Thursday, November 29, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 12)

Rejecting All False Gods and Loving the Lord Alone

The first step toward building a culture of faithfulness instead of a Tower of Babel is to reject all false gods. The Bible is relentless in its attacks upon idolatry. This is because at bottom there are only two alternatives in this universe. We will either love the one true and living God, or we will serve idols (see Appendix A: Two Basic Worldviews). The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, launched eloquent and devastating attacks upon idolatry (Jer 10:1-16; Isa 40:18-20; 41:7; 44:9-20; 46:5-7).

What is the remedy? It must begin with our hearts. Listen carefully to the ancient “pledge of allegiance” for Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5).

So, what are the idols of our time and place in American history? We have an eclectic pantheon of idols, which fits with our fundamental idea of freedom as personal autonomy. Each person is free to choose which idols suit him best, as long as he doesn’t reject all of these idols for the one living and true God.

Many of the lesser gods in this pantheon relate to materialism or hedonism, which is why we live in a culture of consumption – retirement, vacations, bigger houses, more stuff, debt, constant entertainment, health, physical fitness, sports, therapy, and psychological wellness (self esteem, good feelings). Also included would be perpetual talk of personal rights and a fascination with sexuality coupled with a refusal to put any parameters on it.

But as we move up Olympus to the bigger gods, we find stark testimony that the creature is attempting to replace the Creator, just as Romans 1 describes. This humanism is revealed in many ways: Democracy with a capital D (our current war on terror has provided an opportunity to make this explicit, with multiple references to making the world safe through democracy); Equality defined in egalitarian terms; Freedom defined as self-autonomy or self-fulfillment. This is why there is such a deep attachment to positive law and such a desperate commitment to education and science as a savior. This also factors into the cult of youth and the youth culture which dominates the public arena.

In the public political arguments of our time, these idolatries underlie both what Gelernter calls Americanism (“A”) and what we might call Anti-Americanism (“AA”), in the sense that it rejects the classical and theistic roots of Americanism. Both of these positions present themselves as upholding and defending true liberty, equality, and democracy. A is the general position of the Republican party, and AA is the general position of the Democratic party. AA would be called liberalism in common parlance, although it has little to do with classical liberalism. Most Christians readily and rightly dismiss AA for its obvious rejection of biblical morality. But we also must not be fooled by A, which often co-opts biblical or Christian names, forms, or terminology without the truly Christian content. This is why Gelernter can call A a “biblical religion” even though it is nothing of the sort. Men like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. are primary examples of A, and neither of them were biblical thinkers even though both appealed often to the Bible. Our nation may very well have been worse off without the contributions of these men. Nevertheless, they took many biblical ideas and used them in ways contrary to true Christianity because they divorced them from the whole biblical context, true salvation, and the Lordship of Christ. As Christians, we can be truly loyal citizens without buying into nationalism or anti-nationalism.

From a sociological perspective, Christian Smith has described the pervasive presence of “moralistic, therapeutic deism” as the de facto religion of many American young people. He summarizes this approach to life with these basic beliefs:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[i]

Once again, this fits well with the idolatries listed above. Generic god-talk is perfectly acceptable, and even praiseworthy, in a society of polytheistic naturalists. This kind of a god bows to our desires and works to make us happy and eternally blessed. And so we are right back to exalting pagan Man with his false ideas of freedom.

If we as Christians put our trust in democracy, equality, and freedom, or seek for our happiness in consumption and self-fulfillment, then we are following the society around us in its idolatry. This is the antithesis of loving the Lord our God alone. But merely rejecting idols is insufficient to build a culture of faithfulness. We must not only put off the practices of the old man, we must put on the practices of the new.

[i] Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162-63.

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