Friday, September 22, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Filling the Vacuum

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Nature abhors a vacuum. This includes a spiritual vacuum.

Tom: The LA Times reports that when asked about their religious affiliation, millennials overwhelmingly answer “none”. That answer is not entirely accurate. As it turns out, a growing number of younger, nominally secular people are embracing practices like meditation, tarot, astrology, energy healing and the use of crystals.

Are you surprised, IC?

Immanuel Can: Not at all, actually. It fits perfectly with what we should expect.

An Unexpected Outcome

Tom: I agree, for reasons I’ll share shortly if you don’t get there first. But I’m sure this is not quite what secularists thought would happen when they finally managed to reduce the influence of religion in the public sphere. I think they expected rationalism to fill its place.

IC: Yes, they did. But they didn’t really understand what “reason” is. They thought it was a thing that would support the atheist view regarding religion, or something that would support naturalism in the sciences. They thought that “reasonable” was pretty much equivalent to what they already wanted to believe. They were just wrong about this, though.

Tom: Well, yes. I think they imagined reason is an intellectual response to evidence. They set it in opposition to faith, which they think is anti-intellectual, and blindly believes whatever it wants to believe. Neither characterization is really accurate. Faith is not irrational. It too assesses evidence and responds accordingly. On top of that, time has shown the “evidence” on which secularism takes its stand is not anywhere near as compelling as they originally assumed. Not only that, but the arbitrary removal of God from the public consciousness leaves human beings with a spiritual hole in need of filling.

Give Me Liberty

IC: To be fair to them, I think they presumed that the absence of God would ultimately prove to be a liberating experience. Sure, it would be scary at first; but afterward, it would allow human beings the complete freedom to become whatever it is they wanted to be. Not only that, they thought it would liberate science too, since they believed faith was the chief impediment to free inquiry. The price of that — losing the grounds for meaning, morals and human significance — would prove worth it in the end, they thought. And they thought we’d learn to live with the vacuums that secularization would create.

But if nature abhors a vacuum, then human nature abhors it even more. People cannot live with the belief that they are meaningless atoms floating toward inevitable extinction in an amoral universe. It’s not liberating, but paralyzing, because all the features of the emotional landscape have been erased. So they turn to any ideology that will restore a pattern, a purpose, a direction and a hope to their lives — no matter how irrational it may be.

When people don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything.

Tom: The Lord Jesus also taught that empty spaces don’t stay empty for long. Empty the house, sweep it and put it in order, and before long, seven evil spirits come knocking. From a biblical perspective, human beings were designed to worship. If they will not worship God, they will inevitably worship something else, and that something is usually an embarrassingly shabby replacement.

No Shape, Form or Authority

What is interesting about this “new age spirituality” millennials are getting into is that it has no real prescribed shape, form or authority behind it. It’s whatever you want it to be. As one of the interview subjects opined, “It makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.” But nobody else has to do it the same way, or do it at all. Just find what you like and go with it. That’s not much of a recipe for truth-seeking, is it?

IC: It’s not about truth, though … it’s about what people nowadays call “my truth”, by which they mean “that which is, for me, as defensible as truth (so long as I want it to be), but upon which no one has the right to judge me or to say what I must do”. This is very different from the historical conception of truth, which was always a thing that reflected reality and was obligatory for all rational people. It’s another form of self-love, but one that tries dress itself up with the solidity of real truth.

What happens when people play this game with themselves, though, is that they always know on some level that they have a made-up belief system. On a surface level, they want to insist upon their right to hold to it. But the result is ambivalence, the simultaneous operation in the mind of two opposite and contradictory ideas. On one level, they know they’re lying; on another, they’re dedicated to denying that fact at all costs. Thus they become self-deceived … meaning they are their own deceiver and their own victim at the same time. (In scripture, deceiving and being deceived are not separate activities — at least in many cases.)

Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Philosophers just call it bad faith.

Getting Unserious

Tom: Yes. It’s a fundamentally unserious position to hold. And you can see that in the comments people make about it. Jim Burklo talks about people “coming up with their own personal spiritualities”. Chani Nicholas talks about “a way of being ritualistic that isn’t dogmatic”. Leah Garza says, “My intuition dismantles the patriarchy.” It’s all very loosy-goosey and feel-good, but it has no intellectual integrity, and doesn’t claim any. It reminds me of the Old Testament idolaters whose religion consisted in sitting down to eat and drink and rising up to play. That is what has really been at the root of real idolatry since the beginning: me, me, me.

IC: “An unserious position”? In two ways, yes: in two ways, no.

It’s “unserious” in that it can’t be taken by a reasonable person as rational, yes. And it’s “unserious” in that the believer in it isn’t obligated to adhere to it. But it’s very “seriously” undertaken by the believer in it: it’s his lifeline to avoiding a sense of sin and guilt, and that is a business that requires a very serious level of effort. And, of course, it’s serious in that through its he’s carving his own road to hell — very serious indeed.

Tom: Certainly. What I mean by “unserious” is that it amounts to no more than saying, “I like this.” It does not comment, or even presume to comment, on external realities (except perhaps that it assumes there are no real truths out there, only personal desires). It simply says, “This makes me feel good, and I have a right to feel good.”

IC: And this takes us to a very serious conclusion.

Delusions of Choice

There are two things here, Tom: people, and the delusions they are choosing. It’s one thing to say that deluded people are people, and as such, have a right to live and die by their own beliefs. That is true. But it’s quite a different thing to imagine that loving them consists in reinforcing, validating or simply ignoring the delusion they have chosen. As Christians, we need to remember that that delusion stands to kill a person — eternally. And we need to love people more than to stop at the point of tolerating what’s killing them.

We need to risk being a little bit obnoxious at the start — which we will be, if we call people out on their chosen delusions, their “my truths”. But then we also need to follow up with listening, relating, guiding and sharing Christ with them.

For too long, we have heard the modern Christian understanding of “love” as “Don’t fight with anyone; just let them die in their sins.” It’s past time that changed.


  1. If it were only so easy. The difficulty of course is that there may be sin from your perspective but not from the other person's. That is the reason I think why it is nearly impossible to change someone else's behavior unless it is a change motivated by their own internal state and their own recognition that they need to change. At that point they might look for help externally and possibly internally since all else will fail them. Unfortunately, if that person does not choose God at that point they may just continue to deteriorate. That's when the example set by the Christian can come in handy and with help of the Holy Spirit can provide a positive influence and direction for a disoriented life. The most significant contribution to any of this is of course prayer that God may heal our and our neighbor's afflictions.

  2. it is nearly impossible to change someone else's behavior unless it is a change motivated by their own internal state and their own recognition that they need to change.

    Agreed. As the Lord said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."