One axiom that I hear all the time is that if the Bible is false, or is not self-evidentially true, or there is no God, or there was no resurrection, that we are wasting our time, and we might as well be out doing all sorts of licentious acts of depravity.
This seems like a very futile faith. As if the process of religious devotion, the true and real transformation that takes place in the liturgy, or the non-liturgical liturgy, the ameliorative effects of the moral life, the years of faithfulness, are of no value. Now, it is not my aim in this post to discuss whether there is a god/God, whether the Bible is right or true, or whether there is a resurrection. But let’s pretend for a moment that we find out that there is no God, and that the resurrection is patently false. Is our faith in vain? Should we count it all as nothing?
It seems to me that the real nihilists are those whose only vehicle for finding meaning is their creed, or orthodoxy, (or in Milbank’s case, radical orthodoxy). For these Christian Nihilists, the human life has no intrinsic value. Meaning is contingent on whether or not I can check each dogma off of my list when I get to heaven. Or whether my self-sacrifice was warranted by eternal accolades.
But there is meaning in the devotion to something other. There is meaning in the giving of one’s food, or clothing. There is meaning in forgiveness, given or received. If we find out that ultimately our beliefs are false, then all we have left is the good that we have done to and for others, (which is everything).
The man who had previously been dying and lonely on the street, but due to Christian charity, is now clothed and part of a community, does not ultimately care that this religion, is perhaps, simply a sociological evolution, or the strivings of humanity to make sense of their lives in the shadow of the abyss. Even if Christ has not been resurrected—pace St. Paul—we have gained so much.
If Christ has not been raised, if we will not be raised, if all that happens at the end of our biological process is eternal sleep, or non-existence, there is nothing vain about giving a dying man a few last minutes of joy with stories of streets of gold, and a reunion of loved ones. “What if the Bible actually gives us no reliable information about the hereafter at all? ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ What else do you tell a man in the throes of his own execution?”1
Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, Martir tells the story of a priest, Don Manuel, who has lost faith in the afterlife. In the story, the priest keeps on acting as if he believes for the sake of the townspeople. In the process, he takes on a disciple, Lazaro, who at the beginning of the story does not believe and is uninterested in the life of faith. However, as he meets Don Manuel, he begins to be converted to a life, which is ostensibly—though perhaps not—not one of faith, but one of helping others to believe.
In one scene Lazaro is speaking to his sister, the narrator, about Don Manuel’s ministry. He says,
Then . . . I understood his motives and that is when I understood his sainthood; because he is a saint, my sister, a complete saint. He didn’t try to win me for his holy cause, because it is a cause, because it is a holy cause, extremely holy, but he did it for peace, for happiness and for the illusions if you want, of those who are entrusted to him; I understood that if he deceived them thus, if this is deceit, it is not to win anything for himself. I gave in to his speeches, and here is my conversion. And I will never forget the day on which I said to him, ‘But Don Manuel, the truth, the truth above all!’ he, trembling, whispered in my ear even though we were in the middle of the countryside. “The truth? The truth Lazaro is perhaps something terrible, something intolerable, something mortal; the simple people could not live with it.” “And why did you let me get a glimpse of it here and now, as if in a confession?” And he “Because if not, it torments me so that I would end up shouting it in the middle of the square, and never that, never, never, never. I have to make the souls of my parishioners live, to make them happy and to make them dream themselves immortal, and not to kill them. What is needed here is that they live in a healthy way in unanimity of feeling, and with the truth, with my truth, they wouldn’t live. Let them live. And this is what the church does. It lets them live. True religion? All religions are true insofar as they make their people that profess them live spiritually, insofar as they console them for having been born to die, and for each people the truest religion is theirs, the one that has made them.
This then is a truly selfless religion. A following of the kenosis of Christ. To live a selfless Christian life, with the knowledge of eternal reward, is still living a life for what you yourself can gain. But to live fully for others, to give of yourself completely, to give your cloak and your tunic, without knowing whether or not there is some ultimate reward for doing so, that is a truly sacrificial faith.
“He made me a new man, a true Lazaro, one resurrected,” he told me. “He gave me faith.”
“Faith?” I interrupted him.
“Yes, faith, faith in the consolation of life, faith in the happiness of life. He cured me of my progressivism. Because, Angela, there are two kinds of dangerous and evil men: those who, convinced of the life beyond the grave, of the resurrection of the body, torment others like the inquisitors they are, so that scorning this life as transitory they might win the other; and those who not believing in any more than this one…”
“Like maybe you?” I said.
“Yes, and like Don Manuel. But believing only in this world, they hope for I don’t know what future society, and try to deny to the people the consolation of believing in the other.”
“So that one must act so that they live with the illusion.”
There is nothing futile or vain about taking a few moments to put your hand on a shoulder and praying a few words to God, to yourself, your friend. Nothing vain about forgiveness and consolation. Nothing vain about giving those to others. Nothing vain about the inner peace that comes from prayer. Nothing vain about spending your life in service to something other than yourself. Nothing vain about working to overthrow systems of oppression or working to create more justice in the world.
What is vain, however, is a life of capitalistic striving that oppresses and enslaves others. What is vain is storing up your treasures where moth and rust destroy. What is vain is spending your whole life devoted to robbing others of love (while you get serviced by a lusty rentboy). What is vain is warring endlessly about whose religious consolation is more comforting (whether you get virginal sex now or in the afterlife), or whose loving and merciful God would win in a fight. About who or what we love, when we love God.
So, I may or may not believe in God, the father almighty. Why do you care? I may or may not believe in the resurrection of the dead. I’m not telling you. But, if Christ has not been raised, then let us live as if it were so.