The God-shaped hole

June

10

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Have you ever felt it? Are you feeling it now? It’s more than malaise or an annoying itch you can’t scratch. It is deeper, more pervasive—that feeling of emptiness that seeps into your whole being—meaninglessness bordering on dread. It is not a new reality but like so much else in our world today, the proliferation of social media and advances in technology amplify our feelings. Unhappiness, loneliness, disaffection, and despair overflow our emotional coffers, and we have an ever-deeper desire to fill a nagging and pervasive void in meaning.

In the 17th century, Blaize Pascal was among the first to articulate this longing. Written shortly before his death in 1662 (and published posthumously eight years later), Pascal wrote in his defense of Christianity, Pensees, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”—Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII.

Since then, this concept has often been referred to as the “God-shaped hole,” an inevitable aspect of the human condition. The idea behind the "God-shaped hole" is that each of us has a void in our lives that we try to fill with earthly measures—riches, status, fame—but that this void can only be filled by the one true God of the Bible. No matter what we may try, nothing else fits correctly in this space and so we are filled with a nagging emptiness. Still, the “how” question lingers—how do we fill this vacuum with God?

The Religious Connection

Legions of evangelical writers over the past two millennia have acclaimed that only by accepting Jesus Christ can this void be filled. As a Christian who has spent more than half a century in ordained ministry, I have never found this response to be satisfactory. At best, it is incomplete because it leaves open the most basic question of what it actually means to accept Jesus Christ. How does one measure the level of one’s faithfulness? How does such acceptance impact one’s lifestyle and alter this depth of longing?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis quips, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” My good friend John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, affirms that involvement in the institutional church “connects me to a community that existed before I was born, will continue after I die, and transcends life beyond my doorstep.”

Still, to limit the concept of a God-shaped hole to Christians, even though they are the most numerous of all religions, is myopic at best—a consideration that excludes a lot of people—Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, tribal religionists, the “nones” (those who adhere to no formalized faith group). I’ve known countless individuals in these groups whose spiritual longing is every bit as profound as the most pious Christian. But even including other faith groups, this counts for only 16 per cent of people worldwide according to Pew. And yet, social scientists have found that Pascal’s longing is found in every age and every culture. Indeed, the person who first made me aware of this concept is not particularly religious.

When we encounter religious claims as children, we instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture we happen to be born into.

The Secular Connection

In our highly secularized world, profound thought has been focused on the concept of a God-shaped hole far beyond theological circles. Artists, scientists, academics, philosophers and theologians have searched for answers within their varied disciplines as to the “why” behind this longing and “how” it can be filled.  Cognitive scientists opine that we are born with a “god-shaped hole” in our heads. As a result, when we encounter religious claims as children, we instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture we happen to be born into.

Nick Perham in The Independent reminds us that a more recent psychological explanation is the idea that our evolution has created a “god-shaped hole” or has given us a metaphorical “god engine” which can drive us to believe in a deity. Essentially this hypothesis is that religion is a by-product of a number of cognitive and social adaptations which have been important in human development.

Scientific study has even sought to pinpoint the place in the human brain where God “appears.” But, as David Biello writes in Scientific American, “No matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, [believers are] thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason: they seemed to provide confirmation of God's interactions with them.”

The journey to discover one’s spiritual “truth” is an individual quest

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The Personal Connection

The lessons for us in this complex and contradictory world are apparent: first, spiritual pursuits are more than a luxury or the sole purview of the devout. We cannot fill the deepest void in our very beings with purely earthly measures. To try to do so is folly and will only lead to further emptiness. Therefore, each of us must engage in spiritual pursuits in order to fill the nagging emptiness in our lives. Second, such spiritual pursuits will differ with each individual and cannot ultimately be dictated by generation, race, culture, or clan.

As Pascal says, “No two examples are so exactly alike that there is not some subtle difference.” The journey to discover one’s spiritual “truth” is an individual quest and, while it can be informed and shaped by the beloved community that surrounds each of us, our spiritual “landing place” is a journey we each must take on our own. Embarking on this quest is a first step in filling the debilitating emptiness that affects us all.

  • When possible I daily fill the hole in my head with a walk and, depending on the miles ahead, one or several podcast episodes. If there’s time in your schedule, I recommend this particular and very recent chapter of Joy, hosted by Craig Ferguson. Where the conversation with Dave Foley ends up mirrors much of what is shared in the above commentary.

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