There is no such thing as not worshipping

Novelist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide two years ago, gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. It has this amazing nugget at the tail-end that I find powerful (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.


If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

Wow.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. Lisa Beth says

    A prophet, speaking truth in ways that I have rarely heard inside the walls of a church. Without advocating one religion or another, Wallace makes clear that faith is not simply a private decision, but a way of life, a set of practices both in thought and action, that puts the self into proper perspective in the world.

  2. J Travis says

    The Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich deals with this subject in about 140 brilliant pages. Tillich asks you to consider what is, in the famous wording, your Ultimate Concern. I highly recommend it.

  3. Kirk VanGilder says

    It's also very much like Schleiermacher's definition of Christian Faith as "a feeling of absolute dependence." Rather than viewing feeling as an opposite of knowledge, Schleiermacher saw feeling to be something more akin to a sense of direction or inner conviction. Thus "faith" is that intuitive knowledge that we rely on something transcendent. Humanity has of course developed a myriad of ways to conceive of transcendence–some theistic and some non-theistic. But that "faith" process remains and never really goes away.

    The choice then becomes what do we allow to be that transcendence and how do we pick something that doesn't eventually eat us alive.

  4. John says

    I might have said something like this a couple of years ago. But not anymore.

    What am I worshipping right now? I suppose myself, although “worship” probably isn’t the right word. Rather, I’m focusing on my own desires and the well-being of my family. Maybe it’s a “worship”, except it’s a more pedestrian, casual worship. Like a Christmas-and-Easter secularism. Or selfishness.

    I disagree with the notion that one must choose a formal god to worship or else be swallowed whole. Gods are quite demanding, and history is replete with religions destroying human lives, physically as well as emotionally. To suggest, for example, that Allah did not swallow whole the lives of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 is simply counter-factual.

    I got out of Christianity because I realized that I wasn’t really worshipping God or a god, or that I had no reason to believe that I was or knew anything about him/her/it/they. I was in a shell game. I wanted to serve God, but somehow that ended up serving the Church. And the Church seemed to only exist to benefit its leaders. It was just a pyramid scheme. And I saw how low the Church had brought me – emotionally, socially, and financially. I saw where it was taking me. I saw that it would, to use Wallace’s phrase, eat me alive. Had I continued, I would be, right now, homeless and probably divorced. So I got out.

    However destructive it can be to worship oneself, at least I know that I’m not involved in a scam. I’m not actually exploiting myself by transferring free will, time, and money to some other party. This is more than any formal religion can claim.

    Wallace wrote:

    But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

    In retrospect, I’m amazed that, as a Christian, I said Orwellian things like this on a regular basis. Freedom = sacrifice for others? How? Who benefits from a system that teaches self-sacrifice as directed by its leaders? If one removes the word Christ (implicitly or explicitly) from passages like this, one sees the rationale of a cult.

    If one encounters, as a free-standing assertion, that true freedom is found in slavery, the normal, sensible person would reject it. But when placed in the Christian context, it seems noble to allege that true freedom is found in slavery to Christ. Now Christ is gone for a long time, but he’ll be back. And in the meantime, he gave all power of us, his human successors. All that we bind on earth will be bound in heaven. So you’d better get in line inside the Church and consider its leader to act with more or less the authority of Christ (to whom you own the obedience of a slave).

    Erase the name of Christ from the language and life of the Church. How would one distinguish the resulting product from an exploitative cult?

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