Martin Henry: Meaning and meaninglessness
Prompted by a statement of Jesus' some regard as harsh, Fr Martin Henry explains Christianity's belief that the world without God is, literally, nothing, but that the world created by God can be everything
IN a famous passage in chapter 15 of St John's Gospel, Jesus compares himself and his followers to a vine and its branches.
In the course of the passage he makes a statement that sounds harsh, even exaggerated: "Cut off from me you can do nothing."
In the history of the Church, such statements have sometimes been used to develop a very strict doctrine of grace and to downplay the importance of human free will and the significance and use of human gifts and talents in the process of salvation.
Indeed such an influential thinker as St Augustine could go as far as saying that "the virtues of the pagans are shining sins".
That is to say, their virtues only appear to be virtues, but, because pagans are outside the Church, for St Augustine even their good deeds are in fact only sins.
To our ears today this surely sounds preposterous, indeed almost fanatical.
Quite apart from the fact that we are often confronted, as we well know, with examples of Christians who behave abominably, on the other hand there are numerous examples of people totally outside the Church, maybe with no religious affiliation at all, who behave generously and humanely.
To write off such people's goodness as worthless would, in the eyes of most fair-minded observers be bigotry of a high order, to say nothing of its being hard to square with the Christian belief in the fundamental goodness of God's creation and the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.
But that still leaves open the question of why such a serious thinker as St Augustine could have held such uncompromising views on "pagans" and, above all, what Jesus could really have meant in saying: "Cut off from me you can do nothing."
Now, while it would be unwise to interpret such sayings one-dimensionally, it would still be a mistake, I think, to cast them aside as belonging, say, to a more simple-minded age and hence as no longer relevant to us.
On the contrary. They are more than relevant, because they are about what salvation really means.
What Jesus' words are pointing to is quite simply the 'good news' of the gospel message which claims that the best that we can achieve can be achieved with God, not without God.
In other words, what Jesus is emphasising is that we shouldn't underestimate the significance of our life on this earth, as if we were only here for a short spell of time and then everything were over.
For with God's grace we are also being called, even while on earth, to share in God's life.
And presumably this is the essential truth that Christian thinkers like St Augustine will have had in mind when they made the kind of extreme-sounding statements like the one mentioned earlier, which can unfortunately be so easily misunderstood.
What Jesus' words are pointing to is quite simply the 'good news' of the gospel message which claims that the best that we can achieve can be achieved with God, not without God
In short, what the teaching of 'the vine and the branches' is telling us is that if we concentrate only on our life on this earth and on nothing else, then at the end of the day it will be difficult to avoid the conclusion that everything ends up in nothingness, because everything that appears on this earth will eventually also disappear from it.
In the light of this consideration, it's easier perhaps to understand why many people can only find life truly valuable if they see it as connected with God, and on the other hand why so many find life empty of ultimate meaning if it has no connection with God.
Curiously enough, the Christian doctrine of creation itself in a way encourages the view that the world without God is nothing, by teaching that God created and continually creates the world 'out of nothing', to use the technical theological expression.
Christian faith intimates then, to put it slightly differently, that the world without God is, literally, nothing, but that the world created by God can be everything.
It's a bit maybe like in mathematics, it has been said, where a zero by itself is nothing, but taken with a number, it can mean a huge amount: a hundred, a thousand, a million and so on...
Often, however, I think we may be inclined to see God as a kind of threat, always seeking to catch us out, rather than as the one offering us a share in divine life.
Even if the former is the case, we can still take comfort from the saying that "God is greater than our heart" (1 John 3:20).
That is to say, even if our hearts and minds try to convince us that our lives are ruined or worthless, we ourselves don't have the last word on such questions, just as we didn't have the first word on the question of our coming into the world originally.
So, even if from a human point of view life were ever to seem to us to have no value or meaning, from God's point of view it's a different story.
The last word on and in our lives doesn't belong to us. The 'last word', like the 'Last Judgement', belongs, for Christian faith, to God.
And that is not something to be feared, but rather to be looked forward to, because the 'last word' is the same Word who became incarnate for us in Jesus Christ so that we could share in God's life here and hereafter for ever.
Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.