Spirituality, religion and the ‘God-shaped void’

Our species is universally blessed with a capacity for transcendence, and cursed with the corresponding appetite. Such is the human condition. And such is the nub of that singularly human concern that we call ‘spirituality’.

This claim is admittedly problematic. There was a time when people spoke without too much reserve of such things, of ‘self-evident truths’, ‘universal principles’ and ‘the human condition’. Amid the settling dust of the post-modern turn, though, the reticence of thoughtful people to talk thus – beyond a nod to the ‘universal declaration of human rights’, perhaps – is understandable. We in democratic, secular and pluralist societies are learning, belatedly and all too often reluctantly, to cultivate an awareness of the limits of our own culturally determined perspectives and to keep in check the temptation to declare this or that to be true for the whole world. None of us, we are slowly realizing, has title to the real estate from which to pronounce on such matters.

As a relatively thoughtful person, I share this postmodern reticence and find myself increasingly aware and respectful of difference, of particularity. And yet I stand by my opening statement. For, the more I learn of the fundamental social, cultural, historical and religious particularities of various human communities, the more I see an even more fundamental commonality among us. I remain convinced that the quest for ultimate meaning, for spiritual connectedness, for transcendence is, if not in our DNA, at least as basic to our humanity as our DNA.

Like life itself, the capacity for transcendence seems to me to be a single impulse from which emerge manifold manifestations. And just as life itself is not visible in itself but only in species of living things, from redwoods and whale sharks to orangutans and amoebas, so transcendence comes to us in difference, the universal disguised as the particular. The problem is not so much in the notion of a universal phenomenon as in the conflation of the universal with the particular.

I recall the time in the mid-seventies, when as a sandal-wearing, bible-toting teenage recruit of the so-called ‘Jesus Revolution’, I first heard a preacher talk about a ‘God-shaped void’ in each of us. Coined by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 1670s the slogan still rang true for those who were ‘finding God’ in the 1970s. With repetition it gained traction and became something of a mantra that I imagine is still in use among evangelicals witnessing to their faith today. I introduced the ‘void’ into my own repertoire one Friday night during a downtown encounter with a group of Hare Krishna devotees. It was a pleasant enough exchange, brief and respectful, but one of those that ends without finishing. The sticking point was the ‘God-shaped void’, which I injected shortly after one of the chanters nodded approvingly toward the ‘One Way Jesus’ patch on my shoulder bag. They were clearly thrilled that I’d connected with Jesus. I loved their lilting chant and admired their shaven-headed devotion and cool clothes. All that was needed, I informed them, was for God to fill their inner void as he had mine. Smiling politely they told me they already knew God, then turned and continued on their way dancing down the street to the tinkle of bells and pulse of the Mridanga; and all before I had a chance to lead them in the ‘sinner’s prayer’!

I don’t remember whether I felt sad for them at the time. I probably did. As a good evangelical I was certainly supposed to. For it wasn’t just any god who could fill their void, but the only true God, ‘the Creator, made known through Jesus’, as Pascal had said. My only sadness concerning the encounter now is not for them, but for me. For it would be decades still before my experience of life had expanded my heart sufficiently for me to have welcomed my conversation partners that night as brothers and sisters rather than strangers, as teachers rather than potential converts; to welcome them, indeed, as Christ himself.

And therein lies the difference between the ‘God-shaped void’ and the universal ‘capacity for transcendence’ with which this discussion commenced. Let’s be honest, both statements are slogans, possibly even clichés, both are subject to the limits of language and culturally conditioned. My preference for the latter is that it employs the language of openness, expansion and inclusion and allows for difference. It describes a common human experience rather than a particular and therefore inevitably culture-bound manifestation of that experience. In so doing it welcomes rather than excludes the other. The Christian theist may find it helpful at a certain stage in her journey to describe her spiritual longing as a ‘God-shaped void’, but such language is meaningless to another who doesn’t share the same lexicon, whose ‘god’ is differently shaped or indeed has no shape, or whose appetite for transcendence is not experienced as a ‘void’ at all.

It strikes me as I seek to draw this discussion to a conclusion that what I’m talking about here is one of the fundamental differences between religion and spirituality. Religious traditions, through their particular systems of beliefs, stories, symbols, rituals, moral codes, religious experiences and social structures, are potentially effective mediators of transcendence. Of this there is no doubt. But religion is by no means, either in any of its particular expressions or in its totality, the only portal to the transcendent. Indeed, when conceived as such it is, ironically, rendered occlusive to transcendence, shutting the portal to more than it allows in.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is as basic to our humanity as our breath itself. There is the only portal we need, right there.

More next time. Grace and peace to you.

3 thoughts on “Spirituality, religion and the ‘God-shaped void’

  1. Interesting blog. I like your perspective of the matter. Here’s my take on transcendence:

    For me, while I don’t believe in any deity or anything that is, quote, unquote, supernatural (just thought I would cover that base for the sake of clarity here), I definitely do share a belief in transcendence. For me, it manifests itself through art and ideas even if they supervene on the functions of physical world a lot of the time, when experienced by an active consciousness they take on meaning and become powerful and moving.

    For example, on one level, I understand that music is sound, which is compressions and rarefactions of air particles excited by a vibrating surface or surfaces, such as speakers, guitar bodies, drum heads, piano sound boards, etc. The patterns behind that vibration are functions complex mathematical relationships that we are culturally conditioned to enjoy more than other functions or complete chaos. However, as a composer, I don’t think of music that way despite understanding that in many ways music in and of itself is merely that. Rather, I think of it in terms of how it stimulates my imagination, how it makes me feel and how it would do the same for others.

    To many other animals (and some humans who suffer a rare mental disorder known as amusia), music just sounds like a collection of noises no more distinguishable from each other than traffic noise or pots and pans clanging together randomly. So the sound in and of itself has no inherent properties that make it beautiful or transcendent, so on that level it’s meaningless. However, when it’s taken in by the senses and processed by many parts of the brain (including not only the auditory cortex, but also by the cerebellum, the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas to name a few), it is ascribed meaning. Those relationships between the sounds suddenly have meaning as they are distilled through prolonged exposure to music from birth and stimulate neurological and even physical responses. Music on its own is nothing, however, when human beings are involved, either as listeners or creators, it becomes beautiful, powerful and moving; the orchestra becomes more than the sum of it’s instruments. We can communicate higher, more abstract ideas and emotions through it, yet it is at the end of the day it’s just sound.

    While music doesn’t require anything more than the material world including an unfathomable amount of neurones between billions of people to form a kind of collective consciousness through art, culture and ideas, the experience of it from the conscious perspective of a human being is greater than all of those physical parts put together despite it supervening upon them. So I can experience transcendence through music (and many other art forms). So you can listen to a symphony or an amazing album and the entire thing just washes over you and the entire universe for that time just becomes the music. The same thing can happen with a great book, painting, movie, poem or really anything powerful enough to ignite the imagination. We as a species have access to a whole other world, and that world exists through the power of a our minds as they come together and collaborate. That to me is what gives our capacity for transcendence.


    – Kevan

    1. Thank you, Kevan, for your thoughtful response. I wonder if you’ve read any of William Blake’s mystical poetry, such as ‘The marriage of heaven and hell’, which also finds in the imagination a portal to transcendence. Wonderful to hear from you.

      1. It’s been a while. Good to see you’ve got a blog up now. I’ll definitely check out the William Blake stuff. If you’re ever up my side of town (Hawthorn), let me know. You’re most welcome to come say hi.

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