Mormonism as a Nihilism

James Faulconer, a professor of philosophy at BYU, discussed the question ‘Is Mormonism a Nihilism?’ for the Philosophy Lecture Series.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 2, 2017)—Nietzschean nihilism is often associated with extreme pessimism and existentialism, a belief devoid of hope and meaning for life. “Nietzsche says that life and the world are absurd; that they are ultimately groundless and have no metaphysical origin,” said BYU professor of philosophy James Faulconer.

Nietzsche also claims that  Western cultural Christendom has built a metaphysical structure “including its morality to hide that absurdity.” In using the term “Christendom,” Faulconer separates it from Christianity, pointing to the cultural ideals and norms of Christians, rather than the actual doctrine of Christianity, to mean Christendom. From those norms and ideals, Christendom has created a metaphysical structure to enact laws on society.

That metaphysical structure, in Faulconer’s view, has become corrupted. “I’m using the term metaphysics the way Nietzsche did. . . . It means the assumption that there is one thing that grounds everything, like God or rationality,” said Faulconer. A common assumption by some, but not Faulconer, is that if there is no overall grounding structure, it follows that there would be no meaning to morality and that life would be ephemeral.

Faulconer addressed the question “Is Mormonism a Nihilism?” for the Philosophy Lecture Series. “Nihilism has lots of meanings, including the rejection of the belief that the world has some intrinsic order,” explained Faulconer. This is the area in which, he explained, Mormon belief could coincide with Nietzschean philosophy.

Consistency with the Latter-day Saint view comes through the idea there exists no immaterial matter, everything is material in some sense. Before God created the world and the heavens, there was material in unformed chaos. Rather than a creation from nothing, God made creation from no thing or, in other words, indeterminate matter. “It was gathered, good, and given a name; something goes on in that shift from primordial chaos to earth, water, wind – a matter of determination or giving something determinate characteristics,” Faulconer explained.

In creating determinate matter, God also created rules and laws, especially with respect to how we relate to him and the Plan of Salvation. Faulconer commented, “He can say to me that if I really want happiness as he has it, to be like him, [his plan] is what it requires. He already knows what it takes; he can’t guarantee that we will or want to [have happiness], but he can show us the way.”

Yoram Hazony, an Israeli philosopher, wrote that the Bible does not give an account of metaphysical being. In the Bible, God has a form, he communicates with his children, and he is partially bound in time and space because of his physical body. “There could be different kinds of time, but it seems very difficult if not impossible to have a physical body and not be bound by some concept of time,” said Faulconer. “God is, in some sense, bound by the same things we are bound by.”

Faulconer continued, “The fact that the world is not metaphysically structured means that there can be a morality. God is a being and we find [the world] good, if we are asking if God must be part of my rational concept, my answer is no, but we do need to have God to become like him.”

“Is Mormonism a nihilism?” Faulconer asked. “I would say ‘yes?’ in the sense that it denies that the world has an ultimate metaphysical structure, but nevertheless, things are real because they were created by God for the grace of his children and by them, his children, in relation to him.”

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Philosophy Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.