Sunday, February 10, 2013

Objects of Worship

A couple of posts ago I proposed that everyone worships something. 

That is, every human has some focus of ultimate value for which everything else can be sacrificed, and which constitutes the core of being. Adherents of revealed religions maintain that the only legitimate object of worship is God--why the Bible names this as the first commandment. But there are any number of things that one can worship if this does not suit.

People worship success, they worship fame, or country, or family, or the beloved, and so on. If you can't think of something like this, then you worship yourself. If you maintain that you don't worship anything, that the very idea of worship is repellent, then you also worship yourself. This includes, There is no escape. You only get one pick. This also seems to be a constant of the human condition. As we observe, people sacrifice self to family, family to self, nation to family, nation to beloved or family or success, success to family, family to success, and so on. In fact, this process is the subject matter of nearly all fiction. 

What drives a fictional narrative? Conflict, and this choice of worship is the primary conflict. Most Western people worship themselves nowadays, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is just the kind of culture we have. Other cultures differ, which is why we often have trouble understanding them. For example, we are currently in conflict with cultures in which God and family are more common objects of worship than the self. For some decades before that we were in conflict with a culture that worshipped History.  This culture thought it right to sacrifice anything at all to the glorious future of communism, but it lost out to our culture, the culture of liberty and freedom. 

Liberty and freedom are different ways of describing a culture where one can worship anything one likes. In practice, however, it's mostly the self that gets worshipped. Cultures where things other than the self are worshipped tend to be more heroic than our own. By definition, a hero is someone who worships something other than the self. We honor our heroes, but at the same time we think that people too willing to sacrifice themselves are crazy. A culture devoted to self worship tends to be peaceful, prosperous, commercial, and rich in quasi-religious objects that the self can attach itself to. Sports teams and celebrities, for example, fill this need. The self is a paltry object in the end and we have a need for power and glory in what we worship: the Yankees or the Crimson Tide will do fine. But these are only quasi-religious because no fan is actually ever called upon to die for the Crimson Tide, and sacrifice consists of only some afternoons and paraphernalia. Self worshipping cultures tend to destroy themselves by excesses of selfishness, of freedom, to use the conventional term, and we seem well on our way to that. But self worship is relatively safe, and we desire safety above all things in self-worshipping cultures. 

What is more valuable than the individual and individual freedom? In former years worshipping objects other than the self (WOOTTS) was more popular, but that got the world into a lot of trouble, because it is possible to worship an evil thing. Wars are caused almost exclusively by WOOTTS--religion, nation, the past, the future, but cultures in which WOOTTS is general seem to produce more vivid lives than we do. Saints and heroes abound, as do demons, and because we can't bear the demons (Hitler! Stalin!) we have resigned ourselves to a duller world lit only by sports, success and celebrity. It would be interesting to imagine a different sort of world, one that allowed actual religion without quite so many demons.


A. B. Emrys said...

Perhaps we've lost track of self-focus as the soul's quest, which comes with responsibilities and could even generate heroism (or demons, I suppose). Pure freedom makes for a lack of focus, of anything to do, that seeing life as a quest, ultimately to become one with the universe, refocuses.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately, the post Objects of Worship has been replaced by a duplicate of the Galley one. I read the Objects of Worship one before and wonder if it could be restored. Dan McMahon

Anonymous said...

It's been fixed!