One of the most common things for modern people to do is to fully embody a lifestyle. For a time, it is a deeply rewarding practice that brings both material and spiritual riches to lives invigorated with enthusiasm for some ‘-ism’ or another.
Healthy eating, environmentalism, political attachments, activism, the love of sport, and even tech enthusiasm all fit this bill.
When such interests become the focal point of one’s life, and the prism through which one views one’s life project and through which one’s purpose is articulated and pursued in the world – the practice may be rightly thought of as idolatrous. The term is a religious one, but to recognize its truth, one need not necessarily think in those terms. Like most religious concepts, it has meaning that can be understood according to human nature and experience that we all share.
Indeed, if one approaches such matters from the atheistic, and naturalistic standpoint – all concepts and phenomena should be explicable in functional terms. Idolatry is no different.
Now, one can easily conjure up visions of finger wagging and fire and brimstone preaching when a term so stuffy and antiquated is brought up. Rightly so.
However, at the root of the concept is the idea that the practice of idolatry is deeply insufficient. This is because it is a sin – another ‘anachronistic’ term for many – and therefore all about condemnation. Yet, that word is also not arbitrary, but refers merely to practices that are antithetical to human flourishing.
Idolatry is a ‘sin’ (read antithetical to human flourishing) because it is the ‘false worship’ (read worship that is unwarranted and insufficient) of an idol. Idolatrous living simply leads to lack of fulfilment in the long run.
The insufficiency reveals itself in a new and worldview-shaking experience, a ‘mid-life’ crisis, and in the pursuit of narrowly conceived causes.
A key marker of an idolatrous frame of mind is that it is not expansive. When one’s worldview is confronted with an event from the outside, its conceptual resources are stretched thin, and it bends and breaks. It is unable to grapple with the novelty of powerful events, and make sense of new phenomena in light of the infinitely greater complexity of life, hitherto hidden by the tinted lenses of a narrow worldview.
What is one to do at the tragic loss of a loved one, atrocity, war, poverty, a crippling illness, betrayal and vindictiveness?
On the lighter side, what does one do when confronted with the complexity and richness of some perspective that one has hitherto had no experience with? When one falls in love, does great good, becomes a parent, or revels in the glow of an achievement that has been worked at for many many years?
Novelty – of the positive and negative kind – are likely to challenge your perspective from time to time. Sometimes, you can retain prior assumptions, and assimilate the new experience into your framework, so that you may continue to go on as you do. Sometimes, you recognize that what you thought before was inadequate, and must be changed.
The ‘mid-life’ crisis can be seen as the recognition that one’s life has hitherto been inadequate. The careerist who has achieved a long-time goal only to realize it has been at the expense of friends, family, hobbies, and all of the great goods that attend these things is someone who has recognized that their life has been one-dimensional. Likewise, someone who foregoes the pursuit of accomplishment altogether, in favour of the cultivation of relationships, and the pursuit of more immediate pleasures will have the opposite problem.
Being consumed by a cause is a more dangerous form of idolatry. It leads to dogmatism and narrow-mindedness that expresses itself as bitterness, resentment and a permanently oppositional stance to ‘outsiders’ of one’s tribe. It is tempting to see ‘all the good people’ as members of one’s own group, and to therefore congregate around like-minded people and them alone.
Witness the anger and vindictiveness of public discourse on all forms of media, and the fear of expressing one’s self in public at the risk of offending someone. I think we could use a little more insensitivity training, rather than the opposite.
The harmful effects of idolatry are not just confined to personal lives. The worship of false idols – when pluralized as it is in the West – leads to shallow and isolated individualism, ‘niche’ living, and eventually balkanization in society. We see all of these things to varying extent today, and at the current levels they are unhealthy for our democracies. There must be a constant back and forth between pluralism and unity in order for the twin dangers of rigidity and disorder to be kept at bay.
The range of possible experience is so varied, complex and rich that world views and lifestyles that are confined by the narrowness and worldliness of their perspective have no resources to deal with them.
This is why they are ultimately false – they do not make adequate sense of the world, nor allow one to live in it in its fullness.
The balance between unity and plurality can only be achieved by pursuing one’s own lifestyle, while also making time for larger groups comprised of very different people, united under common practices, and sets of values. These are the ‘little platoons’ that Edmund Burke described many centuries ago that form the backbone of any healthy community. Clubs, organizations, volunteer groups, sports teams, you name it. They are far from trivial, but the source and concrete manifestation of belonging in spite of difference.