In 2000, VH1 gave first place to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” among the “Top 100 Greatest Rock Songs” ever recorded, and in 2004 a Rolling Stone’s panel of judges labeled it as the second-greatest song of all time. Mick Jagger remarks:
It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band... It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kinds of songs... Which was alienation.[i]
Alienation marks the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. We are a generation of lottery winners. A landmark study in 1978 revealed that those who win the lottery are no happier six months later than those who became paraplegics in catastrophic accidents, and that they are in fact more likely to get divorced, experience family fallouts, and to lose everything they have won within a matter of five years.[ii]The early 21st century is drugged with this kind of deep, entitled dissatisfaction. We have more power, more money, and more ease. We are subjects in the greatest empirical study in pleasure ever conducted. But it all falls flat in the face of reality: we are emaciated and dying. And it is not new. The atheist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre, living in the early 20th century, writes: "there comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, 'Is that all there is?'" [iii]My aunt received a guinea pig for her tenth birthday but squeezed it so tightly that she suffocated it to death. That is the human condition.
Saul of Tarsus describes it in the most famous letter ever written – his letter to a church in Rome around the year 57 CE. In that letter he addresses what is perhaps the most significant problem of every passing generation. It is not a problem of unbelief, but of exchange. It is not that we cease to worship, but that we do not stop worshipping. We merely exchange one tabernacle for another, and trade one object of pleasure for the next.[iv]We are trying to put an ocean into a bucket.
The philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that every natural, innate desire of humanity corresponds to something in the real world.[v]In saying this, he is not referring to artificial desires like the desire for a sports car or a vacation to Hawaii – these influence us externally through advertising or culture. He is talking about natural desires that spring up from within us, the desires that we are born to have – desires for things like friendship, knowledge, and beauty.
For these natural desires, we have words to describe their absence – loneliness, ignorance, ugliness. These are basic to us. We do not have a word for “sports car-lessness”, for example. But we do have a word for the human condition: Alienation.
Or, perhaps better: emptiness.
And this emptiness is pervasive. There exists in every person of every generation a desire that nothing natural or creaturely or timely can fulfill.[vi] It is the sand through our fingers. It is dust in the wind. It seems then, that we desire something beyond earth, beyond creatures, beyond the sands of time.
C.S. Lewis puts it similarly. He compares a person to a duckling. Why does a duckling desire to swim? Because such a thing as water exists for it to swim in. Similarly, why does a child hunger? Because such a thing as food exists for it to eat. But what about us? “If we find in ourselves a desire,” Lewis says, “that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”[vii]Christianity speaks into this today. It alone says, “yes!” to the human condition. Yes, this alienation is real. And, yes, we were meant for something more. We were meant for another world. Our needs confirm this, and as we’ll see next, our values demand it.
[i] Mick Jagger, “ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones.” retrieved from: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=449.
[ii] Alexia LaFata, “Why Winning the Lottery Won’t Make You Happy: It’s Scientifically Proven,” at http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/winning-lottery-wont-make-happy/641751/.
[iii] Quoted by Peter Kreeft, in “The Argument from Desire.” Available at: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm.
[iv] Romans 1:18-32.
[v] Peter Kreeft, “The Argument from Desire.”
[vii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, "Hope."