Full of emptiness
Emptiness defines much of my life. Often what is not seems to outweigh what is. In my faith I sing to a God I cannot see. I pray without audible words to a Son of God who vanished in the clouds 2,000 years ago. In my profession as a historian, I engage imaginatively with people who no longer live and with organizations that no longer function. Many of the places of the past no longer bear the names they once did. In my heart, I pine for a son whom I can no longer hold. I lived with Elijah for less than one year. It has been three years since we buried him. At Christmas I most notice the presents that are not under the tree. One of the grief groups I attended even bears the name Empty Cradle.
Thanks to historian John Corrigan and his outstanding new book, I now know that American history bursts with such emptiness. When I try to make sense of my Christian tradition; when I try to understand times past, present, and future; and when I sense the palpable anguish of loss, I now see that I am not alone in my experiences of emptiness. As Corrigan shows in his short and evocative walk through American history, I’m part of a deep and wide tradition. For what may seem a dire topic, Corrigan’s history of emptiness is beautifully fulfilling.
Corrigan’s book is not a straightforward or chronological examination of the role of emptiness from the Puritans to the present. Instead, it is a collection of thematic essays on various feelings of emptiness throughout American Christian history. Corrigan has a capacious understanding of the word feeling. By it, he means physical sensation, emotional experiences, perceptions of time and space, thoughts and theology, and any other characteristic of being human. The book makes both feeling and emptiness broader and deeper conceptions than we may usually acknowledge.