Nihilism, Inequality, and Loss of Agency

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Editor Ron Reno penetrates the essential core of the problem of inequality in the March 2014 issue of the journal First Things (“Inequality and Agency”).  Inequality is not just about the masses in the growing lower and barely-middle class struggling to survive on the leftovers of the self-indulgent upper class; the real tragedy is the loss of the ability by these masses to make any meaningful difference in society (that’s what we mean by “agency”). 

Reno says that virtually all the culture-shaping, agenda-driving, justice-pursuing activity in the USA is owned and controlled by the mavens of Hollywood, the prestige media, and the universities.  Everyone else who doesn’t agree and submit…well, they’re woe-begotten souls, benighted, ignorant, anachronistically religious, and, most definitely, “out of step with history.” 

My decades of work amongst international students, along with many trips overseas in the past few years, have introduced me to the reality of whole and huge populations without much agency.  They see themselves as powerless pawns in a game rigged for the benefit of the powerful who are masters of corruption and institutionalized violence.  And now, slowly but surely, the sense of powerlessness and the inability to affect the outcome of society has crept to populist masses in the West, including the USA. 

 

Marx had it wrong when he looked upon the industrialized masses of the mid-19th century and offered a scientific materialist salvation through a proletarian revolution.  He completely failed to see that the Gospel of Christ has long empowered the powerless to gain the agency they so long desire.  Nietzsche the nihilist instead saw that if society rejected the God of Christianity (which he despised for its “slave morality”) and fully embraced utter materialism, or the philosophy of scientific naturalism, then there would be no meaning (as I wrote about in an earlier blog “Christianity, Islam, and Nihilism”), no morality, and no agency.  Only Nietzsche’s “Superman” could transcend history and make himself an agent that affected the course of history.  In essence, our Western elites, having largely embraced the materialist/naturalist worldview, are exercising their agency as Supermen and –women who transcend history.  They make the rules, they call the shots, and the masses must fall in line.

My populist perspective is true enough from an historical perspective and true tour zeitgeist.  But what gives me hope, and ought to be at the center of Western preaching to the lower and barely middle classes, is that Jesus Christ really does live, He does in fact transform our aspirations from sinful selfishness to radical love for our neighbors, and, yes, He gives us agency to make a difference in history (until He returns and ends history as its Vanquished Conqueror).  This means that our Christian teaching needs to explicate a biblical message (from Genesis 1) that God made us in His image as princely agents who must protect His creation and produce culture by promoting human flourishing and thus advancing God’s glory.  We must declare fearlessly that salvation is not found in redistribution, on the one hand, or libertarian individualism, on the other.  

Rather, the clear biblical witness is that humans have tragically imprisoned themselves as powerless slaves to sin (Genesis 3), and so salvation has to focus on that central problem that destroys agency.  The Christian worldview stands head and shoulders above progressive, postmodern, ultimately nihilistic alternatives for ending inequality.  The Gospel gives us agency because, through Christ’s atoning work, we have been liberated from our slavery to sin and thus restored to our original Genesis 1 calling. 

The real solution to inequality lies in the very heart of the Gospel of Christ.  Government policies and private charities have their place, well and good.  But, the real means to gaining agency is through Jesus Christ.