De-Converting? Embrace Nietzsche’s “Say Yes to Life!”
As mentioned in my previous post, God, Zombies, and the Meaning of Life, when I was in the long process of leaving Christianity, one of the most overriding questions on my mind was this: if there is no God, what meaning is there in life? Christianity, as we all know, teaches that the saved are integral players in a grand cosmic drama, the unfolding of the telos of all Creation. Giving up on that illusion is, to say the least, jarring. It cannot help but leave one wondering how one’s life can have meaning at all, if it is not given from on high.
More psychologically minded individuals may reflect on a deeper way in which Christianity seems to provide the meaning in life. Children learn that they are important, that they matter, just by being seen – i.e., acknowledged and attended to – by their parents. Hopefully, of course, that attention will be loving and positive. But even if the attention is negative, critical, or even abusive, it is, from the child’s point of view, usually better than being ignored. Children will almost invariably prefer any attention to no attention, because that says that they are at least worth criticizing. So it is not hard to imagine how simply being seen by God is enough, in and of itself, to infuse one’s life with meaning and a sense of worth. It’s how many people support their feeling that they are valuable: you matter because God takes note of you. Giving up God, then, is clearly – viewed from this additional perspective – a powerful loss.
I suspect that, probably, for these and other reasons, almost all those who leave fundamentalism must struggle with these questions of the meaning of life, and meaning in life, to some degree. For me, though, for whatever reason, they were paramount and decisive. I had to find some resolution in order to move through the process at all. So I did what I am good at, as a nerdy, bookish, science fiction geek: I read.
The answer that I first came upon, came from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche struggled mightily with this question himself, and indeed, his whole corpus of work can be understood as an answer to this question, why is life worth living? He understood what the “death of God” meant, emotionally – the fear that, since all values were thought to emanate from God, we no longer can justify, or “ground”, any values at all. God tells us what is Good, and what our purpose is. This nihilism, the feeling that if there is no God then nothing matters, was for him the ultimate threat, and something to be overcome – in fact, the most important thing.
Although this topic could (and has) been the focus of entire books, in brief, Nietzsche’s solution was, as his slogan had it, “Say Yes to life”. It was a raw, naked affirmation of life itself, on its own terms, with no qualifications. Life is its own ground of value. He counseled immersion in the flow of life, and embrace of life in all its sublime beauty as well as its ugliness and pain, as the truly courageous way to live. For us as creatures, life is (at least in part) a struggle to overcome obstacles in order to live, and the groundlessness of our lives was, for Nietzsche, just another one of those obstacles. It was indeed an invitation to self-creation. In other words, he taught that an assertion of the will – life will have meaning because I will create it – would compensate for the many sorrows of life, including (and especially) the loss of God itself. For Nietasche, living well is its own justification, no matter what pain or emptiness may come. In his main work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his alter ego Zarathustra beautifully puts it: “I carry the blessings of my yes into all abysses… and blessed is he who blesses thus.”
Later existentialists took up this theme, how to create meaning in a universe that was neither made for us nor answers to our needs… including our need for meaning. They refined Nietzsche’s answer, and pointed out the individual, particular ways humans can and do routinely create meaning for themselves — self-expression, for example. And indeed, I myself found that my own meanings eventually expanded, after I finally left the Christian faith. “Saying yes to life” for me meant, initially, the exploration of life, making up for lost time so to speak, from all those years spent as a neurotic fundamentalist. I wanted to taste life in all its forms and in all its experiences — to “suck the marrow from life”, as Thoreau had put it. I developed friendships with non-Christians, I traveled, I explored new foods, I learned about wine (I had never drunk much as a Christian), I started dating (I had never dated much as a Christian, either), I explored ideas I had never allowed myself to consider (like Nietzsche’s!), I learned about other religions, and more. Just going out dancing was one of the highlights of that time of my life.
In short, the main theme, for me, for these many years of my life, was: the world is good, and beautiful, and that is why life is worth living.