What is meant when Christians say we have a God-Shaped Hole in our Hearts?

Contrary to the assumptions of many atheists, Christians such as myself do read atheist literature. Quite a bit of it actually. After all, it is pretty difficult to respond to challenges to truth when you don't know the details of the challenges.

Presently, I am reading a paper by Guy Kahane, a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, which appears to be a Chapter of a forthcoming book entitled Does God Matter? Essays on the Axiological Implications of Theism. The paper, what appears to be a draft (whether it is a first draft or the final draft isn't clear) of Chapter 3 of the book, is entitled, “If There is a Hole it is Not God-Shaped,” and represents Professor Kahane’s efforts to explain that if people have a "hole in their heart" (a feeling of emptiness), it is not because the heart is lacking God.

Of course, Professor Kahane is referencing the short-hand claim by Christians that everyone has a God-shaped hole in their heart which can only be filled by God. The idea that humanity has such a hole has it's genesis in the Biblical teachings. Genesis itself reveals that man was created by God to be in relationship with Him, but through disobedience of man to God's perfect ways, a breach was created that separated man from God. As aptly stated by Mike Leake at Lifeway.com,
God made people for relationship: relationship with Himself and with the rest of creation. Yet as you are painfully aware, you and I do not live in a community that perfectly reflects and brings glory to God. Our society, our families, our marriages, and even our churches are often devastated by shattered community. The first effect of the fall was a broken relationship between God and man, followed closely by fractured relationship between the first couple.

God created us for relationship, but our sin has rendered us perpetual relationship breakers.
The description of this falling out does not end with Genesis. A large portion of the Scriptures describe God's efforts to restore our broken relationship with Him -- a task accomplished primarily through the sacrifice of his Son to pay the price of sin. But most importantly for purposes of this post, we were created for this relationship. "[For] in Him we live and move and have our being...." Acts 17:28 (NIV). Here Paul, adopting a phrase from a Cretan philosopher (as Paul often did -- becoming all things to all men that through him some might be saved), asserts that God is the one who gives us life, energy and meaning.

This idea of God being an essential part of our lives such that our lives will be less than complete until God becomes part of our lives was quite probably most clearly stated by Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions where he memorably stated the truth which most Christians have recognized and quoted ever since, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Dr. Kahane claims that he seeks to address the "God-shaped hole" analogy in his paper, but he really doesn't. Instead, he redefines the hole to be one in which we struggle with the uncaring nature of a universe that is indifferent to our existence. As he puts it,

We could understand the metaphor of the ‘God-shaped hole’ in phenomenological terms, as merely a claim about the psychology of some people. I am not interested here in this psychological question. I’m interested in this metaphor as a substantive claim: the view that something essential is missing in the naturalist universe we inhabit, a universe that Samuel Beckett described as a ‘world of desolation’,6 and which is governed, as Richard Dawkins put it, by ‘nothing but pitiless indifference’.7

Do you notice what he has done? He has changed the playing field. I understand why he does it: he is a good atheist who is compelled to disbelieve the cry of his own heart due to his atheistic leanings. (He notes, "I have to confess that, at least in some moments, I feel something like this lack, even though in nothing approaching the dramatic form that Russell reports.") Beginning with a purely physical world view, he has to redefine what the Christian is addressing and he does so by arguing that what the Christian is claiming is a psychological response, i.e., that he/she is not comfortable (or perhaps is even terrified) by the idea that the universe is "pitiless indifference." But that is not what the Christian claims.

In Christianity, the idea that there is a God-shaped hole says that there is something about humanity that is incomplete until God enters the person's life. To analogize, it is like losing your true love -- a husband or wife who has been with you for so many years that you forget what life was like before they arrived. To borrow an overused phrase from the late 1990s, the husband or wife "completes" you. Then, in the blink of an eye, the person is gone - passed away. You walk around wondering where part of you has gone. You wake up in the morning and find the bed empty. You go through your life wanting to talk to him/her. Life goes on, but it somehow seems stale and hollow. Over time you move on, but the loss of that relationship never goes away. You find you want to call her/him, touch her/him, and just spend time in his/her presence -- but you can't. That's what it means to have a hole in your heart.



