Worship by Default

In his book God Is Not One, Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero tries to get at the distinctive characteristics of the major world religions by setting out a key problem that each tries to solve. The problem in Christianity is sin; the solution, or goal, is salvation. In Prothero’s telling, “sin refers more generally to the human propensity toward wrongdoing and evil. . . But happily Christianity is a ‘rescue religion,’ and this rescue was made possible as Jesus was dying on the cross. . . . The ‘good news,’ therefore, is that anyone who hears this story, confesses her sins, and turns to Jesus for forgiveness can be saved. Or, as the Bible puts it, ‘the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6:23)” (pp. 14, 71–2).

But what is sin? Apart from listing the seven deadly sins, Prothero doesn’t say. Despite deep roots in the classical tradition (quite apart from Christianity), the concept of sin rings hollow in our modern ears. Indeed, it has fallen so far out of popular discourse that it now strikes most people as morose if not simply alien to our happy-go-lucky sensibilities. We like to think of ourselves as generally good and of our interests and inclinations as rightly ordered—for the most part.

It’s not that we don’t do wrong from time to time; it’s more that these instances never amount to a general indictment of our thoughts, feelings, or desires. Even when we do condemn particular patterns of behavior, we’re quick to locate their origins in socio-economic hardships or bad upbringings. As if bad character was simply a matter of a bad habit gone awry, we now hardly distinguish between medical conditions and moral failings. Our failings have become medicalized and deemed “unhealthy”—the scarlet letter of our time. Just consider the way we think about obesity, gambling, drinking, or drug addiction.

These prevailing attitudes present some serious problems for Christianity. If a person isn’t convicted of his sin, why would he desire salvation? How would a person come to embrace her need for God if she was unable to recognize her separation from Him, her inward brokenness, or her disorder from His order? How would the story of Christianity, Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for the sins of mankind, even make sense at the most fundamental level? The answers to these questions are antecedent to nearly all other questions about evangelism, conversion, and the character of our relationship with and to God.

All this set-up is both too brief (or crabbed) and too long for the following quotation, which prompted this post. What it offers, better than anything else I know of, is a clear-eyed view of the disordering power of sin. And it is perhaps all the more remarkable because it was written by someone who doesn’t profess faith in God or any religion.

David Foster Wallace is best remembered for is 1996 novel Infinite Jest. In the words of James Ryerson, he wrote, “big, brainy novels that were encyclopedically packed with information and animated by arcane ideas.” He was also haunted by deep depression. In 2008, at the age of 46, he ended up taking his own life. But three years before that tragic end, he shared his profound insight into human nature with the graduating class of Kenyon College. Here’s what he said:

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 an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. [Jesus Christ] or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible 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 own 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 plant you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is [this is obviously where I disagree] not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are 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 world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.

In 350 words, Wallace describes not just the problem of sin but its root in idolatry, how the violation of first and second commandment leads to violations of all the others. (Christian scholar G. K. Beale and Jewish scholars Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit are now rehabilitating this ancient theme and repackaging it for a modern-day audience.) It’s a great pity then that Wallace didn’t recognize that the problem he observed in human nature—the problem of our default settings—is perfectly answered by the Christian understanding of redemption and restoration.

Writing in the mid 17th century, philosopher Blaise Pascal put the problem this way, in the light of our universal pursuit of happiness:

All men are in search of happiness. There is no exception to this, whatever different methods are employed. They all aim for this goal. . . . However no one without faith, over so many years, has yet achieved that target which everyone constantly aims for. . . . What else does this greed and helplessness proclaim, except that there was once within us true happiness of which all that now remains is the outline and empty trace? Man tries unsuccessfully to fill this void with everything that surrounds him, seeking in absent things the help he cannot find in those that are present, but all are incapable of it. This infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite, immutable object, that is to say, God himself. (XI:181)

As Christians, we must see and restate the problem as clearly as they did so that others may also see and embrace the hope of our salvation, who is Christ the King.

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