I read in the Paris Review an interview with T.S. Eliot, one of my favorite poets about whom I know relatively little. He made an off-hand but profound remark in the interview: “Nothing is worse than to try to form people in your own image.”
He’s speaking about poets and therefore humans, in which case I can wholeheartedly agree. (God, too, formed us in His image; I’d say He gets a break since He’s perfect.) But if you think about Eliot’s words, the thought is a chilling one. Are we out to make everyone like ourselves?
I’ll make things even more complicated with another question I’ve been grappling with lately–do we form our beliefs in our own image? As in, do we pick and choose elements of our worldview so that it affirms the things about our lives we would rather not change? I think for most of us the answer is yes. (It certainly is for me in a number of ways.)
I don’t just mean this to condemn the people who aren’t giving up enough of their comfort so that they can “truly” serve God. (Whatever that looks like—I’m starting to wonder about that, too.) At times, us über-evangelical “we have to sacrifice everything for the sake of Christ” types don’t do any better at this than our less dogmatic counterparts. We pick something that’s consistent with our worldview to give up and avoid it at all costs, thus affirming that we are on the right path—simply because it isn’t an easy one.
This may seem counter-productive to the point I’m making. Most people, for instance, don’t particularly like celibacy before marriage or not drinking too much alcohol. But they like the identity that comes with abstaining from those things. This self-centric attitude being a normal if reproachable human tendency, when we claim our life practices are habits that everyone should adopt, we need to consider whether we’re defending Christ or ourselves. (Substitute something else for “Christ” if you have a different end-all, be-all.)
I think this goes back to what Eliot is saying. We want to copy our image so that there exists no one or nothing which will interfere with our way of life as we want it. This way of thinking is especially prevalent in the States and Western culture, where the idea of individualism is as strong a force as Saruman’s army of orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring.
We may be rejecting archaic doctrines because they are inconvenient or unpalatable, or we may be on the opposite end of the spectrum, practicing some form of self-flagellating asceticism—but either way it’s possible our true motive is to prove to everyone that our tiny little world is the one worth duplicating down to the time of day we stop to tie our shoes.
At least, this is what I’ve been mulling over the past couple of months. Feel free to agree or disagree with me.
On a mostly unrelated note, check out this sweet library in the basement of a beautiful old mansion in downtown Tulsa! Maybe there’s a book of T.S. Eliot poems somewhere in there.