Pinnacle Presbyterian Church

Echoes Blog

Ultimacy (now there's a word)

I'm always grateful to my friend Bill Smith who sends a daily quote to his circle of followers, always timey and often personal. Recently, he quoted up a 2005 Kenyon College Commencement speech by the late novelist David Foster Wallace that has "gone viral" this graduation season. It's gone viral in part because an LA production company pushed it out. Manuscripts and a video are still being passed around.

I've excerpted it even more, for a little taste of something I want to comment on this week: 

…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....

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.

...The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. 

That is real freedom...

If you have a second, read it again. Then indulge me to add a thought.

Wallace faced his own set of struggles in life, yearnings for freedom that took their toll, but in this address he touches on a deep and lasting truth. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said that believing in the Infinite, in God, is not simply believing in something bigger than what we believe in for day to day freedom in an ordinary world. Believing in God transforms belief itself. It's a different kind of belief, not just a different object of belief. It's different because it's not a harnessing or a comprehension of the Infinite. It's a letting go into the Infinite, an acceptance of relationship, a moving into mystery, and an inarticulate realizing that belief in God will lead to more unknowing than knowing as it grows from understanding to understanding. It is also a receiving of a way of living that issues from this kind of believing—a way of love, moving self from the center and letting the presence and needs of others become a part of our being. 

This kind of believing becomes a kind of trusting, which in turn becomes life- and freedom-giving, not life- or freedom-controlling. It sometimes begins in a switching of the objects of our trust­, from penultimate to ultimate things. But it can't be left there. For it eventually does change how, not just what, we trust.

So Wallace was right, I think. But in light of what I've added here, I also think he advocated an impossibility. For I can't in the end make myself believe in an ultimate way. I can only turn my face in that direction, confess the less than ultimate things in which I put my daily trust, and ask that the Ultimate—who I can't help but call God—might reveal itself (Godself) in ways known to it (God) and so also give me ability, will, sensation, inclination, courage, confidence, grace—ah, grace—to trust it (God). And ask it (God) to provide the grace and the community in which it (God) might be trusted in God-congruent ways—to believe in God in a God-offered, God-given, God-appropriate way...

The Foster speech (with thanks to William Smith):