Throughout most of my life, I’ve regularly heard one version or another of a shopworn claim made by pulpiteers, Sunday school teachers, Christian bloggers and authors, participants in Christian Facebook groups, and so forth. It goes like this: There’s a “God-shaped hole” inside each of us, and unless we fill it with God we’ll never be happy. Since nature abhors a vacuum, we’ll try to fill that void with something (a list usually follows, and will typically include sex, drugs and rock-‘n’-roll). But nothing we try to fill it with will ever really satisfy us since only God can fill it perfectly.
One encounters many variations on this theme, including the often-heard claim that atheists make a religion of evolution or a god of Richard Dawkins (or of themselves) and that those who do not embrace the Kingdom of Heaven will almost certainly become political activists of the communist variety, bent on establishing their own substitute heavenly kingdom on Earth.
That claim is a gross distortion of a metaphor coined by Jean Paul Sartre, who spent much of his career teasing apart the particulars of our uneasy relationship with the culture in which we find ourselves embroiled without having chosen it. His “God-shaped hole” metaphor points at the essential emptiness at the heart of our industrial civilization, with its pointless routines, infuriating distractions and glut of cheap, toxic crap. It’s a poignant metaphor meant to capture the poignancy of our predicament.
The misuse I cited earlier represents a warping almost beyond recognition by those who employ Sartre’s metaphor casually without having read what he had to say about it. I want to try to couch it in terms that make better sense, that are truer to Sartre’s meaning.
It’s obvious that most humans feel a deep need for meaning in their lives, and thus pursue it in various ways. Many – surely most to at least some degree – seek meaning outside themselves, in something “larger” (the family, the community, the state, the church, the cosmos), but this isn’t true of everyone. A few seem to locate meaning only in themselves, and this leads to some distressingly predictable behaviors. Those so described almost inevitably end up at the top of whatever ladder it is they’re climbing and thus join the ranks of the most dangerous people alive: the narcissists and sociopaths who wield great power and command vast wealth. Like black holes, they take but do not give. In their case, it may be that “meaning” is the wrong word: perhaps “fulfillment” would be a better choice.
I’ve had the dubious honor of encountering a good number of such cases, whose type is on proud display in the marble halls of government and in the mahogany-paneled board rooms of investment banks and large corporations (and unfortunately and ironically, in the pulpits of influential churches and on the podiums of symphony orchestras). But considered as a proportion of the whole they do seem to be the exception rather than the rule, the tail of a very large statistical curve. I want to talk about the norm not the exceptions. I’ll be using the traditional default masculine pronoun in order to avoid the linguistic clumsiness of he/she, his/her constructions, but please understand that I mean nothing sexist by it.
The “normal” human being is one who’s aware of certain facts about the world and his place in it. He knows that he is mortal. He knows that those who come after him will inherit a world that is to some extent of his making. He knows that other people are just as real as he is: they love just as ardently, grieve just as deeply, hate just as hotly and hope just as desperately as he does. He’s at least dimly aware of the indescribable suffering endured by countless millions worldwide who eke out an existence in conditions so miserable and impoverished that he can barely imagine them. (The chances are good that he doesn’t visit this awareness very often, for doing so would make him uncomfortable and would perhaps have an impact on the way he chooses to spend his money.)
He may respond to this awareness in a number of ways. He may indeed assuage his sorrows with sex, drugs and rock-‘n’-roll. He might, on the other hand, become an aficionado of one art form or another. He may become a gourmet chef and an epicurean. He might become an amateur expert in mineralogy or marine biology or astronomy. He might become active in some sort of community service, throwing his energies into Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross or a political party. He might volunteer as a docent at a local art or natural history museum. He might join the Rotary Club or a church. He might decide to play his long-abandoned clarinet in a community band or orchestra. He might learn to grow his own bud or brew his own ale and share the fruits of his labors with friends. The list of possibilities is endless and they all have something important in common: every one of those activities focuses his attention and energies on something besides himself, and most of them (we could add sex to the list) involve other human beings, presumably as equals. In other words, the dominant common trait among those items on my short list is community.
