Idolatry and Suffering

“The incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy [the human] heart.” (Alexis de Toqueville)

For the past few months, I have been reflecting on Timothy Keller’s excellent book “Counterfeit Gods.” Keller’s primary thesis in this book is that all people need a god, for some, perhaps, a term too antiquated for what might be better described today as a central life concern or attachment. In Judeo-Christian tradition, when a god is anything other than God, it is called an idol. According to Keller, “an idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘if I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.'”

I long have been interested in the topic of central life goals. In fact, my dissertation research explored the possibility that individuals’ lives are governed by an “ultimate life goal,” which Keller would describe as a god or potentially an idol. Thus, I was intrigued when I read in Keller that:

“What many people call ‘psychological problems’ are simple issues of idolatry. Perfectionism, workaholism, chronic indecisiveness, the need to control the lives of others – all of these stem from making good things into idols that then drive us into the ground as we try to appease them. Idols dominate our lives.”

I long have thought something similar. In particular, it seems that when people are motivated to attain an unreasonable or uncontrollable life concern, at some point, their lives become filled with turmoil. Only when an individual is anchored by a reliable source does it seem they can find long-term wisdom and peace.

There are many possible gods in this world. In his writing, Keller emphasizes idols such as a craving for a perfect relationship, the desire for financial security, the pursuit of success, and the quest for power. Surely, I have yearned for all of these; however, when I reflect more, I know that these quests cannot fulfill long-term. I need something else.

Although (obviously) Keller’s words dominate his book, I think the most profound thoughts come in the quotations of C. S. Lewis about the meaning of longing. Lewis wrote eloquently about this throughout his life. In his most comprehensive passage, Lewis writes:

“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a  good wife, and the hotels and scenery may be been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”

Lewis later concludes:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” 

Keller suggests that it is not enough that idols be removed; he believes that they must be replaced if we are to ultimately attain peace. This is one of the reasons why I really appreciate Christianity and find that much of eastern religion and modern psychology is lacking. That is, it currently is in vogue to become aware of one’s attachments and to let them go in order to promote mental health and good relationships. The problem, however, is that we yearn for something to which to be ultimately attached. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be unattached at the deepest level. Christianity helps to explain the source of this yearning and provides a remedy for our existential quest. As Augustine said, “My soul is restless until it rests in Thee.”

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