An Ape’s Contentment

The following paragraphs contain some of the most poignant and simultaneously soul-sapping words I’ve ever read. I won’t waste time on any commentary except to say that this resonates with me because I know exactly what is meant here from experience. I know the flavor of the banal art produced not by the forgivable immaturity of atheistic communism (which was still full of misplaced purpose and real conviction) but by the comfortable secularism and horizonless, dead-endedness of a human society that only rises to the level of pretend conviction at most, and more often only itching and scratching:

“Nietzsche cannot be said to have shed many tears over the thought of European Christianity’s demise. But even he was not entirely sanguine regarding what would follow from the gradual collapse of faith in the continent . . . . Now that the sacred canopy had been rolled back and the empty heavens exposed, a moment of potentially shattering crisis had arrived, and it was not obvious to him that post-Christian humanity had the energy to respond to it with anything more than an ever deeper descent into triviality and narcissism. The death of God has certainly come, he believed (which is to say that belief in the transcendent has ceased to be even a possibility, except for the self-deluding), but who can know what sort of thing this unprecedented animal –godless man– will ultimately become?

“… There is something to be said, surely, for Nietzsche’s prophecies regarding the Last Man. At least, when one considers our culture’s devotion to acquisition, celebrity, distraction, and therapy, it is hard not to think that perhaps our vision as a people has narrowed to the smaller preoccupations and desires of individual selves, and that our whole political, social, and economic existence is oriented toward that reality. On the other hand, perhaps that is simply what happens when human beings are liberated from want and worry. And we should therefore gratefully embrace the triviality of a world that revolves around television, shopping, and the internet as a kind of blessedness that our ancestors, oppressed by miseries we can scarcely now imagine, never even hoped to enjoy in this world.

“Even so, it is hard not to lament the loss of cultural creativity that seems an inevitable concomitant of this secular beatitude. When one looks, for instance, at the crepuscular wasteland of modern Europe, with its aging millions milling around the glorious remnants of an artistic and architectural legacy that no modern people could hope to rival, acting out the hideously prolonged satyr play at the end of the tragic cycle of European history, it is hard to suppress a feeling of morbid despair. This was Nietzsche’s greatest fear – the loss of any transcendent aspiration that could coax mighty works of cultural imagination out of a people. When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape; and then become contented with his lot; and ultimately even rejoice that the universe demands little more of him than an ape’s contentment.

“If nothing else, it seems certain that post-Christian civilization will always lack the spiritual resources or the organizing myth necessary to produce anything like the cultural wonders that sprang up under the sheltering canopy of the religion of the God-Man.”

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God