In Walker Percy’s 1971 novel, Love Among the Ruins, his central character is a psychiatrist named Tom More. More is a Roman Catholic who is no longer practicing his faith, albeit he still believes. This is how he describes his situation: “I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. … Nevertheless, I still believe.”
Ironically, perhaps it was persons like him, sinners who still believed, who were the ones most drawn to Jesus in the gospels. Reading More’s list of what he loves and in what order, I’m reminded of a conference I once attended on the theme of Secularity and the Gospel. One of the keynote speakers, a renowned social worker, made a comment to this effect: I work on the streets with the poor and I do it because I’m a Christian. But I can work on the streets for years and never mention Christ’s name because I believe that God is mature enough that he doesn’t demand to be the center of our conscious attention all the time.
As you can guess, her statement sparked some debate. It should. Does God demand to be the center of our conscious attention all the time? Is it okay habitually to be focused elsewhere? If, affectively, we in fact love a lot of other persons and things before God, is this a betrayal of our faith?
There are no simple answers to these questions because they demand a very delicate balance between the demands of the First Commandment and an overall theology of God. As the First Commandment teaches, God is primary, always. This may never be ignored; but we also know that God is wise and trustworthy. Hence, we may safely deduce that God did not make us one way and then demand that we live in an entirely different way: that is, God did not make us with powerful proclivities that instinctually and habitually focus us on the things of this world and then demand that we give him the center of attention all the time. That would be a bad parent.
Good parents love their children, try to give them sufficient guidance, and then set them free to focus on their own lives. They don’t demand to be the center of their children’s lives; they only ask that their children remain faithful to the family’s ethos and values, even as they still want them to come home regularly and not forget about their family.
This dynamic is a little more complex within a marriage. Spouses with a mature love for each other no longer demand that they be the center of each other’s conscious attention all the time. Most of the time, this is not a problem. The problem arises more when one partner is no longer the affective center for the other, when at the level of emotional attraction and focus someone else has displaced him or her. This can be emotionally painful and yet, within the context of mature love, should not threaten the marriage. Our emotions are like wild animals, roaming where they will, but they are not the real indicator of love and fidelity. I know a man, a writer, who has been lovingly and scrupulously faithful to his wife through more than forty years who, by his own admission, has a crush on a different person every other day. This hasn’t threatened his marriage. Admittedly though, but for a strong spirituality and morality, it could.
The same principles hold true for our relationship with God. First, God gave us a nature that is affectively wild and promiscuous. God expects us to be responsible as to how we act inside that nature; but, given how we are made, the First Commandment may not be interpreted in such a way that we should feel guilty whenever God is not consciously or affectively number one in our lives.
Next, as a good parent, God doesn’t demand to be the center of our conscious attention all the time. God is not upset when our habitual focus is on our own lives, so long as we remain faithful and do not culpably neglect giving God that focus when it is called for.
As well, God is a good spouse who knows that sometimes, given our innate promiscuity, our affections will momentarily be infatuated by a different center. Like a good spouse, what God asks is fidelity.
Finally, more deeply, there is still the question of what ultimately we are infatuated with and longing for when our focus is on other things rather than on God. Even in that, it is God we seek.
There are times when we are called to make God the conscious center of our attention; love and faith demand this. However, there will be times when, affectively and consciously, God will take fourth place in our lives – and God is mature and understanding enough to live with that.