Brief Statement of Faith: Unmasking the Factory of Idols
Part of a series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here
- In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
- To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
- To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: see below
- To hear the voices of peoples long silence: forthcoming
- To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: forthcoming
- In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive: forthcoming
- To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
- Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
“To unmask idolatries in Church and culture”
This is one of my favorite lines in the creed. Well, maybe second after hearing the voices of those long silenced… but we’ll get there in the next installment. It’s part of why I love this section. It’s power-packed.
John Calvin is known for many things (it’s up for debate if they add up to him being famous or infamous). One such thought that sticks with me is the idea that humanity is a factory of idols. And just because everyone should be subjected to some Calvin here is a larger piece of that quote (skip it if long posts make you break out in hives):
Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God…. To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth…. Daily experience teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God. (Institutes of Christian Religion 1.11.8)
I’m also reminded of anthropology courses in college reading the work of the late Joseph Campbell (one of the world’s leading authorities on myth… you absolutely MUST watch his interviews with Bill Moyer one day) and particularly his work on the masks of God. In a nutshell we cannot approach the infinite mystery that is God and so we created masks of God… stories, icons, etc. Campbell warns we must not, however, mistake the mask for God. This is the trouble. We stop short after a while and stop seeking the God beyond the mask we created and we settle for the mask alone. This is when an icon becomes an idol. That which is meant to point beyond itself to the larger holiness of God becomes not a launching platform, but a stopping place. We sit and worship that which was never meant to be the object of worship but only subject or tool or way to worship a larger reality beyond it. We become limited by a particular reality of God to the larger holiness and wonder of God.
Take Moses for example. There is a lot going on here that could be unpacked in a whole book but let’s just focus in on one aspect of the conflicted way Moses becomes a mask of God for the Israelites: the golden calf. We all know that the Aaron and the Israelites melt down their gold to make a calf to worship as their god. But do you recall why? What is it that they lack that drives them to create a god of gold?
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (full story in Exodus 32)
The people miss Moses. They aren’t feeling a need to make gods to replace God. They are feeling a need to replace Moses, their mask of God (Moses even wears a veil to protect them from the reflected glory of God). In his prolonged absence they need to replace the mask (Moses) that had already become their god in the place of God, the God of Abraham and Isaac.
I could speak a long time on idols. Let us have that suffice. I think what we need to hold on to is this (which is by no mean all there is to say):
- Idols are human, and thus limited, creations.
- Idols become objects of devotion or devoted-ness.
- Idol devotion is the worship of a particular reality to the exclusion of the larger work and being of God.
- Idols often start out as good things, may even still be good things. The problem isn’t the idol – it’s how we choose to relate to it.
Church and Culture
I love that the Brief Statement names idols of Church. We can so easily fixate on the problem that is culture. But first and foremost the idol factory is the Church itself. After all it’s the Church that is a type of vehicle for the worship of God. It stands to reason then that the Church is the most in danger of relating in unhealthy devotion to a limited representation of God. We are in the God-people business, but how easily does that become being in the Church-people business?
Culture isn’t left out, nor should it be. The Church always lives in context. And the Church is, I think, never more than a subculture within the larger potting soil of the culture in which we live and have our being. Culture too presents objects of devotion. They are perhaps more slippery because they do not claim to be gods, and yet they crave your full attention and allegiance, and billions of dollars are spent in evangelism. Just start watching TV commercials but imagine you are watching an advertisement for community of faith. What god are they selling you? What way of life are they trying to convince you that you yearn for?
This hardly scratches the surface but we create idols of parenting styles, of sports, academics, success, and achievement. Anything that seeks your whole attention as a goal in and of itself to the exclusion of a larger reality is, in some way, seeking to become and idol and object of devoted-ness. The world is a factory of idols – good, bad, and indifferent – the question is how we choose to relate to them
I’ve said enough. Whatever work here that was mine is done. Connect the dots now. What are the idols we need to unmask among us? And what’s more – how can we unmask God from the idols of our well-intended creation? What are we devoted to, to the exclusion of a wider reality, a larger circle of love, and deeper sense of connection to all life?
This is our task, to know that we will seek out idols. We will create them. We will find ways to make the infinite finite and we will worship short of the full mystery and wonder of God. But, with the Spirits help, we can also seek out idols to unmask them, to undo them, and to release the infinite creativity of the divine from the trappings and cages and limited understandings we possess.
What unmasking is the Spirit calling upon you to do in your life: your community, your church (and our Church), and the wider world in which we live and have our being?