Faith and Idolatry

I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.

Exodus 20:2-5

 

One of my earliest memories of learning about our faith is sitting with my mother as she helped me memorize the ten commandments. I remember how I kept confusing the order of the ninth and tenth commandments and how she kept telling me:  “First the wife, then the goods.” I also remember, without as much difficulty, how the first commandment always felt a bit obvious and easily observed to me, and so something to recite quite perfunctorily in order to get to the rules for living that were the heart of the matter.

When, as adults however, we read the first commandment in context and with a measure of life experience, we realize it is in many ways the very heart of the matter. Believer or unbeliever, in the direction we give to our lives and the choices we make day to day, we are guided by the  God, or gods we worship. Later on in today’s Exodus passage we read that the Lord, our God, is “a jealous God.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus is a God who cannot be one of many. There is a demand on God’s part to be the sole center of our existence and affections, the one source of our actions and words. Rather than being a mere backdrop for the more immediate rules of the other commandments, the first commandment contains all the rest. Every violation of a commandment is a refusal to give the Lord our God first place in our minds and in our hearts.

In reading today’s passage from Exodus, I found myself thinking of how polytheistic I actually am in practice. The decisions I take and the choices I make, from the relatively insignificant to the larger and life affecting, I often make without reference to the “one thing necessary.” Instead of the Lord as the ground of my choice, it is often other gods: security, comfort and complaisance, the desire to be liked and approved of, power and the desire to dominate, nationalism, patriotism, or senses of ethnic, religious, or moral superiority. The list is endless. Every decision and choice we make is governed by our god of the moment. Because our God is a jealous God, our attempts to give God the place in our lives among other gods that we want God to have are, then, acts of “bad faith.” Our faith does not allow us to place God in a pantheon of our own creation.

What is termed the “jealousy” of God in Exodus is the description of our own spiritual and psychological truth. We do not have faith in God; faith in God has us. As Rowan Williams writes: “To believe in God is to be a ‘trustee’ of God’s truth. My belief is not a thing I own; I might say, truthfully enough, that it ‘owns’ me, that I am at its service, not that it is at mine.” As long as our belief is something that is ours, we shall give it the place in our life that serves our interests. God tells us through Moses, however, that we are God’s, not that God is ours. The One God cannot be contained by us or our rational and functional capacities. As Williams says, “To believe in God is to be a “trustee” of God’s truth.” The truth lies not in my view or opinion or understanding. The truth is God’s and, as a believer, I am a “trustee” of that truth.

What this means in practice is that every action of our life calls for discerning appraisal. Not only are we God’s but everything in heaven and on earth is God’s. To be a trustee or servant of the truth requires us to continually temper our pride and arrogance, to come to understand the truth of what is before us so that we might serve that truth in our words and deeds. Freedom for us, then, is an ability to stand apart from the impulses and compulsions of all the false gods that tend to dominate our unconscious and pre-reflective presence.

As a young adult in the late sixties, I was no stranger to public demonstrations. One night thousands of us marched from the Washington Monument to the White House, I found myself disturbed and even frightened as I experienced the level of control that the organizers of the march exerted over so many people. Fortunately, these leaders were well-motivated and good people. Nonetheless, I found myself frightened by the potential loss of personal responsibility I felt as part of such a “mass movement.” That loss of responsibility did not occur, but I had an unforgettable experience of the lack of freedom we are subject to when we become part of a collective. In everyday life, however, we are always subject to the influence of collectives of which we are a part:  tribe, family, community, church, state, nation. Each of these entities always has the potential to become a false god for us.

Belief in the one, true, and jealous God is hard work. To be “owned” by God and to be a trustee of God’s truth is difficult to maintain in the everyday. Even as believers we tend to forget whose we are. In our laziness we unconsciously lay claim to an autonomy that is not ours, and, in its service, we tend to relinquish our freedom by speaking and acting out of our many unconscious idolatries. The other day a friend and I were wondering aloud what it means to say one loves one’s country or one loves the church. Is it at all a shorthand for entrusting ourselves to something created rather than to God? Is it a refusal of the challenge of the first commandment by putting our faith in the god of national or ecclesial allegiance?

G. K. Chesterton wrote: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” Our needs and our attachments can lead us to a mistaken notion of “love” that makes a god of a relationship, a sense of belonging, a national or ecclesial identity. Yet, as Chesterton points out, every relationship, even one as close as child to mother, must be secondary to God’s truth which we are called in faith to hold in trust. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). All love and attachment is to take its proper place within the call of the first commandment.

To be a disciple of Jesus, to be a person of faith from the perspective of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, is to be a servant of the truth, a truth only fully known by God. This requires of us a lived humility that recognizes that neither we ourselves or anyone else has a claim to that truth. One reason that the poor are closer to the kingdom of God is their powerlessness. Power is the great intoxicant for us human beings. Even the slightest experience of power tends to lead us to create gods of ourselves, of others, and of our possessions. We come to believe that the power we have truly belongs to us, “that the kingdom and the power and the glory” are ours. We are always, as Adam and Eve, subject to the great temptation of the serpent: “You shall be as gods.”

As a young teacher, I, far too often, assumed the status of god of my classroom. It was at those moments that I would overreact to the slightest provocation or insult. It was at such moments that I showed myself capable of inflicting verbal or emotional abuse on one who countered me. Any situation of hierarchy and uneven power dynamics is potentially abusive. Pope Francis always refers to himself as a sinner and a servant. He repeatedly speaks of his inability and so refusal to judge others. I suspect he does so because of his faith. He is being a trustee of the truth that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong solely to the One God. From that place Francis is able to be a servant of the truth of God (not of one person, or group, or nation, or church) to everyone without discrimination.

Gandhian Satyagraha is thus rooted in an attitude that, in his eyes, should be fundamental to all religious practice and belief worth the name, an attitude that relativizes the claim of the self to absolute possession or absolute control. But it does not entail –as the superficial observer might think –absolute passivity or the acceptance of injustice; as Gandhi’s witness so consistently shows, it is rather that it dictates the way in which we resist. We do not resist in such a way that we appear to be seeking the same kind of power as is now injuring or frustrating us. We do not imitate anything except the truth: our model is the divine communication of what is good. But beyond this obvious principle is the further point which Gandhi implies but does not fully state: belief itself is not a possession, something acquired by the ego that will henceforth satisfy the ego’s needs for security and control. To believe in God is to be a ‘trustee’ of God’s truth. My belief is not a thing I own; I might say, truthfully enough, that it ‘owns’ me, that I am at its service, not that it is at mine. When I claim truth for my religious convictions, it is not a claim that my opinion or belief is superior, but a confession that I have resolved to be unreservedly at the service of the reality that has changed my world and set me free from the enslavement of struggle and rivalry. To witness to this in the hope that others will share it is not an exercise in conquest, in signing up more adherents to my party, but simply the offer of a liberation and absolution that has been gratuitously offered to me. When Gandhi reminded his Johannesburg audience that a promise made in the name of God was a serious matter, he was underlining for them the fact that commitment to God in their work for justice involved them in an act of renunciation in the name of truth, the renunciation of any style of living and acting that simply reproduced the ordinary anxieties and exchanges of force that constitute the routine of human society.

Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square, loc. 5832

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