Friday, 12 September 2008

Idols: exchanging God’s truth for a lie

Fabulous, thought-provoking post by Richard Hall about idolatry. Calvin observed that every person is an “idol factory.” Richard reminds us that “exposing god-impostures is a perennial element in discipleship.”

But what are idols? Needless to say, they are not statues made of stone or wood! Rather idols are that to which we give our absolute allegiance; they are, in Paul Tillich’s idiom, our “ultimate concern”.

But what turns us into idol factories? Calvin makes another acute, if less well known, observation in the Institutes, paraphrasing the first century pagan Roman poet Statius: “Timorem primum, fecisse in orbe deos: fear first made gods in the world” (I.IV.4). If idolatry is the primal sin, fear is the primal negative emotion that fires it.

If this reasoning is correct, then perhaps the best way of unmasking our idols is to discover what we’re afraid of. So over the past few weeks - in casual conversations, in watching the telly, in reading the papers - I’ve been taking a little survey to see what frightens people - and then drawing some conclusions about some of the chief idols of our times.

Richard draws attention to some of the great false gods around us, powered by fear
  • fear of foreigners leads to idiot xenophobia,
  • fear of getting fat leads to the narcissism,
  • fear of insignificance leads to a cult of celebrity.
He does not stay the knife at the ecclesiastical idols — “Christianity” founded not on love, but fear of Muslims or liberals or losing family values. All I’d add to Richard’s analysis is Gregory Nazianzus’ observation: “Concepts create idols. Only wonder understands.”

The fact is, perfect love casts out fear. When people are in the grip of fetishistic alternative gods, the give-away is fear and hatred, explicit or implicit.

So — “Christianity” founded on fear of “Fundamentalism,” what is that? Christianity powered by fear of “Liberalism,” what is that? Very much less than the real thing?


Erika Baker said...


I suppose the problem is twofold. One is that people trapped in fear do not recognise it as fear, but cling so tightly to it that they find it almost impossible to accept freeing love.

The other is that there are, actually, reasons for fear certain people and their ideologies, and that it is very very hard to work through which fears are genuine and appropriate, and which ones we need to overcome.

Thank you for your challenging posts!

Anonymous said...

I wish I could take credit for this post, but it in fact it was by my friend and ocasional co-blogger, Kim Fabricius.

maggi said...

Yikes! I hope looking after yourself properly isn't going to be dismissed as narcissism now?

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