Tuesday, March 27, 2012

idolatry as the veneration of a self-interested ideal

The individual is godless if he fabricates religion in his own interest, for the sake of his own happiness. God must be worshipped for the sake of God.

... Paul emphasizes the absurdity of idolatry. It is absurd to put the individual, under the law of death, in the place of God, because in doing so it is not even the human and the animal that are worshipped, but only their likeness. This likeness is no reproduction of living beings at all, it is merely able to copy the outline of the form, the lines shaping their figure.

Romans: The Righteousness of God
Adolf Schlatter, Hendrickson Publisers (c) 1995
page 40

... it is a lie arising from selfish covetousness, if the individual makes his image to be God's image and his lust to be God's will.

page 43 (ibid)


Though the fig tree does not bud
   and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
   and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
   and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
   I will be joyful in God my Savior.

from Habakkuk 3

It sticks with me that, as Schlatter puts it, it is from the selfish covetousness of the individual that he makes God in his own image and makes his lust God's will. He fabricates a religion in his own interest and for the end of his own happiness.  He ends up worshipping not even the created things but merely the outline of their likeness.  If we were to put this scandal in religious terms we could say that the idolator does not have true regard for the Church but for his idea of what the Church ought to be.  He does not idolize a real marriage if he idolizes marriage at all, but the template from which he thinks his marriage should be modeled.  If he idolizes offspring he may not idolize his flesh and blood offspring whose diapers he must change year after year as what he believes, in anticipation, his offspring will be for him.  He idolizes not his real spouse but the ideal she will accomplish for him. 

In the past I have written about how the trouble with idolatry is that idolatry promises us immediate results where as in Christ we are admonished to wait patiently for the Lord.  It is not yet seen what we shall be through the goodness of Christ and so we are urged to wait.  Idols promise something to us swiftly and readily. We are all too often tempted to accept the offer but what is offered by the idol is an ideal that cannot even be realized in the here and now.  The idol is the ideal of something that ultimately cannot exist in this life, anywhere. 

The idol is measured by our sacrifices and though it is axiomatic that the idolator sacrifices himself or herself to the object (or concept) of veneration there is something else we are apt to forget in our age in which we imagine we are beyond the petty and not-so-petty cruelties of earlier epochs.  Worship involves sacrifice and the sacrifice frequently takes the form not only of a "what" but a "who". It's easy to talk about the "what" of your time or your money or your emotions or your devotion you sacrifice in the pursuit of this or that idol. 

Yes, yes, all those things are involved but let's not forget that a sacrifice to an idol will often also involve a "who", a "who" that is generally not us.  In such sacrificial veneration of an idol the person who is sacrificed to the idol is considered an offering that is both inevitable and necessary.  There's nothing else for it, the god/s must be appeased and whomever has to be sacrificed along the way just needs to accept fate already.  There's no one else who happens to be fit for such sacrifice and if a person offered on the altar to this god objects then so much the worse for their failures of piety. 

It can be easy to say that the obvious sins Christians fret about are ones in which sacrifices are required (and we know they are).  But those are not the only idols to which humans are sacrificed.  It's easy to speak in the abstract about how religious the Pharisees were and how terrible religion is while pumping for a religious institution.  Jesus warned the disciples that there would come a time when those who killed them would be sure they were doing God Himself a favor. Better that one man should die than the whole nation perish.  Better to sacrifice the life of that one man who is a trouble-maker anyway and is going to ruin everything for God's divinely appointed people than to let him promote these ideas that destroy everything the leaders have worked so hard for.  That doesn't sound too familiar does it?  Nah, no ostensibly Christian churches really make human sacrifices these days to further or protect their legacies.

When Abraham prepared his son for sacrifice he said God would provide the sacrifice.  And God did.  In one of Wilfred Owen's more memorable poems he subverts what we know about the story by showing us an Abraham who chose to sacrifice Isaac anyway and finds in that a metaphor for how the nations of Europe chose to massacre each other in a battle to see who would have more rights to rule over non-Europeans. 

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

There are people who will say the nice, Christian thing and talk about how Christ is our atoning sacrifice.  This won't necessarily stop the same people from choosing to sacrifice someone for the sake of the thing they must have. If you're going to consider the sin beneath the sin the way some Christians do; if you're going to entertain the possibility that you have an idol and some unconfessed sin in your life; then don't just consider the sacrifice of "what", consider the sacrifice of "who". 

