For the 25 years that I’ve been a Christian, the “God-shaped vacuum” is one of the most consistently used metaphors I’ve heard. This concept springs from Pensées, a collection of writings from French mathematician, Blaise Pascal:
“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.”
I don’t disagree with the idea at all. I believe that a triune godhead created humanity with the intention of somehow incorporating us into a mysterious and divine ecosystem. We would experience unity with each other and divine oneness:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”—John 17: 20–23
As Pascal suggests, instead of finding our place in God’s system, we grasp irrationally at other things in an attempt to find fulfillment that never materializes.
But here’s the rub: Christianity doesn’t fix the problem—it only exacerbates it.
Embracing our religious idols
I’m sure there are some who got pissed at the last sentence. Please, hear me out. I don’t mean that Jesus intensifies the problem; I mean that jesus-ism does. The embrace of Christianity as a system of thought, behavior, and morality puts us in a position where we’re drawing water from a poisoned well. Instead of drinking from the divine ecosystem, we find significance in things that are Christ adjacent.
Jesus tells us that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14). What he doesn’t tell us is that this narrow road has no shoulder, and the ditches are enormous. It’s incredibly easy to wander off the path with the best intentions.
The dangers of Christianity
Some forms of escapism offer a single solution. For instance, alcohol has one off-ramp. I can drink to feel good and forget my problems. Because it’s a such a simple solution, it reveals itself to be faulty fairly quickly. Seeking after power, on the other hand, is a lot more complicated. Power provides a lot of ways to fill the void. When you’re no longer happy with one solution, power can offer another: materialism, sex, influence, significance. It’s a lot more difficult to recognize that power is not filling the vacuum.
Christianity is a lot like power. It offers us faux significance in a number of ways. If we’re not careful, embracing Christianity can put us in the ditch.
Even if we take out the people that use religion as a means of preying on the faithful for sex or money, we’re still left with abuses that are hard to recognize and identify in ourselves. Christianity offers a lot of phony benefits.
- We can take the theological off-ramp and find meaning in our knowledge, pedantry, and rightness.
- We can take the route of service and be seen as a good, helpful, and kind people.
- We can follow the path of leadership and embrace influence and significance.
- We can broadcast our discipline and get life from maintaining a reputation for piety, holiness, and righteousness.
- We can create an identity built on excessive morality.
- We can become social activists and prove to ourselves and others that we’re more passionate about people than anyone else.
There’s nothing wrong with theology, leadership, or social activism. In fact, they’re pretty damn important. It’s just that they’re not adequate places to find meaning. They can distract us from Christ because we mistake them for Christ.
Is Christ just a concept?
I’ve spent most of my Christian life being told that Christian spirituality is about objective truth and not subjective experience. Pastors and leaders told me that trusting spiritual experiences is how people get off track. I needed the Bible to ground my spirituality. One of the biggest objections I had to overcome on my path to ordination was that I was excessively mystical in my outlook and practice.
It’s not my intention to downplay the role Scripture plays in Christian spirituality. But a whole lot of the New Testament makes little-to-no sense if I can’t trust myself to have a real relationship with a living savior. I mean, what’s the point of being filled with the Spirit if I can’t trust God to communicate with and guide me?
It often feels like Christianity is about memorializing a dead god and turning his teachings into a religious system. But it should be about discovering and developing the disciplines required to embrace and manifest a living God. I regularly get the impression that the people in the church who truly believe that Christ is alive and able to communicate with them are considered crackpots.
I don’t think we can find our identity in God as an abstract concept. There isn’t enough Bible study or theological rumination that will make the idea of God into a concrete reality. I may start with Scripture, but I’m hopefully developing a relationship with God that transcends it.
When we discover a relational God that actually desires a real relationship, we can draw our purpose and meaning from our unity with God and each other. We can serve without trying to get noticed, be socially active without becoming self-righteous, and study Scripture and theology without trying to get worth from our knowledge and rightness.
I don’t think we can get there until we embrace a God who seeks to communicate and influence us apart from the Bible. I know, that’s dangerous, messy, and . . . mystical. But in the end, I think it might only be the mystics who can save Christianity.