Thanks to our evolutionary heritage, we’re essentially social animals. Taxonomically-speaking we’re great apes, and our societies are similar to the social arrangements that have been struck by the other great apes. Other mammalian kin are worth noticing in this regard also. In our collective behavior we’re much more like dogs than we are like cats: we’re cooperative hunters, and we know that we need each other. We intuit that a single individual can neither create nor perpetuate a culture, nor raise a child: it takes a village. That’s no facile platitude: it’s a fundamental fact of the human species.
So it must be that anything that inhibits community and balkanizes the human population is the enemy of humanity. Had the ridiculous Ayn Rand lived another hundred years and spouted an additional century’s worth of her deplorable, venomous “philosophy,” that would not change this essential fact about ourselves: we need each other. We seek meaning: we find it in each other; we give it to each other.
My primary objection to religion as practiced in its most public, visible forms is this: it more often functions as a barricade than as a bond. God, for many of his devotees, stands between people and obstructs their recognition of fellowhood, breaks the circuit, makes communication impossible. I’ve participated in Facebook forums where fundamentalist Christians were clearly unwilling to engage me in conversation, or even to allow my posts to stand. I’ve seen atheists and Muslims demonized and held in utmost contempt in such forums. I’ve seen Christians gang up on Mormons like street thugs on the homeless. What is the fountainhead of the contempt that drives such behavior? God. Or what some people imagine God to be, as opposed to what other people imagine God to be. The result: a total blockage of communication – which is the father of the wars which are then fought in God’s name.
The greatest irony of religion is that the word itself, etymologically-speaking, means “re-uniting.” The image it conjures is that of a restoration of wholeness. This meaning is celebrated in such literature as the Upanishads and even reflected in some of the Christian scriptures: witness Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as though he were yourself (I hope my gloss makes his meaning clearer). It’s a meaning that mystics of all faiths and no faith have always understood: the essential unity of the human species and its embeddedness in the cosmos; the peace that is both possible and natural among kindred spirits – those who have learned to look past their narrow self-interest and their prejudices and see themselves as part of a larger, interdependent whole. That a category whose name means “re-uniting” should instead serve as the impetus for genocidal wars, with “true believers” on all sides vowing to take over the world in the name of their particular deity and drive the infidels to extinction: what a catastrophic reversal of meaning!
As Woody Allen famously said, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name he’d never stop throwing up.”
Those who make the “God-shaped hole” claim, as badly as they misconstrue Sartre’s metaphor, do at least intuit that there is a kind of vacancy in our lives, although I prefer to think of it as a yearning, and I believe it to be our most admirable quality. That yearning is what’s led us to explore the cosmos: to ask the hard questions (including the forbidden ones) and not rest until we have answers. That yearning has opened to us a world that is infinitely grander and more beautiful than anything the clergy taught us for centuries (hat-tip to Carl Sagan). That yearning is the wellspring of our art: our painting, music, theatre, poetry. It was already in evidence 23,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age, when late-Pleistocene hunter-gatherers made cave paintings that stand among the greatest triumphs of the human spirit: paintings so splendid that they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That yearning is also the fountainhead of love: it’s out of that yearning that we give ourselves to others and enable them to give themselves to us in turn. That yearning makes community possible, and may one day make communism possible. That yearning might prove to be our salvation if only enough of us understood its value.
The vacancy in our lives is not God-shaped: it’s in the shape of our neighbor, of our lover, of our children, of our students, of people of every color and condition and persuasion. But if enough of us remain content to fill it with unexamined claims inherited from credulous, flea-bitten, leprous, half-savage Bronze-Age Palestinian goatherds masquerading as the most towering wisdom ever divulged to fallen humankind, we may end up igniting the very Armageddon for which those god-intoxicated desert freaks seem often to have wished.