C.S. Lewis used the phrase “the sweet poison of the false infinite” to describe how we allow substitute sacred, or false infinites, to fill the vacuum of our disenchanted world. Virtually anything can become a “false infinite” for us.
When I was a high school student ... a keg of beer became a false infinite. In what can only be described as a deplorable lack of imagination, many of my classmates worshipped around a keg almost every weekend. And what did the Keg-God provide to his devotees … DUIs, teen pregnancy, and poor grades. I wasn’t a perfect teenager myself, but I think someone should have sued the “keg” for false advertising. It didn’t provide what everyone was looking for.
Why do we substitute lesser gods for God? It seems like a dumb thing to do. The reason I know that ... is because I have done it. I didn’t worship the Keg-God, but I have worshipped the reflection that I see in the mirror. Dostoyevsky wrote in his novel “The Possessed”: “The one essential condition of human existence is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. If men are deprived of the infinitely great they will not go on living and die of despair. The Infinite and the Eternal are as essential for man as the little planet on which he dwells.”
Simone Weil adds, “One has only the choice between God and idolatry. There is no other possibility.”
One wonders what happened to “enjoying the presence of God?” In the Old Testament, God complained that “my people ... have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water”(Jeremiah 2:13). And there you have it ... the false infinites we create “cannot hold water.” They do hold temporary attraction and amusement ... but in the end, do not deliver what is either explicitly or implicitly promised. We do not find that “new life” that we are looking for. And when that awareness dawns on unsuspecting prey, it only deepens the ache of emptiness and despair. My classmates who worshipped the Keg-God found joy that lasted for a weekend, and in many cases — found pain that lasted a lifetime.
We can decide what is worse, I guess. Is it worse to worship God and experience the pain of self-denial, and to make the hard journey toward faith, hope, and love, and to live with tough questions that may not be answered on this side of the grave? Or is it worse to offer our souls to false gods — that may provide temporary contentment and easy answers — but cannot offer us “new life.”
Jesus offers everyone who is interested ... new and abundant life. Thankfully, Jesus has the ability to back-up his claims. Instead of emptiness ... Jesus offers us fullness ... and a reason to keep living, loving and trying.
I regret that those who love God ... have sometimes presented God in such a lackluster, judgmental, and small way-that people have felt compelled to look for sacred substitutes. May God and all those who seek God ... forgive us for that.
The Rev. David Brian Smith is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Winfield.