Saintly Essays & Discussions

Man: The Worshiping Animal

As I have discussed elsewhere, there are many interesting speculations concerning what defines humanity.  I like the definition of man as a being who tells stories.  But perhaps we should be more specific than this; or, to put it another way, perhaps we should approach the question from a different angle.  I posit that a human person may be defined as a being who by his very nature worships.  This begs the question, of course, what does it mean to worship?  I posit that worship is a process by which we give some substantial portion of ourselves (be it our time, energy, wealth, being, freedom, etc.) over to something or someone, either external to ourselves or otherwise.  By this definition, all human beings (be they "religious" or not) worship.  If we may say that human actions and relationships provide indicia of that thing which each human being worships, then some worship money, others fame, others family, others country, others pleasure, others tradition, others power, etc.  Notice, I have not mentioned God as an object of worship.  Does this mean that I don't think that people worship God?  On the contrary, I think people can't help but worship God, if by God we mean (along with Tillich) that which is our ultimate concern.  Notice that most of those things above mentioned can be conflated into some form of self-love or self-worship.  Thus, man is by nature a being who worships...himself.  Is it possible for man to worship anything other than the self?  I think yes, but it is not easy.  Perhaps a more interesting question (in our time anyway) is whether man SHOULD worship anything other than the self?  Again, I am inclined to think that the answer is yes, though this statement should not be interpreted as an endorsement of all objects of worship other than the self.  If there is one thing that I am convinced of it is that self-love makes of man himself an idol, and as such he is not an object worthy of self-worship (a bit of a tautology there, but one I am willing to live with).  This is all well and good, but man himself is not the only idol, nor I think the most dangerous.  Self-idolatry is the true "natural religion" sometimes spoken of by the philosophes, and insofar as it is natural and "naturally" feeds the needs of man, while by no means harmless (heaven forbid) it has its uses and needs always be with us (at least until our worship of God is perfect).  Turning from the self to the other is a necessary first step if we wish to learn worship of a true God (if any there be) but there are invariably other "unnatural" idols existing outside of the self.  The human self may be by nature evil (or fallen, if you prefer) but it is never other than a human evil.  The evil idols that lie outside of ourselves may contain an evil wholly other than ourselves, and are truly terrible and terrifying.  It is there that the demons lie.  How may we distinguish that which is God from that which is demonic?  I fear that there are no human means by which they may be differentiated.  When we attempt to turn from the idolatry of the self, we are at our most vulnerable.  Would it not be better then to simply abide in ourselves and our own self-worship?  This would seem to be the wisdom of a liberal and cosmopolitan modernity.  But no, our souls are restless, and can only abide the worship of the self so long as we do not recognize the object of our worship as such.  Once our eyes are opened to the knowledge of our self-idolatry we can do nothing but despair or turn with horror from the self to some other object of worship, and it is in this turning that we become vulnerable to that which is truly demonic and terrifying (I am speaking mostly metaphorically here, but not wholly so).  So, would it not be better to remain in ignorance to our true condition?  Again, worldly wisdom (and I say this without the least sense of irony) would seem to say yes, and perhaps the Grand Inquisitor is correct that happy is he who remains in ignorance (though he himself is obviously, and by confession, a worshipper of the demonic).  But our souls are restless, and I suspect will not long remain satisfied in such self-imposed serfdom.  Whether or not there is a True God deserving of our worship, it would appear as though we are hard-wired to search for Him (or, at least, that some are), no matter the cost.  If there is no such God, how tragic then must be our condition!  If there is such a God, how tragic must be our struggle!  Thus, to say that a human being is a being who worships, is to suggest that the human being is a tragic animal.   Maybe all of our stories are tragedies, if told long enough.