Becoming like children
St. John warns the Christian community to whom he writes in 1 John by saying “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” He addresses these adults as little children warning that the temptations of the child are also our own — the idols of coherence, control, and legibility.
We remain like little children in this respect throughout our lives as we construct and adopt increasingly elaborate schemes for furnishing ourselves with an identity. As helpless creatures, we must dream up an answer to the question ‘what does the Other desire in me?’
However, for the child, this work of identity sedimentation is still fragile and incomplete. The need is still there, but the question of identity still remains radically open in a way it doesn't typically for us adults.
This perhaps explains why Jesus emphasized throughout his ministry that one must become like a child to follow God. He always welcomed the children, and he rebuked those who prevented them from coming to him. He held them up as examples, saying that unless you become like one of them you will never be able to enter the kingdom of God.
Unlike children, adults find ourselves heavily invested in our meticulously constructed castles in the sky. We have clung to our fantasies so long that our hands must be pried open one finger at a time.
The resistances of the ego, the desperation for a coherent and durable identity constructed through imagination, constitute the primary obstacle to a liberating faith and its subsequent entrance into the abundant life offered in God’s kingdom. We adults think we have so much more to lose by letting go.
To illustrate this, St. Mark in his Gospel immediately follows the vignette of Jesus welcoming the little children with a contrasting story of "the rich young ruler." In this encounter, a rich young man approaches Jesus, addressing him as rabbi and wondering what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus says that he must keep the commandments, the young man claims to have kept the whole law from the day he was born. Jesus' response destroys the young man.
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Mark 19:21)
The Scripture says that the young man "went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." These objects he had accumulated had become an obstacle to him which prevented him from becoming like a child able to give and receive with open hands, openly acknowledging their need, and walking in a trusting dependence on God instead of grasping for a durable identity founded in objects.
Giving everything you have away to the poor is not commanded in the Law, and Jesus isn't making up an additional commandment to move the goalposts. Rather, his injunction reveals the state of this young man's heart – clinging. Desperately.
Jesus is asking him to give up his identity as the rich young man who keeps the Law, and to exchange that ego for instability, weakness, and social illegibility. In reality, he's telling the young man how to truly be free, but the young man has neither the wisdom nor the will to understand that yet.
Time and again in his teachings Jesus emphasizes how costly it is to follow God. He says that you must "take up your cross," and to "let the dead bury the dead." He warns us even that we will be persecuted just as the prophets were who spoke the truth that people didn't want to hear. In these challenging commands, Jesus wants us to see that we are our own biggest obstacle – we cling to our own slavery, even against all reason.
While Jesus offers in return for our costly sacrifice the abundant life of "the well which never runs dry," explaining that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, the ego makes similar religious and existential demands from us for a costly sacrifice, but promises in exchange the legibility and security of an identity.
After all, what is worship without sacrifice?
What is a disjunct without a decision?
What is commitment without a cost?
A howling demand echoes from our depths, buried underneath layer after layer of images which we have accumulated to protect us. Like a dragon curled on heaps gold deep in the heart of the mountain, the ego roars for more. The lack which crouches at the core of our identity demands that we...?
It simply demands.
The naked force of the demand to do something, anything! This abyssal call is the infinite demand of the ego. The ego’s infinite demand addresses us with all the force of the mystery of the Other’s desire, and all the violence of a hungry void.
The infinity of the ego's demand is directly proportional to the impossibility of the object which causes it – the desire of the Other (object a). We stare into this void of the "what do you want from me?" and the "what am I to you?," utterly unable to provide an answer, but feeling that we must answer. We feel that we absolutely cannot allow this indeterminacy to persist.
However, the Other's desire remains an enigma for the subject, because the Other's desire is a mystery to the Other as well. We have talked about how desire is a lack which pushes, not a quality of objects which pulls. Thus, the Other's desire cannot provide the answer, for it too is simply a lack which pushes, and yet this void of the Other's desire elicits from us this experience of needing to answer nonetheless.
In the place of this gnawing question about what we mean to others, we construct an idol. We take recourse to the realm of fantasy, where our imagination can employ myriads of images to synthesize a mental object for us to identify ourselves with. We hold up the idol, proclaiming, "at last! this is me! this is who I am!" We enshrine the object in our hearts, and now we have fallen into the snare.
The ego is an idol we construct in the mind, and we bow down to worship it just the same. This devotion to the ego emerges as a response to a demand which we experience with such intensity and authority that it seems to us to issue from a deity. So we bow down to the object which we erected, hoping that it will provide us with the gifts we so desperately desire.
We worship an image, and what is worship without sacrifice?
As priests in the house of Baal, we must bleed.