pascal was wrong

“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.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)

More commonly, this phrase is seen as something along the lines of ‘Every person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.’ And this is a nice notion, lending itself well to an apologetic that insists on the existential inadequacy of life without Christ’s salvific work.

In recent months, I’ve been wrestling fiercely with inner demons, confronting my own dark places and winning some of the battles, while waging others still. In unearthing a lot of the baggage and processing through everything from past and present hurts to memories I literally had to recalibrate, I realized something that deeply bothered me.

I am half-man, half-chasm. There is an enormous hole in my soul, and I’ve spent years trying to fill it, trying to let God fill it, but mostly trying in vain to do it myself. Inversely speaking, it’s like trying to bail the ocean.

Then Pascal and the bastardized version of his quote came to mind. And I thought it over. And while I understand what he’s saying, he’s wrong.

An abyss, even one in the shape of a deity, cannot be filled.

Further, not only can that hole not be filled, I’m not sure God is particularly interested in fulfilling anyone. If it is so that we are incomplete without God, that completion does not complete God, but us; that is to say, that God in this state of affairs is not God at all. We are. It is completing us, and not completing God or God’s work.

No, it is not us who need to be fulfilled, but God. God may well be incomplete without us in all our broken, incomplete–ahem, holy–lack of glory. It is for our frailty that grace is offered freely to those who would embrace the grace giver; that we need not be made whole, but satisfied solely in the Christ-event.

It is this realization that has brought me significant relief and peace in these trying days and months. It may well be what has stemmed the tide. The hole needn’t be filled: it is for this very reason Christ came! Nothing will fill that gap and nothing should, lest we be somehow dissatisfied with the resurrection or somehow find resurrection inadequate. (And many, many religious types do, and with the best of intentions!)

Family, education, career, art, benevolent involvement, passion, religion: these are all great and worthwhile things and worthy of our time, effort and devotion. They will not heal existential wounds or provide fulfillment. While these things are not substance abuse, violence or other self-abusive behavior (often with lasting effects on others), they can very easily have the same pernicious effect, because they, too, can become false idols. Only anchoring into something transcendent of life as we know it will provide any relief at all.

Something like the man who left the tomb empty.

Rather than Pascal, I think Augustine is more fitting: Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. 

It is not completion we ought to seek, but rest.

briefly, fire still burns

At the very core of everyone is fire.

Like the sun or earth, everyone has a center, and that center is combustible. Some people blow up, others use that core as fuel, but everyone puts their respective most important things near the core. It may be deep within, it may be just under the surface, that core is ever-present. Whatever is closest to the core, that which is kept most warm, is the object of faith and devotion: everything else around the core is ordered, as the solar system is ordered around the sun based on its gravitational pull. Religion is the process of providing gravity to everything surrounding the core, and humans are fundamentally religious, regardless of whether or not one practices a particular religion. How one’s life is ordered demonstrates one’s religious proclivities.

Though I, under crises of conscience, like to think the time I spent growing up in the church (…going to a Bible college…and then seminary…surviving numerous abortive attempts to enter vocational ministry…and generally being abused or ignored along the way by those who were tasked to protect people like me, entrusted to their care…) was a waste (or wa$te), it was not. Rather, it was the expression of my [ahem] core commitment, even if I’ve spent my adult life trying to adequately put into words what that core commitment actually is. Religious zeal, coupled with an often-too-intense desire to understand things, faith seeking understanding, as Anselm put it, incarnate.

That journey led me away from vocational ministry–denominations are more interested in faith than understanding, it seems, while academia, the natural fallback for someone of my makeup, enslaves itself to, while at the same time cannibalizing itself by understanding–and into the wilderness of the real world, where it is clear that American Christianity has long been lacking in influence. In person, I don’t wear my background on my sleeve, I’m not one to be explicitly Christian, while I don’t shy away from it. Instead, I try to live the principles of Christ, as all believers should, in being decent, compassionate and fair to others and, in a surprise to even myself, picking my battles and being diplomatic. I try, I’m not always very good at it, but I try. If you were to go back to some of the earliest posts here and move forward, I would hope that it demonstrates growth bother as a writer and a person.

Yet the fire still burns, despite the crazy path my life has taken, wife and children, the highs and lows of higher education, moving trucks and boxes, celebration and sadness, joy and despair. It’s still there because it is part and parcel of life itself, and it has, speaking for myself, found its fuel in the limitless mystery of the Christ-event. My life isn’t always ordered in a way that demonstrates the beauty and mystery of Christ, but for that, grace and mercy. Things seldom go the way we want them to, but for that, trust and endurance. When they do, for that, humility and gratitude.

For now, I trust and endure, and the fire still burns.