“…there is actually no such thing as atheism… Everybody worships…”

David Foster WallaceI’ve been trying to read through Infinite Jest, David’s Foster Wallace’s influential novel.  (I say trying because it’s nearly 1000 pages and, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll make it through.)  The insights he had though, before his tragic suicide, were very important for understanding ourselves and our faith or lack thereof.

Wallace was not a person of faith.  But he many helpful things to say about the nature of faith.  Maybe most importantly, is that he contends that is no such thing as “no faith”.  This may be surprising because we’re hearing about “nones” all the time, those who claim to have no faith or religious beliefs.  We may meet people who say they don’t believe in God or say they are atheist.

But is there really such a thing?  Wallace pushes back on supposed lack of belief.  In an influential commencement address he challenged the grads to look at what they truly worship in their lives.  Far from being godless, we all have ‘gods’ – those things that we choose to place our hope in and worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.  

(spoken at Kenyon College commencement, 2006 – whole thing here)

So everyone worships.  Everyone casts their trust, hope, desire onto something.  The only question is what it is.  In our secular age, some of us may think we’re free but that’s where Wallace’s warning is so important.  If we have no faith (supposedly), what we worship will be undetected by us and we won’t even realize.

I don’t know the state of Wallace’s faith or understanding of God.  The challenge he offers, though, is important for those who have faith or claim no faith.  In a certain sense, we’ve all got faith.  IT’s just a matter of what (or who) we have it in.  We’ll slip into worship of money, power, success, intellect, sex – and we’ll always risk being destroyed by them.  There is an alternative.  To worship some thing that does not destroy but will give us new life.  A True God.

The Danger of the Good

What are we more in danger of?  Idolizing something bad?  Or idolizing something good?  Where does the biggest danger lie for us?

Bronze SerpentThere’s an interesting story in Israel’s history that warns us of the danger of the good when it is lifted up over God.  Hezekiah was a decent king in a long string of mostly crappy ones.  We’re told he made a lot of efforts at reform.  He destroyed many idols of foreign gods but he also destroyed one thing that was once precious and good in the eyes of God.  He [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).  2 Kings 18:4

That bronze serpent was made according to the instructions of God.  Israel had saved it since the time of Moses.  Jesus even positively refers to it.  But in the 1,000 years between Moses and Hezekiah, something had happened.  God’s People had started to worship it as an idol; they had exalted it over God.  So, for the reform-minded Hezekiah, it had to go.

In this we see something important.  It’s not the bad things in our lives (the outright disobediences, the gross sins, the obvious idolatries) that are the sneakiest.  It is the good stuff that is most dangerous.

The Bronze Serpent was what God-had-done-for-us-back-then.  It was something good and should have been held up as something to remind them of God and His goodness.  Instead, valuing the good gift over the Giver, they worshipped it instead.

The good stuff for us (the-last-thing-God-did-for-us, our work, our family, our comfort, our ministry), even these can be lifted up over God and become idols.  The danger not being that they are bad, but precisely that they are so good.

Spirituality Can Get Pretty Selfish

Did you know that even our spirituality or religion can become a form of self-seeking?  The idolatry of self, and self-actualization, is prevalent and often shrouded in very spiritual sounding language.  Hear about it fro a wiser man than I: Peterson

Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture if Canaan is reproduced in America church culture [ed.  Canadian, too!] ?  Baal religion is about what makes you feel good.  Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it.  And of course, it was incredibly successful.  The Baal priests could gather crowds that outnumbered followers of Yahweh 20 to 1.  There was sex, there was excitement, there was music, there was ecstasy, there was dance.  “We got girls over here, friends.  We got statues, girls, and festivals.”  This was great stuff.  And what did the Hebrews have to offer in response?  The Word.  What’s the Word?  Well, Hebrews had festivals, at least!…

It’s the biggest word we have – salvation, being saved.  We are saved from a way of life in which there is no resurrection.  And we’re being saved from ourselves.  One way to define spiritual life is getting so tired and fed up with yourself you go on to something better, which is following Jesus.

But the minute we start advertising the faith in terms of benefits, we’re just exacerbating the self problem. “With Christ, you’re better, stronger, more likeable, you enjoy some ecstasy.”  But it’s just more self.  Instead, we want to get people bored with themselves so they can start looking at Jesus.

