You Shall Not Have Strange Gods Before Me

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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. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God. . . . Exodus 20: 2-5

At the heart of all of the commandments lies the deep truth behind the anthropomorphic designation of God as “a jealous God.” Although such expression runs counter to our modern secular sensibilities, there is profound truth in saying that God makes an absolute claim on us – “You shall not have other gods besides me.”

To live and be formed in a secular age is to be able to consider seriously the possibility of non-belief. For most of human history, we lived in the world seeing ourselves primarily in relationship to and somehow dependent upon gods or God. The world was filled with reminders of a Divine presence that was to be appeased, obeyed, worshipped, or loved. In contemporary Western culture we find ourselves in a very different position. Both religious believers and non-believers are most significantly formed by a secular form tradition. For the most part, we live in what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “dis-enchanted” world. Even believers, for the most part, do not see God in all things or all things in God.

Adrian van Kaam says that the primordial human disposition is awe. Our most distinctively human capacity is to know wonder and awe in the face of mystery. Awe is a way of knowing that realizes our relationship to that which transcends us. As with each of our great spiritual potencies, however, awe has its perverse or disordered possibilities. Van Kaam calls this “inverted awe,” which is our tendency to be in awe of ourselves and our own projects and creation. It is awe whose proper direction is toward the transcendent Mystery turned in on itself.

If to be human is to have the capacity for awe, then even the secular person must have gods. If so, what are they? If we listen to our own public discourse, we readily discover that our gods are economic, the gods of the market. It is our belief in the free market and its potential to afford us success and happiness that orders our lives. We educate for the sake of improving our income potential. Our familial and friendship relationships are largely affected by their potential to improve our wealth and social standing. Parents are most anxious about the style of life and amount of possessions they can provide for their children, and, upon the death of parents, many families experience envy, jealousy, and conflict over their share of the inheritance. We tend to choose our friends, at least in large part, dependent on how helpful they will be to our success, or how much status their presence in our lives affords us. We measure our worth in society not in terms of our contribution to the society but in terms of how successful we have become. At every turn we can recognize that it is economic considerations that have replaced for the secular person the role that relationship to God once held.

In one way, the secularization of culture is something very new and yet still not sufficiently reflected upon. We are being formed and transformed by it, but largely in ways that remain unconscious. Yet, in another way, what we experience is as old as the book of Exodus. The rejection of religious traditions does not mean the rejection of gods, for we cannot live without them.

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus says: “The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit.” (Matthew 13:22) If our awe is misdirected toward the work of our own hands, then anxiety about those works is inevitable. And thus, a vicious circle is created. The more we are anxious about our things and projects the more our distinctively human capacities are choked off. We profoundly need the “relief” of realizing that we are not God. Everything that is is given to us. We are to be grateful for it and tend it lovingly and responsibly as an inheritance for all, but we are not its source. If we could relax even for a moment, we might experience the potential in us for real awe. We might see the world we have been given beyond our part in it, and a tear of gratitude and love might begin to purify our vision.

Since what matters is immanent, and since we can figure it out, it’s not surprising that, third, “the sense of mystery fades.” God’s providence is no longer inscrutable; it’s an open book, “perspicuous.” “His providence consists simply in his plan for us, which we understand” (p. 223). Mystery can no longer be tolerated. Finally, and as an outcome, we lose any “idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings which would take them beyond the limitations which inhere in their present condition” (p. 224). We lose a sense that humanity’s end transcends its current configurations and thus lose a sense of “participation” in God’s nature (or “deification”) as the telos for humanity. But what underlay these shifts? Again, Taylor emphasizes economic-centric harmony as the new focus and ideal: “The spreading doctrines of the harmony of interests reflect the shift in the idea of natural order . . . , in which the economic dimension takes on greater and greater importance, and ‘economic’ (that is, ordered, peaceful, productive) activity is more and more the model for human behaviour” (p. 229). Like the roof on Toronto’s SkyDome, the heavens are beginning to close. But we barely notice, because our new focus on this plane had already moved the transcendent to our peripheral vision at best. We’re so taken with the play on this field, we don’t lament the loss of the stars overhead.

James K. A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, p. 50

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One Comment

  1. Thanks, John. So much to be in awe of as we continue to live alive and in right relationship with the fantastic universe and the gift of all God’s creations! And Jesus’ way of love offers so much joy.
    I’m pleased with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical. I got to read it while I was at Oratory in Rock Hill, SC for the annual Bible Institute there. Jim Connolly and Phil Spoelker were there too.
    Keep up the good work on our behalf, and take good care of yourself too!
    I’m enjoying the hospitality of the St. John’s community here in Shrewsbury. I’m here for our family’s annual end-of-July reunion.
    Love and peace,
    Paul

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