In Jesus' instruction about proper worship your gift can wait at the altar while you reconcile with your brother.  Being reconciled to your brother who has a grievance against is more important than the piety of your sacrifice. In your own attempt to get what you want your idol will tell you that you can't afford to delay making your sacrifice. You can't just leave your gift at the altar.  It must be given!  If the making of the sacrifice has to be your brother's expense and heedless of the grievance he has against you then, well, so be it. Maybe you overdid things, you're not perfect, but you've got to offer that sacrifice anyway. It might even be yourself that's on the altar and you may consider it inevitable and necessary. That doesn't mean it is.

If religious institutions can become idols it is the reputation, the likeness of the institution, to which and for which sacrifices must be made.  Here Paul, as Schlatter has observed, zeroes in on the folly of idolatry.  The sacrifices are made not to the things themselves but the outlines of their form, the blueprints upon which the thing might hypothetically be made.  Money must be given, people must be forsaken. Give til it hurts.  Of course it is good to give and to be generous and I would encourage people to give to causes they believe in.  But giving to the ideal, the idea of the thing you're giving to is not the same as what you give to. 

One of the tragedies of history was that Schlatter condoned National Socialism.  This bitterly disappointed Bonhoeffer and yet Bonhoeffer was disappointed because he respected Schlatter's insight.  It made Schlatter's inability to grasp the evil lurking within National Socialism all the more astonishing for Schlatter's ability to write "We do not remove our share of evil by condemning evil in others." But as Schlatter himself observed (page 47), "But knowledge does not liberate him from practicing sin. Knowledge alone does not save him; on the contrary it renders him guilty, for his knowledge does not prevent him from practicing that which he condemns ... ." It is one of terrible plights of the human condition that having condemned something in others we turn out to be guilty of it ourselves. We may yet muster the moral outrage to condemn the debtor of a large sum in spite of our continent of debt.

Yet many who would consider that inexcusable now will look the other way when religious leaders (or secular leaders) permit sacrifices of living people to be made for the sake of causes they decide are worth that sacrifice.  If we fail to appreciate our own ability to fall prey to this tempation then we will stumble over the revolutionary instruction in Paul's letter--the revolution is not necessarily just who Christ is but that the sacrifice we offer is ourselves and not animals, ourselves and not others. 

We are admonished to consider others as better than ourselves and there is no need to sacrifice others for the sake of making an offering to the mere likeness of whatever it is we claim shall make us truly and fully human.  We do not have to demand of others that they sacrifice things in order to demonstrate to us their full humanity.  Because identify was found in Christ in a way that transcended family Paul could legitimately instruct regard and respect among family members while also demonstrating that family was not the ultimate good.  Paul could instruct the married to respect and cherish each other while also demonstrating that the unmarried were not less human for having no earthly "legacy" to defend.  With the world passing away such legacies will all end and at the end of life so ends the marriage. Christ Himself became the sacrifice for us so that we no longer need to sacrifice to idols which are the mere likeness of created things and be enslaved to that.

The most pernicious form of deceit within us is if we fashion God into our own image and make our own desires to be the will of God for us.  The most dangerous idols are the things we claim are endorsed by Christ Himself. As Schlatter put it, the great deceit is when we remake God in our image and consider our lusts to be His will. In the Old Testament lust was associated with the adultery of idolatry, not merely just adultery or sexual sin.  Lust is that thing through which you are tempted to make someone else the sacrifice rather than yourself. Lusting after other gods is a common warning in the Old Testament.

If you wonder if you struggle with an idol in your life think about this, is there something for which you are willing to sacrifice another person for?  Is there an idea, a someone, a something, the mere idea of which spurs you to cast off obstacles? Well, you may feel heavy-hearted about it, you may feel it is a sad occasion but you feel more strongly than any regret or remorse that the sacrifice must be made and if that sacrifice involves the life and livelihood of someone then that's sad but necessary and inevitable for what you want.  Stop and ask yourself why and for what this sacrifice of a person must be made and you may be on to what your idol is. 

If the crux of Paul's ethical instruction in Romans is to tell them they must offer themselves up as living sacrifices perhaps a contrast in worship we overlook in Paul's instruction is an awareness that in idolatry people very often offer up something or someone else as that sacrifice. To get all christus exemplar here Christ offered Himself as the sacrifice and that is the model we are enjoined to follow.  As Christ offered Himself as a living sacrifice so should we and if there is any place in our lives where we don't do this, well, that might be where we learn that we need to stop sacrificing others to the gods we have. 

I'm not even going to pretend I have any clear idea how that works at a practical level.  This is more a rumination on Schlatter's rumination on the nature of idolatry as described by Paul.  I'm not a preacher so there's no applicatory section here.

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