Jared Witt l June 8, 2017
Let me make some disclaimers. First of all, I like Billy Corgan, the lead singer of The Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan, and several side projects. If he’s ever gone off the deep end, I think it’s because his prolonged status as a bona fide rockstar would do that to most people. And how much more vulnerable is someone like Corgan?
I sometimes like to think of humans as having a sort of seismograph in our souls capable of reading waves of pain, beauty, love, ugliness or what have you. This seismograph is variously referred to as empathy, emotional intelligence, conscience, or some such. And where sociopaths have a seismograph that is either malfunctioning or completely broken, great artists have the most finely tuned of all of us. Billy Corgan is the latter, one of those rare, beleaguered souls, who can channel the vulnerabilities of the human experience into meaningful poetry. And that is a deeply admirable quality to me.
I don't know whether he identifies as an Atheist. He's apparently pretty difficult to pin down on the topic. Actually, I find that most of those who aren't difficult to pin down on this particular topic have oversimplified God to the point of idolatry. Anyways, there are definitely more overtly atheistic statements out there. This just happens to be the one I was thinking about in the car the other day. Disclaimer out of the way, I can now make my simple point.
Most of us who didn’t have a date to prom in the 90s and early 2000s will remember spending that evening indignantly smashing the floor with our feet and banging our heads to this "Pumpkins" line from the song "Zero":
Emptiness is loneliness
And loneliness is cleanliness
And cleanliness is Godliness
And God is empty just like me.
“Zero” by The Smashing Pumpkins, Virgin Records
We didn’t really take the time to analyze the deceptively syllogistic symmetry of this verse and render it cogent. We just knew we were indignant that Mandy Jacobson would rather spend the evening in a limo with that knuckle-dragger Taylor Stupidson (the names have been changed here to protect the innocent) than in our '92 Geo Prizm. The world seemed dumbly and unapologetically full of such injustices, so why not shout these nihilistic maxims at the dashboard of said Prizm? The universe is cold, dark, tends toward chaos, and the two of them will probably be very happy together and wind up with a whole litter of little Stupidsons, so why not sing something that would offend your grandmother?
What we didn’t know, and what I suspect Corgan didn’t know, is that the blasphemous sounding clincher to this offend-your-grandmother mess of adjectival-nouns, "God is empty," is basically something that comes straight out of the Bible, the letter to the Philippians to be exact. Paul of Tarsus, to whom we attribute half the books in the New Testament, says, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [held over others or profited from], but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-11).
May scholars believe that Paul is actually quoting from an older hymn, which makes this one of the oldest surviving theological statements, from the earliest days of the Christian movement, about who Jesus is and why he is important.
Whereas in Roman society at this time it was customary to talk about the cursus honorum or “course of honor,” the path by which a young man of higher class could climb the social ladder, achieving more and more plaudits as he went, Paul is saying that Jesus took the opposite path. My old seminary professor Dr. Wally Taylor, a New Testament scholar at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, calls this the cursus pudorum or “course of shame.”
Jesus' entire life is described as a series of downgrades in his own self-importance. He is described as the very antithesis to politicians and celebrities who are always coming up with ways to make sure everyone knows how great they are.
Now there have always been a handful of your Ghandis and what not, supremely humble individuals who seem to be tapped into some truth that the rest of us self-glorifying individuals can barely grasp. But from it’s earliest days, this movement of Jesus followers went a step further than simply venerating a supremely humble and wise individual. Owing to some claim having to do with a resurrection from the dead, they believed that anything we can say about Jesus, we can say about God. Or anything we can say about “the Son,” we can say about “the Father,” as one analogy goes.
“God is empty,” Corgan’s would-be blasphemy, turns out to be a very mainstream Christian position. Many theologians even claim that this might just be the main thing we can know about God if Jesus is our guide: the Divine is that one who is fully selfless, who is constantly emptying of self that someone else may be full, who is becoming small that someone else can be big, who is buried in the dirt and descended to hell that someone else might be lifted up.
One of our most influential thinkers of the last century, Jürgen Moltmann, drawing from this tradition of Jesus’ kenosis (the technical term for emptying of self) and several Talmudic commentaries on the creation stories in the Hebrew Testament, even claims that the act of creation itself was not so much the making of something where there was nothing but was a retraction of God’s own self. God empties or retracts Godself that a beloved might have space to be, because it’s in God’s nature to be a lover rather than a narcissist.
If God is how Jesus is, then God is in fact empty. If this offends your grandmother, it’s because her theology is not very biblical, whereas Billy Corgan’s apparently is.
The only theologically problematic part of this line is the “just like me.” It’s too ambitious to claim that oneself has achieved emptiness. Most of us are puffed up and full of ourselves. We have not yet followed Jesus down the course of shame, that we too might be emptied for the sake of others.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
On how Castle Church is stirring up a movement from a brewery in Florida.