“Incompleteness” Does Not Lead to Universal Desire for God

Over at HuffPo Religion, James Martin (a Jesuit priest) contends that everyone experiences a desire for God (presumably, the Christian one) and evidence of this desire comes from what he calls “incompletion.”  In Martin’s view:

Feelings of incompletion may reflect dissatisfaction with our daily lives and point us to something that needs to be rectified. If we are trapped in a miserable job, a dead-end relationship, or an unhealthy family situation, it might be time to think about serious change. Dissatisfaction doesn’t have to be stoically endured: it can lead to a decision, change, and a more fulfilled life.

Yet no matter how happy our lives are, part of this restlessness never goes away, this restlessness that provides a tantalizing glimpse of our longing for God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” wrote Augustine, 1,500 years ago. This longing is a sign of the longing of the human heart for God. It is one of the most profound ways that God has of calling us to the divine.

In the echoes of our restlessness, we can hear God’s voice.

Sometimes those feelings are stronger than simple incompletion and feel more like an awful emptiness. One writer called this emptiness within our hearts the “God-shaped hole,” the space that only God can fill.

These kinds of arguments reflect a profound ignorance of the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record.  There are many peoples across the world, in different times and places, who have found happiness and “completeness” without the Christian God.  In most kinship-based and small-scale societies, these kinds of issues usually are not even considered because they are not experienced.

One can read one hunter-gatherer ethnography after another, and never find a reference to “emptiness” or recording of “incompleteness.”  The emptiness and incompleteness about which Martin speaks is a product of the social changes that characterize the Axial Age, which in turn spawned several universal or ethical religions.

What Martin is actually writing about is a specifically Western experience, fairly recent in time, that reflects life in a modern, industrialized society.  It is true that “happiness” and “completeness” in such societies can be elusive, but I’m not sure this has anything to do with an Augustinian yearning for a Christian God.

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