Paul poses a questions twice about whether effort was “for nothing”. “… if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (2:21), and, “Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing?” (3:4). Faith for nothing? I usually associate nihilism with existentialism, not religion. Is Paul suggesting that Christ faced an existential dilemma? A criticism of faith and religion by humanists and atheists is that people believe in external ideas which cannot be verified. And, those in power use these beliefs as ways of controlling people. This can be carrying out rituals based on ancient texts and traditions, regardless of whether they have any apparent relevance to modern culture or issues (e.g. Orthodox Jewish dietary and sabbath practices). This can be moral requirements based on interpretations of a deity’s commandments and subsequent upholding by a supreme religious leader (e.g. the Catholic church’s prohibition on birth control). This can be basing one’s sense of identity and meaning on some higher power (e.g. the Beatles and guru what’s-his-name). Humanists and atheists would rather that people make decision about nutrition and family planning based on verifiable information about what foods are healthy and whether a couple can afford financially and emotionally to rear children. As for the Beatles, they would just like or dislike their music, but not hum, “Let It Be” (was that Mother Mary or marijuana, oh, what the heck…).
The idea of nihilism in existentialism is basically that nothing has meaning, except whatever meaning we give it. If “Christ died for nothing”, this suggests that the Christians believed that Christ died for something, because, as Paul has argued extensively in his letter to the Roman church, Jews following the law was not sufficient for something. Had Christ died for nothing, there would be no meaning in his death. Had Christ died for something, meaning would exist.
Taking this as a premise, that Christ’s death had meaning, the question arises, from where did this meaning come? If Christ and/or God generated the meaning, then this perpetuates the problem that meaning is external to the individual. This salvation is something that happened and exists out there, obligating someone to take on this meaning. If individuals generate this meaning, they then have the dilemma that they have to verify this meaning or are just fulfilling their wishful-thinking. Does it really matter whether someone gains his sense of meaning from following religious rituals, adhering to the Popes edicts, or humming from “Let it Be” to “My Sweet Lord”?
Paul factors in two other concepts to this discussion, faith and experience. Even those who witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection missed the point and doubted the verification of what they saw. The Galatians, as we, did not see these events, and therefore must apply their ability to believe. And, they had the experience the transformation in their lives, which not only brought joy but suffering.
So, what type of meaning do we wish to construct? A meaning that is essentially nothing? A meaning which is mainly adherence to someone else’s standards? A meaning which is only our private revelation? A meaning which is self-indulgence? A meaning which might transform? Regardless of where we seek our meaning, we must have faith in our decision. Our validation would be our experience of that meaning.
Until next time, Inspiration Seekers.