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Nihilism, Tragedy, and Apocalypse

In his superb book, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, David Toole argues that there are three possible responses to the horrors that have taken place in modernity: Nihilism, Tragedy, and Apocalypse. He frames his discussion using the rather incredible story of the staging of Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot” which was staged in Sarajevo during the early 90s. Here’s how he frames the thrust of his book:

“On a stage in a poorly lit theater, with intermittent sounds of a war going on outside, Estragon and Vladamir, and with them the audience – cold, hungry, and exhausted — await Godot, which is to say in part that they await a decision on the character of the universe. Is nihilism the last word? Does it all come to naught in the end? I suffering, and with it the whole of existence, meaningless? ‘They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then its night once more.’ Is that the definitive description of the way of the world — the sum of our life? Or can we hope for more? Might we describe things differently, not in the hope of alleviating suffering (we cannot do that) but in the hope of rendering it meaningful? Might we say not that suffering is meaningless but that it is tragic, which is to say that when we arise to the occasion and meet suffering with dignity, we somehow transfigure the world? Do declarations of tragedy better describe the world than declarations of meaninglessness? And what of that other possibility, namely, that the world is neither meaningless nor tragic but apocalyptic, such that suffering not only finds meaning in dignity but comes to rest in the life of God?” (p. 20)

Toole’s book takes the reader on a tour through the thinkers of nihilism and tragedy, leading from Nietzsche to Foucault to John Milbank, and finally ending with a metaphysics and politics of apocalypse, taking its cue from John Howard Yoder. Another quote:

“To say that Jesus’ interruption of history is the most fundamental of events and that it supplies us with a code that allows us to discern the meaning of history is to say, in effect, that Jesus is the ultimate victim (who yet is not victimized) — and that in his life, death, and resurrection we find disclosed what it means for God to be involved in history. To say all of this is to say that the character of history is apocalyptic.” (p. 206)

This is a seminal book on theology, modernity, and what it might mean to do theology in an apocalyptic style. Unfortunately it really has never gotten the attention that it deserves.

One Comment

  1. Richard wrote:

    Coincidentally I picked this book up a couple of weeks ago, I’m looking to get to it soon.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

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