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?