False infinities


Pope Benedict XVI in August 2012 reflected on the human instinct to want to live forever, to become infinite in some sense, to escape the limits of our creatureliness and our embodied and finite existence:

“Psalm 63 helps us to enter into the heart of [the matter]: ‘O God, my God, for you I long at break of day; my soul thirsts for you, my body pines for you, like a dry land without water.’ Not only my soul, but even every fiber of my flesh is made to find … its fulfillment in God. And this tension cannot be erased from man’s heart: even when he rejects or denies God, the thirst for the Infinite that abides in man does not disappear. Instead, he begins a desperate and sterile search for ‘false infinities’ that can satisfy him at least for the moment.”

A few years ago I was sitting out on Market Street in Old City, Philadelphia with a friend of mine, and we were talking about sin. How can we talk about sin to someone who doesn’t accept it as making any sense, as referring to any real or concrete thing?

I attempt that by describing sin as those moments where I’m essentially being dishonest with myself, moments when I choose not to live in a way that’s consistent with the story of “Who Tom is” that was meant to be told. In those moments we rob the world of something that was meant to be, to borrow and differently apply an idea from Michael Novak. It’s in sin that, to some degree, I try vainly to be infinite. That is, a moment of sin is a moment where I’m lying to myself in saying, “I can do all of the things that I desire to do, from moment to moment, and can be every ‘version’ of myself that I want to exist, forever, and that’s a reasonable way to live.” In this, I’m trying to live out an infinite number of versions of my own life. I’m trying to live out an infinite number of “Toms”—one Tom that lives this way, one Tom that lives that way, one Tom that says this, one Tom that does that, etc.

The recognition of sin as a reality, and the sense to call ourselves hypocrites, both stem from the reality that even while Christians believe we were made for an experience of the infinite in God as the creator and essence of all things, we ourselves are not infinite, and only a hypocrite could try to live out what Benedict XVI calls “false infinities” without at least the consequence of being a bastard, if not ultimately facing to metaphysical account.