In the introduction to Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller quotes Alexis de Tocqueville. If you haven’t heard of de Tocqueville, he was a French political thinker and historian who visited the United States in the 1830s and from that experience penned the classic work, Democracy in America. That particular book weighs in at somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 pages, and I haven’t read the whole thing, but the portions of it that I was assigned to read in my American Political Theory classes in college were some of the most fascinating and memorable reading assignments I was given in my four years at UCLA.
What I remember being so interesting about de Tocqueville were his penetrating insights into American culture, insights that seemed just a relevant at the dawn of the 21st century as they were in the 1830s. His observations often made it seem like I was reading a much more modern work.
One such observation is the one that Keller points out at the beginning of his book, a book about idolatry.
“In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his famous observations on America, he noted a “strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants…in the midst of abundance.” American believe that prosperity could quench their yearning for happiness, but such hope was illusory, because, de Tocqueville added, “the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy (the human) heart.” This strange melancholy manifests itself in many ways, but always leads to the same despair of not finding what is sought.”
A strange melancholy in the midst of abundance. True in 1835, true in 2011. What was that saying about the more things change?
That’s an appropriate anecdote for the introduction to a book about idolatry because that is essentially what idolatry produces in us: melancholy where we had believed the promise of fulfillment.
The sad thing is, we invite this melancholy upon ourselves when we ask something to make us whole that ultimately cannot. I’ve done it, I’d be willing to be that you’ve done it (regardless of your beliefs about God), and I’d be willing to bet that most people you know have done it (regardless of their beliefs about God).
Idols are all around us, and, to paraphrase John Calvin, our hearts are idol factories, and the quote from de Tocqueville (and Keller’s commentary) serves as a stark reminder of the importance of being vigilant to keep the words of 1 John 5 close to our hearts: “Keep yourselves from idols.”