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COLUMN: How do we fill the God-sized hole in our culture?

If the old forms of meaning no longer exist, where will they find meaning? To which pole will they orient their moral compasses? 

When I used to teach Religious Studies at the University of Regina, that is what we call the Science of Religions, not theology, I would take my students through a three month course explaining the major philosophies and tenets of the world’s great faiths– as well as the sociological impulses that seem to be driving people away from organized religion more and more in this secular era, particularly in Europe and North America. 

At the end of that course, I would always explain to them that every value we hold in law and society has been based on biblical or religious teachings of what is right and wrong– it has evolved beyond that, but that is the backbone of how we decide these things. Without that, I would challenge them to think about the future, the world they would one day inherit, and how would they be able to think about ethics and the right and wrong of things in the face of the impending challenges of the increasingly digital world, when confronted with new sciences such as cloning, and the other great ethical challenges to come? Without organized religion, how would they make their decisions?

It is true some will take refuge in nature, and find some higher order meaning within it. It is true some will seek to form new social groups which can replace the ritual effervescence one finds in the fellowship of the temple or the cathedral, whether that’s through your favourite hockey team or some of the more dangerous and concerning manifestations such as we see going on south of the border as many now flirt openly with the fascism.

However, it was the philosopher Blaise Pascal who perfectly articulated the idea of there being a God-sized hole in our culture we always long to fill, but never can by any human means.

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

While Pascal came from a more openly religious time even while being on the forefront of the scientific renaissance sweeping Europe in his day, his words ring true and echo what I used to ask my students. If the old forms of meaning no longer exist, where will they find meaning? To which pole will they orient their moral compasses? 

I did not know the answer when I asked them the question, and I still don’t know it to this day.


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