I’ve been reading pieces of Indigenous religious thought and history lately. Something that has come from two very different cultures—one African and one Native South American — is the idea that white people have a hole in their souls, an emptiness in their hearts that is never filled. No matter what is gained, from gold to property to sexual conquests, it is ever enough.
As a white male, I am a bit befuddled on many levels at once. This does in fact describe virtually every white male of any age that I know. The basic, white male is not — and cannot — be satisfied. I don’t like this at all. But it is not a new idea.
Decades ago, C.S. Lewis wrote of “men without chests” in his book The Abolition of Man. He focused on men in particular, living life without character, integrity, and solid beliefs. His premise was that money but also something more than money — pride or arrogance perhaps — separated these people from their own humanity.
To say we see a crass, unfillable emptiness more now – even cultivated and celebrated in our culture, media, and everyday relationships – is almost a cliché.
But why? And what does a hole in one’s soul even mean?
My study and work with Indigenous people and cultures may shed some light on this strange turn in our identities. In my observation, Indigenous belief systems (from Ancient Africa, the Americas, or across Asia) emerge, literally without exception, from lived experience. Certain plants or actions or creatures are “propitious” or cursed. This not necessarily because of some moral boundary, but they are a blessing or a curse simply because encountering them teaches us — if we have ears to listen. And Indigenous cultures value “wisdom” precisely because their culture will literally not survive if it does not learn from the generations that have come before.
We, the white people of the world, have a shared contempt, or at least noticeable lack of interest in what previous generations can teach us. And this gap, with a special thanks to technology, is getting wider with every new version of any device, app, or software development.
The dominant religion of white people, of course, is Christianity. But not historic, traditional, orthodox Christianity. White Christianity, for whatever reason, is inherently wrapped around nationalism, imperialism, conquest, and domination. And by conquest and domination, I mean control over everything — nature; other races, cultures and ethnicities; other religions; women; even death and time.
History shows us this at work century after century, but this is only the manifestation — the fruit of a belief system or a core assumption.
Or as Lewis and Indigenous wise ones would put it: It is the only and inevitable result of a culture-wide yawning emptiness seeking satisfaction and never finding it, but finding itself fueled even further by guilt and shame that also seems to know no limits.
I would submit that the solution is the time-worn, hard-earned faith that is learned directly from life.
Indigenous cultures had no seminaries. They had few, if any, “ordained” official clergy. A prophet (like the Old Testament prophets) earned their way by being worth listening to.
Their theology was not from texts, but from oral traditions that were passed along; not as abstractions but as tangible, sometimes brutal, life experiences.
In many Indigenous cultures, a young native man would set out on a vision quest, sometimes deliberately with no provisions — even water or food. After all, if he was seeking a direct encounter with his Creator and provider, the Creator would know what was really needed. Hunger and thirst (and extremes of heat or cold) could be excellent and memorable teachers.
Compare that to the seminary student studying books in relative comfort, if not with privilege.
Who do you guess would have the better grasp of their own vulnerability and humanity and their own ability to survive the seemingly impossible?
Survival and sheer existence is a miracle none of us can fully grasp or understand. Coming up against the limits of existence teaches us as much about life as it does about what comes after.
I have had experiences like no one else I know. I have gone more days than I could count without eating — several times stretches of five days or more. I have been stranded alone in deserts, caught in desert storms, in lands where I could not speak the language. I have been lost in massive Asian cities. I have been threatened and betrayed by people I thought I could trust.
I have also been rescued and, yes, fed by strangers who I could not thank or repay. These encounters have taught me more of life and humanity — and of God — than any book or sermon.
In Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, the premise is not that heaven is too abstract. It is that heaven is too real; it is too solid; it hurts those not ready to be there.
Real Christianity is like that.
The fake, gauzy kind — the “Christianity” that imposes guilt and judgement— is not like that. The slimy faith that “we are right and everyone else is wrong” feels good. We love it, because it makes us feel good and right. That’s the sign of false religion. True faith challenges those who hold it and welcomes those who care enough to “test” it.
A cult defends and attacks. A living faith nurtures, protects, and restores everything — from children to forests to those who have betrayed or who have been betrayed. Those who are broken or abandoned are welcomed and restored, without shame or embarrassment.
This is not a faith learned from books. In fact, it might only be a faith earned in hunger, sorrow, and abandonment. And unlike the faith that comes from books, this faith is never forgotten, never muted by time. It is shared but rarely by words, and becomes ever stronger and deeper from persecution and loss.
Our problem is that too many of us believe what we have not lived, and live out what we don’t believe. Our “faith” has been learned, not earned.
We know (and perhaps care) so little, because we have encountered (directly) so little. Our faith, for far too many of us, is like something we have purchased. Something we put on, not something grown from deep, tangled, and perhaps eternal roots.
Jesus told us that we would be the source of abundant or living waters (John 7:37). An enduring faith is what comes out of us, not what we try to put in.
The Bible gives us many unexpected ingredients for a life of faith: wind, storms, persecutions, disappointments, sorrow and grief, and many more. But our faith, if we can bear it, will survive any betrayal or hazard.
Many things promise to fill our emptiness, but only the immense, never ending presence of the Creator will satisfy us.