Modernity's God-shaped Hole

Caught between the perspectives of the scholar and the religious practitioner, Andrew Cooper explores the meaning of faith in a world fixated on reason.


Andrew Cooper

It was at about this point that I realized I had long since crossed the line of propriety, so, with a chirpy “Well, anyway, everything went really well,” I brought my verbal barrage to an abrupt halt. As I began my retreat, I saw the buckets fall away, as Roshi raised his most congenial smile and said, “Sure, sure, sure. The scholars must certainly be right. Everyone knows the transmission doesn’t really go back to Buddha.” Then, with a nod, he signaled for me to leave.

As it happened, that night Roshi gave his weekly lecture, and most of the conferees stayed on to attend. Midway through, he paused, glanced around the room, and, apropos of nothing that had gone before, growled, “There is one thing you must remember: Our Zen way is still the only lineage that goes back directly all the way to Shakyamuni Buddha.”

Then, with buckets back in tow, he glared straight ahead, still as stone. After a long silence, he shrugged, rubbed his bald pate, and said sheepishly, “Well, where was I?” Then he returned to his topic.

Feeling caught in the crossfire of two valid yet contradictory perspectives—the historical perspective of the scholar and the mythic perspective of the religious practitioner—I sensed that I had stumbled onto a question of some significance, certainly personal significance and perhaps some wider significance as well. But had I been asked just what the question was, or why it was important, I would not have known what to say.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes that “enigma does not block understanding but provokes it,” and this is how this question, over time, has done its work on me. It is as though it has its own field of gravity, which for years has held me in its orbit. As I have circled around it, I have seen it first from one angle, then another, formulating it first this way, then that. It is the sort of question that asks not for conceptual closure but for rich elaboration that broadens out into the social world and for knowledge that resonates deep in the recesses of the self.

In the collision of historical and mythic perspectives, a problem that lies at the heart of religious life in the modern world is brought into sharp relief. It is certainly not a problem unique to Buddhism. Indeed, it is probably felt with greatest acuity within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No religious tradition is immune to it, and any religiously minded person confronts this problem, consciously or not, in one form or another.

In her excellent book The Battle for God, the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes the matter by enlisting the terms mythos and logos. These terms refer to the two great styles of human consciousness, the first concerned with meaning, the second with practical action and reason. According to Armstrong, prior to modernity, mythos and logos were held to be complementary aspects of human experience. But the modern period, marked by the predominance of rational thought, has discredited myth as a means of knowing the world, and our mythic sensibilities have, as a result, atrophied. The triumph of logos has left us to confront an indifferent universe, devoid of meaning or purpose. That has been the price we have paid for the astonishing successes of science and other forms of systematic reason. Jean-Paul Sartre described the existential impact of this state of affairs as the “God-shaped hole” in modern consciousness.

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