Archpriest Steven Kostoff
Recently, while browsing a bookstore, I was immediately attracted to the title of a new book God or Nothing, by Roman Catholic Cardinal Deacon Robert Sarah. Although I have not actually read Cardinal Sarah’s work, I would like to reflect on what I believe the title is alluding to, or what direction I would pursue were I the one writing a book with such a title. This is because I have concluded that if God exists, then we are “something.” However, if God does not exist, then we are “nothing.” Hence, my affinity for the starkness of this book’s title: God or Nothing. This stark contrast is not meant to devalue genuine human experiences. On the contrary, as human beings we think and feel, we create and love, and these are only a few of the deep experiences that engender both joy and sorrow in life. Whether one identifies as a theist or an atheist, we all share these experiences, and they endlessly enrich our lives. Indeed, without them, life would essentially not be worth living.
Yet what is above, below, or behind such meaningful experiences? If God does not exist, then the inescapable (and, in my opinion, troubling) answer is nothing – literally. There only exists the void from which we emerged and to which we will return – there is life, then there is decay and death. This process of descent back into that void can be postponed but never eluded. The business of living life only disguises this stark truth, which is probably a good thing, otherwise there would be too much despair in the world. Nonetheless, I am trying to capture this wider-ranging aspect of our existence when I claim that if God is non-existent, then we are “nothing.” And, of course, there is Dostoevsky’s famous aphorism found throughout his masterpiece The Brother’s Karamazov: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.”
Yet if God does indeed exist – as we believe, proclaim, and hopefully live by – then we are genuinely “something.” We do not hover in a void, but rather our lives are grounded in the ultimate reality. There is permanence above, below, and behind the world’s transience – our lives count. Furthermore, they endure beyond the ravages of time and its attendant decay and death. That is because our lives are all contained within the “memory” of God. (Therefore, it is customary in the Orthodox Church to sing “Memory Eternal” for the departed).
This “something” that we are if God exists is contained in that inexhaustible scriptural revelation that we are created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26). Our human capacity to think, feel, create, and love is the result of that wonderful truth – that God is the source and origin of our lives. It is because of Him we emerged from non-existence into being, which we receive as a gift to receive with thanksgiving. For this reason, we do not have to justify our intuitive capacity to seek moral, ethical, and spiritual truth. It is “natural” to be that way, because this conforms to the creative will of God. The tasks of life may distract us – at times even overwhelm us, but this “living life” (to borrow another phrase from Dostoevsky) signifies something and not nothing. Even further, if God is, then our lives add up to something much greater than the sum of all our human experiences in this life. The Gospel would call this “abundant” or “eternal” life (John 3:16, 10:10).
God or Nothing. All in all, an intriguing title for a book. I’m not sure I will ever read it, but for one last time I will claim that although stark, this either/or approach is vital – it reflects a deep look at reality. Could we even speak of a so-called middle choice? The agnostic “maybe” or “perhaps” does not sound very satisfying or reassuring. If we have chosen God over nothing, then our vocation is to embody this choice in lives that are full of meaningful pursuits, beginning with the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
(Father Steven Kostoff is rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology. The preceding article was taken from Father Steven’s new book, “Monday Morning Meditations: Reflections of a Parish Priest,” published by Kaloros Press).