David Powlison investigates how the social sciences, especially psychology, can coherently hold together the moral demand for personal responsibility, the fact of social conditioning, and the experience that we are victims of forces beyond our control.
As he puts the question: I am responsible for my sins: ‘Johnny is a bad boy.’ My will is in bondage: ‘Johnny can’t help it.’ I am deceived and led about by others: ‘Johnny got in with a bad crowd.’ How can these be simultaneously true?”
The answer, he claims, is theological: “Human motivation is always ‘with respect to God.’ The social and behavioral sciences miss this ‘intentionality,’ because they themselves are idolatrously motivated. In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter. . . . Motivation is always God-relational. Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue. It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry.”
In short, the social sciences can hold these dimensions together only with a radically revised anthropology, an anthropology of homo adorans: “human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly.”
This forces a revision of the diagnosis of various psychological disorders. Food disorders aren’t simply a matter of being “hunger driven.” Rather, the issue is “I am ‘hunger-driven-rather–than-God-driven.'” God intends for us “to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously. I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes.”
But idolatry is flexible enough not only to cover inner motivations, but social formation. Idolatry is a public reality, shared among people. Thus, for instance: “The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological. Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes. Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety.”
Some Christian psychologists miss the central issue of idolatry. When secular psychology is “baptized” into Christian counseling, the stark issue of idolatry and faith is obscured. The “rather than God” at the root of human motivation is ignored.
And this distorts the whole psychological theory. Some theories posit a set of basic needs. Idols may still figure into the picture, but they are secondary: “our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs. Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs.” Whatever the intensions, this ends up instrumentalizing the gospel: “the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the ‘health and wealth’ false gospels. Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.”
Powlison argues that for the Bible idolatry is the issue, “the primary motivational factor. We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor. We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are. We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people. The love of God teaches us to repent of our ‘need for love,’ seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.”
In short, “there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.” There is either love for God or for some idol. Love and need is always intentional, directed at some object.
The category of idolatry also helps us avoid the reductionism of psychological typology: “He is a type-A person. He is a Pleaser. He is a Controller. He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments.”
This isn’t much help since “they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.” Further, people aren’t so simple because their loves and objects of worship aren’t so straightforward. Idols come in clusters, and they shift over time; we devote ourselves to Idol A for awhile, and then find Idol B more attractive.
We can’t even really say “His root idol is X”: “the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart. At best we can make the softer claim, ‘His most characteristic idol is . . . usually . . . but at other times . . . !’ For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth.”
In the end, we have to acknowledge the wisdom of Calvin: Our hearts are factories of idols, making use of what material the world hands us. We are all polytheists, rent in pieces by the demands of our many lords.
Which is why “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” is a charter of liberty.