Today, September 12, 2018, marks the tenth anniversary of writer David Foster Wallace’s tragic suicide. It is arguable that Wallace was this generation’s most unique and extraordinary writer. He was also a troubled individual, as I’m currently reading in an autobiography on this fellow central Illinoisan’s life (he grew up less than two hours from where I did).
The anniversary of his death provides an opportunity to talk about something related to Wallace that I have wanted to write about for a long time—namely, religious liberty and the pursuit of truth. Admittedly, these are ideas are perhaps not immediately linked to Wallace in his own words, but in at least an embryonic form, his comments on at least one occasion provide a launching pad for further discussion on these topics.
My thinking on these topics comes from his now-famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College titled “This is Water” (as a warning, Wallace uses some foul language during his address).
For a long time, I had heard how this commencement address had gained cult-like status in popular culture. But I had never listened to it. When I finally did a couple of years ago, I was awestruck at what I heard and became a Wallace fan. Wallace was many things, and an evangelical Christian he was most likely, very certainly, not. Still, as I listened to “This is Water,” I was, admittedly, in tears at what I was hearing, and later read (a full PDF of the address is available here). By his own admission, Wallace was a man of “faith” even if he did not come to the conclusion about “the faith” (Jude 3). Still, a sincerity punctuated his comments that drew me in, and in them, I heard a man wrestling with the surrealism of his existence.
In the address, Wallace says that liberal education is designed to help individuals pursue the examined life. As he writes,
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
But further on, Wallace appeals to the purpose of education to go even deeper, to the purpose of life altogether—and that’s to live critically, to possess awareness, agency, and the concomitant freedom in how one lives their life:
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars— compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s 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 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. 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 own 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 plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are 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 world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the 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 to be lords of our own 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 talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
What Wallaces argues above, I’ve described as the pursuit of human longing for authenticity, adoration, and authority. Our human nature craves each of these, regardless of whether one calls himself or herself a Christian. As Wallace says so poignantly that it could have issued from a biblical prophet, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” How true.
Why does any of this matter to religious liberty and the pursuit of truth? Because, as Wallace drives at, we humans are truth-seeking creatures. I argue that these three “A words”—authenticity, adoration, and authority—are the sum and substance of why religious liberty matters to us as Christians. It’s why we extend religious liberty to everyone, because everyone is operating on these assumptions, even if incorrectly. In a secular age, we allow falsehood a space to be wrong in hopes that individuals will “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
What Wallace describes Christians can likewise affirm: A sense of agency and humility, a recognition that life’s journey can revert to the opposite of both. Religious liberty requires both. We humans are often wrong about the things we perceive, and that’s because we’re not infallible. No human is a perfect arbiter of truth. This means we can’t impose truth on others; truth must be discovered after thorough, rigorous examination. And this means we need to leave room for people to go after this search for truth, to realize the possibility, as finite beings, that each of us is incapable of possessing absolute truth inerrantly. We Christians have faith, we have confirmation of the Spirit’s work inside us, but these realities mean we’re still imperfect creatures who “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). This, in so few words, is why religious liberty is so important. Religious liberty, and liberty itself, exists to allow people to align themselves with truth, even if we as Christians might believe someone is aligning themselves incorrectly. Again, in Wallace’s own words: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
It is so fascinating to me how someone seemingly far from God, a postmodern prophet like David Wallace, could articulate truths so central to Christianity so beautifully and powerfully. Evangelical Christians would certainly disagree with a lot of what Wallace believed, but for Wallace’s “This is Water,” I’m thankful for a sliver of common grace that shows up teaching Christians a little bit about how we as humans were made to worship—to exist with purpose and awareness—and why freedom is essential to give breath to what we believe is true.