Beyond Nihilism

In 2011, Dreyfus and Kelly published a book, All Things Shining, which explores how how notions of sacredness and meaning have evolved throughout the history of human culture. They set out to reconstruct this history because they’re worried bout its endpoint in our current era. ‘The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things,’ Dreyfus and Kelly explain early in the book. ‘The shining things now seem far away,’” (Newport, 86).

Craftsmanship, Dreyfus and Kelly argue in their book’s conclusion, provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner. To illustrate this claim, they use as an organizing example an account of a master wheelwright–the now lost professional of shaping wooden wagon wheels. ‘Because each piece of wood is distinct, it has its own personality,’ they write after a passage describing the details of the wheelwright’s craft. ‘The woodworker has an intimate relationship with the wood he works. Its subtle virtues call out to be cultivated and cared for.’ In this appreciation for the ‘subtle virtues of his medium, they note, the craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a Post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual. The wheelwright doesn’t decide arbitrarily which virtues of the wood he works are valuable and which are not; this value is inherent in the wood and the task it’s meant to perform.

As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of a craftsman, they conclude, ‘is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning meanings that are already there.’ This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning. At the same time, this meaning seems safer than the sources cited in previous eras. The wheelwright, the authors imply, cannot easily use the inherent quality of a piece of pine to justify a despotic monarchy.” (Newport, 87-88).

I’ve quoted this passage at some length because the key insight is not fully understandable without it. The problem facing us inhabitants of a technological world is how to find meaning outside of ourselves. There seems to be no answer to that, at least not among the streams of nihilism and post-modernism. But here is a possible direction.

My question now is whether this insight, traditionalist as it is, can be adapted to modern paganism in a way that does not require patched up identities and re-invoked blind faith

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