Subtle Idolatries

Theological Thursday 

I am an idol worshipper.  I don’t mean to be, or set out to craft golden calfs and prostrate myself before them.  It’s more unintentional…a blasphemy that creeps  unconsciously. 

Every time I’ve thought, “Lord, I could fix a lot of problems if You let me win the lottery,” or “Things would be better–life would really begin–if I had a wife,” I’ve misplaced my hope and devotion.  Does it really matter if I reference those good things through God, and rightly see the Holy Spirit as their source? 

A part of me says, “No”.  I esteem them too highly.  The moment they take any measure of appropriate attention  from God, I have idolized them.  I’ve ascribed salvific power to something other than my Beloved.     

It’s possible fallen humanity is prone to idolatry more than any other sin.  That could be one reason the very first commandments have to do with idolatry.  It certainly begins to make sense when you watch commercials.  Pick a product, whether it’s a brand of soda or the V-cast music service, and you’re likely being given the message that having this thing will transform your life, make everything whole and complete.  We know the reality is far from the propaganda.  

Idolatry has much deeper roots.  It can grow not only from misplaced hope, longing, or corrupt desire, but also from need.  From the moment sin marred the fabric of creation, every human has known unconsciously that the world is not quite what it should be, and that we need saving.  Some seek that salvation in the accumulation of wealth and power.  “It’s all about the Benjamins,” they say, and money’s (false) power to insulate us from chaos or distract from conscience.

Others seek it in sexual gratification or an “ideal relationship”.  You know the kind, the one that “completes me”.  And so they bounce back and forth between lovers, in and out of marriages, from church to church or group to group.      

Still others cling to a “belief system” or political ideology.   In some ways, whether Marxist socialism or unfettered capitalism, the ultimate goals aren’t different (maximum happiness for the most people), just the means of attaining them.  Or pick the political party or candidate of your choice, “If only John Public were in power instead of Dubya (or Clinton, etc.).”

Every election cycle brings a fresh crop of false Messiahs, invariably promising more than they could possibly deliver.  

But our idolatries aren’t confined to what we think can save us or bring happiness.  They manifest themselves also in what we think will destroy us.  It is simple fact that every age of humanity has had groups and individuals who believe they are living in “the Endtimes”.  Whether by flood or fire, nuclear war, pestilence and “super diseases”, meteor collisions, holes in ozone layers, decimated rainforests, or global warming, look to the thing someone claims will destroy the world and you will find idol-worship.  

Why can it be idolatrous to invest too much of yourself into “saving the world”?  I’ll not spend time on the obvious connection with the sin of pride, or the wrongness of thinking you can or should take the place of Christ.  Activism of any type can cross the boundary from faith into despair, from hope to doomsaying, from love into self-righteous autocracy over those labeled as “misguided”, “ignorant”, or “stupid”. 

Extreme social activism is particularly bothersome for the Christian, because we of all people should know our human propensity to sin and weakness, the Lord’s sovereignty over heaven and earth, and our God’s habit of manifesting saving power and grace through our weakness.  In the words of today’s first reading, from the Book of Daniel (Dan 6: 27-28):

“For he is the living God, enduring forever; his Kingdom shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be without end. He is a Deliverer and Savior, working signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, and he delivered Daniel from the lions’ power.”

Are you a person of faith, or not?  Do you have so little faith in God you believe driving cars and heating homes will overwhelm and destroy what He has made?  Do you believe God would allow two people (Russian and American presidents) on a world of 6 billion to   nuke everything into oblivion? 

Where is that fine line between our very real power, and God’s respect for free will?  Between responsibility for our actions and saving, amazing grace?  The fact is we do not know what is in the best interest of the world, or what God uses to provide for us.  Time and again in sacred Scripture what looks like evil and doom in fact is God’s will,  for our ultimate good. 

Take the Crucifixion of Christ, which having been hinted at on the way to Jerusalem, evokes Peter’s exclamation, “Never Lord! This will never happen to you!”

Peter’s love for Christ and sense of right recognized that perhaps no greater injustice could be done than to kill Christ.  And yet we find Jesus rebuking Simon, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16: 22-24)

Again, in today’s Gospel reading we find another example of how we can get it wrong.  In Luke 21: 20-28, Christ speaks of a time when Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and “desolation”, of a “time of punishment, when all the Scriptures are fulfilled…[and] a wrathful judgment upon this people.  They will fall by the edge of the sword“.  This is most certainly not the “peace” and absolute “non-violence” envisioned by the modern peace movement.  But then again, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you.  Not as the world gives (peace) do I give.” (John 14:27)

There may be a brand of “non-violence” that, while good-intentioned, is totally contrary to God’s will, and indeed stands as an obstacle to real and lasting peace.  Salvation cannot be fulfilled without the time of war Christ told us would precede (and in one Gospel “must come to pass before”) his Second Coming, and the true establishment of peace. 

To persist in anything (even that which is normally good), when it does not conform to the will of God, eventually becomes poisonous.  And so it is with our subtle idolatries.  Praise be to the one who taught us to pray, and his example of obediently insisting, “not my will, Father, but Yours be done”.   

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