There is no such thing as atheism

Last week I posted a sermon by Mark Driscoll in which he discusses the meaning and universality of worship. We are worshipping beings, he said; whether “religious” or not, it is our natural impulse to vest ultimate meaning in some object, be it a person or a thing, orient ourselves around it, make sacrifices for it, and define our identity by it.

Harold Best, Dean Emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, wrote in Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts,

At this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone—an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ. Everyone is being shaped thereby and is growing up toward some measure of fullness, whether of righteousness or of evil. No one is exempt and no one can wish to be. We are, every one of us, unceasing worshipers and will remain so forever, for eternity is an infinite extrapolation of one of two conditions: a surrender to the sinfulness of sin unto infinite loss or the commitment of personal righteousness unto infinite gain. This is the central fact of our existence, and it drives every other fact. Within it lies the story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation or final loss. (pp. 17-18)

Christians are taught to be aware of the various forms of idolatry that exist in today’s postmodern culture and to point out that “everybody worships.” But when this truism comes from the lips of a popular, award-winning novelist who lacks a Christian bias, it rings all the more loudly.

On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and hit upon a lot of the same points as Driscoll and Best. He challenged Kenyon’s graduating class to consider what it is they give supreme value to in their lives, and then how that object of worship has treated them.  

The speech was so well received and oft quoted that it was published in book form by Little, Brown and Company in 2009, under the title This Is Water. Here is an excerpt:

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 Yahweh 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. . . . 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 center 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.

It’s refreshing to see someone outside the Christian camp recognizing and preaching this truth—that it’s not all about us, and that manmade gods will only disappoint, will leave us feeling empty. Unfortunately, Wallace’s musings do not lead him to the conclusion that Jesus is the only one worthy of our worship; selflessness and empathy, rather, are the main thrust of his speech.

While other-centeredness is an improvement over self-centeredness, it’s still missing the mark. When we put others, or the virtue of self-giving service, on the throne of our lives, that too can be just as draining and ultimately unfulfilling as living for riches or smarts or fame. We have to live for the One who created us and knows us and who suffered much for our sakes, who alone has the power to fill us up with what we need, who is limitless, tireless, who gives us a name and a purpose and an abundance of love and energy to be spent on others, who does combat with the evil in our hearts and in our world, who invites us and equips us to be collaborators with him in a global project of healing and renewal—who, in short, is the most glorious being in the universe: Jesus the Christ.

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