In the case of Christianity, our true relationship with God crumbled with the Fall in Genesis 3. Ever since then, like alcoholics seeing to fill our emptiness with momentary pleasures, we have sought to fill the hole with other things. Money, power, sex, drugs, music, food, gossiping; all of these things and many, many more have been used by humanity to try to fill the hole in our hearts. But all of these things fall short. All of these things are temporary and we instinctively know that one day they will not be there. Only God can fill that hole because we were made for relationship with God and it is God and only God who can complete us.

As a result of his redefinition (or perhaps lack of understanding) of the meaning of "God-shaped hole", I am not particularly impressed with what I read in his paper. The paper doesn’t really address the issue that he promises to address. Rather, he spins a yarn that a world with God is not necessarily better (and may be that it is not even likely better) than a world without God which is not the question. Still, there was one part of his paper that I found fascinating: the opening paragraphs. In it, he sets forth two quotes by Bertrand Russell, an icon of atheism, with which I was previously unfamiliar. Apparently, in a moment of transparency during communications with loved ones, Russell shares his own deepest feelings that something is missing from his life.
In a letter that Bertrand Russell wrote to his then lover Colette O’Neil, he confesses that
The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—the beatific vision—God…1
In an earlier letter to Lady Ottolline Morrell, another lover who was a religious believer, Russell wrote,
Turbulent, restless, inwardly raging—I shall always be—hungry for your God and blaspheming him. I could pour forth a flood of worship—the longing for religion is at times almost unbearably strong.2
That Russell should feel this way is unsurprising. After all, even atheists are made to have a relationship with God -- whether they accept that or not.

Comments

im-skeptical said…
Do you notice what he has done? He has changed the playing field.

I'm not sure I understand your point. There isn't much context provided, so it's hard to say too much about Kahane's remarks, but he appears to be saying that his objective is to discuss the idea that "something essential is missing", rather than the religious notion that we have a "god-shaped hole". We don't see enough of that discussion here to know what his stance is. But in any case, it seems to me that the only way you can say this is changing the playing field is if you lay claim to setting the topic matter he is allowed to discuss, and then faulting him for saying what you think he should.
im-skeptical said…
That Russell should feel this way is unsurprising. After all, even atheists are made to have a relationship with God -- whether they accept that or not.

Yes, Russell acknowledges this feeling we have. It is a feeling that provides many of us the basis for our religious beliefs. But Russell certainly does not acknowledge that we are "made to have a relationship with God", because he doesn't base his beliefs on these feelings. You left out a crucial part of the quote:

"The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain... a searching for . . . something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision - GOD. I do not find it... "
JBsptfn said…
I bet you that there is more to the quote than the "I do not find it.." part.

As far as Russell goes, though, his criticisms of Christianity were lacking, as is demonstrated here:

Analysis of Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian"
BK said…
But in any case, it seems to me that the only way you can say this is changing the playing field is if you lay claim to setting the topic matter he is allowed to discuss, and then faulting him for saying what you think he should.

Not quite. If I were to say that we are going to talk about baseball's infield fly rule and then say that it is about kicking field goals, I am changing the playing field. Having a God-shaped hole means something specific. He is not free to change what it means so he can knock it down. That is the very definition of a straw man argument.
im-skeptical said…
Stan is the epitome of a brainwashed automaton. He is a moron who can't argue his way out of a paper bag.
BK said…
JB, Here is a more extended version of the quote:

The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains—something transfigured and infinite . . . I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life. (Bertrand Russell, 1916, Letter to Constance Malleson, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell).
im-skeptical said…
He is not free to change what it means so he can knock it down. That is the very definition of a straw man argument.

I don't have the advantage of having read what he wrote, aside from the quote you gave. But he isn't changing the meaning of anything. He is simply asking a different question.
JBsptfn said…
IMS: Stan is the epitome of a brainwashed automaton. He is a moron who can't argue his way out of a paper bag.

He knows a lot more than you. You just criticize him because he criticizes your precious evolution.
im-skeptical said…
I criticize Stan because instead of presenting a logical argument, he just bans anybody who counters his claims.
JBsptfn said…
IMS I criticize Stan because instead of presenting a logical argument, he just bans anybody who counters his claims.

He doesn't just ban anyone who counters his claims. He bans trolls who make snide comments like you.
im-skeptical said…
And yet, he never banned you.

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