Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Christian Idolatry—A Hard Lesson

I've been re-reading Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology. I know that this is not one of the popular texts used in seminaries. You may not have even heard of him.  Jenson is a Lutheran theologian who has done extensive work on the writings of theologians like Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards.

This quote has convicted me and comforted me at the same time:

"In our communal life we discover and live by goods that are in fact valued among us, yet which none of us finds fully available to him-or herself; in our consequent longing and resentment, we project the fullness of these goods onto the screen of eternity, where such fullness may be conceived, and we then find our comfort and hope in what we there behold, that is, in our own communal values writ large. ... The true God knows we project our values onto him and so conceive him idolatrously, and is unmoved by this childishness. He is intent on giving us new values and contravening our idolatry" (53).

First the conviction: I'm grieved by how much we project the values of the broader community of our culture upon God. I've observed this in my life. We value prosperity so I've projected this upon God and he becomes the source of financial gain, even if it means that we horde, work long hours and become consumed by money. We value freedom so we turn God into one who endorses our violence against anyone who might infringe upon that freedom. (Don't presume that I'm talking about war here. This happens in our daily relationships much more than we might think. It lies at the heart of individualism.) We value power, so God is the all-powerful one who can do whatever he wants however he wants. Then if God is on our side we can share in his power and lord over others instead of serving them.

It's natural to project our communal values upon God. That's the point of Jenson's quote. When we do this, we practical Christian idolatry. We worship in orthodox ways, but the God we worship is too often an image that we project from our "communal values writ large." And when church leaders preach these communal values Christian idolatry subtly becomes a linchpin within the church.

Of course, most of us don't want to talk or read about this. It's not encouraging. It's "too negative." I don't like looking in the mirror and seeing how I've idolized things like "success" and expected God to make me and any church where I serve "successful." Looking into our hearts is hard work. When we have to think about the values of our culture and how they have crept into the church to the point that those values and the church's values look very similar is not an encouraging thought.

Now for the comfort: God's knows that we project our cultural values on him. One of the most extreme examples of this was how the German church endorsed Hitler. During the early days of Hitler's rule, Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler's agenda on broadcast radio. Before he could finish his talk, the plug was pulled. The church might have been blind to it but God was not. And he gave enough clarity to this young theologian so that he could challenge the idolatry that the church was calling Christian.

God is speaking today. And he is challenging our idolatry. The Spirit has been challenged in me. Through many tears and much falling on my face—usually with mud on it—I've come to see how God has no intention of leaving me in my idolatry. The Christian idolatry that we cannot see—which is usually that which we defend the most passionately—God unveils. He will not rest. His love for us compels him to call his people to himself to see him for who he really is.

No comments: