It occurred to me the other day that I had been thinking of the problems of postmodernity wrongly. I sometimes tell myself that people have successfully replaced God with idols — that they have found something else, and they are content to have it (false though it may be) instead of life with God. Successfully is the key word there. I am quick to compile a list, usually rooted in consumer goods and experiences: the mall, the NFL, etc. But does anyone think that any of these things are ends in themselves? I think not. They are idols, to be sure, but I have almost never had a conversation with someone who, when the topic is raised, would disagree. The postmodern mood concedes that there is no replacement for God; but the inertia of desirable things is simply too strong to overcome. Just go with it. Or don’t. Whatever. Real atheism (i.e. replacing God with “not God”) is exceedingly rare. Total commitment to any particular ideology vying with Christianity is nowadays perhaps even rarer.
I began thinking about this after reading a passage from C. S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress (a new annotated edition I am reviewing in full in a forthcoming issue of The Living Church). The allegorical figure of History explains to the protagonist, John, various ways in which the Enemy has tried to throw seekers off the path of Truth down through the centuries. Some ages are ripe for idolatry, and some are not. God can work with it either way. Ancient Pagans simply chose to stick with the fictitious elements of their mythology rather than follow the trail of divinity straight to the Gospel. Medieval courtly lovers erred in mistaking a noble lady as an object of worship instead of seeing her many flaws and humanity’s common need for a Savior. The Enlightenment idolized human reason, whose free reign led to inhumane atrocities. But our time, building on Lewis’s own, may be different. We don’t worship anything, and so we worship everything … but not for very long. The character History describes a Romantic-era landscape picture. Looking at such a picture inspires desire for a land other than our own until we realize the land could be had. If it exists, we can go there and run around in it. It may or may not live up to our expectations. We may even decide to move there; but one way or the other, our heart will not rest there. Of course, if it doesn’t exist, there’s no point in desiring it in the first place. We quickly move along. History notes:
Even the stupidest tenant could see that you had the landscape, in the only sense in which it could be had, already: and still you wanted: therefore the landscape was not what you wanted. Idolatry became impossible. (Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 160)
Now, idolatry may be alive and well, but perhaps it presents itself in a way that could be advantageous to the Church of the twenty-first century. Technology has flattened out access to almost everything. For the most part, we can have whatever we imagine we want (short of holy but potentially idolatrous ideals like justice or peace). And yet we still want. We know we never arrive anywhere, and yet we keep striving. We are content to concede that all worldviews are imperfect at best or utterly perverted at worst, and yet we keep marching forward (most of us, ultimately, as a college of one or two). No idol hangs around long enough to inspire any true affection, loyalty, or worship. We’re strung out on wanting, and it is all the more soul-destroying because we know it. Our restless hearts may actually make us very bad idolaters.
Perhaps it is time for us Christians to stop imagining that anyone really desires anything more than God. We know they don’t. We all want the real thing, just as the spiritual autobiographies of Augustine in antiquity and Lewis in modernity attest. Alexander Solzhenitsyn concluded in his famous Harvard speech in 1978:
If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era. This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but upward.
We’ve exhausted every supposedly loveable thing, and we just don’t know what else to do. Now we must ascend or crash and burn. Let us tell the world about this God that they want – the God in whom they may rise up to find their perfection in body and soul, and their rest from the quest.
Andrew Petiprin’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is Nicolas Poussin’s “The Adoration of the Golden Calf” (1633). It is in the public domain.