In his commencement address to Kenyon College, the writer David Foster Wallace 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. 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.”
Although Wallace never claimed to be a follower of Christianity, his statement was an endorsement of biblical pronouncements, namely that to the extent an object governs a worshipper’s comportment, something of the object’s character is imposed upon him. In The City of God, Saint Augustine of Hippo declared the primacy of worship as central to the human condition, avowing that to be human was to seek an object of worship, the apex of which was the living God. Arguably, much of the power of Augustine’s Confessions is a result of his narrative rendering of this truth. In the account of Augustine’s life — an account of universal longing — many find not only his story but also their own, the fulfillment of which Augustine expressed in the famous passage, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”.
While Augustine’s search culminated in a devotion to God, his course was not without its prerequisite foibles. Such is the human tendency, he claimed — dalliances with idols, and as any reader of Confessions knows, Augustine struggled to detach himself from many such obsessions, including sex addiction. Although he repeatedly affirmed the meaninglessness of such pursuits, most people empathize with such misappropriations: the predilection to lapse into arbitrary worship is a focal point of the human story.
Sex and a culture of worship, now and then
In the eleventh chapter of How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaeffer begins the denouement of his seminal work with an analysis of the middle to late twentieth century. While navigating everything from Marxism to the accumulating escapism of the sixties, the impetus of the chapter, entitled Our Society, is found in Schaeffer’s depiction of diverging sexual mores. Referencing Alfred Charles Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male and Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, Schaeffer opines that through the use of statistical data, Kinsey had perpetuated the idea that acceptable sexual conduct was simply a matter of moral relativism. Of Kinsey’s books, Schaeffer writes, “their real impact was the underlying conception that sexual right and wrong depend only on what most people are doing sexually at a given moment in history. This has become the generally accepted sexual standard in the years since.”
Writing in the 1970’s, Schaeffer had witnessed the advent of an ideological dissolution — the weakening of a Christian-dominated consensus and the birth of sexual revolution. Sexual orientation, gender identity, the transgender movement, birth control, the legalization of abortion, and the mass commercial availability of pornography had emerged as national preoccupations. In our time, these have all but reached their prime by way of broad judicial or social normalization, and no less significant have been the recent redefining of marriage nor the latest state legislation jettisoning judicial strictures on late-term abortion. In view of such changes, one cannot help but assess the underlying constituents of our cultural transformation: ostensibly, each of the aforementioned movements marches under the banner of personal liberty. They operate via the doctrines of subjectivism, moral relativism, and voluntarism, and their authority aims to be universal and totalitarian even if necessarily eschewing reality.
The beautiful may yet speak to anyone, but…to claim objective truth is prejudiced; likewise, to claim objective good is intolerant.
On the face of it, modernity’s embrace of these movements, such as in supplanting biological markers with arbitrary gender constructs, pronouns, and policies, is certainly evidence of society’s inclination away from a so-called “heteronormativity”; ultimately, it stands athwart the idea of objective and immutable morality. Take the ancient triad of transcendentals — the true, the good, and the beautiful. The beautiful may yet speak to anyone, but in the eyes of secular culture, to claim objective truth is prejudiced; likewise, to claim objective good is intolerant. Nonetheless, modernity’s doctrines are the mechanisms through which the aforementioned preoccupations continue to surface, and it is in their milieu that one comes to understand the nucleus of our cultural transformation: worship.
As Schaeffer affirmed, the sixties birthed not only sexual revolution, drug culture escapism, and a growing acquiescence to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideologies, but also the coming-of-age of postmodernism. In the decades prior, culture had begun to feed on a diet of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Sartre, a course set possibly seven-hundred years before on the stem of renaissance humanism — mankind’s proclamation of autonomy and the accompanying readiness to bend morality to its will. The religion of Christianity, at least in its aberrant forms, proved culpable as well, specifically in the form of denominationalism in the grasp of twentieth century liberal theologians. The ensuing detachment of liberal theology from scripture set a precedence for revolution by allowing society to move its foundation for sexual morality away from a biblical foundation. In the chapters prior to Our Society, Schaeffer states, “But for many modern theologians…Because they do not accept that God in the bible and in the revelation in Christ has given man truth which may be expressed in propositions, for them all content about God is dead and all assurance of a personal God is dead…the words [of the bible] become a banner for men to grab and run with in any arbitrary direction…”
The abortion phenomenon
“Law has become a matter of averages, just as the culture’s sexual mores have become only a matter of averages.”
