The God-Shaped Hole: Part I – Diagnosis

September 7, 2011

Judging by the state of the nightly news, it seems that many feel we in America are living in unprecedented times. With economic worries, ongoing wars, a tense and volatile political divide, and apocalyptic scientific forecasts, such an assumption is understandable. Yet, aside from the threats posed by climate change, it would be difficult to argue that anything we now tangibly face is new and unheard of in the history of humankind or even in American history. Yet (as one particular example) what to make of the studies that now report more parents than ever are direly responding to pollsters that they fear their children will have tougher circumstances to face than they have had in their own lives?  In our political climate, our social environment, even in our religious context in the US there seems to be something palpable, something underlying the cultural and emotional concerns that is anxious, doubtful, and often angry.

The late, great Harvard Chaplain, theologian and preacher Peter J. Gomes wrote that, “As a historian, I am often asked to what great period in history I would care to return, and I can think of none, for every age has fallen short of what the good news promised, and no past age has achieved an instance of grace for which I would sacrifice one second of the future (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 55).” Gomes, in the years following September 11, 2001, was criticizing the false nostalgia that leads religious figures in American churches to hearken back to a mythical golden age when “we” had “it.” Gomes claimed that a “revival” to a time that never was–for no time has ever captured the peace, justice, equality, and righteousness to which the “good news” (gospel) points to and calls believers to work toward–that instead a personal and communal “renewal” to begin to strive towards the future in earnest is by far preferable. As a believer and a witness to that good news, Gomes insisted that a false nostalgia can only be an enemy to a true response to striving for the realization of the gospel, because it entails a belief that “our best days are ahead of us (p. 55).”

As a Christian, Gomes insisted that a certain level of optimism is essential to one’s spiritual identity. However fearful, however angry, however doubtful one may be, an optimistic hope in one’s individual and  societal temporal and eschatololgical fulfillment is integral to the identity of a Christian. The hope that the “kingdom” will be “on earth, as it is in heaven,” is to both comfort and assuage a believer’s pain and fear but also to invoke and inspire a believer to work for justice and peace here and now.

Where is that optimism in the religious landscape of America today? Where is it in the political and social landscape? It is, for the most part, absent. This is not a call for a merged Church-State but a recognition that a person’s spiritual essence, and a place’s spiritual landscape, informs a person and a place’s social and political identity. I have quoted Gomes and his argument at length, focusing on a Christian perspective because traditionally this country has had a Christian majority, not because I believe returning to a “Christian” perspective will “fix” this country–I am trying to avoid the false nostalgia Gomes warned of with the full realization that we have never been a “Christian” nation even if perhaps we have had more “committed” Christians at other points in time (which is a very debatable point). The points I seek to make here can be argued from Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist perspectives as well, give or take some vocabulary terms and philosophical tensions, and later articles in this series will touch on those voices as they offer a much-needed balance to some of what I seek to put out and in other instances compliment what I am saying in their own unique ways. Also, as we grow inter-religiously in the US it is imperative that we bring the inter-religious voice to the public forum vis-a-vis multiple issues. But for now, dealing with the optimism Gomes identified as essential to the Christian identity, where is that optimism in the Christian Church in America? If it is in the Church, where does it go when the people of the Church enter society? When they cast their vote or take a political position of their own? Where is the desire to work toward something hitherto unknown, to help break into being a “kingdom” amongst one’s neighbors and community? I propose that it is largely lacking, because amongst both the “secular” and the “religious,” God is felt largely absent and as a result there is a “God-shaped Hole.”

When I diagnose the problem as being a “God-shaped hole,” I am not saying God is in fact absent; my personal conception of God is God as the ground of all being, God as Fear and Love, God as the totality of existence, God as the expanding process of the universe, God as within and without, God in the relationship that occurs between You and I. Such a God cannot be “absent.” What I am saying though, is that God is felt to be absent by even those who identify as religous or spiritual persons. I truly believe that God is felt to be absent by a large number of Americans today, even by those huge percentages of people who claim to have been to church in the last month. God is felt to be absent when God is something addressed in a church on a particular day of the week and forgotten on the other days. God is felt to be absent when God’s existence (or lack thereof) makes no difference in our daily lives. God is felt absent when our theism is too narrow or our deity too much like ourselves. God is felt absent when our ethical systems are too legalistic or to relativistic. God is felt absent when we do not have the religious vocabulary to push toward glimpsing God or we do not have the religious literacy to understand that even our best vocabulary falls far short of “God.” I am far from the first to wonder if the faltering of the idea of God or a society’s perception of God is resulting in anxiety and political turmoil. Karen Armstrong has written extensively about the evolution of theism and how it’s changes have affected societies and she accurately points out (in A History of God)that Nietzsche’s belief that the death of the idea of God failed to result in the freedom he anticipated and instead gave fear and anxiety, even to himself. The Christian “Death of God” theologians of the 1960s attempted to build a new theology out of the dying of old concepts of theism in a hopeful manner but their attempts appealed largely to the educated liberal Christian elite alone. Any work such as what I am doing here is largely a synthesis of that which has come before it, but I felt like making my much more learned predecessors clearly known less someone think I’ve stumbled on some completely new concept!

