Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Big Hole

I listened to a priest this morning, in the "Thought For The Day" slot on Radio 4's Today Programme, earnestly reminding us that this period is not only the run up to Christmas, but is also the period of Advent, when our thoughts should be turning to the Last Judgement, in anticipation of Christ's Second Coming; something which the priest said he couldn't quite believe in himself, literally, but without which nothing really made much sense, did it?

Well, make your mind up, mate. Despite the best efforts of hyper-rationalists, and the poor faith of such priests, many of us do seem to have an ongoing concern with a "God-shaped hole" in human life. For some it's a void that, unfilled, does have the potential to unravel the fabric of everything. It is as if we had evolved to crave a flavour that has never existed, or no longer exists -- a spiritual umami.

I think we all sense the inability of religion to deal with this deep yearning. Religion is merely society's way of putting a solid safety rail around that God-shaped hole. If you have ever been to church -- increasingly unlikely in Britain (though I'm speaking out of a "Christian" tradition, here) -- it must have struck you how empty that experience is at its core. It can be beautiful if you like that sort of thing (I don't), and its rituals can be comforting to some, but even when -- especially when -- it manages to be electrifying, you are left with that feeling that your willingness to self-deceive is the real Main Act. The religious would say that's not the point, but they're the ones sitting in empty churches. That Big Hole is still there.

Another fence around the hole is humour. Humour is a way of accepting gracefully the danger signals that things like an absurd coincidence, or a sudden fright, or an inexorable and unpleasant fate set off. Whoah, mind that hole! British gallows humour has seen our ancestors through some difficult times, but in the end "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not much of a philosophy, really, is it?

More and more people are ignoring the imperative not to look into that Big Hole. They are home-grown seekers, who crave the sublime, not the comfort of the familiar. They want to experience transcendence, not hear ancient travellers' tales about it. When told that they could never withstand the unmediated presence of divinity they say, "I'll be the judge of that -- do you actually know where can I get some?" People climb mountains, surf waves, take drugs, paint pictures, buy crystals ... All in pursuit of that elusive extra dimension to their lives. You'd think, though, given that the desire for it seems to be built in to human life, it would be rather easier to find.

Even the more timid, if pushed, will admit to a desire for "something more", which easily mutates into a vague belief that there must be something more.

Perhaps as a legacy from childhood, perhaps not, there is also a common desire to be watched over:
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Luke 12:6-7
Good to know, given the price of sparrows.

This craving for a truly universal surveillance system is one of the faces of the profoundly human desire for and belief in justice. It is a wish that the perpetrators of unspeakably evil acts will have been observed, no matter how secret or dark their torture chambers; that their acts and motivations will have been noted, and that they will finally be held to account, judged, and suitably punished.

The other face of justice is the hope that humility, goodness, self-sacrifice and playing by the rules will eventually get the rewards that they so rarely do in life. In the absence of a Second Coming and a Day of Judgement (in which even the priests seem no longer actually to believe), however, and on the evidence so far, it's not looking too good, is it?

Not surprisingly, decent people can experience despair when they bring to the forefront of their mind the improbability of their most secret hopes. "All my life, I paid deposits of Goodness into this insurance scheme I was sold by the priests, and now they're saying it may not pay out anything at all!". It makes all those dodgy financial instruments look pretty small beer, doesn't it?

Increasingly, perhaps as an antidote to that despair, I think we are all becoming Epicureans, which has probably been the real default setting of intelligent human minds for thousands of years. With Epicurus, we hold that, if the gods exist at all, which seems unlikely, then they are very far away and care nothing whatsoever about us. Most of us think that death, unfair as it may seem, is the end of our personal stake and interest in the universe. And, if we believe anything, it is that fellow-feeling, endurance, moderation and simplicity are virtues that, with a bit of luck and a lot of mutual toleration, will lead to freedom from fear and pain, which is about as good as it gets.

So, perhaps "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not such a bad philosophy, after all.

Seeing as I'm in Rabbi Lionel Blue mode, here's a favourite religious joke, which I'm sure you've already heard:

A man prays to God to let him win the Lottery. God ignores the man's prayers. But the man is insistent: day after day, year after year, he prays and prays and prays: "Dear God, please let me win the Lottery!" God ignores him. But, eventually, God gets fed up, and decides to answer the man's prayers. "OK, OK," God says, "I'll let you win the Lottery. But, on one condition!" "Thank you, Lord! And what is your one condition?" "Meet me half way -- this time, BUY A BLOODY TICKET!"


Poetry24 said...

I attended a lecture at University of Bath, some years ago. It was given by Phil Baxter, and was introduced under the title, 'From Darwin to Durham'. After a rip-roaring performance from Phil, during which, he covered some high profile challenges to accepted Christian beliefs, he summed up by saying that, of course, it all means diddly squat if you don't have faith. Would you believe, someone shot their hand up and asked, anxiously, "but how do I get faith?"

