Sunday, March 8, 2009

On Sin and Coca-Cola: An Augustinian Reflection on Desire

I live in Atlanta, Georgia, which, if you don't know, is the Coca-Cola capitol of the world. The headquarters are located here, and there is a public museum to visit for tourists. As ground zero for all things Coke-related, Atlanta, to my knowledge, simply does not have restaurants that serve Pepsi. If they have non-Coke products, those products are not in competition with Coke drinks. It's just that simple: if you live in Atlanta, you drink Coke.

Driving home from running some errands on Saturday, I was drinking a large Coke and had a thought. I recently read William Cavanaugh's wonderful little book Being Consumed, in which he uses Augustine a good deal to discuss the dynamics of economic life, including what it means to have a telos of human life, proper desire, and true freedom. For whatever reason, taking my first big sip of my Coke made me think of Cavanaugh's discussion of Augustine. (Note: When drinking Coke makes you think of a theologian, or especially of one theologian's discussion of another theologian, you now have empirical proof that you are, in fact, a theological nerd.)

I don't keep Cokes in our apartment -- for the obvious reason that I would drink them too much -- so it's a bit of a treat to get one when out. (I sound like a 5-year old.) Thus I have a kind of ritualized expectation-event when I'm finally ready to take my first swig: for a moment, all else stops; eyes close -- a huge sip -- full satisfaction. And it is good. No doubt literally millions of others know this feeling. It may not be Coke, or even (me genoito!) a Coke product, but everybody knows this experience.

We also know people, or have been one ourselves, who have lost the ability to be satisfied by anything other than their Coke fix. That wonderful feeling of satisfaction that comes from the fruition of desire fulfilled in that first, glorious sip leads into an increased inability to find anything similar in any other kind of liquid refreshment, including water. It can remain in this place, such that the person still drinks water (or what have you), but it can also become much worse, such that quite literally Coke becomes the only nourishment possible for a parched mouth. If it's not Coke, it won't cut it.

I found in this well-known situation a parable for our relationship to God and our desire and satisfaction in things other than God. Augustine finds even in the basest of sins a proper desire improperly exercised. Put positively, if we properly desire music for what music was created by God to be for us, then we are properly enjoying music, precisely because we are not giving to music either what is meant for God or what is not meant for music. Because, according to Augustine, our ultimate desire in all things ought to be -- and actually is -- God. In his famous phrase, "you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until its rest in you." So to sin is to desire a created thing as if it is not created, to desire it and to give to it of ourselves in ways that ought to be directed toward God. Hence sin's self-destructiveness, because we will not actually find in our improperly exercised desire the fulfillment or satisfaction we thought we would, because only in God is our desire fully satisfied and eternally enlivened, enlarged, expanded -- as God continues to meet and satisfy those greater desires in him. C.S. Lewis's famous illustration in his Chronicles of Narnia is a superb example: one of the children returns to Narnia, and upon seeing Aslan is frightened to see how much bigger he is. But Aslan assures her that it is not he that has grown, but she. Always we desire God; always we find our rest in God.

And so, in the example of Coca-Cola, there are two potential pitfalls. The first is the more obvious, and in some sense the greater: to lose all ability to find nourishment in any drink other than Coke. Like Augustine's description of sin, the desire still knows what it needs: the water found in Coke. But the person doesn't know. She simply wants the drink, and she can have no other. This is self-destructive for two reasons. First, Coke is simply not as healthy as water; it is a dessert drink, the cherry on top, to be enjoyed sparingly. Coke every day is unhealthy and, in the long run, bad for the body. Second, and more disastrous, it is living a lie. Coke is not water, yet functionally, it has supplanted water as that which nourishes and gives life to the body. Yet that is not what it was created to be. And so the sin becomes more than a bad habit; it is a form of living in an alternate world, one which is not reality. It is false.

The second pitfall, seemingly lesser yet subtler and more tragic, is to be able, still, to drink and even to enjoy water, yet the satisfaction, the joy, of drinking, that moment of Yes! remains only for Coke. That is, water is still in the picture, but only as the necessary biological reality, an awareness of "being healthy and all that." Coke -- that powerful, potent, primal taste of the first sip -- remains the thing, continues to stand as that toward which one's drinking aims, the ultimate telos. Water for the head, Coke for the heart.

We do this with God. It is easy to identify someone in the first situation, having utterly forgotten God as God, and only indirectly, unknowingly finding God in (and making a god of) the earthly pleasures of life, whether created to be good or not: family, sex, vanity, school, work, children, violence, entertainment, friends, whatever. We see them lost in their non-God idols and we pronounce them out of the picture, out of the loop. Simple.

It is quite a bit harder to find in ourselves the inability to be truly satisfied in and by God. We give a few hours in the week to church activities; maybe we give time to Scripture or prayer daily; maybe we even have regular practices, individual and communal, that place us before God and God's people to receive and be with God. Still: what really satisfies us? A book. A friend. A movie. A nap. A trip. A raise. A break. A Coke.

To be sure, I don't have this down better than anyone else. It is an inexhaustible mystery that we might find our true and ultimate desires met and fulfilled and satisfied in and by the invisible God of the universe, seemingly intangible, seemingly silent, seemingly far off. I know not that of which I speak.

But I do know it is the truth. Or, as I should say, I believe it to be the truth. All lower desires, all lower pleasures, however much we might enjoy their proper ends, are just that -- lower, not God. Everything ends; everything dies. But God does not end, and death could not hold him. When God dies, he lives. That is the kind of God I want to know, the kind of God I want to desire, to love, to be filled by.

May God give us the grace to know Coca-Cola when we see it.

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