- Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America by John Corrigan
John Corrigan's Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America is a new installment in his ongoing exploration of the emotional history of American religious experience. Rather than approach the subject through emotions that others have already associated with religion, such as fear and love, Corrigan pioneers the relatively unchartered territory of "emptiness." His task is therefore a bit more challenging, as he must first persuade readers that emptiness is a widely shared emotion associated with Christianity in America, then explore the ways that Christian denominations have sought to cultivate and shape it, before finally discerning patterns in the ways that Christian Americans experienced it in light of those efforts. The result, Corrigan suggests, moves us closer to seeing American religious history as Christians experienced it rather than as the study of doctrine. This complex, nuanced, and stimulating exploration opens rather than culminates the study of emptiness and, as such, offers a foundation for further development. Corrigan establishes successfully that there is much here worth pursuing further.
Corrigan builds his argument on the premise that Christians in the United States have competed intensely for adherents ever since the disestablishment of religion at the nation's founding. This competition led to highly refined distinctions in denominational belief structures that only institutional elites understood fully, and the denominations therefore relied more heavily on their abilities to define themselves against various "others." Denominational adherents knew themselves best by what they were not and by their determination to stand against an often demonized and threatening "other." Christians felt these threats intensely because they experienced them both intellectually and emotionally, and the emotional experience depended in large part on profound feelings of emptiness that Christianity had cultivated for centuries but developed highly in the competitive American religious marketplace.
That feeling of emptiness might be a spur to action, as Corrigan provides wide ranging evidence that American Christians sought to both empty themselves of worldly values, egos, and material distractions and to then fill themselves with Christ. Christians from various denominations embraced some form of asceticism to empty themselves fully, to prepare for Christ's presence. Corrigan's chapter on the body highlights the ascetic ethos that has run across almost all Christian traditions. Christians emptied their bodies of nourishment at times, so as to distance themselves from earthly attractions that might have distracted their focus. They even emptied themselves—though typically only [End Page 595] partially—of blood for this purpose. Sometimes that emptying was total, as so many interpreted the Civil War.
American Christians also saw the North American continent, and that portion that would become the United States in particular, as empty space in clear need to be filled with European civilization and Christianity. Regular references to the American "desert" populated early American Christian written records, and European Christian colonists saw no notable religion filling the native landscape. It was empty. On the other hand, fear of emptiness inspired Catholic church designers to fill their cavernous spaces with ornamentation and imagery.
Even when Christians discussed time, they often referred to it as something that they felt. The afterlife promised timelessness, "the fullness of time." Life on earth, historical time, could be empty. Most dangerously, it could be idle, and so Christians worked diligently to fill it up with productive activity.
Even words could be empty, often as nominal symbols that meant nothing and failed to advance proper understanding. Worse still, they could contain false doctrines that might turn otherwise good Christians from the right. These were dangerous enough when promulgated by "others" whom good Christians might identify readily as outside the fold but even more so when insiders, wolves in sheep's clothing, offered them to unsuspecting (and gullible) Christians.
On one level Corrigan's argument is largely persuasive. He establishes clearly that Christians prized emptiness for its purgative value and welcomed it as a precursor to the filling experience of Christ's presence. And he argues just as persuasively that American Christians feared emptiness and sought desperately to fill it. Moreover, he...