I'm going to go out on a limb here and submit an entry for consideration as the Greatest Idol of Our Culture. The difficulty about this is that there are so many from which to choose. The usual suspects come immediately to mind: power, sex, wealth, entertainment, and so forth. By comparison my candidate is a “sleeper” - one that may seem at first glance to be a tame, almost innocuous idol. But the longer I live and the more I learn, the more this idol seems to be not only the most subtle and seductive, but also the most pervasive and brutal idol that I can see.
Like most idols of our culture, this one isn't a statue or physical image, but a concept; indeed, almost an imaginative image that's never precisely articulated but lingers in the cultural air, always alluring, always tempting us with what it can never deliver. I'll call this idea The Fulfilled Life. It's the fantasy that if we follow the Right Path (whatever that may be), and make the Right Sacrifices (whatever they are), that our lives will not only be free of problems, but “fulfilled”.
Of course this seems more abstract than bringing the bull before Dagon (or the child before Moloch) to implore that the crops won't fail, or the raiders will stay away, or the wife will conceive, or whatever. It may also seem to be making a mountain of a molehill – after all, haven't people always wanted their lives to be fulfilled? To be happy and content? How can that be so serious?
First: yes, it is more abstract than a tangible offering brought before a visible idol – but that's part of what makes it so dangerous. And yes, people have always wanted happy lives and there's nothing wrong with that. But the vital – and deadly – distinction between the simple desire for contentment and the idol of The Fulfilled Life is that the idol whispers that it can actually provide fulfillment during this life. Not just contentment or happiness, mind you, but fulfillment – the complete satisfaction of our deepest desires.
This is the message that is implied in so many channels of our educational system, promoted in our entertainment media, draped over products to sell them, and even preached from pulpits. It not only lures us with tempting images and ideas, but drives us with fear. What if we miss out? What if we make the wrong decision, or don't plan sufficiently, or spend our money in the wrong place? In short, what if we don't render due worship and sacrifice to the god? We will not be rewarded, and our lives will go unfulfilled.
Consider how we are encouraged to think about our lives: if we do well in school, we'll get to a good college, where we will train for a rewarding career. We may enrich our life with rewarding activities (often sports), and must learn to guard our health (since ill health is such a major hindrance to a Fulfilled Life.) Somewhere along the way (this is vital), we'll meet a Special Someone who will help fulfill us. The very terms for this person, such as “soul mate”, indicate how high the expectations are for this fulfillment. We'll get out of college, perhaps marry the Someone (or perhaps not, these days), and get a Fulfilling Job. Of course, because our Fulfilling Job pays well, we won't have to worry about money, and will be able to do those things that fulfill us. In time we may be further fulfilled by a child or two (probably not more, because then they'd cease to be fulfilling and become a drain on our energy and finances.) We would raise our children to follow fulfilled lives themselves, and in time (this, too, is vital), as a combination of the success of our careers and our prudent financial decisions, we will retire to spend the rest of our days doing fulfilling things in pleasant places, never overshadowed by ill health or other difficulties.
Sound familiar? With slight variations this script is what is sold in our culture as the ideal life. If you attain it, you will be Fulfilled – your life will have meaning. This illusion, this set of whispered promises, is the idol. If you learn the right rituals and make the sacrifices, if you follow The Path and do not stray from it, if you are truly devoted to this ideal above all, you will be rewarded with a Fulfilled Life.
Of course, those of us who try to follow the One True God know (or should) that at the heart of this elaborate illusion is a lie. A fulfilled life on earth is impossible because we were not made to be fulfilled on earth – we were designed for union with God. Our passage through this world is but preparation for that, albeit made more difficult by sin and temptation. But even for those who know this it is hard to resist the clamor of the goods of this world, and the allure of things that present themselves to our senses. For those who know nothing of eternal reward, this world's goods are all they have. If those goods are lost, what is there?
This is part of the reason this idol is so powerful – even deadly. If The Fulfilled Life is not forthcoming, then what are the implications? Am I doomed to an unfulfilled life? What must be done to satisfy the idol? The answer is, almost anything. I personally know of families that have been destroyed, children that have been abandoned, promises that have been broken, and even babies killed at the demand of this idol. If the relationship ceases to be rewarding, or the commitment doesn't deliver the promised satisfaction, or the pregnancy threatens to “ruin your life”, then it must be done away with. Nothing – nothing – may be allowed to hinder the pursuit of the Fulfilled Life. The alternative is unthinkable, therefore no sacrifice is too terrible to consider. If the idol demands it, it must be delivered.
This idol has always been around, but I think it has gained particular power in our time because we have flattened all life to this world. Oh, some pay lip service to “a better world” awaiting us after death, but that has little influence on our daily living. A poet expressed the zeitgeist by encouraging us to “imagine” No hell below us/Above us, only sky, and we have done just that. That puts us under tremendous pressure to pack a lot of living into the short years we have, so it had better be fulfilling living. After all, the Fulfilled Life is out there – the advertisements and talk show hosts and self-help books and educators and politicians all tell us so – so if my life isn't fulfilling, then something's wrong.
Of course, like all idols this one promises what it can never deliver – which only makes those who follow it increasingly desperate as the years tick by, causing them to resort to increasingly desperate measures. Too late do many realize that they have wasted their lives chasing a mirage, and that the fulfillment that they could have had lay buried within the relationships they discarded because they weren't giving sufficient “return” quickly enough. But that is the nature of idols.
I'm not saying this is the only idol of our culture – the Significant Life is a close contender – but it is so powerful that it deserves careful consideration. But what to do about it? I think classic Christian devotion has a path, which the spiritually mature call “detachment”. This is the recognition that the goods of this worlds are goods – of this world – and need not dominate us. Such classic practices as fasting, withdrawal, chastity, prayer discipline, and worship (especially worship devoid of enthusiasm or consolation) all remind us that we are not intended to be fulfilled in this life. Practicing them robs the idol of its power by not only facing but embracing activities that provide no immediate fulfillment. Of course, to the devoteés of the idol such practices seem not only nonsensical but masochistic. But those who can see beyond the goods of this world know that sometimes choosing to lay them down is the way to open ourselves to receiving greater goods that are not of this world. If Christ is to be believed, that is the path to the truly Fulfilled Life.