Modern Origins of Anxiety: Reflections on Idolatry

In last week’s post on anxiety we traced some threads in epistemology, or the way we […]

Will McDavid / 1.14.14

In last week’s post on anxiety we traced some threads in epistemology, or the way we acquire knowledge, and particularly knowledge about our own standing to God, focusing especially the question, “in which places do we experience his presence”? One problem with a more modern, ‘scientific’ epistemology, generally speaking, is that God’s presence becomes unthinkable apart from our recognition of it. For example, it’s not enough to be told God is present in the Eucharist; I must feel something to confirm it. The hidden but present God of Psalm 139, to whom “even darkness is light”, becomes impossible when our perception becomes the criterion for his presence – warm feelings, positive changes in habits or behavior, or intellectual breakthroughs with theology or biblical interpretation.

41qupVOygsLParalleling this epistemic shift, there has perhaps been an ontic shift – that is, in the way we think about being. Drawing especially from John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, we tend to see God (functionally) not so much as an omnipresent being, in whom all things live and move and exist, but instead as one being among others (Milbank’s word is ‘univocity’). To transition a little out of theology and into practice, one result of univocity is our misuse of the biblical concept of idolatry. In many churches, idolatry – the sin of worshiping something more than God – reigns paramount as a framework for thinking about Christian life. This line of thinking is recorded at its best in Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods, which lists out money, love/sex, power, and success – the ‘usual suspects’ – as idols in our lives. This framework of idolatry usually looks something like this:

1. We all feel a longing for something more, and this longing is meant to be filled by God.

2. Idolatry in the Hebrew Scriptures describes the worship of Baal, Asher, or other deities. In our lives, the same sin can (and does) occur; though most of us are technically monotheistic, we’re constantly putting things above God in the practical way we live, filling our need with things which are not meant to satisfy it.

3. Money, sex, power, success, fame, approval, things, comfort, experiences, other people, and a host of other things promise us self-esteem, validation, and pleasure; these things ultimately cannot deliver and, more so, our enjoyment of them is compromised when we put pressure on them to act as gods.

4. Refocusing on Jesus as the source of our validation will push out our unhealthy attachment to idols, and it will allow us to live less destructive, more satisfied/joyous lives.


One advantage of this outlook is that it preaches – that is, it tends to connect with people’s actual experience of life. Who can’t recognize an unfilled longing; who can’t relate to our tendency to “look for love in all the wrong places”? And it’s empirically verifiable that many of the things we think will make us happy don’t; I remember especially the oil tycoon Rockefeller who, when asked how much money is enough, replied, “just a little bit more.” So the idolatry paradigm can be effective for preaching or evangelism, but it can potentially become harmful, too; reinforcing the need to discover where God is present which drives distinctly Christian anxiety. Not that the Bible doesn’t have room for idolatry as a way of thinking about our  lives, only that the Gospels and Epistles leave no room for idolatry as a dominant category.

Religious language is recycled about every decade or so, to take the vaguest guess, and some of this language seems to be falling out of favor, its primacy being supplanted by words like praxis, habit formation, character, virtue. All the same, from the standpoint of anxiety, it offers a wonderful practical touchstone for the problem of univocity, and its implication that God’s being may be particular and localized.

Implicit in the very question of idolatry lies the assumption that God will be reliably present in Bible reading, prayer, meditation, good deeds, etc; and he will be reliably absent in selfishness, power, pursuit of fame, etc. Saying God is present in these doesn’t make them necessarily good; it’s only to say that in all things God works for good, as the RSV has it. Presenting overattachment to career versus attachment to Jesus as an either-or isn’t necessarily problematic, but it certainly shores up our tendency to make a sharp distinction between spiritual and unspiritual experience.

There’s more. Rowan Williams, in his quirky theology introduction Tokens of Trust, talks about recognizing God as a ‘seeing-through’ everyday experience to the richness underneath, which is necessarily spiritual. We think of the Eucharist, in which one receives the bread and wine (physical elements, Catholic accidents) and simultaneously, in a sense through them, one experiences Christ. One definition of idolatry would be failing to “see through” to the reality behind something, but to stop with the thing itself. One subtle example of this sort of idolatry is calling the Bible the “Word of God”, when the Scripture itself indicates that title properly belongs only to Christ. But we want the fullness of God’s revelation to be in something legible, which we can hold in our hand; yet the infallible account of God’s Word – in whom the fullness of the Father was pleased to dwell – doesn’t contain the whole of the thing itself – Christ. It is something which must be seen through, not a resting-place for the human gaze, but rather a lens to bring the figure of God’s Word into sharper focus.

durer_trinityThis definition of idolatry opens the way for distinctly ‘Christian’ practices to be idols. We readily forget that the Golden Calf wasn’t an alternative god, but rather an attempt to capture the Lord, to pin him down beneath the human gaze. The Bible, virtue, good works, quiet time… making the Lord manageable and perceivable, visible and measurable, lies at the beginning of biblical idolatry. We want to take avenues of God’s presence and make them tangible; which amounts to, as von Balthasar memorably, oxymoronically put it, “storming the realm of grace”.

