Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Idolatry of Ourselves

One January during the Interim Term, I went to Thailand with a group from Birmingham-Southern College. I had never been to a country whose predominant religion was something other than Christianity, and I was fascinated with the temples, statues, and monks on display. Although I cannot quite remember all of the details, I do remember that one of our classmates found the Buddha statutes offensive. Under his breath and out of earshot of our teacher, he mumbled something about idols and idol worship. Actually, Buddhists do not worship the statues of Buddha any more than Christians worship the cross, but, at the time, that did not seem like helpful information to share with my theologically concerned friend.

The prohibition on idol worship is a fundamental part of the Jewish faith, and it was important enough to be enshrined as the second of the Ten Commandments. In those ancient days, making a graven image to facilitate worship was a common practice in the Near East, but the Israelites were to be different from their neighbors thus they were forbidden to make any carved image of anything at all. It seems that the temptation to associate divine power with a beautiful statue was so great that statues themselves were outlawed, Moses made that clear when he spoke to his people in today's reading from Deuteronomy: “Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure” (4:15-16).

We live in a different time. I have never looked at a statue and felt the urge to fall on my knees in worship no matter how grandiose or gorgeous it was. These days, the lifelessness of carved stone and cast metal is a universally accepted premise. Idolatry seems to be one of those things that fell out of fashion long ago, yet I believe the temptation to cast God in an image of our own creation is as powerful today as it has ever been. Nowadays, however, I will suggest to you that the preferred form is what we see in the mirror—the idolatry of ourselves.

W.W.J.D.—what would Jesus do? The answer is usually whatever we think is right. What is God’s will for a particular situation? One hardly needs to bother asking God because so many people here on earth already seem to know. Does it surprise us that God always seems to be on the side we are supporting? I cannot imagine a successful politician exclaiming, “I doubt that God would approve of this initiative, but I still believe that I am right.” Our problem is not that we worship golden calves but that we make God in our own image—the prideful reversal of our own createdness.

In a world of increasing discord, we desperately want to be right, and we will do whatever we can to convince others and ourselves of the rightness of our cause. Human nature, therefore, leads us to claim God for our side, but, as that instinct takes hold in our hearts, we quickly find ourselves worshipping a god of our own creation. Let Moses’ words be a reminder to us: “Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely.” God cannot be contained in a statue, nor can his will be encapsulated in a campaign slogan. We are called to worship Almighty God—God of all time and space. To do so, we must leave behind all of the constraints we would impose on God and instead allow God to transform us back into his image.

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