Roll credits to the sound of sombre music.

Dave Leeke said...

I must admit I too was taken aback by this morning's speaker's comments. However, as I was also trying to sleep as I'm off ill at the moment, I thought I may have misheard. Obviously not.

Hmmm . . . the "god-shaped hole" in our lives. The truth obviously will be a different shaped hole for each of us.

We are now in that season where I make my annual trip to church. Living in a house with Catholics means that I always make the effort on the day. My wife will be reading in the Christmas Day service. I still can't get over the fact that our last Priest died whilst performing a funeral service - now that has to have some sort of ironic meaning, surely?

After reading your thought-provoking post, I am also strangely reminded of the lyrics from, believe it or not, Genesis's first proper album:

"I believe there never is an end/
God gave up this world and its people long ago"

Still, I am, in a strange mood today. It must be that god-shaped hole . . .

Mike C. said...


I hear that all the East Anglian Catholic churches have had to have extensions put on, since all the Polish crop pickers turned up. They're literally standing in the street outside, here in Southampton, for the big services like Christmas midnight mass. Having been brought up a Baptist, I have no clue what goes on in there, but they clearly do a good show.

Should I know who Phil Baxter is, Martin? All I can see on the Web is a poker professional and a songwriter ("I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas") who died in 1972. Ah, yes, faith ("Faith is an island in the setting sun, But proof is the bottom line for everyone", according to Paul Simon).


Dave Leeke said...

I was brought up CofE ("Christmas & Easter" as A. C. Grayling said) but am very grateful. Even though I had little time for it, it means that I can understand John Steinbeck and - well, just about anything literary from the Twentieth Century. Grayling's essay on the resurgence of faith actually being its death throes is worth reading ().

I sit there every year in Church and wonder what's going on, all that "spectacles, testicles, wallet & watch" stuff bemuses me.

I was going to mention in my previous comment about the rise of Humanist funerals. But I won't.

Humans will constantly try to find the "answers" to life and everything. It seems absurd to me that scientists are searching for the "dark material" that keeps life stuck together - that's Duck Tape, isn't it?

Dave Leeke said...

Sorry, not too good with things like hyperlinks - try this:

. . . hopefully . . .

Dave Leeke said...

I give up. . . Try going to his site (bloody google. . .)

Mike C. said...

"scientists are searching for the "dark material" that keeps life stuck together - that's Duck Tape, isn't it?"

No, no -- Duck Tape is silver. The dark stuff is Velcro.


Dave Leeke said...

I only buy black Duck Tape.

Mike C. said...

I think you'd better tell those scientists about the Black Duck Tape, and where to find it. It could save a lot of research.

Come to think of it, there is white velcro, too. Damn, is this physics, or theology? (don't answer that).


Poetry24 said...

According to the blurb that accompanies his book 'Sarum Use - The Ancient Customs of Salisbury',

Philip Baxter is a leading expert on early liturgical developments at Salisbury and had a distinguished career in church music at Oxford University and Salisbury Catherdral where he was a vicar choral, deputising for the precentor.

Mike C. said...

Oh, that Phil Baxter...


Poetry24 said...


Kent Wiley said...

Quack quack... That tape is what holds the universe together, all those ventilation tubes ala Brazil. So you know it's d-u-c-T tape, right? And dammit, it's silver, and won't come off once you've got it in place, especially stuck to itself. Somehow this relates to Faith, I'm sure of it...

Mike C. said...

Hmm, knew this tape thing would get theological...

I'm not sure about the US, but in the UK the substance known in the US as "duct tape" is marketed with the brand "Duck Tape", and is indeed silver, though black "duct tape" may also be bought. Not to be confused with silver, black or even brown "gaffer" tape, of course... Which name in turn is often falsely used for that awful thin brown "parcel tape" -- heretics!

A lot easier to discuss quarks and transubstantiation!


Kent Wiley said...

Mike, we have that inferior "Duck Tape" here in the US too. Avoid at all costs! It won't even tear properly. But then, finding the far superior REAL duct tape could be a journey into seriously unfamiliar territory. It's readily available, and one of the most vital commodities, at HVAC supply houses. Look for Polyken brand, in either gray or silver. A quick search shows that Amazon (of course) has it too, in a multitude of colors: Polyken duct tape. Gaffer's tape is pretty similar, and definitely not be to confused with camera tape.

Stickiness nothwithstanding, your thoughts on the "God shaped hole" are certainly provocative. Sorry I've pursued such lightweight topics as adhesive strip configurations when the world seems to be overrun by the Faithful.