Monday, September 9, 2013

The Void, the Holy, and Me

Today, one of my favorite professors spoke at a luncheon at our school. She is actually a philosopher by profession (read: dream job) and teaches about how to understand the Christian life and Christian experience from a philosophical perspective. Today she shared about what the gospel has to do with our humanity. Citing the work of James Loder, she said that there are four dimensions to personhood, two of which are discussed frequently-- "me and my situation in the world," and two of which tend to be under-emphasized-- "the Void and the Holy." 

She defined the Void as "the threat of non-being." In a very unprofessional nutshell, it's our encounter with the reality that we are in need. Whether it's a near-death experience that wakes us up to this reality ("I could actually be gone in an instant") or a painful loss ("This other person can't be my rock anymore") or a low season ("I need rescue in a way I can't even describe"), we all experience the Void in one way or another. And it can be in small ways-- like I experience every morning until coffee comes-- or big ways, like the events in our lives that change everything. But one way or another, to be human is to come into contact with that reality. 

My prof said that there are a number of ways to responding to the Void, the most common of which is avoidance: that nagging, that longing, that realization that something more is needed often gets stuffed under the rug (or under a Big Mac, a bottle of wine, or a crazy work schedule). But there are other ways of responding too, like wallowing in it: that uncomfortable feeling can become  supreme-- to the extent that dwelling in the fear, the pain, or the confusion feels like the only option. 

But the fourth dimension of personhood is just as necessary to our humanness as are the others: the Holy. "The gracious possibility of new being," the Holy is our encounter with that which we need. A remission report, a repaired relationship, a new perspective on life, that cup of coffee-- the Holy is what we find when we refuse to ignore the Void or to wallow in it. It's the rescue that comes from outside of us and gives us a new way of being in the world. 

For the Christian, the ultimate experience of the Void and the Holy is the gospel. We realize our dependence upon God as created beings and that we are at His mercy-- that our only hope for life is in Him and that He doesn't owe it to us-- that in choosing to sin, we pretty much gave Him the finger, rejecting our birthright as His beloved children and severing the relationship. For the Christian, the ultimate experience of the Void is as Jesus described it in the story of the prodigal son, who realized that rebellion against his father ended up not being freedom, but death; who "came to himself," returned home, and asked for mercy enough to become one of his father's hired hands. 

And so, for the Christian the ultimate experience of the Holy is God's response. In the story Jesus tells, the Father ran to his rebellious son "while he was still a long way off" and embraced him. He forgave and restored his son to full status in the home and threw a party to celebrate. There was no talk of hired help or groveling to earn a place back at the dinner table. There was simply "the graciousness of new being," an unexpected and joyous new ending to a story that only a few chapters before seemed hopeless. 

As I listened to my professor propose that the gospel is essential to our humanness because the Void and the Holy are inescapable aspects of our experience in the world, I thought of my past month. The reality is I've encountered the Void in ways that bring home to me the truth of what she was saying. I've watched my healthy mother get cancer. I've watched my beautiful grandmother pass out of this world. I've seen my own emotional equilibrium falter and fail, my relationships change in ways that are beyond my control. In short, I've realized that I am a contingent being-- I could "not be" tomorrow, just like that-- and what's more, that I'm weak and needy, dependent, not even in control of my own emotions (and that coffee only helps so much!). And in fact, the people around me, in whom I'm so tempted to put my hope-- my mother, my grandmother, my husband-- are in the same boat. None of us is a given, none of us is an unshakeable reality. 

This would crush me if not for the rest of the story: the Holy Who comes. God is not contingent, He's not going anywhere. And He has invited me to put my trust in Him through all the ups and downs of life as a creature, like losing the ones I love and experiencing my own instability in the midst of it. So knowing Him makes my experience of the Void a crucial part of the story but one that doesn't crush me. And for that reason alone, I don't have to avoid it (stuff my feelings of pain, loss, and fear) or wallow in it. I don't have to, because I know that these things simply remind me that I am dependent-- contingent, creaturely, in need of rescue-- and that that Rescue has come from outside of me, bringing an unexpected and joyous new ending to a story that only a few chapters before seemed hopeless. 

What has your experience of the Void been? Is your tendency to avoid it or wallow in it? What is your experience of the Holy?

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