A Meander through Existential Lack

I have been attending a series of talks recently on existentialism. The series is by Peter Rollins, and it is essentially a walk-through of his book The Divine Magician. Not being a believer, I am much more interested in the series as a refresher and exploration of existentialism than in the rethinking of Christianity, and in this post I am going to start by exploring the existentialist themes.

Probably the most fundamental idea of the series is that humans have a fundamental absence or lack in their being. Rollins compares us to swiss cheese: we are full of holes. Here I believe that Rollins said he was essentially just following Sartre: beings are either for themselves or in themselves. That is to say, either something just is (in itself), or something has an awareness of itself (for itself). To have an awareness of something, however, requires a kind of distance. The very structure of our being is therefore to be somewhat removed from our own being. We experience this lack as a kind of emptiness or longing, we (initially) feel fundamentally incomplete, and we set about trying to make ourselves whole, or to fill the gaps in our being. We try to fill this hole in a number of ways: through love, god, money, ideology, etc. Unfortunately, none of these methods can make us whole: the only way forward is to somehow accept the emptiness within ourselves.

All standard stuff, if you’ve studied existentialism before. However, as Rollins briefly mentions in the presentation, knowledge of something is not necessarily the same thing as believing it, and, at least for me, the phenomenal lessons of existentialism are often worth revisiting. It is so easy to think that if you just have this job or that person or this money (or a distinction on your dissertation), that you would be complete. It is so easy to see others with those things as being complete. Don’t get me wrong, it is not impossible that you can envy someone else who actually is happier than you, and they may get intense pleasure out of the things they have which you desire. The important thing to remember is that they are not completed by thing: they do not transcend the human condition.

Let me know what you think,


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