We’ve all met a certain type of spiritual person.  She’s a wonderful person.  She loves the Lord.  She prays and reads the Bible all the time.  But all she thinks about herself.  She’s not a selfish person.  But she’s always at the center of everything she’s doing.  “How can I witness better?  How can I do this better?  How can I take care of this person’s problem better?”  It’s me, me, me disguised in a way that is difficult to see because her spiritual talk disarms us.*

*  “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons”  Christianity Today, March 2005, pg 45  (quote found in G K Beale’s We Become What We Worship, pg 295.)

The Temptation of Aaron

The Consecration of Aaron (detail from the Holman Bible, 1890).  See that cow's head in the background?  That's foreshadowing.

The Consecration of Aaron (detail from the Holman Bible, 1890). See that cow’s head in the background? That’s a hint!

Sometimes a piece of art is more insightful than it first appears.  Above is an etching from the Holman Bible of 1890, an edition known for its illustrations.  It depicts the ordination of Aaron and his sons, which is the beginning of the priesthood and an all around good event.  But in the crowd there looms behind Aaron’s finest moment, a cow.  What is he doing there?  It’s not accidental or incidental that the artist put it there.  It’s a reminder, even at Aaron’s great moment, of his greatest sin.

What did Aaron do?  He made a golden calf for God’s people to worship.  In Exodus 32 we see the famous story:

…the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us [gods] who shall go before us…”

So Aaron said to them, “Take off your rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.

Aaron had the responsibility to help the people towards the True God.  That’s what makes his act all the more terrible.  He was supposed to represent God well to them, lead, and proclaim accurately.  But instead, he gave them something lesser.  He gave into the temptation to portray a lesser god.  In a sense, he gave the people what they wanted instead of what they needed.

What were they asking for?  What were they seeking to worship?  There is ambiguity as to what Israel was asking Aaron for.  Were they wanting brand new, different, pagan gods?  Or were they wanting to worship YHWH, the True God of Israel, but just in a way they had been commanded against?  (the Hebrew word Elohim is both God and gods, only context tells us which)  But what is not ambiguous is what Aaron offers.  He does not claim to give them a new god.  He even invokes God’s name.   Tomorrow shall be feast to the LORD…  He is claiming to give them the God they believe they know and already believe in.  This is far more subtle than an outright choice of a different religion.  They believe they are staying with God.  What Aaron does is far more than offer them a new god; he gives them a domesticated idol which he lets them believe is the True God.

Is this still a temptation?  As a pastor/preacher I must say that it is perennial.  It is often easier to explain, offer, proclaim a far more palatable and (wrongly) appealing god than the Only God.  So, when we preach (for those who are preachers) of God, do we proclaim Him as He is?  Or when we share about Him with others (which everybody can do), do we tell accurately of Him?  Do we shape Him to be most appealing to our audience at the expense of accuracy?  Do we lessen His demands?  Do we make Him less severe?  Do we make Him less wonderful?  Less radically gracious?  Do we change or hide anything about Him?

Do we give into the Temptation of Aaron?

God Isn’t Like You or Me… Wisdom from W H Auden

Auden has something to say but we must wait til the end of this post.

Auden has something to say but we must wait til the end of this post.

 

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  These words came into my life via an acquaintance’s Facebook page.  I had encountered similar before.  I read those words and couldn’t find any instant disagreement with them.  Of course human beings do have a built-in inclination to make God/god/gods after our own image.  It’s called idolatry and, trust me, it’s bad.  When we have prejudices and petty hatreds for people unlike ourselves that is not good.  When we assume or assert that God feels the same way as us, that’s even worse.  It is creating God in our own image.

But as I reflected for a few minutes afterwards, I started to wonder.  Where was this sentiment was aimed?   A sneaking suspicion arose that it was aimed at people who are sort of like me:  Christian (yeah, I still believe it all), conservative (for lack of a better word – certainly not politically conservative necessarily), traditional (in all the ways that are becoming more unpopular in current culture), and Evangelical (a term fraught with unwanted associations but I’m not giving up on it yet).  I don’t honestly believe I have ‘hatred’ for anybody – whether individuals or collective ‘other’.  But I do have lots of disagreement.  And if a statement like that is aimed at someone like me, then I need to receive it as a challenge.  And I do.  But I also felt obliged to challenge back.

