Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    glassy green background

    In Praise of Excess

    In All Things Are Too Small, Becca Rothfeld makes the case for a more infinite view of the world and rejects the smallness and minimalism of the current age.

    By Alan Koppschall

    June 4, 2024

    There’s something deeply human about the biblical story of King David offering to build a palace for God. Like David, we all desire to grasp the infinite, to build something so grand that it reflects some of what heaven must look like. But David’s suggestion is met with a half-rebuke from the Lord: “Would you build a house for me to dwell in?” Eventually, God agrees that David’s son Solomon can build the Temple. But the Lord’s point to David still stands: outside of heaven, all things are too small to hold the infinite power, love, and knowledge of the Lord.

    All Things Are Too Small, an essay collection by Washington Post book critic Becca Rothfeld, offers an impressive critique of the contemporary tendency toward smallness and reductionism. Increasingly, Western culture prizes utility and efficiency over beauty and magnificence. “We are inundated with exhortations to smallness: short sentences stitched into short books, professional declutterers who tell us to trash our possessions, meditation practices that promise to clear the mind of thought and other detritus.” This tendency often places value on things not for their aesthetic or moral qualities, but for their efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Of course, there can be beauty in smallness – the tiny flower or the intricate carving. But smallness, driven only by utility, leads to mediocrity, not beauty.

    Rothfeld’s writing is honest, beautiful, and at times quite funny. It spans a wide range of subjects from her favorite novels, essays, and murder mysteries to mental health and Simone Weil, but her plea for a more expansive view of the world, her desire for the infinite capacity of divine love, threads its way through it all. “Does heaven exist?” she asks. “I don’t know … [but] heaven is real in one important sense: what we demand from it reveals so much about … what we desire.” If the heaven we imagine is a place of love and self-sacrifice rather than greed and hatred, wouldn’t we try to live out those values now? Why wouldn’t we fight for beauty, truth, and goodness? After all, “there is nothing admirable in laboring to love a world as unlike heaven as possible.”

    Many of the mystics, medieval and modern, whom Rothfeld praises throughout her essays embraced poverty and fasted to the point of ­starvation in their desire to be closer to heaven and to Christ. This asceticism might seem at odds with Rothfeld’s defense of excess and magnificence, but she argues that their actions were driven not by a longing for smallness, but rather by a recognition that earthly goods were insufficient in satiating their desires. For some, the only food they ate was the Eucharist – only Christ himself could fill them.

    Rothfeld returns to and lingers on the vastness of love. “How long is the conversation of love?” she asks. “Nothing less than everlasting would be enough. Not all loves do endure, of course, but it is essential to love that we believe it will, that we want it to, because an orientation toward eternity is part and parcel of what it is to have faith in the inexhaustibility of another person.” This orientation toward eternity is vital. If our fellow humans are inexhaustible, how much more vast must God be? Like the mystics’, our desire for the infinite cannot be quenched by earthly, mortal things. All things are too small to quench this desire except for the Lord of heaven and the kingdom over which he reigns. As Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

    Contributed By AlanKoppschall Alan Koppschall

    Alan Koppschall is a managing editor and an event coordinator at Plough.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now