September 1, 2007

Sin: Idolatry As Narcissistic Self-Love (2/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy at 10:00 pm by Caleb Winn

As I reflect further on the subject of idolatry, I realize that idolatry is not vested in the object, but rather in the self. If I make an idol of another person, or of any object or ideal, I am not truly loving the object for its own sake; rather, I am loving the object as an expression of narcissistic self-love.

Freud’s Two Loves

This occurred to me as I thought about Freud’s description of the “narcissistic libido” in Civilization and its Discontents. Freud argues that we may love an object for our own sake, or for the sake of the object itself. The former type of narcissistic love is immature and self-centered, while the latter is more mature and developed. But the two seem to be separated more by chronology and emotional development than by some sort of categorical distinction.

I’m primarily interested in the narcissistic libido. If I am hungry, I desire bread, not for the sake of the bread, but for the sake of my own hunger. I “love” the bread, but only because it fulfills my own needs. The love that we hold for the beloved (whatever or whomever that may be) is merely a projection of self-love, so that our narcissism is fulfilled through the possession of a gratifying external good.

This narcissistic love is not limited to inanimate objects. Interpersonal relationships can also be subject to this sort of dynamic. We can turn to others for intellectual, physical, and emotional gratification, without truly caring for the person for his or her own sake.

This is the most basic, immature, natural form of human love. As infants and as toddlers, we love our parents because they provide us with food and protection. We do not truly care for their happiness, and have little concern for how our cries disturb their sleep. We are focused on our own wants and needs, and value our mothers for their ability to meet those wants and needs, and for nothing else.

However, though it may begin in a place of immaturity, human love may mature and develop beyond this. Although we begin selfishly, desiring objects for our gratification, we need not remain in a state of emotional infancy. The baby may grow to love the mother, not because she provides for his needs, but for her own sake. There can come a point where love for the object transcends our own narcissism, and the well-being of the beloved becomes more highly valued that the well-being of the self. This occurs at the point of self-sacrifice, where the beloved is practically valued above the self. For, “greater love hath no man than that he would lay down his life for a friend.”

False Love As Idolatry of Self

With this in mind, it becomes clear to me that intensity of emotion does not True Love make. No matter how desperately one may desire fame, fortune, or the love of another person, the desire may remain essentially narcissistic. The experience of intense desire is not evidence of noble intention or a mature love, though it may also not be evidence that such a noble love does not exist.

The test, then, becomes what happens when the good of self conflicts with the good of the beloved? For if the love is essentially rooted in narcissism then it may transform into bitterness and hatred when the object of our love is not readily attained. If, instead of valuing the object for its own sake, we only value our attainment of it, an inability to attain our object may cause anger, and even motivate us to strike out at that which we claim to love. If, on the other hand, we possess a mature love that values the beloved for its own sake, then we ought to be ready and willing to make sacrifices for the sake of that which we love, putting its well-being above our own.

In light of this, then, I need to refine my views on idolatry. Idolatry is not excessive love (as in, selflessness), as I previously claimed. For idolatry does not ultimately rest in the love of the object, but rather in the love of the self. We worship the golden calf, not for its sake, but for our own! When we chase excessively after wealth, fame, or human love, we do not seek to orient our lives around a false God in worship; rather, we demand that wealth, fame, and human love serve us, and meet our needs. There is false worship, to be sure, but the God that we worship is within, and not without. Wealth, fame, and human love are not false gods whom we serve; they are the sacrifices that we seek to offer up on the altar of the ego. We ultimately seek to serve only ourselves.

This strips away any sense of nobility, and exposes the root narcissism of idolatry. When I chase after money, success, respect, or affection, I do not do so out of genuine, selfless love. When I pursue objects for the sake of my own personal gratification, there is no nobility to be found. There is no room to play the martyr, or to be filled with self-pity, simply because the objects of my desire remain beyond reach. One might as well be an young child, throwing a temper tantrum and a pity party because he cannot get his way.Instead, the answer is to turn to God with a broken and contrite heart, seeking earnestly to lay aside my own desires and to find His will for my life. The answer is to acknowledge the narcissism of idolatry, to admit that it is I, and I alone, who receives my worship, and to turn away from selfish, desire-based “love” and try to learn true Love from the One whose love truly is greater than that of any man.


1 Comment »

  1. shaunconnell said,

    Great post. I’ve been thinking things along the same lines as of late. An interesting article (founded upon Ayn Rand, but the points are still interesting for really anyone) regarding loving someone for their own sake or for what they are, can be found here:

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