chunk of meat hurtling through space on a rock.” Nihilism arises from the self-contradictory illusion that there can be certainty about anything apart from taking hold of it by faith.
Solomon agonized over this question of purpose too, but his starting place was different. He felt the same “grasping for a sense of achievement or greater purpose,” the same “tiptoeing toward full-on exhaustion” that Syfret rehearses, but he directs this existential angst toward something, or Someone, outside himself and the material world. He shows that it’s possible to be truly burdened by the seeming vanity of life, while at the same time recognizing that if meaning exists at all, it must come from a transcendent source beyond the self—one we cannot scientifically observe but must take on faith.
In the end, the platitudes and seeming balm of “sunny nihilism” prove to not be nihilistic at all. And Syfret’s search for purpose rests on the very elements of faith that she, and so many of her peers in secular Western culture, seek to deny.
Malissa Mackey is on staff with the City Ministry of Cru and directs Faith & Work Chicago in partnership with Holy Trinity Church. She is finishing her master of arts at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and loves traveling, cheering on her Chicago Cubs, and occasionally writing for the HTC Blog.