Vanity of Vanities

Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here on earth? And, why is there something rather than nothing?

These are the fundamental questions that we can never stop asking, and we can’t find the answers.

Do we have the answers?

In human history, various myths in the world used to be the answers. In every tribe, ethnicity, and civilization, people had their mythical stories to address those ultimate questions. Thus, the stories should be archetypal and ahistorical.

People recognized the myths as something that happened a long, long time ago, at the dawn of the time, and yet it does exist timelessly here and now with themselves. In every character and behavior of those mythical figures, people saw the archetypes that answer the ultimate questions.

Out of those mythical tales, what we call religions emerged. Thus, the answers became explicit. A series of interpretations of the tales became a set of teachings that we should keep and practice. Our implicit conscience transformed into a series of articulations that people are supposed to preserve throughout generations.

Let’s call them the Big Stories.

In the Big Stories, we see the Categorical Imperatives and Transcendentals such as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. In them, we used to have God. We used to have the Cosmos as the origin of everything and as the theory of everything.

The Big Stories were the bases and goals of our lives. Through them, we know consciously or unconsciously how and why we do exist in this world. Through them, we understand how and why we live and die on earth. Thus, our identities were evident. And the Categorical Imperatives were in place.

As long as we live with the Big Stories, they function well as the cornerstone to keep our peace and order. However, throughout human histories, the conflicts among those different Big Stories were inevitable, which happened at various levels of our collective ego from tribalism to ethnocentrism to nationalism. We recognize them as the clashes of civilizations.

The Tyranny of Absolutism

The Big Stories are supposed to be always right and truthful, which should be absolute. If one Big Story encounters the other, people will inevitably face what we call the tyranny of absolutism.

That is to say, each side insists and proclaims the ultimate right and truthfulness to the extent that the clashes become catastrophic, to the extent that one has to destroy the other completely to keep one’s absolute Big Story intact and flawless.

A series of our bloody history shows those brutal incidents in one way or another. We all know a series of extinctions of the past unfortunate tribes, ethnicities, and civilizations. We all know various massacres and genocides that killed millions of people in every area of the world and every moment of history.

The tyranny of absolutism is not only religious but more fundamentally ideological.

Once the Big Stories become ideological, we see the emergence of authoritarianism, which eventually becomes totalitarianism. In it, we don’t see anything else but fear. It is not the fear and trembling of God in the Judeo-Christian sense, which is a synonym for a sense of awe. The fear of totalitarianism is what we call the terror of regimes.

Totalitarianism is horrible, brutal, and destructive. It is the foundation of the terror regimes. In the twenty century alone, we have witnessed millions of people killed and executed under various totalitarian regimes’ terror. The death toll in the century is overwhelmingly higher than any clashes of civilizations in the past.

Are we supposed to be more humane and more human rights conscious than any of the past cruelties? We are in one sense. On the other, however, we must face the horrible reality that in the twenty century alone, we killed people more than anyone else in the past.

Why is that so? Is it because of the tyranny of absolutism? The answer is yes, and yet partial. We have to understand the other side of the coin. That is the tyranny of relativism.

The Tyranny of Relativism

In the dawn of the Enlightenment, Nietzsche declared one shocking sentence:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

The Joyous Science by Friedrich Nietzsche

The Enlightenment was one of the crucial emancipations from traditional, superstitious authorities. We used to see our Big Stories in God. Once, however, the world was no longer what controls us but what we could handle, even explore. Suddenly, our traditional Big Stories became obsolete and diminished themselves.

As the way we see the world changed, unknowingly and unexpectedly we killed our God. Abruptly, amid the positive emancipation, we realized that God was dead. We killed Him.

But then, the emergence of another Big Story was inevitable. More correctly, several Big Stories came out. These were due to the ways we understand and explore the world. We call them the Grand Theories. Under our conviction to control the world, suddenly we became busy for generating various Big Stories and Grand Theories. We experienced the birth of social sciences.

Like how we understand the physical universe, we believed that there must be a set of laws and principles that control the world in which we exist. Even we believed that we could change the world with the increase of our knowledge about it. Among these stories and theories, then one possible denominator was what we call the evolutionary view.

As we evolve, so does the world. As Darwinism used this view for the biosphere, we applied it even to the societal sphere from Hegel’s dialectics to Marxism, which became the basis for various critical theories to articulate contemporary social justice and identity politics, and the like.

The new Big Stories defeated the old ones, which is right in one aspect. It is, however, not the whole picture. One critical twist we should note is that this new tyranny of absolutism thrived on the soil of relativism. It is the tyranny of relativism.

God is Dead Twice

In the dawn of postmodernism, then, once more, the postmodern philosophers cited Nietzsche’s aphorism. So, God is dead twice.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

The Joyous Science by Friedrich Nietzsche

The first death was the end of the traditional Big Stories. What Nietzsche meant at that time was the mythical chain that tamed us in the pre-modern world in God, where we realized the will to power to break the chain. Ironically, however, this emancipation created another God, God of atheism and scientism. Being atheistic, becoming free from the pre-modern authority, another chain of modernity caught us up. We became a slave of the modern dialectic materialism. These dialectic views brought us up to the far terrifying cruelty. A series of revolutions in every area of the world killed millions of people. The death toll of these ideological, anthropogenic disasters in the twenty century is overwhelming.

In the dawn of postmodernism, however, with Nietzsche’s words, we declared the second death of another God. How did we kill Him? This second death is the total denial of any possible Big Stories themselves. It is the ultimatum that there was no that which is God at all in the first place. That is to say, there were no such things as any possible Big Stories in the very first place.

Everything is merely what we interpret in a given context. Everything is right and truthful. Anything can go for its own sake. For the first time in history, we have witnessed that truth became relative caused by the second death of that which is God.

All is Vanity

Truth is relative. This sentence is contradictory. If truth is relative, truth is no longer what it defines itself. It is merely one view among many others.

Due to the total denial of any possible Big Stories, we have suddenly faced the deep abyss of the black hole, where we lost the true meaning of Truth, even the possibility, and hope to find it. The abyss is not the uncertainty that we can’t prove that which is God, but the despair that any possibility is impossible.

Thus, anything goes. Is everything true? Yes, it is. Is everything false? Yes, it is. Is everything right? Yes, it is. Is everything wrong? Yes, it is. It is our pseudo Yes covering up our absolute No. The abyss of the black hole is the chaos of the ultimate nihilism. The Preacher expressed it as follows:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

We suffer from two dictators — absolutism and relativism. We killed millions and millions of people because of these dictators. Why is that so? Because we never learned how to deal with the Big Stories – that which is God. We missed and abused them throughout our human histories. After all the failures, our ultimate failure is the total denial of the Big Stories themselves, which is our absolute No, vanity of all vanities.

After the second death of that which is God, suffering from both absolutism and relativism, then, we cried out, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Is there any hope to restore that which is God, at least a glimpse? The only hope is, by crying out all is vanity, there would be a narrow gate for repentance in despair. We would find Him only amid the total despair that we thought we lost Him at all.

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: ecause strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

Image by TanteTati

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