Avoiding the void

Sep 18th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

The Mullet is at the extremity of Ireland, the north-western corner of Mayo, beyond it there is a great unknown, thousands of miles of dark ocean whose mood changed with the wind.  Lying on the slope of a sand dune under an August sun, the blueness above seemed as vast as the sea that stretched to the horizon.  High in the sky, a thin white vapour trail marked the progress of an airliner eastward towards Europe.  The moment was tranquil, not a sound other than waves breaking on the shore.  The peace was broken by a realisation that this was the edge of emptiness: the huge sky was void except for a single aircraft.  Putting to sea, how far might one travel before being sure of encountering another human being?  The emptiness was frightening; it was time to move, time to return to the car, time to head back to the town, time to re-connect with humanity.

Emptiness is frightening.

Charles Seife, the writer of “Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea”, believes that nothingness is the most dangerous of ideas:

Nothing can be more dangerous than nothing.

Humanity’s always been uncomfortable with zero and the void. The ancient Greeks declared them unnatural and unreal. Theologians argued that God’s first act was to banish the void by the act of creating the universe ex nihilo, and Middle-Ages thinkers tried to ban zero and the other Arabic “ciphers.” But the emptiness is all around us — most of the universe is void. Even as we huddle around our hearths and invent stories to convince ourselves that the cosmos is warm and full and inviting, nothingness stares back at us with empty eye sockets.

Seife’s belief that humanity is frightened by nothingness would explain the constant human striving to connect, to find meaning, to achieve significance.  If the cosmos is no more than nothingness, then ideas of there being a purpose, an end to which life is heading, are futile.  Ultimately, everything is pointless.

But are theologians really frightened by the idea of a void?

The biblical account of the origin of the Earth seeks to explain the origin of matter, it expresses no fear of the void.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The encounters with God in Scripture are most frequently isolated experiences – Jacob in the darkness of the night; Moses in the desert and on the mountain top; Elijah in the cave.  Hostile environments without human artifact; places void of meaning and threatening to life.

A fear of emptiness is not a religious sentiment, but is at the heart of a society that fills its hours with consumerism and reality television, banishing all possible space for questioning or quietness.  Believing in a void universe, a place empty of all matter, would be an advertiser’s nightmare, what point would there be in all he wishes to sell, when none of it is worth anything, when none of it has any more substance than a passing thought on an afternoon in Mayo?

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  1. I can’t imagine ‘void’, space and solitude perhaps but not ‘nothingness’

  2. I love trying to imagine the moment before the Big Bang – the moment when even space did not exist.

  3. because to some extent life is what we make it. there can not be ‘nothingness’because that is just a concept surely…

  4. Maybe no more than a concept in physical terms. There is not enough ‘stuff’ in our solar system for gravity to hold it together. ‘Dark matter’ is posited as providing the explanation of how gravity is able to keep the universe in order. Maybe we’re not looking out at nothingness, just at things we cannot see.

  5. All this talk of nothingness, void, endless space reminds me of how people sometimes fear the dark – emptiness, uncertainty, unknown all around. But looked at differently – or felt differently – during night time in the open air, even in unfamiliar surroundings, the absolute darkness can be an enveloping blanket, soft, secure, concealing of yourself just as much as anything else that might be “out there”. (This works in the British Isles anyway, where humans are the biggest predators.)
    So the void cannot be a void if you are in it. It could be though an extra wide bed with room to stretch out, or space big enough to cart wheel.
    “I am” is stronger than surrounding emptiness.

  6. Thanks for that, Paul. It gave me a new angle on the ‘I am’ encountered by Moses. ‘God is’ negates the nihilism of a universe of nothingness.

  7. I would love to have been up in Mayo too Ian, just slightly south, on Achill….Keem Strand…another area of peace and quiet……The emptiness to me is comforting

  8. Les, I have a dreadful fear of isolation at times. I say I love the country, but am reassured by the traffic going down the dual carriageway at dead of night!

    Mayo seems always to be a haunting place, as though the land remembers the dreadful years of the famine.

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