Practically, presenting life as a choice between things spiritual and things worldly, with the spiritual confined to a few acceptable avenues of ‘praxis’ – and with everything else carrying the danger of overattachment and, therefore, idolatry – reinforces our unwillingness to ‘see through.’ This implies that it can hardly be done in ‘worldly’ pursuits. And it gets worse: often, there’s the suggestion that setting our hearts on Christ – the remedy to idolatry – is something which can simply be done. Reapportioning our interior thoughts, or taking on another small group, better prayer.. as fallen human beings, we’re tempted to believe that idols can be uprooted simply by engaging a pure, unmediated Christ. Returning to Tim Keller, he closes his book with the accurate observation that idolatry will be inveterate, and spiritual satisfaction will be elusive for the duration of our time on earth. (But if Luther is to be trusted, our hermeneutic as readers is always an Adamic one – another way of saying, the curbs on self-help in a chapter titled “Finding and Replacing Your Idols” need to be massive).

St. Augustine prayed that “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in you,” but Augustine also prayed that he could “find satiety in never being sated.” These two Augustinian quotes seem to imply that our hearts are indeed restless and searching after God; nonetheless, even when we have found Him, full satiety eludes us. Full satiety in God is an eschatological reality; it cannot be had on earth, and it will always be mediated until we see his face. Our need to have avenues for reliably experiencing God comes from an inability to “see through” more mundane experiences, and the Law of Experiencing Christ – often prompting us to withdraw from more mundane experiences – may reinforce the distinction between God’s presence and his absence which, experientially, turns links into barriers.


Satisfaction in Christ – since it is indirect, partial, and ever-elusive – cannot really be compared to satisfaction from money, power, or sex. I may find tremendous, perhaps even unhealthy satisfaction in my job, but I cannot have the same direct psychological/emotional experience of Christ. The either-or engenders an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, and, therefore, anxiety – but recognizing that we will always be unhealthily overattached to worldly things, and that God will work in them anyway (Rm 8:28, again), can be a word of immense comfort. Last week, we read this passage in terms of knowledge and perception; this week, in terms of idolatry:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

The Psalmist finds God’s presence everywhere, but nowhere face-to-face; like Augustine, there is never a full or direct satisfaction in Christ. The effort to find that is misplaced; if it didn’t work for Augustine or Mother Teresa, our chances probably aren’t too great. Since such efforts must fail, the believer will constantly feel nervous and guilt-ridden by her failure to find the unmediated Christ. This guilt will either plague the believer continually or give way to a hyper-kataphatic (assertive, affirmative) theology in which God’s purposes and methods become certain and mathematical, which of course compensates for and covers over the fundamental incertitude of the search for the unmediated God.

That is, people will place God firmly, like a Golden Calf, in their own version of the light, hedging anxiety with certainty. Many forms of strongly political or issue-driven Christianity participate in this, regardless of ideology, and it’s easy to return to last week’s categories of hyper-textual Bible knowledge, feel-able pneumatic experiences, and observable sanctification (or, more contemporarily, culture-improvement). If God can only be found in these ‘positive’ experiences, then our idea of the positive will calcify into narrow obsession, spiritual or ideological golden calfs, as anthropomorphic as that first (monotheistic) idol. This tendency to assume too much can be viewed as a natural response to anxiety and incertitude. We all do this to some extent as a hedge against personal anxiety, and it’s not a stretch to say it really can, in worldly terms, offer satisfaction.


Anxiety lies within subjectivity, the self’s drive to give itself meaning, satisfaction, and validation. It lies within our perceivable interior thoughts and emotions, hopes and fears. We do not need a guide for choosing rightly which object will satisfy us – Christ or the idol – because, thank God, Christ cannot be rightly compared with worldly things. He stands above, omnipresent, in whom “all things hold together”, in whom we cannot help but “live and move and have our being”, in whom the darkness is light, no matter how much we may try to cover ourselves with it.

Absolute satisfaction in Christ is perhaps not so much something to engineer here on earth – the impossible project forcing us to choose between A and B, spiritual and non-spiritual, choices we are not equipped to understand and, if we do recognize the right choice, will usually fail to make it. Perhaps intra-subjective guidance is not so much the answer, as being pulled out of our curved-in subjectivity itself – perhaps promise is a firmer foundation than willpower. The self is the locus of anxiety. Shoring it up, improving its agency is, in a spiritual sense, no different from excoriating performance reviews at the office or any other outworking of law. Not a strengthening of our agency, but an attunement to God’s. To see through, as the Psalmist does: heaven, Sheol, the sea, even the darkness. The angst of searching immanently for the transcendent God can mercifully be removed by the Psalmist’s assurance that he was always already there. We who must die demand a miracle (Auden), the miracle of deliverance from self.

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4 responses to “Modern Origins of Anxiety: Reflections on Idolatry”

  1. Laurie says:

    Great post! As Bonhoeffer said ” A God who would let us prove his existence would be an idol”

  2. DBab says:

    Excellent, Will. Very convincing summation in last paragraph. Thanks!

  3. Sam says:

    Great post! You have succinctly wrapped up what has long been nagging me in regard to the landslide of guilt tossed out under the guise of idolatry. Will, you are my new hero – oops, I think I just slipped.

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