Beware of Zoolatry

January 8, 2013 — 16 Comments

royal catWhen my wife and I dated, I praised her beautiful cat when I visited her home. The cat maintained that imperial posture and attitude that is common in virtually all felines. And that came as no surprise, since she was an Egyptian Mau, one of the most ancient of breeds. She passed on long decades ago, but her haughty, regal bearing is etched in my memory.

I thought of her today when I read the following in the December issue of First Things, in the executive editor’s column.

Wandering around the American Kennel Club’s big “Meet the Breeds” event with my two youngest children recently, I saw a big banner in the cat section proclaiming that a particular breed had been considered a god by an ancient civilization. Of course, our understanding of the genuine religious impulses of ancient religions has increased, but still, one of the gifts the Jewish people have brought the world is that no one who knows about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the least bit tempted to worship cats.

I mean, would you want to worship a murderous narcissistic psychopath? This is not an image of God to make anyone happy. If you’re going to worship an animal, why not the Border Collie, frantically eager to please, or the loving, soulful-eyed Lab? Or the alert and protective German Shepherd? Or the indomitable Saint Bernard? Or the classic loyal and even-tempered mutt?

I don’t intend to offend any cat lovers by repeating this observation—my son has an affectionate tabby he rescued as a kitten while a senior in high school, that’s welcome in our home anytime. Still, as an unrepentant dog person, and “papa” to a rescued border collie, the words above brought a smile to me.

C.S. Lewis painted a graphic image of one animal-headed deity. It was Tash, the god of the Calormenes. In The Last Battle, we see that in Narnia, the reality behind the lifeless image can be most terribly revealed.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers—all twenty of them—were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails. It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

The others watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight. “What was it?” said Eustace in a whisper. “I have seen it once before,” said Tirian. “But that time it was carved in stone and overlaid with gold and had solid diamonds for eyes. It was when I was no older than thou, and had gone as a guest to The Tisroc’s court in Tashbaan. He took me into the great temple of Tash. There I saw it, carved above the altar.”

“Then that—that thing—was Tash?” said Eustace.

In our world, idolatry has certainly evolved since it’s pantheistic and zoolatrous beginnings. Today we are tempted by material indulgences and corruptions aplenty. While few of us impute divinity to animals or objects of stone or wood, we don’t have to look far to find something we deem worthy of adoration.

Our favorite idol is neither beast nor mammon. It is ourselves. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain:

This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall. For the difficulty about the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed. The turning from God to self fulfils both conditions. It is a sin possible even to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of a self—the mere fact that we call it “me”—includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry. Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself. This is, if you like, the “weak spot” in the very nature of creation, the risk which God apparently thinks worth taking.

Now, this is a sin to which I frequently find myself succumbing. I far too often think first about my own desires and appetites . . . only later (if ever) becoming concerned with the needs of my neighbor.

No, it’s neither cat nor dog that needs to be evicted from the throne in my soul reserved for my Creator—it’s me.

16 responses to Beware of Zoolatry

  1. 

    Thanks for this reminder to evict myself from the throne of my soul so that I can keep God as my ruler instead. I’ve been praying (and debating) about taking on a new volunteer activity lately, and today, as I sat down to write an email to the organizer, I could hear myself on the throne throwing up roadblocks about why I shouldn’t participate. Through God’s grace, I was unable to unseat myself in that instance long enough to send the necessary email to the organizer. And now, your post will arm me with greater ammunition when she writes me back about how I can get involved.

    • 

      I’m gratified that you found the column helpful. May God richly bless your new ministry. As you say, it’s only by God’s grace that we can slide off that throne.

  2. 

    You it the nail on the head. It is very difficult to unseat ourselves from that throne of self centeredness. We are all gripped by it.

  3. 

    Rob, I’m very fond of Lewis – he was writing these words when I was a child who read them. However, he does get things wrong at times, as we all do.
    Of course, it is obvious that self-will and selfishness are with us from our first screams for attention as babies, however, that has nothing to do with defining the sin of the Fall. Don’t you think that disobedience is heinous enough?
    Maria

    • 

      Yes, of course Lewis sometimes errs. Otherwise, he would share my doctrinal positions completely! Seriously, no one’s doctrines are perfect. And, if God intended for us all to be in agreement, some things in the Scriptures might be a little more clear (e.g. the parousia, second coming).

      As for the defining sin of the Fall, I agree that it was disobedience. They were given a single prohibition, and they blew it. I believe Lewis, in this comment, is getting at the reason for that disobedience. Since Adam and Eve never voiced those selfish “first screams,” what was it in their innate character that caused them to trust the serpent? I agree with him that it was the “self-will,” which deemed our personal desires to be of greater significance than God’s prohibition.

      I doubt you really disagree with Lewis here, it’s simply the perspective from which one views it. That said, disobeying our Lord who only desires our good, is not only heinous, it’s stupid.

