Thursday, February 09, 2006

Reimagining the God-Shaped Hole

Pascal once wrote, "There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known by Jesus Christ." Augustine may have had something similar in mind in his confessions, "...You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." The idea shows up in popular Christian literature, and music from Audio Adrenaline to Plumb and U2. Sometimes you'll even hear Christians using this metaphor with nonbelievers.

I'm not in the business of hating on Pascal and Augustine, but the idea seems inconsistent with Christianity. From the Christian perspective, saying there is only a hole in us is a radical understatement — to the point of being false. It implies that we're fine, just incomplete — as though sin left a shrapnel wound, and we just need some extra flesh in a few spots. It makes God our doctor instead of our heartbeat. But this isn't the language Jesus uses to describe the Christian walk: unless you completely die to yourself, you're worthless (e.g.: Matthew 10:37-38).

There is a way to save the metaphor, however. If the "hole" is called "my purpose in life", then the emptiness should filter down to every part of our being — fulfilling Christs' description. This reveals the problem with our natural interpretation of the metaphor: we ignore the crucial connection between who we are and what our purpose is.

Paul presented this point more clearly while in Athens, accounting for the obviously unfulfilling worship, while still calling for a "radical life-change":

When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I'm here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you're dealing with. The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn't live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn't take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don't make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn't play hide-and-seek with us. He's not remote; he's near. We live and move in him, can't get away from him! One of your poets said it well: "We're the God-created.' Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn't make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? God overlooks it as long as you don't know any better--but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he's calling for a radical life-change.
This turns Christianity into a memory we're trying to recall (vaguely reminiscent of Plato's form-based epistemology) rather than a hole to be filled. "The haunting awareness of something which is out of reach and may not even exist" as Fernando Pessoa put it; the feeling that "something in me was born before the stars, and saw the sun begin from far away". Pessoa writes:
There was a rhythm in my sleep.
When I awoke I lost it.
Why did I ever cease to live
That erstwhile self-surrender?

I know not what it was, that was not.
I know it lulled me softly,
As though the very lulling would
Make me once more the one I am.

There was a music that over
When I awoke from dreaming it.
It did not die: it still endures
In what inhibits thought in me.
While Pessoa was a borderline nihilist, the same idea appears in theistic authors and songwriters:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing... For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
(C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
Like an ancient memory,
remember how it used to be...
one day we'll wake up from this dream
and we'll stop sleeping,
oh, yo, then we'll see clearly
(Matisyahu, "Warrior")
There's a place where I come from
It's the place where I belong
Where you will never die
Wipe the tears off from your eyes...
(Burlap to Cashmere, "Digee Dime")
It seems that Christianity is less like filling a hole, and more like remembering where we came from.


Erica Monge said...

It is interesting that you approach the "God shaped hole" as representing a sickness or a need (as in implying that God would be our doctor and not the filling Himself). Yet, these writers are speaking out of a spiritual unrest needing, not a doctor, but spiritual fulfillment. Jesus Christ came to bring life abundantly to a broken humanity (cf. John 10). This freedom and empowerment of the Holy Spirit (which comes through salvation, faith through Christ) fills what's missing, not for the purpose of stitching up a mistake, but for the sole purpose of making whole that which sin tries to destroy. And this beyond the individual, impacts the community of believers, bringing unity among people as well. (cf. 1 Corinthians)

Kyle said...

I'm glad you found something interesting in this -- and it's encouraging that you also see the idea of "the God-shaped hole" as something deeper than the need for a spiritual doctor. I brought this up primarily because the language of "hole" implies more of a stitching than re-forming and subsequent freedom/empowerment/completion. I wonder if, perhaps, there's another metaphor that would get the idea across better?

Anonymous said...

sad you don't seem to know much about pascal nor do you seem to know the difference between a hole and a vacuum

Kyle said...

You're right, I'm not very familiar with Pascal -- I've only read two translations of his Pensées, and n critiques or commentary aside from the footnotes. Could you explain more about what I'm misunderstanding? And how a hole is different from a vacuum in this context?