Last week, as I closed the gate behind me and obscured my dog’s despondent face, I said “I’ll be back later. I love you.”
Why is it so easy to express love for a dog, and so difficult to express love for the most important people in my life? Why is it easier to express affection for an irrational creature that cannot grasp or return my affection, than for a rational and volitional creature that can?
And then I realised – it is easier because the dog cannot grasp or return my affection.
Application to preaching about idolatry after the cut.
I find it personally easy and even liberating and comforting to express complex and fully human emotions to my dog. He doesn’t understand those emotions or return them using a similar nature. This means…
…he cannot judge me. He is unable to critique me using any resources, and he cannot establish any boundaries to our relationship (I can tell him anything and he won’t say it’s too much information).
…he cannot control me. Despite what dog owners like to say, dogs cannot manipulate humans unless humans allow themselves to be manipulated. I am the superior and active agent within my relationship with my dog and that will never change.
…my affection for him is gratuitous. By this I mean that it is more than his nature calls from me. The more complex and involved I pretend my relationship with him is, the more that relationship is based upon my human freedom rather than my involvement within a wider universe. I am prioritising my terms and desires for the relationship over his canine nature’s influence.
…my affection for him is an act of power. I am using my human dominion over animals to use him as an emotional crutch or rubber ducky (sometimes programming students encountering bugs are required to explain their code to a rubber duck until they see the problem; this never ends well for the duck).
What does this have to do with idolatry?
The church of Jesus preaches that loving anything before God is a form of idolatry: worshipping something created rather than the creator who is the source of all good things. And this is true.
But preachers often respond to the human tendency towards idolatry by making it clear that God is an insufficient object of worship or affection. If you love money you will never have enough, if you love beauty you will still age, and so on. Those other objects aren’t appropriate or satisfying receptacles for your affection.
But what if part of the attraction of idols is exactly their sufficiency? That for us sinners, the smallness of these desires when compared to God is a feature rather than a bug. Worshipping something small lets us emphasise our freedom, our power; it leaves a residue of energy and (for want of a better word) soul that we can use as we see fit.
But worshipping or loving God – as an infinite person of infinite perfection, he demands our whole hearts. He is terrifying because he is worthy. Because loving God shows us that we don’t make things lovely, but God gives them whatever we find desirable.
Well, not to get all Tim Keller on you, but we need to go deeper into the problem. We need to show how insufficient objects of affection (idolatries) destroy the very thing humans try to hold on to through worshipping them. That seeking to love anything outside the context of the love of God is a poisonous practice.
Take, for example, worship of your children. (We could talk about worshipping your pets but I don’t want to be that self aware.) An idolatrous relationship with children can involve desires for an enduring legacy, for replication of yourself in other people, and for control over the formation of other human beings.
The Christian approach to this idolatry will unravel how these desires, without the context of God’s absolute perfection and the human subject’s love for him, are doomed not only to be incomplete but to annihilate themselves.
Without trust in God’s providence, love of children is doomed to become controlling and destructive of relationship. Without humility in the face of God’s goodness, parents will replicate their worst aspects in their children rather than their best. Without seeing children as equal children of God with their own personal existence, parents will force a pattern of life on their children that will crush or alienate children. Without dependence on God to provide eternal life, parents will twist their children’s development in whatever direction makes the parent feel good – and thus destroy the very connection of love and distinction that makes children part of a parent’s legacy.
The metaphysical argument (idols aren’t good enough) won’t work. The existential argument (idols are their own anti-matter) may get some more traction.
Maybe? Answers on a postcard.