      • 

        Rob, you’ve answered so kindly.
        You’re right that we all err in our understanding of God’s Word – even Lewis, who is a kind of favorite Uncle, whom we don’t like to think of as doing any wrong. (But he is wrong to believe that disobedience per se wasn’t heinous enough to be the defining sin of the Fall.)
        Also, I believe it’s wrong to say that, if the Lord wanted us to agree about everything, He would have been clearer in certain portions of the Word.
        In thinking about the Fall, I wonder whether what we’re perceiving is that it happened BEFORE the first bite of fruit. I don’t believe that there was something “in their innate character that caused them to trust the Serpent,” but rather that they succumbed to the temptation to disobey, that this was sin, and it brought death and depravity (selfishness, corruption).
        About idolatry, and how contemporary Christians perceive it: Because many of us can’t conceive of worshipping creeping things (or cats, or dog-headed idols), we equate it with worshipping the only other thing we can see besides God – ourselves. But isn’t selfishness, self-centeredness, a distinct sin? Some people do indeed worship idols, the Hindu gods and Allah, and even the Mother of Jesus. For contemporary, first-world man, and for Christians at times, what is the actual sin of idolatry today? Is it only putting ourselves on the thrones of our hearts? I don’t believe this. Idolatry includes worshipping what we have made. How do we do this?
        I usually don’t get involved in discussions, but I did, so…
        Maria

      • 

        Maria,

        I don’t mind a little dialoging about important issues. (‘Twould be better, though, over a cup of coffee.) Problem is that we have to speak in a short of shorthand in these brief notes. For example, I too agree 100% that God desires consensus/agreement among his children. Trying to make the point of my statement more clearly . . . Taking a doctrine of the second coming, about which you’ll agree there is significance difference of interpretation, if it was important to God that we have agreement on the details, he could easily have used much more space in the scriptures describing it, describing it in a variety of different ways (saying, of course, the same thing), being far more redundant. He could have done that with every doctrine, but I believe in God’s divine economy, he focuses on what he wants us to focus on–the gospel, and the Person of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son. For Christians, the summary in the Creed is sufficient to agree upon [He will come again to judge the living and the dead.] We agree to the fact that he will return, and it is not a Body-dividing issue exactly how that will take place. In essence, I think it’s important to follow the example of God himself, and focus on the things that he focuses on.

        As to the definition of idolatry itself, it simply depends on how one defines “idol.” If the definition restricts it to something that is manmade, humanity’s self-worship would be excluded. However, it’s typically understood to define anything that usurps God’s proper place in our lives. In that case, we would find few people who would admit that they worship themselves–but we can easily see evidence of that fact in their declarations and actions. So, I think it’s perfectly accurate to say that anytime a human being assumes they possess authority greater than God’s (e.g. by determining that “even though it’s clear the Bible values life in the womb, I choose to ignor those passages, since I deem the life of the fetus to be less important than personal human choices), that this is evidence of the person “placing themselves on the throne.” Another example would be to justify a so-called open marriage because it’s agreeable to the parties involved, despite the unequivocal command that human beings should not commit adultery.

        Hope this clarifies my position a bit more. Frankly, I don’t think we’re in disagreement.

        Rob

  4. 

    No kidding–an Egyptian Mau? Friends of ours had a Bengal–an Egyptian Mau crossed with a Spotted Asian Wild Leopard Cat six generations from feral. Named him Pharaoh. Regal as all get out.

    Pharaoh went to the big sarcophagus in the sky (sarcophagus being Egyptian for “litter box”) and our friends are now looking for something in a servil mix.

    • 

      Hilarious. I hope the little guy finds happiness in his afterlife litter box. I love his name. Yes, it’s nice to receive genuine affection from the pets we adopt, rather than merely being granted an occasional nod of acknowledgement.

  5. 

    Cats are affectionate, but they are tired, cold and hungry and they need exercise. That exercise is for their predator muscles. If the fact that your cat is a killer disturbs you, you might not be able to provide the needed exercise and, if you like collies, you might be too active for the cat to get enough rest in your house. Sounds like a mismatch.

    • 

      My aging energy level has me wondering, in fact, if our next pup can be a border collie. Our first border collie used to love my son’s cat. The former liked to play a chasing game (back and forth, not simply as the chaser). The cat certainly did her normal napping, but once almost every afternoon she’d relent and the two of them would take turns chasing one another the length of the house. Back and forth. Very entertaining.

      • 

        It’s been hard for me to give up putting cats ahead of people since that was my old attitude. Now I respect cats as God’s beautiful creatures but I know they aren’t people and they definitely aren’t gods.

  6. 

    Rob, thank you for answering so kindly and ably again! Yes, I understand the points you’ve made and agree. In the area of doctrine, I’d be more inclined to listen to you than to Lewis, strange to say, because this is your calling; so sometimes I become irritated with Lewis’s statements right upfront, because to me his major vocation was literary. I do think of him as a kind of uncle, and his books were among the first that I actually finished, reading alone, as a child – and wanting more.
    God bless you and your wife!
    Maria

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Next year’s words and a new voice | The Flourishing Tree - January 9, 2013

    […] There’s another that describes rethinking what we know for sure. Another encourages us to examine who we have crowned as king of our souls. And there’s one that describes a beautiful way of bringing light to others’ lives […]

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