If we can make God in our own image, that sad fact can cut both ways.  If we can make a god/gods that hate everything and everyone we do, we can also fall off the other side of the horse.  We can make a god/gods that accept, promote, tolerate everything we do.  And that’s also a sure way we’re making a god in our own image.  And the thing about idolatry is that our god isn’t the God.  Idolatry always gives us a comfortable god who already conforms to our way of looking at the world.  Our god likes what we like and hates what we hate.   But its not the True God.  The True God does hate.  He also has great love.  How can He, for example, both hate something (sin – which He gets very specific about) and love other things (sinners – no exceptions made in this area)?  Well, the answer to that lies at the heart of Christian belief – the Cross of Christ and the offer of just forgiveness made there.  But God doesn’t conform to our ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’.  God obeys neither current cultural norms nor the preferences of our individualistic hearts.  He is Who He is.  In fact, the only way to prevent making a god in our own image is to accept that reality.

One of the ways I know God is real is that He doesn’t agree with me.  I have many other reasons too – personal, rational, existential, confessional – but this one is important.  It’s also one of the reasons I believe that the Bible’s revelation of Him is true.  He doesn’t conform to me.  He has challenged (and continues to challenge) my preferred opinions about poverty and wealth, sexuality and what it’s for, who gets to be considered a human person, what faith is, who Jesus is, how I must live my life.  In fact, I’ve done a 180 in every one of those areas.  And I still get challenged to not go with the flow and choose the easier option.  If I were to make up a god, there wouldn’t be any difference between me and him.  If He’s real, though, He’ll be unlike me and perhaps the majority opinion around me.

I believe that the wisdom of W H Auden (a man whose personal faith I am not qualified to evaluate) is in order here:

“I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image. . . . None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify Him.'” -W.H. Auden

Who am I? And What Do I Worship? another self-administered test

This is a little self-test from Peter Kreeft.  It can help us determine who we are and what it is that we worship in our lives.  You can answer as quickly as you can and then check your answers with the key.

First, Some Personal Questions:

Who do think are the three greatest living persons in the world today?

1) ____________

2) ____________

3) ____________

4)  Who do you think is the most powerful person in the world today, whether for good or for evil?  ____________

Name the person you turn to first for advice and help when you have problems in each of the following areas of your life:

5)  mental health ____________

6)  marriage ____________

7)  money ____________

8)  sex ____________

9)  family ____________

10)  career ____________

Next, Some Theological Questions:

11)  Why did God create the universe?  ____________

12)  How can we know God?  ____________

13)  What is God like?  ____________

14)  Why do you believe in life after death?  ____________

15)  What is the secret of getting wisdom?  ____________

16)  How can a wicked person become righteous?  ____________

17)  How can you become a saint?  ____________

18)  When you die and meet God and He asks you why He should let you into Heaven, what will you say?  ____________

19)  What is the Church?  ____________

20)  What is the solution to the problem of war?  ____________

21)  What did St Paul know that you do not that made him such an effective evangelist?  ____________

22)  Christianity seems to be just one religion among many in the world.  How can this local, Western, Jewish, particular thing be for everyone, universally?  ____________

23)  What is Christianity?  What does it preach, say, claim, or proclaim?  ____________

Next, Some Philosophical Questions:

24)  What is truth?  ____________

25)  Define your way of life.  ____________

26)  Define “Life”.  ____________

27)  What is death?  ____________

Next, Some Psychological Questions:

28)  What is the end, goal, and purpose of your life?  ____________

29)  What is your solution to boredom?  ____________

30)  Define your true identity?  ____________

31)  Why is your identity so mysterious?  ____________

32)  What is the best cure for loneliness?  ____________

33)  What can you do when you feel tired all the time?  ____________

Finally, Two Questions To Pull It All Together:

34)  What is the last command of the last apostle?  ____________

35)  What is the most frequently disobeyed command?  ____________

source:  Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock, pages 6-35

for the Answer Key, scroll down, way down.

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Answer Key

1 – 3) Luke 24:5: If you didn’t answer “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, why not? Do you think of God as real persons or impersonal abstractions?

4)       Mt. 28:18: It’s Jesus, man!.

5 – 10) Phil. 4:19: God supplies for all your needs through Christ, not just the spiritual or religious, but all of them.

11)     Col 1:16: All of creation is through and for him. He is not just Savior of the world. He is its purpose!

