A nihilist faith (or faithful nihilism)
I don’t remember where the seed of thought came from, but it arrived fully-formed: “does meaning require permanence?”
The easy reaction is no, it does not. It cannot. Otherwise, these fleeting moments cease to have importance as soon as they are over. A kiss, an artistic performance, an entire childhood would only have meaning while it was happening. Nostalgia and trauma, among others, tell us that this is not how humanity works.
But that’s not what I mean by “permanence.” Perhaps it is “object permanence” or maybe it is “legacy” — the memory of a thing, or the impact that it leaves on those who perceives it. The Damien Rice show I went to in 2003 was finite, but I remember to this day how it made me feel, and how it directed later decisions I made about songwriting. My grandparents are dead, but the lessons I learned from them and the love I felt from them live on. A tree provides oxygen, and every animal that breathed it—and each of their descendants—represents that tree’s “legacy”, even after it is cut down.
That feels like permanence, but it is not. Because I, and everyone who was at that show, or was impacted by my grandparents, or breathed the oxygen of that tree… we will also die. And everyone who we impact will die, too. And everyone they impact, and so on until the heat death of the planet.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to the idea of eternity in a minute, but the fact that you’re wondering about that by now means it’s a valid question: does meaning require permanence now?
What was once an easy yes now becomes an uneasy no, doesn’t it? Otherwise, nothing matters unless it can last forever.
“This world is not my home; I’m only passing through…” That hymn was commonplace in the churches I grew up in. I understand the sentiment, but as an adult, I have come to the conclusion that it necessarily led to one particular unintended consequence: see all of this?[holding arms out to indicate the planet] None of this really matters. I’m only passing through.
As a result, Christians could opt out of the conversation about equality — financial or racial. We could ignore civil rights, since everything would be equal once we got to Heaven. We could simply decide that climate change or authoritarian regimes only mattered to us insofar as we could use them as vehicles to win souls (this didn’t stop us from forming the religious right to win elections, fight against LGBTQ+ equality, and march en masse on abortion clinics, but we can talk about selective political involvement later).
When you have but one micro-focus, everything becomes an opportunity to bend the conversation back to that obsession. That’s how the “Jesus juke” became a thing. Pick a topic, any topic, and we could steer it back to salvation. Computers? Let me tell you about a little virus… called sin. Baseball? There’s only one home I’m headed for, buddy. Groceries? If you really want to know about savings, let me tell you about the ultimate source of sustenance …for your soul.
You should see the t-shirts. Tommy Hellfighter. “Spirit” in the Sprite font. You can guess how the parody of this one went.
These are light-hearted examples, sure, but when everything is a prop… eeevvvvverything is a prop. Marriage? An act of worship. Sex? Worship. Feeding the poor? Sure, but only if they’ll sit and listen to a sermon. Even child abuse becomes an acceptable bit of unpleasantness, so long as it drives sin out of the child’s heart. Colonization? Manifest destiny? All driven by the idea that this world is secondary, so long as we’re winning souls for Christ! (Did those in power truly believe this? Who knows, but it’s immaterial: they didn’t have to, so long as the soldiers and missionaries believed the cause was just).
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
— Colossians 3:23–24
I don’t know if any of it matters. I can’t ever know this, and faith was never about knowing in the first place. I believe the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. So I ask again: does meaning require permanence? Does the question even matter?
Maybe. Maybe not. But it did lead me to a place where I can breathe. I‘ll try to explain.
I always thought that accepting any form of nihilism automatically meant that a trap door would open up beneath my moral footing, and I would chute-fall into a pit of hedonism. Why take care of myself? Why love anyone? Why spend any time with my family when I could be out harvesting every last drop of dopamine from my stupid brain, and then dying as soon as my supply ran out? Sure, it would make other people sad, but who cares? They’re going to die too, and so would everyone they know, and eventually, none of it would matter.
Who would have thought that was the last bit of unlearning I’d have to do from my evangelical roots? It makes sense now, though. I’d been a half-nihilist my whole upbringing. This world is not my home.
None of this matters.
A misunderstanding of nihilism and a misunderstanding of God were unhealthy in equal-but-opposite ways for me. One said “there is only eternal meaning”. The other said “there is no meaning whatsoever”.
Both led me to disengage with the present.
But just as both can lead to the same unhealthy conclusions, I’m learning that they can both lead to the same healthy place, with a little better understanding. There are countless verses in the Bible that talk about taking care of those in need, here. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. The entire story of the Good Samaritan. Here, take James 1:27, for example.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
(That one gets even more interesting when you consider that the word for “world” is kosmos, which can also mean “adornment” — more on that theory here).
The point is: the Gospel? The Good News that we heard preached? It’s not only talking about what happens after we die. The Bible has more than enough evidence to suggest that our time on Earth is not simply a pass/fail test to see if we get to level up. When we pay attention to those parts and genuinely care about each other, right here and now, we will make the world around us a better place. It still points to eternity, but in an “on Earth, as it is in Heaven” sort of way.
Likewise, I realized I had been misunderstanding what nihilism could look like. I’ve been on self-destructive benders before. I never quite achieved the dopamine nirvana I’d hoped, and I felt worse afterward. So why would that be where I headed, if I believed that this was all we had?
I have felt the happiest and most fulfilled when I’m doing something that makes the world around me a better place, helping someone in need, speaking truth to power, taking care of my “temple” (that’s Bible for “body”).
These are all the same things that I now view Christianity as pointing toward.
I would never have thought that Nihilism would be what pointed me toward a new understanding of Christianity, but here I am. What once seemed like polar opposites have now come full circle. One cut left, the path of eternal meaning. The other cut right, and suggested I try to be as happy as possible for as long as possible before I shuffle off into nothingness.
And yet, here they are, arriving at the same destination: love your neighbor as yourself. Care for those in need. Don’t hesitate to sacrifice these temporary meaningless trappings (“adornment”, maybe?) for the good of others…
So does meaning require permanence?
I don’t know, and I don’t have to.