Thus Does the World Forget Thee
My grandmother is 91 years old. She’s sharp as a tack, still drives herself around, still gives of her time to help feed “seniors” at the local health care centre, still volunteers at the thrift shop fifteen minutes down the road, still reads widely. She still corrects my grammar (and sometimes my theology) when I make a mistake on this blog.
She also sends out daily emails to her entire extended family. I think she was musing to one of her sons one day that they really should call her more often—“I could be dead, for all you know!” My uncle responded with something like, “Well, why don’t you just email us every day to tell us you’re still alive” (tact and subtlety exist in abundant supply in our family!). So she has. For probably four or five years now. She’ll include musings from past journals or updates on who’s having a birthday or anniversary in the family, who’s traveling where, etc. Grandma’s daily emails are often the first thing in my inbox each morning.
Periodically these emails will include a quote from something my grandmother has been reading. This morning’s quote was from St. Augustine:
Thus does the world forget Thee, the Creator, and falls in love with what Thou hast created instead of with Thee.
This is, of course, the original and paradigmatic sin. Loving what was made instead of the Maker. Misdirected worship. Forgetfulness. A failure to prioritize properly. An inability or an unwillingness to keep things in the right place. And, of course, it probably almost goes without saying that one of the most consistent things that we humans have tended to fall in love with in place of our Creator over our many long years is, well, ourselves. Yes, we have bowed down to an impressively vast assortment of idols. We are an inventive species, to be sure. But many roads seem, in some way or another at least, to circle back to the same place. Us.
I’ve been thinking about the Augustine quote a lot this morning. It seems to me that there are at least two ways we often “fall in love with what thou has created instead of with Thee,” two ditches we easily slide into as twenty-first century Western Christians.
The first one is, perhaps, familiar to people my age and older. It turns faith mostly into an exercise in individual sin management. We imagine that we are very, very, very bad and sinful and that God is very, very displeased with us indeed. We are wretched and depraved in all sort of ways which we are often fond of rehearsing to others. This conviction is often accompanied by a keenness to convince others of their badness as well. The entire drama of the cosmos is thus reduced to a rather crude stage upon which to work out the mechanism by which my individual guilt can be addressed. Self-flagellation and loathing is a rather perverse form of self-love, to be sure. But I am convinced that it’s not an entirely inaccurate way to describe things. It places us at the center of the drama. Our sin, our guilt, our unworthiness.
The other will probably be more recognizable to people my age and younger (I feel fortunate to be part of the privileged generation that straddles two unique forms of self-love!). Here, God exists mainly to validate, affirm, console, understand, and add his stamp of approval to the various dispositions and identities that we have accrued to ourselves. We imagine that we are very, very good and unique and special and that God is quite rightly very pleased with us. And in those rare instances when we engage in behaviours or understandings that aren’t so praiseworthy, this is mainly because we are the victims of myriad forms of oppression or socialization or genetics or whatever.
Both views of faith and of God locate the self at the center of everything. In the former case, our badness and unworthiness takes center stage; in the latter, it is our delightful individuality and unrepeatable awesomeness. I’m not necessarily suggesting that both approaches have the same consequences or are exactly equivalent. I’m inclined to think that the former view contains more toxins than the latter, but each are harmful in their own ways. Both, I think, represent an example of falling in love with what the Creator has made (human beings) instead of the Creator. Both could do with asking questions like: “What if the Creator God, rather than me, took center stage? How might the narrative change? What ways of understanding myself would I be liberated from or constrained by?”
My daughter is home from school for the week after having a minor surgical procedure. This afforded me the opportunity to have a regrettably rare face-to-face conversation with her over coffee this morning. We talked about all kinds of things, including some of the preceding. We talked about the epidemic levels of anxiety and depression that we see all around us and about learning how to love ourselves well. I told her that as human beings we are very rarely as bad or as good as we imagine ourselves to be. I encouraged her to resist the temptation to defect to the simplistic understandings of herself (or anyone else) that our culture is only too happy to supply in abundance. We are complicated, predictable, beautiful, bewildering, awe-inspiring, profoundly self-interested creatures. And we are not the measure of all things. She nodded, perhaps a little half-heartedly. Maybe she was thinking, “Save the sermon for Sunday, dad.”
Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has said that the very essence of love is a determined displacement of the self from the center. I think he’s absolutely right. I think St. Augustine and, more importantly, my grandmother would agree.