Monday, September 20, 2010

My Reaction to JG & DFW

If you’ve been a John Green fan for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed his periodic invocation of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for Kenyon College from 2005. He recently tweeted it again. It’s been bugging me for quite some time & it’s taken me awhile to write up my thoughts on it.
I know that John Green is a Christian, & I know he doesn’t talk much about it publicly, & he lets the DFW speech speak for him on the matter. I guess my real issue is with DFW, who can no longer defend himself. I’ll admit I’m fascinated to know more about JG’s beliefs, but I totally respect his right to keep them to himself.
In case anyone reading this is unaware, I am a decided atheist. I realized I didn’t believe in God when I was 12 years old, but I absolutely didn’t have the guts not to go through with my confirmation. As awesome & wonderful as my Catholic high school education was, the religious instruction only deepened my agnosticism, which is what I called it until well into my twenties when I recognized it as what it was and is: atheism. There, I said it.
Anyway, I take issue with the DFW speech. The idea that worshipping a “higher power” will save you from the miseries of worshipping superficial things doesn’t ring true to me. One excellent (though lengthy; I cut it as much as I could) example is from (*fangirl alert*) James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in Chapter 4 when Stephen has confessed his sins and is trying to be as pure & devout as he can be.

His life seemed to have drawn near to eternity; every thought, word, and deed, every instance of consciousness could be made to revibrate radiantly in heaven; and at times his sense of such immediate repercussion was so lively that he seemed to feel his soul in devotion pressing like fingers the keyboard of a great cash register and to see the amount of his purchase start forth immediately in heaven, not as a number but as a frail column of incense or as a slender flower.
To merge his life in the common tide of other lives was harder for him than any fasting or prayer and it was his constant failure to do this to his own satisfaction which caused in his soul at last a sensation of spiritual dryness together with a growth of doubts and scruples.
When he had eluded the flood of temptation many times in this way he grew troubled and wondered whether the grace which he had refused to lose was not being filched from him little by little. The clear certitude of his own immunity grew dim and to it succeeded a vague fear that his soul had really fallen unawares. It was with difficulty that he won back his old consciousness of his state of grace by telling himself that he had prayed to God at every temptation and that the grace which he had prayed for must have been given to him inasmuch as God was obliged to give it.
Often when he had confessed his doubts and scruples--he was bidden by his confessor to name some sin of his past life before absolution was given him. He named it with humility and shame and repented of it once more. It humiliated and shamed him to think that he would never be freed from it wholly, however holily he might live or whatever virtues or perfections he might attain. A restless feeling of guilt would always be present with him: he would confess and repent and be absolved, confess and repent again and be absolved again, fruitlessly. Perhaps that first hasty confession wrung from him by the fear of hell had not been good? Perhaps, concerned only for his imminent doom, he had not had sincere sorrow for his sin? But the surest sign that his confession had been good and that he had had sincere sorrow for his sin was, he knew, the amendment of his life.
--I have amended my life, have I not? he asked himself.

Compare DFW:
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.

Doesn’t sound very different from Stephen’s experience worshipping God, does it?
The bottom line about the DFW speech is that it smacks of Pascal’s wager to me. “You have nothing to lose by believing in God, & everything to lose if you don’t believe & God’s real, so take the mercenary approach.” CHOOSING to believe is not the same thing as BELIEVING and KNOWING IN YOUR HEART. I’m not a DFW fan (I have Infinite Jest but haven’t tackled it yet), but I am a John Green fan, & while it doesn’t bother me that he believes in God, it does bother me that someone so intelligent & dedicated to truth & awesomeness would champion an idea that sounds so phony to me. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted something.
Always a possibility.

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