“…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14
We Worship Nothing.
To average postmodern, educated, millennial citizens of modern western society, the idea of worshipping something is absolutely, unavoidably, and undeniably strange. It’s a concept that never occurs to the modern mind.
Two quick qualifiers are necessary. First, the idea isn’t strange in the sense that people don’t understand what it means. People today are fully aware that for millennia people have fallen prostrate before gods of all types. The world is aware of the existence of theocracies where religious devotion is coerced. In general, in our world of nation-states we are aware of our more pious ancestors, and we choose to live differently.
Second, I do not mean to say that this is a bad thing. I am not decrying the state of today’s youth (I am myself a millennial). I don’t sit in judgment of anyone — I’m merely stating an opinion. After all, piety in past centuries was largely a cultural obligation, rather than a sign of true faith. Now that the obligation has been lifted, people are more free, more true to themselves.
Worship is showing or feeling great devotion or adoration for something or someone. In monotheistic thought, the idea is amplified, because of the implication that one’s “worship” can be given to only one recipient. The idea is that worship requires supreme devotion, that nothing in life is as important as the object of worship.
We live in disgust.
In 2015, we live in protest of such an idea, and not without good reasons. All governments, all systems, all leaders, all things have been shown to be lacking within recent memory. Wars and the complete destruction they have brought have assured us that all things on earth and in heaven will eventually disappoint.
In fact, the idea is so unnatural to us that we have become suspicious of people who do claim to worship something. Those people must not be well-meaning, we think. There must be something wrong with them.
And yet we do the very thing we claim not to do.
In our pretentious position of ultra-awareness, I believe we all unabashedly, subconsciously, worship. All the time. Every day. Without reservation.
Author Parker Palmer, writing about choosing a vocation said, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” If we “listen to our lives”, I think we find pretty easily that we live in devotion to something. The thing we worship, for most of our lives, without reservation, is self.
In this sense, we millennials — the most educated, self-aware, skeptical, and anti-religious generation that western society has perhaps ever seen — are also the most monotheistic generation that has ever walked the earth. We give our devotion completely and unreservedly to one thing, and one thing only — all day and all night, in season and out. We lay our lives at the alter of the cult of self, and for that we no longer apologize.
We can’t hide it any longer.
We may claim to be more generous than our parents, but that is setting the bar incredibly low. The amount of money we give away Is minuscule compared to the amount we spend entertaining ourselves. We purposefully order our lives so that we can avoid discomfort. We make our homes in places where we will be most comfortable, we fill our homes with effort-saving, comfort-promoting devices, and we spend our disposable income on entertaining ourselves. There is no more obvious thing to which we devote our time, money, and mental energy, than ourselves.
It is an attitude of the heart.
And it is in light of this atmosphere of self-devotion that I write this entry, knowing that many are searching through memories of their actions, needing to prove me wrong. “I wouldn’t say I’ve done anything especially selfish,” they say. And that is where our self-awareness goes awry.
Self-worship is not an accumulation of individual actions, though I have listed some in the paragraphs above. One can sit in an empty room and do nothing all one’s life and still be a self-worshiper. Not one selfish action is necessary, because it is now and always has been an attitude, a condition of the heart. While we can attempt to measure it, it is a necessarily existential characteristic, something that is ultimately knowable but impossible to measure fully.
The words of Jesus in the book of Luke are offensive to the human spirit because they are in opposition to this underlying attitude that has always governed the heart of man. We are predisposed to living our lives in the way we see fit, but the message of Jesus is that we are actually not so free.
Those things which we claim to be our virtues are in reality a prison, blinding us to the freedom that can only be had when one’s ego is laid down in favor of something better.
The characters in the story Jesus told (the Pharisee and the Tax collector) acted based on the attitudes that were alive in their hearts, mindsets that produced all their actions and all their thoughts. Abstaining from actions may be possible, but an attitude of the heart requires significant upheaval to jettison.
We do this little by little — each day is a process of recognizing new enclaves of self-praise and self-reliance in our hearts and giving them up. There is no magic bullet, even for those who profess to follow Jesus. There is darkness in every heart, and light is shed incrementally, in different ways for different people.