As Good as It Gets

The lingering fear of every secularist.

The Religion of Secularism (6)

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God … 2 Timothy 3.1-4

Seriously religious
People who are committed to the under-the-sun lifestyle of secularism like to think they’ve moved beyond religion. They have moved beyond the Christian religion, to be sure, but they can never move beyond religion per se. Because they are made in the image of God, they are made for transcendence, and will always strive to achieve something bigger than themselves and beyond what they presently know.

After all, religion is just a system of beliefs, focused on unseen things, that finds us channeling love, devotion, and work in the pursuit of whatever we regard as most ultimately beautiful, good, and true. What we believe, and what we’re devoted to, determines how we will live, and what ethic will guide our conduct.

In the religion of secularism, self is the ultimate god, which must be made happy by the right combination of circumstances and things. In one form or another, “I, me, mine” is the rallying cry of our secular contemporaries. Self sits as the supreme god of the secular person, accompanied by happiness, a shape-shifting deity subject to the whims and wants of self, and having at his disposal the lesser deities of experience and possessions to aid in arranging the optimum conditions of self-interest.

These unseen powers – self, happiness, and all that goes with them – are as eagerly served and receive as much devotion as the Christian accords the God of Scripture. The secularist believes these to be his best hope in life, no less than the Christian believes the promise of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ. And, like the Christian, the secularist organizes his life according to his beliefs.

So it’s not that the secularist is not religious. He is indeed seriously religious, only within a form of religion determined by the spirit of the age and the finite resources of the self, rather than the Spirit of God and the infinite powers of the risen Christ.

One more meaner deity
Besides experiences and possessions, the god of self and the god of happiness require one more “meaner” deity in the quest for the ideal life.

We recall that Augustine used that term “meaner” to refer to those Roman deities, lower down in the pagan pantheon, which were enlisted by the “select gods” to help them wield their powers on behalf of their devotees. We’ve already considered the importance, to those who adhere to the secular religion, of just the right experiences and just the right possessions in pursuing the happiness which the god of self so earnestly desires. And we’ve also seen that, just as often, these two meaner deities can fail the demands of happiness, and leave the self disappointed, frustrated, anxious, and confused.                                     

Unlike the gods of experience and possessions, which serve the consort god happiness, the god of position reports directly to the self. He has no power to affect external conditions. His only focus is on the self and its immediate and ongoing need for reinforcement. No matter how often the other meaner deities may let down happiness and the self, the god of position is always there, fanning and cooling the self, and whispering in his ear, “You’re Number 1!” And now that the melee of competing selves is becoming more complicated, and narcissism is more acceptable, the god of position feels bolder and more important than ever.

So, even in the midst of the worst circumstances and experiences, where happiness sits with head in hands, wondering what to do next, and the gods of experience and possessions search frantically here and there, the god of position says to the self, “You da man! No big deal! You’re still on top. All the people you work with are jerks and idiots. You were about to cut that chick off anyway. You’ve got better things to do with your valuable time. You’ll get them next time around, they’ll see.” He possesses a seemingly endless litany of slogans, lines, and motivational jargon to prop up the self and keep it from drifting toward the horizon of despair and self-destruction.

Moreover, when things do work out, and happiness, be it ever so fleeting or slight, is realized, then the god of position becomes more assertive still: “Just like you said it would be! Look at you, looking down on those chumps! You can have whatever you want, and you deserve the best!”

Yes Man of the self
The god of position is the “Yes Man” of the self. He has to be there to assure the self that, even when everything is falling apart and going wrong, he’s still better by far than all the other people he knows. He’ll be back on his feet or back on top in no time. Or at least, he deserves to be.

He’s the perfect Yes Man, except for those times when, if only sotto voce, he’s brutally honest.

Like the comedian whose only routine soon becomes only a series of stale jokes, the incessant self-reinforcing, others-negating practices of the god of position can begin to lose their credibility. In spite of his urgings, self-doubt and second-guessing creep into the self’s outlook. Self-assurance gives way to resentment and fear. After a while complacency rather than confidence becomes the mindset of the self, and then the god of position shelves his “Atta-boys,” and can be heard muttering, “Face it, pal: this is as good as it gets.”

Or as McCartney and Lennon put it early in our narcissistic age, “I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be.”

It doesn’t get much meaner than that.

For reflection
1.  People need affirmation, and Christians should be consistent in affirming what we can in our neighbors’ lives. But these are not very affirming times. Would you agree? Explain.

2.  Do people you tend to think of themselves more as winners or as losers? Why do you suppose that is?

3.  Because people are made in the image of God, we should always be able to find something we can affirm. Can you give some examples? How might such affirmations create opportunities for us to point our secular friends to God?

Next steps – Conversations: Talk with some Christian friends about the importance of affirmation. What affirms them? How can we practice more affirmation with one another, and thus be better equipped to affirm our unbelieving neighbors?

T. M. Moore

For a more complete study of the book of Ecclesiastes, download our Scriptorium series on Ecclesiastes by clicking here. Ecclesiastes is an excellent book to share with an unbelieving friend, as it confronts all the idols and vain hopes of unbelief, exposing their folly and holding out the hope of life in God alone. We’ve prepared a verse translation of Ecclesiastes which is suitable for sharing with believers and unbelievers alike. Order your copy of Comparatio, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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