Idolatry and Ultimate Concern – an Existential case for God?

In my previous post, I wrote about Timothy Keller’s arguments for the existence of God in his book The Reason for God.  Keller makes the case that nature, beauty, and human morality “point to” a transcendent Being.  But thankfully, Keller doesn’t stop at speculation; he clarifies why belief in God matters in day-to-day life.

Existential Disappointment

Sounding like the good evangelical preacher that he is, Keller states that each person lives for something, whether that be the accumulation of money, sex, career-related success, parenting, or something else.  According to Keller, we each have some goal, some purpose, some center of meaning in our lives.

But this can be a liability.  If a mother lives for her children, what happens when they grow up and leave the house?  If a businessman lives for career success, what will he live for after he’s already become the CEO of the company of his dreams?  If we live for our friends, what happens if they let us down?

Interestingly enough, Keller’s existentialist tone reminds me of a book I read a while ago by Paul Tillich, a theologian with far less concern about towing the line of Protestant Orthodoxy.  In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich makes a similar analysis of the human condition: each person is “ultimately concerned” about something, willing to sacrifice all else to achieve the reward associated with the ultimate concern.  But just as nationalistic Germans became utterly disillusioned and disoriented after their beloved nation was defeated in WWII, we are each vulnerable to great pain if our infinite ultimate concerns turn out to be finite after all.  What can carry the immense weight of meaning and identity? 

In effect, both Keller and Tillich identify this existential risk as idolatry.  Like the ancients who evidently worshiped finite trees, animals, and crafted images as though they were an infinite god, we moderns “deify” finite goals and vocations as though they were something far more – something infinite.

The Solution

What is the solution to idolatry?  Keller’s solution is simply to put our faith in God, allowing the truly faithful, infinite One to fill the “God-shaped hole” in our life.  Nothing short of an infinite God can take that spot in our lives without eventually letting us down.

Paul Tillich’s solution to idolatry is a bit more complicated.  Tillich argues that religion, too, can turn into idolatry when we treat the means of contact with God as though they were God.  He seems to be thinking especially of American fundamentalism with its intense devotion to the Bible, often lapsing into idolatrous Bible-worship.  But even non-fundamentalist faith involves risk, since our way of talking about God can always collapse into nonsense or irrelevance, causing the disintegration of meaning in our lives.  The solution is courage – courage to accept the inevitable risk of faith.  The good news, says Tillich, is that we can never be separated from the infinite, which reaches out to us (see Romans 8:38).

At the end of the day, both Tillich and Keller seem to be saying roughly the same thing: The risk of ultimate disappointment can only be addressed by properly orienting our lives towards God.

An Existential Case for God?

This kind of existential argument moves me in a way that Keller’s speculation about beauty, the origin of the universe, and morality does not.  Maybe that’s because this kind of message was built into my psyche during my Evangelical childhood, or maybe it’s because I’m the kind of person who always has a clearly defined, immensely important goal or interest.  I think that Keller and Tillich are correct: my goals give me short-term meaning but put my long-term stability at risk.

In theory, I would love to protect myself from ultimate disappointment by centering my life around a truly infinite God.  Of course, this is far easier said than done.  But the clear advantage of some form of theism, at least in this regard, re-frames my deliberation over belief in God.  I would certainly rather continue believing in God, so long as I can do that without crossing my fingers.

But it is worth noting that Keller and Tillich’s existential arguments leave unaddressed whether God is mere human projection, something we would like to exist, or if we can honestly believe that there is a God independent of our wishes.  It is uncertainty over that question that continues to bother me, and no practical payoff of theism can erase that problem.

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