When Josh picks me up from class, I sometimes ask for his smartphone as we drive home. “I need to check the ‘likes’ on my Facebook status,” I say.
“Dear, you’re so Facebook-popular,” he says. “I’ll bet you have fifteen ‘likes.’”
“You’re the one who makes me popular,” I say. “Everyone loves when I quote your witticisms.”
It’s just a running joke between us. We both know the ‘likes’ mean nothing and that Facebook updates are just part of a persona. Still, there’s a small boost in my mood when I see a ‘like.’ A ‘like’ means acknowledgement. It means someone has heard. Conversely, when there are no ‘likes’ or comments, it’s as if I’ve spoken up in a crowded room and no one has heard. My voice falls on nothing and void.
That sounds a bit dramatic when we’re talking about Facebook, but I view the desire for Facebook affirmation as microcosm of a broader gap that I often feel – a bigger nothingness that comes periodically (most often during times of transition). First comes the sense that I have been speaking and speaking and Nothing answers back. Nothing hears. And then comes the feeling that I myself am Nothing. My labors are for Nothing. My writing says Nothing. I am good at Nothing. I am worse than a waste of space – I do not even occupy space.
I can write such disparaging thoughts without misgivings because I think most of us feel this way from time to time. Writing helps me assuage the gnawing sense of Nothing. For you, it might be another creative activity – telling stories, baking, building, painting, crafting a mosaic, learning a second language. These activities, these Somethings, dismantle Nothing brick by brick. But you’ve got to face the Nothing first – the blank page, the empty canvas, the scattered mess of tiles and wood and letters.
I think the majority of human activity is spent trying to beat back Nothing. That quest is what’s behind our routines and rituals and roles. We create structures so that the world will be full of Something instead of Nothing.
I know why Nothing arrives in times of transition. It comes because the old routines, traditions, and identities begin to fall away, and I am faced with the dreadful silence.
Many people take this Nothing as evidence that Nothing is, that God is not (or at least inactive), and that all our busy Somethings are attempts to fill the void with meaning. I don’t think that’s an unfair conclusion, but this answer has never satisfied me. It only accounts for the Nothing. And the Nothing – though troublesome and dark – has never been a source of cognitive dissonance for me. I know the Nothing. I feel the Nothing. I am that Nothing.
For me, the source of dissonance (if I can call it dissonance) is the excess of joy that cuts through the Nothing. The meaning that somehow, someday always breaks through, filling me with gratitude for life, both this present life and the “life of the world to come,” as the Nicene creed calls the new life that believers in Jesus look forward to after the resurrection of the body.
I want to explore this more in a future post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to go about building wisely in an intellectual climate of deconstruction. My generation of Christians (or perhaps my “brand” of Christianity) has a kind of allergy to easy answers, absolutism, and certainty. This is a natural and, to an extent, healthy reaction to the religious dogmatism of previous generations. That very dogmatism was (I suspect) bound to fall apart because it was forged in the fires of rationalism. Rationalism assumed that the best (nay, the only) kind of knowing resulted through human reason and objective observation. Western Christianity could survive in that climate when church dogma was assumed to be part of the truths of human reason, but once everyone figured out that the truths of Christianity were not universally “self-evident,” Christian dogma had to be relegated to the sphere of subjectivity (of revelation rather than human deduction) – which had already been deemed inferior to the sort of knowing that was “provable” through experimentation.
By now, most everybody in the academy (regardless of religious adherence or lack thereof) has figured out that no one can view anything objectively, which is why we’re always awkwardly apologizing in our papers for our limitations and unobjectivity. It’s embarrassing, really – the fact that we're not God. Because we are limited human beings, we’re only allowed to say “I believe” and not “it is” – but our intellectual heritage has already taught us that the subjective “I believe” is inferior to the objective “it is,” so we feel bad about “I believe.”
All this to say: my generation knows it needs to find a different kind of knowing, not one that is necessarily antithetical to Christian dogma, but one that sees faith, doubt, and dogma working together. But we are often at a loss as to how to rebuild our faith without resorting to cookie-cutter answers and insincere platitudes in responses to real suffering and tough theological problems. The unfettered dogmatism of our forebears frightens us – we cannot go back there, nor do we wish to.
But what do we do when Nothing arrives in its place, when even our shanty towns of meaning crumble and we are left in the dark surrounded by rubble?