In his 2005 commencement address to the new graduates of Kenyon College, the American write David Foster Wallace offered the following deeply shocking words to those young progressives:
“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.”
What follow these remarks could well have been written by the early medieval philosopher Boethius, as Wallace briefly progresses through money, beauty, sex, power, and intelligence, showing the shortcomings of each as an object of worship, how choosing to devote all one’s attention, one’s “worship,” to these things ultimately leads to unhappiness.
This is an important point, this fundamental human choice in the focus of our attention. According to the philosopher Robert Spaemann, this is what we ultimately mean by saying that humans have a “free will.” As Spaemann writes in his book Persons:
“It is not as though persons have at their disposal a reserve of energy to be thrown into the scales against the deadweight of nature; but what they can do is direct their attention to an object, fill their thoughts and imagination with it, regardless of life’s necessities.” (Trans. Oliver O’Donovan)
This is, incidentally, why one should not watch trashy television and movies, listen to trashy music, or look at trashy pictures on the internet. You are not god. You do not have the boundless energy reserves necessary to resist the pull of such things. Given time, they will change you for the worse.
But let’s return to that Wallace quote for a moment. As good as it is, you will notice how diffident Wallace seems to be about just which of those traditional “deities” one chooses to worship. He offers no criterion for choosing one of them. But you would need to choose one, for they each have their own internal logic, and do not mesh well together, no matter how cool it looks when you combine all of their sacred symbols in order to form your favorite bumper sticker:
However, in the Church’s Office of Readings this morning (Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Easter), St. Augustine proposes a criterion for what one should choose to worship. Like Wallace, Augustine thinks that everyone “worships,” in the sense of love: “There is not one who does not love something.” Rather, as Augustine notes, “the question is, what to love?” The problem is made stronger by a phenomenon of love that Augustine notices: “But how can we choose unless we are first chosen? We cannot love unless someone has loved us first.”
We cannot love unless someone has loved us first. Augustine just asserts it, and it is up to you to take it or leave it. But you should accept it, as you will find plenty of evidence for this if you look around. Consider the development of children: loving them, treating them as persons, is exactly what enables them to begin loving other persons and things. A growing recognition of this has been driving more women to demand that their healthy babies in no danger of death be placed immediately on their breasts after birth, rather than carted off by strangers to be “cleaned up” and “tested.” We need love even when we aren’t clean. This same principle is also a fundamental insight of the psychological counseling approach known as “Affirmation Therapy” championed by Conrad Baars in America. But most parents know this intuitively. Even when we discipline our children, we are sure to let them know that we love them. Being loved unlocks the ability to love.
In that same reading, Augustine goes on to point out that accepting this principle means that one should choose Christ as the object of one’s worship–because unlike Allah or the Four Noble Truths or some inviolable set of moral principles, the central message of Christianity is the love of God for us. This has a subjective aspect, as well as an objective aspect. Subjectively, anyone who has been baptized has received a clear, external sign of God’s love and God’s desire that one be saved. That is what baptism means–God’s choice of an individual. It is perhaps even misleading to call it simply an external sign; the primary effect of baptism, as Augustine reminds us, is that we receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts. How could one possibly be more “chosen” than that?
But there is also an objective aspect to this. Most major religions emphasize love, because love is of vital importance to humans. But fewer religions than one might think teach that God is love, and that God loves you with a personal love. More importantly, in Christianity, this personal love is carried through to a level unmatched in any other religion. Christianity teaches that this love actually becomes incarnate in Jesus. This is no mere theoretical love. Augustine argues that such a love should be decisive for us. If one really wants to “worship,” to direct one’s attention to something in love, then the natural choice is to reach out to the one who has loved you.
I am grateful that Wallace had the courage to challenge the secularism of his audience, and I support religion in general. I tend to have far more in common with believers in non-Christian religions than I do with hardcore secularists (unless they have a philosophical bent). But it makes more sense to reach out in love to the one who is actively reaching out for you. And that is most true of the “spiritual-type thing” that is the person, Jesus Christ.