Nihilism—In Nazi Germany and Today

Published March 7, 2024

First Things

Twice in the last ten days my dear friend and colleague Fran Maier has drawn attention to the importance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the church in America today. At the Catholic Thing he noted that this year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, in which a number of prominent theologians in Nazi Germany publicly opposed the “German Christians” who were seeking an accommodation with Nazism. Bonhoeffer was one of the signatories. Then, at the launch event for his fascinating new book, True Confessions, he quoted from Bonhoeffer’s letters, that it is “only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” 

That Maier, a Catholic, calls on Bonhoeffer is a sign of the times. This is not simply because in the current climate Catholics and Protestants share common cultural concerns. It is also because the great temptation of our day, that of conflating politics with Christianity, is intense. The stakes are not as high as they were in Germany in 1934. But the principal challenge for Christians, that of remaining faithful as witnesses to the gospel rather than enablers of those whose politics resonate with our cultural tastes, is the same. 

Bonhoeffer may be the most famous German theologian to oppose Hitler and Nazism, but he was not the only one. Another who speaks to our times is Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and pastor. Like Bonhoeffer, Thielicke was hounded by the Nazis, though he survived and was even able to pastor a church for a while in the 1940s. A polymath and a preacher, he wrote a massive theological ethics as well as a critique of Bultmann. Many of his sermons and lectures were collected and published. Also like Bonhoeffer, he was not an entirely reliable guide to traditional Christianity. His historical context was Nazism but his theological context was neo-orthodoxy. The latter was always somewhat more “neo” than “orthodox” at key points. 

I first encountered Thielicke when I picked up a copy of Man in God’s World in a used bookstore in the late 1980s. It’s a series of lectures on Luther’s Small Catechism that he delivered in Stuttgart Cathedral in the early 1940s. What caught my attention was the fact that the series continued through the Allied bombings of the city. Thielicke knew that every lecture he gave would be the last gospel message that some members of his audience would ever hear. That gave them an urgency and a relevance I have not encountered elsewhere. Perhaps never has Richard Baxter’s comment about preaching as a dying man to dying men applied to anyone as pointedly as to Thielicke in Stuttgart during the war. 

I had not read Thielicke for many years until I recently discovered a book of his that I had never heard of: Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, with a Christian Answer. This work is stunning, for it identifies the problem at the center of our contemporary culture: a collapse in the cultural consensus about what it means to be human. The book’s context is the anthropological challenges posed by Nazism and Marxism in the twentieth century, but its argument offers insights for today.

At the heart of the problems of his day Thielicke saw the rejection of two basic principles: the idea that human beings had an end, a telos; and the notion that limits were good. In short, what it meant to be human was up for grabs. In practice, this made human beings anything that their will could achieve, given the technological possibilities available in any given time or place. And that was a key component of nihilism. 

We have witnessed amazing technological advances since the 1940s. The transformation of humanity from a given, limited, teleological essence to a potency whose limits and ends are merely technical problems to be overcome is now complete (at least in the cultural imagination). Ironically, human technical brilliance has served to make human beings into nothing of any great significance. We are the only creatures on the planet who are intelligent and intentional enough to have abolished ourselves.

Of course, identifying limits and ends is not always as straightforward as we might like to think. Does it break human limits to use planes, calculators, and antibiotics? There are indeed gray areas. But the breaking of certain limits and ends has clear revolutionary significance. When life itself and its intrinsic limits become technical problems to be overcome, the anthropological results are dramatic. This also generates ethical questions that we as a society do not have the tools to answer, precisely because the notion of what it means to be human—the basis for offering answers—is the very thing rendered problematic by technological advances. When abortion is seen as a basic human right and euthanasia is gaining ground across the West, “What is man?” becomes a matter of personal taste, not social consensus. And then there is the matter of frozen embryos. We have created something via our technical abilities that revolutionizes what it means to be human without even realizing that that is what we are doing. We have created anthropological chaos. No wonder there is no agreement on what to do with the results. 

As Fran Maier has repeatedly commented over the years, ours is a time of anthropological crisis when we as a society cannot agree on what it means to be human. In such a context, theologians who faced that issue in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s are obvious dialogue partners upon whom we can draw. Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom is an inspirational model of resistance. And Thielicke, with his deep, self-conscious concern for anthropology and the human condition in a time of political and moral chaos, should also become part of the conversation. 

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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