“…there is actually no such thing as atheism… Everybody worships…”

David Foster WallaceI’ve been trying to read through Infinite Jest, David’s Foster Wallace’s influential novel.  (I say trying because it’s nearly 1000 pages and, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll make it through.)  The insights he had though, before his tragic suicide, were very important for understanding ourselves and our faith or lack thereof.

Wallace was not a person of faith.  But he many helpful things to say about the nature of faith.  Maybe most importantly, is that he contends that is no such thing as “no faith”.  This may be surprising because we’re hearing about “nones” all the time, those who claim to have no faith or religious beliefs.  We may meet people who say they don’t believe in God or say they are atheist.

But is there really such a thing?  Wallace pushes back on supposed lack of belief.  In an influential commencement address he challenged the grads to look at what they truly worship in their lives.  Far from being godless, we all have ‘gods’ – those things that we choose to place our hope in and worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: 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.  

(spoken at Kenyon College commencement, 2006 – whole thing here)

So everyone worships.  Everyone casts their trust, hope, desire onto something.  The only question is what it is.  In our secular age, some of us may think we’re free but that’s where Wallace’s warning is so important.  If we have no faith (supposedly), what we worship will be undetected by us and we won’t even realize.

I don’t know the state of Wallace’s faith or understanding of God.  The challenge he offers, though, is important for those who have faith or claim no faith.  In a certain sense, we’ve all got faith.  IT’s just a matter of what (or who) we have it in.  We’ll slip into worship of money, power, success, intellect, sex – and we’ll always risk being destroyed by them.  There is an alternative.  To worship some thing that does not destroy but will give us new life.  A True God.

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