Nishitani claims that despite the abandonment of divine revelation for human reason and the resulting rise of nihilism, the foundations of Enlightenment thought ironically lie in the Christian view of time and history. Both the Christian and Enlightenment perspectives include a search for origins (Genesis or the natural cause of the universe), as well as a view toward a future end (the Second Coming or the enlightened society). Both posit a linear structure of time and history that begins in the distant past, unfolds with historically significant events, and culminates in some future ideal. It is Nishitani’s claim that traditional Christianity, by maintaining this historical worldview, not only is responsible for its own demise but also is unable to successfully confront nihilism.
However, Nishitani believes that mystical Christianity can overcome nihilism. He discusses, for example, the mystical theology of thirteenth century Dominican preacher and teacher Meister Eckhart, specifically Eckhart’s view on the God-Godhead relationship. Briefly, “Godhead” signifies the essence of God, which transcends all forms and characteristics. “God,” on the other hand, is the form that functions within the God/human, or Creator/created, relationship and is, therefore, secondary to the Godhead. Humans, because they have been “made in the image of God,” also find their essence in the Godhead; during the event of mystical awakening, humans break through to their divine essence, the Godhead, realizing at once their own and God’s essence. Eckhart characterizes this Godhead as “absolute nothingness.” For Nishitani, it is only through this nothingness that Christianity can confront and transcend nihilism. It should be noted that Nishitani sees Eckhart’s absolute nothingness as being similar to the Buddhist notion of emptiness.
It is important to emphasize that the breakthrough into absolute nothingness, either in its Christian or Buddhist form, signifies an awakening to the “eternal now,” the nontemporal basis for the past, present, and future. This awakening renders meaningless the linear progression of time and also signifies the transcendence of the self. Therefore, Nishitani believes that, ironically, the phenomena of dehumanization and nihilism can mark an important opportunity for the realization of absolute nothingness. Dehumanization pushes a person to the brink of absolute nihility where no meaning, either internal or external, or in the past or future, can be grasped. It is precisely in this sense of complete meaninglessness that one finds the possibility of entering the field of emptiness, here and now.