You can’t always get what you want

I have to say I’ve been rather impressed with our shiny new Con-Dem Nation. It seems to be an example of grown-up politics, of rolling up sleeves and hammering out an agreement with which neither side is totally happy but with which (hopefully) both sides can live for the next five years. In other words, it seems that both sides have got their priorities in proper proportion – which brings me to what I want to say this week.

Last time out I talked about Phineas Gage, the man with the hole in his head who lost all capacity for judgement, and I promised to say a little bit more about how this fits in to a Christian world view. Everyone has a hierarchy of values, it’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others. As Mr Zimmerman once sang “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

Where people articulate and express their values then we can talk about what they worship, which is simply how we orient ourselves to what we see as most valuable. For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, we also believe that if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place – in other words, everything is given a proper place, neither overvalued nor undervalued.

So how do theologians describe the ways in which, from a Christian point of view, values can be distorted? Where the value system is severely distorted then theologians use the word idolatry to describe it. This is when one thing within the world becomes the most important thing in a person’s world and everything else has to shift around it. It might be an absolutely dedicated football fan who has to go to every match that their team plays. It might be getting obsessive about a television serial and insist on watching every episode no matter what else is happening. (Once you have grasped what this is you can see it in all sorts of surprising places).

Idolatry can be understood in parallel with addiction – eg a drug addict – where the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. They gear their life around getting the money to get their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is (it doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be a mental addiction as well). An important truth about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, does give a tremendous high – it gives what it promises – but it takes away life in exchange. That is what an idol is. Mammon, for example, the god of money or wealth (an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society) – if you worship mammon, if you structure your life around mammon, you will gain wealth. That is a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy. The kick is that you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away. For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?

For most people, however, it’s not as clear as this and in practice you have polytheism, many gods. It might be – “my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them”. This is where most people actually live, navigating between different competing interests, muddling along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully, to be fully human. Another option is simply chaos. This is the position that Phineas Gage ended up in. He was driven by the momentary impulse; rather like the dogs in ‘Up’ whenever a squirrel is mentioned, the dogs just forgot what they’re doing and concentrate on the squirrel.

So at the core of a religious tradition like Christianity lies a commitment to valuing the world properly. This is why there is such an insistence upon truth, for it is the truth that makes us free. Learning a faith is all about getting things in proper proportion, learning to see the world as it truly is – as God has intended and created it. A different way of putting this is to say: only the holy can see truly, it is only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone then our vision of the world is more or less distorted. As Jesus put it: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Next time – a bit more on idolatry, and how understanding it illuminates our cultural predicament.

5 thoughts on “You can’t always get what you want

  1. Great post – thanks! I think the category of idolatry can do a lot of work (as you’re showing here) in contemporary analyses of society.

    PS Some idols are more fickle than others. Some will usually give what is promised (while draining life), but others will not always even give that (as many drug addicts attest, the high declines over time).

  2. Thanks for your post, this is a really important subject. I agree with what you’re saying but breaking free can be a long journey. As someone who has known for a long time that they get addicted to ‘harmless’ things, and has been trying to find freedom, as well as life in all its fullness, I feel moved to share a few thoughts, from my experience and perspective!

    Addiction can be somewhere you go because you feel empty and your heart is not warmed by the love of God even though you believe and want to live by the bible; something you got into the habit of doing to try to cope before you knew Christ.
    It has a lot to do with lacking, perhaps not knowing how to have, deeply satisfying, nurturing relationships, or feeling people (and God) are deeply unsafe; hence using objects to try to satisfy or turning people into objects.
    The lines between addiction and healthy passion for life can blur.
    It involves a lot of shame and guilt, loneliness and isolation, which keeps you in its clutches. It’s helpful to be able to talk openly about it to someone, but often shame stops you, or the person doesn’t realise how bad you feel. Much easier to stay in hiding and reach for another cake…

    How we love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, while we encourage each other towards greater holiness, is so significant.

    Sam, I look forward to your next post.


  3. i assume you would agree religious practice can be a form of idolatry a well then sam.


  4. I am not sure that the worship of money results in the gain of wealth. There are many who for the love of money gamble their lives away and yet live and die in poverty.
    There are others who through hard work and shrewd accumen gain great wealth. Is that wrong? It seems to me that it is not wealth or the lack of it that is the sign of idolatory but how you gain it and what you do with it that reveals who is the master.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. bbb, yes, I would definitely agree that religious practice can become a form of idolatry (indeed, in OT times, that’s exactly what it was). lifeofsigns – wealth as such isn’t wrong, it’s the overemphasis on wealth which leads to other goods being undervalued that is wrong. An idol is something intrinsically good which is made more important than it deserves to be.

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