April 28, 2009 § Leave a comment
David Foster Wallace’s suicide has excited a lot of comment, and one thing he wrote—a commencement address delivered at Kenyon College in 2005—has been widely disseminated. I came across it for the third time while reading blog posts about atheism. He says:
“…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, bet 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.”
This is heartfelt writing, and at one time it would have spoken to me loudly, but now I think it falls short. Pretty much any idea or passion can eat people alive, and religion has done so repeatedly, spectacularly, and horribly in the span of recorded history. I don’t think I have to remind anyone of the many instances. Nor do I think worshipping God inoculates you against a parallel or underground worship of material things.
The kernel of truth here is that it’s possible to worship God and stay centered and sane, while worshipping money or youth will never end well. Yet most people don’t worship these things. They’re seduced by them early or late, waste time in their pursuit, make decisions they come to regret, but this is merely human. This is how we learn. I doubt that the number of those who truly worship money, youth or sex—the people we all recognize as obsessive—is greater than those who worship God to a fault.
Wallace’s remarks express the soft liberalism, the ‘being spiritual is good for you,’ assumption that sets my teeth on edge. I know what it is to feel the inrush of joy, of gratitude for the beauty of the world and the love of other people, the astonishing surprise of life. I don’t refuse these feelings. I talk to the moon and the trees, and imagine they hear me. I take solace wherever I can.
But I don’t think it detracts from this to say that our brains—which are patched-together organs, add-ons and upgrades often colliding with older systems, causing mysterious glitches—are structured so that feeling gratitude prompts us to assume the existence of one to whom that gratitude should be offered. This awareness of a self-conscious other, of debt and reciprocity, is what has made human society so successful. That it overflows into the belief that there are more others than are visible is what happens when a new mental capacity is thrown into the mix of stay-alert-to-danger, use-all-your-senses-because-one-might-be-fooled animal armor.
I’m not arguing with David Foster Wallace anymore. That’s one passage of his writing; he had many other things to say. It’s the culture of faith without rigor, belief without thought, that bothers me. It’s sanctimony and religion used to oppress that rouses ire. When my grandmother, a staunch Catholic, visited us during my childhood, my father would drive her to church in his underwear so she wouldn’t try to talk him into going inside. He did that because the Church had wounded him. I don’t know exactly how–he died when I was very young–but his anger and fear left a vivid impression.
I know Catholicism is more than what happened to my father. I’ve read Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, Francois Fenelon, and John Donne. I’ve even met a few wise Christians, and could have met a lot more if I wasn’t such a recluse. Yet it rankles when people think religion is safe. It’s not intended to be safe; it’s not safe when it’s done right; it’s certainly not safe when it’s done wrong.
It’s taken me some time, since I moved into the agnostic-atheist camp, to regain the pleasure of transcendent moments. I shied away at first like a hurt child, not wanting to be fooled. But that passed and I became able to value them, to make use of them to love other people more actively, to remember what I have rather than what I don’t have, to listen to the accumulated wisdom of the race. (Not that I always pay attention. Sometimes I’m too busy obsessing over money and sex.)
Those moments don’t oppose my stepping back to say: I can’t explain the world or the source of mystical feelings, but the idea of God as a sentient being that cares for me and everyone in particular doesn’t accord with my experience.
And to worship Spirit or Energy not otherwise defined (in my circles, a popular choice) seems like an oxymoron to me. One can imagine such a vague Power, but worship requires a sharper focus. Worship is love, which is why it attracted me so strongly in my youth. But now I prefer loving my cat and my favorite humans. I’m happy to ascribe whatever virtues I possess to the success of my simian ancestors in learning how to get along, and the tonic effect of reading great books.
I had a theological argument tonight with a close friend. Maybe someday he’ll convince me. That can happen. But for the present I feel strongly about the need to stand up for those without faith, those who don’t worship, those who don’t know how the world was created or what death means, and live with it.
(If I’m mistaken about God or the Gods, I hope I end up in the silvery court of the Moon Goddess or the Kingdom of Immortal Trees. I’d hate to wake up in a Hieronymous Bosch painting.)