What Do You Worship?

What could you do to become as dumb and heartless as a rock? How could you become as plastic and phony as a consumer product? How might you lose your identity and evolve into your significant other’s soulless clone? It’s simple. Worship your significant other, worship consumer products, or worship a rock.

The Anomaly and Einstein’s Law

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this phenomenon well when he wrote, “A man will worship something—have no doubts about that. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.” Three millennia before Emerson made that connection, the ancient Jewish psalmist had this to say about human-manufactured gods:

They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:5–8)

It’s true. For better or worse, we become like whatever we worship. Our objects of veneration shape our souls’ formation or deformation.

When I wrote a book about this truth several years ago, an anomaly kept popping up in my research. The thesis holds true if we talk about ancient Near Eastern idols. Those who bowed down to chiseled stone deities did have a way of becoming thick and dull like rocks. Emerson’s insight that we become what we worship holds true with many gods, except one.

This peculiar idol breaks the rules and defies the data. When you bow before it, you don’t become like it at all. You become less and less like it until you are horribly not like it. Unlike all the other gods who make you more like them as you bow, the more you worship yourself, the less you become yourself. You become a shadow, a specter, an unself. The longer and deeper you stare into the mirror, looking for answers, the more it will feel like looking at Edvard Munch’s The Scream. This is the strange paradox of self-worship.

Why? It’s simple. You were not designed to be the center point of your own psyche. You are not God. Self-deification is a bust. We were never meant to trust in, be defined by, be justified through, be satisfied in, and be captivated by ourselves. We were made to revere Someone infinitely more interesting than ourselves. To speak another modern heresy, it is in a state of self-forgetful reverence that we become most truly and freely ourselves. 

This forms the first plank in our case against today’s fastest growing religion. The more self-absorbed we are, the less awe we experience; the less awe we experience, the less fully ourselves we become. As Albert Einstein put it, “A person first starts to live when he can live outside himself.” It is awe that is “the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” The great physicist goes on to locate awe “at the center of true religiousness.”5 Let us call this Einstein’s law: The more you revere something more awesome than yourself, the more alive you become. The more you revere yourself as the most awesome being in existence, the more awful your life becomes.

We are hardwired to function best in a state of awe. This explains why over 35,000 people a year make the inconvenient trek to Mount Everest, 3.5 million to Yosemite, 4.5 million to the Grand Canyon, and 30 million to Niagara Falls. On a gut level, we already know and live Einstein’s law. We want to be awestruck.

To prove it, let’s perform a quick thought experiment. Picture two scenarios. In the first, you lay sprawled on a car hood in the mountains of Tromsø, Norway. Tromsø offers prime viewing of the neon rivers of the aurora borealis. Chartreuse and teal ooze together like watercolor streaks down a black canvas. It is all too awesome (in the original sense of the word of inspiring awe or reverence) to worry about yourself. There you lay, a self-forgetful dust speck with a stellar seat to a celestial light and magic show.

The second scenario also finds you on your back, only this time you are sealed inside your own vintage 1960s sensory deprivation tank. (These were soundproof, lightproof pods filled with salt water, invented in the 1950s and popularized in the 1970s as a way to shut down your senses to allegedly achieve a higher state of consciousness.) As you float in the brine and the blackness, your own consciousness becomes your entire universe. You can analyze yourself endlessly to discover your “true self.” My question is this: Where would you feel most truly human, most freely yourself? Take your pick: Tromsø or the tank.

This excerpt is from Don’t Follow Your Heart, by Thaddeus J. Williams and published in 2023 by Zondervan Reflective. Used by permission.

Thaddeus Williams
Thaddeus Williamshttp://thaddeuswilliams.com/

Thaddeus J. Williams is assistant professor of systematic theology for Talbot School of Theology. He has also taught philosophy and literature at Saddleback College, jurisprudence at Trinity Law School, and as a lecturer in worldview studies at L’Abri Fellowships in Switzerland and Holland, and ethics for Blackstone Legal Fellowship the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C. He is the author of REFLECT (Weaver Book Company) and Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth (Zondervan Academic)