The fall-out from the existence of this God-shaped hole is various and widespread. There is the above-mentioned absence of optimism even among the “religious.” There is the dwindling of churches that rigidly clasp onto concepts and prejudices the public find hard to assent to these days; there is the angry and disruptive splitting of churches over social issues and the fights that every sort of progress or reevaluation spurs. There looms large in the society as a whole an odd paradox–that we as a nation are both more religious than we are led to believe yet also less spiritual than we claim to be. A recent post I made on this site commented on a few recent news-items that reported that contrary to belief more, not less, college-educated folks have recently attended church. Later that week I stumbled on an article in Paste magazine concerning secular fans of artists who are religious; the author sought to analyze how the deeply secular and non-religious could appreciate work that displays the faith of the artist. The author noted that is was of particular interest to him in that he felt to be in the extreme minority in a “young, urban environment” in a “social democracy” where atheism flourishes. As a minor point, it is hard to see how a fan of artistic, literate music, of the kind Paste seeks by self-deceleration (“searching for signs of life in popular culture” is their tagline) can find something fulfilling if they are vehemently angry at the spiritual or religious or just so ambivalent they do not want to hear reference to it when music continues to be so deeply religious, creeping into everything from Lady Gaga’s pop to the darkest of heavy metal. But more importantly, the author of the piece follows the traditional wisdom that it is hard to be educated, urban, and religious these days despite what any Gallop poll may report. Many in the professional corner of young America simply believe we are less religious than we actually are in this country (though the author, Shane Ryan, dealt with that tension more head-on in his piece than most). The other half of the paradox as I stated though, is that we are less spiritual than we believe. It might be easier to believe we are a nation of “spiritual but not religious,” as often as we hear that exclamation from people these days. I believe it is the other way around; but I do not want to hold up the religious-spiritual divide as the “merely” spiritual wish to, for spiritual-religious separation is a false dichotomy. Religion is the path one walks, the way that one is Spiritual. It gives ritual, vocabulary and concrete experiences to people so that they can experience their spirituality to the point of inner transformation and renewal and then (optimally and in its purest essence) provides the community, methods, and means by which to live out that spirituality in a socially transformative way. Certainly one can find all of this with a personal spirituality divorced of any religious affiliation much in the same way that one can find their way out of a massive, dangerous jungle without a map or survival skills but it is very difficult to do so. So I’m not trying to reinforce this spiritual-religious division that I believe to be a false dichotomy when I state the paradox that we are more religious and less spiritual than we believe. I simply mean that more of us in this country long for spiritual contentment and peace and seek it in religious channels than we are led to believe yet that even amongst the regularly seeking religious service attendees far fewer of us are finding that which we seek. The God (or Divine) that we build in our own image and argue as being prejudicial on our side or the God that we cultivate in our interior and then leave behind when we enter the public square are both failing to give us a justice-fueled yet optimistic outlook. Many factors are to blame for this and I hope to address them in upcoming installments of this series.

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3 Responses to “The God-Shaped Hole: Part I – Diagnosis”

  1. […] Having considered the diagnosis of a God-shaped Hole in our society, we now ponder some of the symptoms of that diagnosis. If there is something palpable, anxious, angry, and uncertain underneath our current religious, political, and social context in modern American society and that something is that God is felt to be (but not in actuality) absent even if this perception is not always recognized or admitted, what are the manifestations we are now seeing and experiencing that support such a diagnosis? […]

  2. […] post is the latest in a series; if you would like to read the others you can find them here: "The God-shaped Hole Part I: Diagnosis" ; "The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – a) Politics Without […]

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