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.
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