The New (Old) Good News: Fulfillment is Crap

The New (Old) Good News: Fulfillment is Crap by Ben Whitehead

What do you do when you feel within yourself a kind of existential lacking? Where do you turn? What systems or narratives help make sense of what you’re feeling?

For a long time, I have been pretty tuned in to a kind of lack, a deficiency, in my being. For some of us, sentiments of this nature possess within themselves no positive elements, and are forgotten, if ever recognized. And yet, there are others who, quite contrarily, have been aware of this lack from an early age. This was part of my religious experience.

Traditionally conservative Christian communities, who believe the Christ is the one who propitiates a debt, need a very real iniquity to be present. And, at eight years old, I knew that my occasional outbursts of anger when my brother would cheat at hide-and-go-seek were adding to a debt impossible to pay.

Of course, like any person with something to say, I have somewhat arbitrarily set up these two positions (the one that is skeptical of absolute human depravity, and the one that needs it desperately) as opposing forces. Regardless of which position you might identify with, both fall short of my actual lived experience and I suspect yours, too.

Humor me, for a brief moment of philosophical and psychoanalytic rambling. The great French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, famously introduced what he called “the mirror phase” in 1936. The mirror phase posits that infants, sometime between the age of six and eighteen months, awaken to their own, very real, subjectivity.

Infants, Lacan’s now widely accepted theory asserts, do not come out of the womb aware of the difference between themselves and their mothers. All their sensations of hunger, pain, warmth, and fear have been directly tied (quite literally) to their carrying mothers. This attachment doesn’t cease until sometime between six and eighteen months. And, as you can imagine, the rupture is rather traumatic. Carl Jung remarked, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”

The birth of consciousness has within itself a deep fissure that manifests in a feeling of essential lacking. The infant, now aware of itself as subject, painfully wishes to reattach to the mother, to feel and crave and need within the same body. This craving to reconnect, as a confession of one’s own lacking, is one way that we might, religiously, talk about sin.

On Sin

The problem of sin in our current context, whose prevailing paradigms of opposition either deny its existence (some exaggerated form of humanism?) or purge its existence (atoning Jesus), induces a deep shame that only begets more shame, and ultimately leads to unhealthy ways of dealing with one’s own lack. If, like me, you were raised to believe that Jesus was some kind of atonement for your sin, then you might have momentarily celebrated a sensation of freedom. “No longer am I bound by my own capacity for destruction.” But days, hours, even minutes later, those feelings give way to those of an essential lacking we thought Jesus purged.

Either my prayer didn’t work, or Jesus is not as good at forgiving as my pastor said. Either way, the experience induces a shame that debilitates me even further.

If, unlike me, you come from a community that affirms the wholeness of humanity, you might briefly celebrate the ecstasy of human utopias. Beauty, truth, and goodness embodied within the human is something worth celebrating, sure. Yet again, those feelings subside when we walk away from those communities and are reminded, once again, of just how much we long to be someone who we are not; to imagine a world that is not; to hope for a divinity that somehow seems not, altogether.

Imagine the shame of carrying that essential lack within yourself, all the while participating in communities that say, “We do not believe any kind of lacking exists within you.” How ostracizing. How shameful.

The truth of my  very human experience is that pain, lack, brokenness, sin are what make me essentially human. “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” There is no subjectivity without the desire to un-see oneself as subject. Humanity, in this view, is the wish to eliminate oneself, for the ultimate goal of becoming God. Sound like Genesis to you?

Though we often read the story of the Garden to be some kind of heaven on earth, harmonious and free of sin, Adam and Eve are already very aware of their lacking. There would be no desire to eat the fruit and become like God if Adam and Eve were already whole. The desire to become that which they were not was a testimony to the lack they felt in themselves.

And, of course, eating the fruit does not satisfy their wish for fulfillment. Instead, Adam and Eve feel more existentially broken than ever before. That’s how church often works for us, today. There are promises of fulfillment made by pastors who genuinely want us not to hurt like we do. But frankly, we do, and no amount of prayer will change that. Trust me, I have tried.

The Good News

So then what about Jesus? If Jesus is not the one to save us from our lacking, to fulfill the lack that constitutes our human condition, then what the gehenna (hell) was he for? Is it possible that Jesus’ death was not a canceling of a spiritual debt, but the canceling of the search for fulfillment? Stay with me, because I think there is a difference here.

Jesus’ life and death, specifically in the tearing of the Temple curtain, reveal to us just how desperate we are to rid ourselves of our own existential lacking, and thus, our own humanity. The good news of Jesus is not that life is now somehow great, praise God. The good news of Jesus is that life is skubalon (shit), praise God.

And in revealing to us that the search for fulfillment only deprives us of fulfillment, we are invited into a new way of living, one that earnestly seeks to call out our lacking and construct healthy ways of dealing with it. In tearing the curtain, Jesus shows us the truth: that everything we thought was capable of bringing fulfillment  is merely a figment of our imagination. The presence of God was never contained behind the curtain in the same way that money was never the key to happiness, prestige was never the door between making it and not, and ecstasy was never the chemical of everlasting joy.

If you are discouraged about this reading of Jesus, then you get what I mean all too well. The truth of the matter is, “I am not trying to make you depressed. I am trying to tell you that you are already depressed”, yet somehow you’ve denied yourself that truth. Seriously though, if you hate this idea, no worries. Call, email, or text me. Let’s talk about it.

In the meantime, I’d recommend catching up on HBO’s Westworld, as it more poignantly captures the nature of consciousness, and its relationship to pain, than I am capable of doing. Without giving anything away, I wonder if Westworld is not so different than our world. Though perhaps not androids, we are just as aware of our suffering as Delores (one of the main characters). For some, if not all, that awareness has been internalized into some kind of shame. But more pointedly, it is our suffering, our lack, that makes us human.

There is no subjectivity without lack. The solution is not a world where we cannot lose, as the makers of Westworld thought. Instead, it is in this world, where we can and do lose, that we find meaning and beauty. It is because of death that we find meaning in life. It is because of rejection that we celebrate acceptance. It is because, and not in spite of, our primordial lacking, that we might stumble upon love.

Ben Whitehead

Contributor at Christianity Now
Ben is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School and resides in Nashville, TN, with his wife Rachel. His primary interests are radical theology, professional basketball, and the guitar.
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