Much like gender identity and the transgender movement, abortion remains entwined with modern culture’s subjectivism. In the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, Justice Anthony Kennedy penned the infamous words, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. In How Should We Then Live, referring to the arbitrary absolutes by law that lead to abortion’s legalization, Schaeffer states, “Law has become a matter of averages, just as the culture’s sexual mores have become only a matter of averages.”
To circumscribe the political clamor encompassing abortion, one must examine his or her personal viewpoint on sex; to do so is to address the heart of the matter. While purveyed as a matter of personal freedom, the pro-choice contention bears a rationale opposite that of gender ascendency; whereas the latter relies on the veneration of gender, the constitutive antecedent to abortion is the de-sacralization of sex. In other words, while the biblical mandate upholds sex as sacred (subsequently curtailing the consequences of its unconditional use), modern secularism characterizes sex as transactional and unrestricted. From this, it follows that unplanned, unwanted pregnancy becomes a logical corollary of removing the sex act from a sacramental framework; this is a reality of sex as yet another western consumer commodity.
Worship: anything goes?
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Throughout his open forums, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias describes the Christian faith in terms of a logical progression — from redemption to righteousness, to worship. As Zacharias explains, the Christian life begins with redemption through Jesus Christ; genuine redemption naturally seeks congress with virtue, a life given to righteousness, and bringing with it the realization of God’s mercy. In Confessions, Augustine says, “Can anything restore me to hope except your mercy? That you are merciful I know, for you have begun to change me. You know how great a change you have worked in me, for first of all you have cured me of the desire to assert my claim to liberty, so that you may also pardon me all my other sins…” With this realization follows the true nature of humanity, and such is the Augustinian point: we are worshippers, and our worship, in spirit and in truth, must ultimately be aligned with the only transcendent fulfillment— God. It follows that one may never have properly-aligned worship without first imbibing the process of sanctification that results in Godly righteousness. Likewise, one cannot ever be righteous without first being redeemed, the act of which is preceded at the outset by grace.
Although modern secularism repudiates the existence of God, secular culture itself purveys a kind of simulacrum of Zacharias’ faith progression: by way of unmitigated autonomy, secularism begins with a form of redemption-via-solipsistic emancipation. In lieu of objective morality, the individual acts according to his or her own and society’s arbitrary code of ethics. With no objective boundaries nor acknowledgment of transcendent accountability, humanity then frees itself to enthrone anything. Consequently, modern western culture’s objects of worship span a laundry list of tropes: youth, pleasure, college and graduate education, income, occupation, intelligence, beauty... all good things, but none of them meant to be the ultimate thing. In regards to the vacuum that results from spurning the Christian truth, G.K. Chesterton said, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they then become capable of believing in anything.” Accordingly, when humanity chooses not to worship God, it will not then worship nothing; it will worship anything.
Anything else you worship will eat you alive
In the conclusion of Psalm 81, we read of God’s departure from Israel following the nation’s continual rebellion. The King James version reads, “But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust; and they walked in their own counsels.” On closer examination, this statement of consequences seems a concise and chilling portent of our own time. It is worth noting how the psalm begins: after a sevenfold command to worship God only, the psalmist makes clear the reasons for doing so, among them that it is God’s law, that God answered them when they called, and that he delivered them in times of trouble. These reasons culminate with verses nine and ten in which God himself states that there shall be no strange god in Israel and neither shall its people worship any other god but Him. The latter half of verse ten concludes with, open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it. Such was God’s appeal to the nation, that He alone would suffice as their source of every fulfillment.
G.K. Chesterton, famously, loved Christianity’s wealth of paradoxes, and to him, central to them all was this New Testament claim: while salvation in Jesus Christ is the catalyst for dismantling all claims to liberty, it is also, paradoxically, humanity’s only source of true liberation. The reality is that only Christianity validates the discord that exists in our world — and in ourselves, in the chasms that exist between who we are and who we feel we should be — but it does so in light of God’s wish for our redemption. This is the splendor of the gospel message, that before we come to Christ and proceed in the process of His sanctification, none of us are as we should be, and none of us worship what we should. Augustine said, “God is closer to me than me itself,” indicating that it is only the Living God who knows us better than we know ourselves, beckoning us in all our depredations back to him, to freedom from all other objects of worship. Ultimately, this is the human story, the narrative of the restless heart whose only rest is God.