Unchosen Temples

Unchosen Temples May 25, 2016

Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple? What to love enough not to think two times?”

These questions are posed in the broken English of Remy Maranthe, one of the Wheelchair Assassins who populate David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. After Canada is forced into the trans-national Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.!), secession movements arise in Quebec, the Assassins among them. Maranthe is a double-double agent who reports to Hugh Steeply, a cross-dressing agent for the Office of Unspecified Services. Their surreal conversations often turn philosophical, even theological.

“You are what you love,” Maranthe continues, and if you don’t love something bigger than yourself then your love “bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy.” We all have to choose our temple, become a “fanatic,” which, he reminds Steeply, “comes from the Latin for ‘temple’” and means “literally, ‘worshipper at the temple.’” Maranthe knows that we have to choose our fanaticism carefully, because the choice of temple is everyone’s fundamental choice, the choice that determines all else: “All other of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple.” He dismisses Steeply’s suggestion that you can “just love . . . without deciding.” That only makes a temple of the self and sentiment: “Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. . . . You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself” [107-108].

“You are what you love,” Maranthe says. He might have said, “You are what you worship.”

It’s not a question that comes naturally to political actors in modern liberal democracies. We pride ourselves on having founded a polity beyond temples, without sacred center. We have stripped the square so that each can erect the temple of his choosing. We have abandoned fanaticism, tolerating the temple next door so long as we are allowed to worship in peace.

Wallace invites us to pause for a moment in our self-congratulation. Perhaps we are not as temple-free as we like to think. Perhaps refusing fanaticism is not as healthy as we believe. Perhaps we need something that we “would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.”

Maranthe’s talk of temples and worship poses penetrating questions to modern political order, but in the end he remains safely liberal. He knows that we cannot avoid the sacred, that we all have temples. But he assumes that each will practice a cult of his own devising and honor a god of his own choosing. He assumes a voluntarist polity, in which the most fundamental realities are chosen.

Scripture hints at an even more penetrating, even more challenging, analysis of our political life. The most important of our temples may be the ones we take for granted.

Read further at Political Theology Today.

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