12)     Jn. 1:18: All true knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Light of the World.

13)    Jn. 14:8-9: “God is love and love holds nothing back, so the Father holds nothing back in expressing himself in God, the Son.”

14)    Jn. 11:26: “Death is not a philosophical problem but a live one. Its solution is not a philosophical argument but a live person.

15 -18) 1 Cor. 1:30: Jesus isn’t merely the cause of wisdom, righteousness, sanctity & redemption… he IS our wisdom, righteousness…

19)    Eph. 1:22-33: The Church is the Body of Christ, “It is an organism before it is an organization, and incarnation before it is an institution.

20)    Jn. 14:27: Jesus is our peace.

21)    1 Cor. 2:2: “Less is more.” Catherine of Sienna once said, “Everything I know I learned at the foot of the Cross.”

22)    Col. 3:11: The Gospel is the story of the Author of the universe redeeming the universe. Hence, Christianity is truly the only universal religion.

23)    Col. 1:27-28: Our faith is all about a relationship with the Living God.

24 – 26)    Jn. 14:6: “Once again, abstractions acquire hands and feet and lips.” Jesus doesn’t just teach the way, truth and life. He IS the way, truth & life!

27)    Phil. 1:21: “If your life is Christ, then your death will be only more of Christ, forever.”

28)    Eph 4:13: “The meaning of human life is to grow up, and to grow up means to become more like Christ.”

29)    2 Cor. 5:17 (see also, Eccl. 1:9, Rev. 21:5): “Behold, I make all things new.”

30)    Gal. 2:20: To live is to love. To love is to give yourself, fully, freely, fruitfully, faithfully, forever. Anything else is death. To love is to be God-like and you are made in the image and likeness of God!

31)    Col. 3:3: Our lives are hidden in Christ, ‘We are all caterpillars (Adams) in process of transformation into butterflies (Christs).”

32)    Mt. 28:20: You are never alone. Christ is with you always.

33)    Mt. 11:28: With Christ as your center, there is no storm, no trial, nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

34 – 35) 1 Jn. 5:21: What are the idols in your life? All of us have them, money, sex, drugs, TV, shopping, etc. Each and every time you put yourself first, you act selfishly then you are placing some idol on the throne of your heart and pushing Jesus aside.

Am I an Idolater? Play 20 questions and find out.

Idols are easy to spot when they look like this.  But what do the idols in your life look like?

Idols are easy to spot when they look like this. But what do the idols in your life look like?

I couldn’t possibly be an idolater like people in the Old Testament, could I?  I don’t fashion carved images to bow down to or worship a pagan god.  I am a Christian after all…

Well, consider the last command of the last apostle, which was written to Christian people.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.                          1 John 5:21 ESV

That’s a command written to Christians, who had thought they had left their pagan practices behind them.  St John needs to remind them about the danger of idolatry because in some respects idolatry is far more subtle when you consider yourself a person of Biblical faith.

It is likely that Western people aren’t building Golden Calves or Asherah poles to worship.  But an idol can be anything that we set our desire upon more than the True Lord.  Or anything that we find our ultimate significance and security from.  Idolatry is an equal opportunity sin for all people – regardless of what they believe.

How can we spot the idols in our lives?  Here’s a twenty question spiritual diagnostic from Tim Keller.  It is helpful for both Christians and Non-Christians.  Because all people need to find out how much they need Jesus.

“LIFE ONLY HAS MEANING/I ONLY HAVE WORTH IF…

  1. I have power and influence over others.” (Power Idolatry)
  2. I am loved and respected by _____.” (Approval Idolatry)
  3. I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort idolatry)
  4. I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” (Control idolatry)
  5. people are dependent on me and need me.” (Helping Idolatry)
  6. someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” (Dependence idolatry)
  7. I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence idolatry)
  8. I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work idolatry)
  9. I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement idolatry)
  10. I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism idolatry)
  11. I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion idolatry)
  12. This one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person idolatry)
  13. I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion idolatry)
  14. My race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” (Racial/cultural idolatry)
  15. A particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring idolatry)
  16. My children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” (Family idolatry)
  17. Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship Idolatry)
  18. I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering idolatry)
  19. my political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology idolatry)
  20. I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image idolatry)

Ouch!  Let that pierce your heart a bit.

via Vitamin Z