To live in the modern Western world is to live where the public square is determinedly secularized. The players in the square in America, for example, might be deeply religious in private, or actively pursuing forms of spirituality at home, but the prevailing social mindset is that in the public arena those convictions are not mentioned. There the problems and dilemmas of society, e.g., issues like the economy, education, technology, judicial reform or immigration should be discussed and solved without any reference to the divine. The divine can be mentioned if the discussion is about one’s personal, private life, but not as an essential part of finding a solution to pressing national or regional questions. So, though appealing to some ancient philosopher as an authority might be deemed acceptable, even admirable in the public square, appealing to an ancient prophet isn’t considered equally authoritative, unless the quote is entirely devoid of religious content.
Read in this context the Bible’s repeated and passionate warnings of false gods, idols and idolatry can seem rather quaint. Who today does what the prophet here warns against?
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:9-20)
But readings like this should not seem quaint to the Christian mind. The modern public square is rife with idols, even though they may not be named as such and even though they may take a different form. Essential to Christian faithfulness is the ability to spot the idols of the present day and the danger they pose. The danger they pose not merely to others, but to us.
Read the prophetic text again, and this time see the description as a metaphor for human beings establishing something to which they will defer, for which they will sacrifice things, and which will give their life meaning, direction and purpose. When modern people form an ideology or choose something like work, power or fame as their central focus and allow it to shape their convictions, views and values, they do with ideas exactly what Isaiah describes doing with a piece of wood.
Physical idols—statues of gods, goddesses and spirits—and the religious rituals that accompany them can be hard for modern people, both Christian and secular, to fathom. That is changing, however, because modernity includes globalization that has prompted a migration of people and religious traditions into the Western world that not too long ago seemed to exist only very far away.
Forty minutes from my home, for example, is the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, an elaborate and impressive 43,000 square foot, $9.5 million structure on 80 acres in Maple Grove, MN. It is striking to be driving past fields of soybeans and corn to suddenly catch a glimpse of the 65-foot high temple, adorned with intricately carved images one expects to see in India but not in Minnesota. The temple includes several shrines that house images of gods, the largest dedicated to Sri Vishnu, one of the most widely known and revered deities in Hinduism.
Will the growth of Hinduism in the Western world cause people here to see statues and the rituals surrounding them in new ways? Will Westerners begin to find them attractive? Time will tell. Eastern philosophy has long exercised an attraction for Americans, though in my experience it is Buddhism and the meditative traditions of Hinduism that has been most popular.
It’s worth noting that temple tours are conducted regularly and visitors are welcome, something Christians in this area would be wise to include in the mentoring of young believers. It’s a chance to learn, to civilly interact with neighbors who believe very differently than we do, to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, discover what makes Hinduism attractive to so many, explore how worldviews shape cultures, and to dig down into what we believe, why, and the difference it makes. Hinduism is now woven into the fabric of American society, and acting as if it doesn’t exist next door is foolish.
Still, I suspect that the most dangerous idolatries are the hidden ones, the cultural norms and secular ideologies that we are so comfortable with that we don’t worry about them, if we notice them at all. And when we notice them we seldom see them as idolatries, but imagine them to be merely ways of thinking about and seeing the world. In that light we imagine them to be neutral, not part of a great seething spiritual war in which principalities and powers clash with the hosts of the Lord.
A clue to how we see all this wrongly can be found in a simple thought experiment. It is this: Why is it that Christians in America are more comfortable with secularists than with pagans or Hindus? Part of the reason, of course, is that most Christians have spent more time with secularists than with pagans and Hindus. Fair enough, and it is true that putting a face and a relationship with a label transforms our understanding. In that sense it is good that Christians are comfortable with friendships with secularists. We need to be. Still, as I’ve talked to Christians about this, it seems that having dinner with a group of secularists from work is just normal, but we worry that something “weird” might occur during dinner hosted by serious pagans or Hindus. The feeling is that we have more in common with secularists than with pagans and Hindus. But of course that isn’t true; pagans and Hindus share far more in common with the Christian worldview than secularists do. Pagans, Hindus and Christians believe in prayer, healing, spiritual beings and powers, evil spirits, the supernatural, revelation, an afterlife, and the divine, while secularists reject them all. Some secularists even consider believe in such things to be delusional, intolerant, and socially dangerous. My point is a simple one—could it be that our comfort with secularists make us blind to the dangers posed by secular ideologies?
Secular ideologies are all around us, woven into our national discourse, shaping political agendas, animating political parties, and defining people’s convictions. They can be attractive and helpful in part, because they partake of some aspect of created reality. Libertarianism, for example, correctly insists on the value of individual freedom and responsibility. Consumerism correctly realizes that we all are by nature consumers and that what we consume matters. So to that extent Christians will find points of agreement. The problem is that each of these –isms then take their basic insight and make it into a philosophy for all of life. At that point each secular ideology, whether nationalism, consumerism, politicization, libertarianism, conservatism, or socialism become idolatries, and we give ourselves to them at our peril.
“Little children,” St John tells us, “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). He must have known how easily seduced we are by idolatry to have inserted that statement into his letter. If we live in a world where idols exist, in other words, we must beware.
The process of globalization has brought near some idolatries that used to reside across the ocean. The process of secularization has multiplied ideologies that have assumed greater significance in the national discourse as Christianity has receded in importance. And recent events across the West in the early 21st century have caused one ideology—nationalism—that has long seemed limited to a small xenophobic minority on the fringe of society to break into the mainstream.
Christian faithfulness includes discerning the secular ideologies around us, so that we see with clarity where we agree and where we must, civilly and respectfully disagree. One place to begin is with David Koyzis’s superb Political Visions and Illusions. He shows how secular ideology is idolatrous and then examines five prominent modern ones (liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism) before going on to propose a distinctly Christian alternative approach.
Speaking about such things today can be tricky. Idols, idolatry, false gods—these are religious terms, of course, but they speak to a common human reality. Whether consciously or subconsciously, there is always something, or someone that commands our allegiance, defines our beliefs and shapes our values. So what we are really talking about is the danger of focusing our life and affections on something unworthy of bearing such significance. In Counterfeit Gods, Timothy Keller says that our fondest daydreams reveal our hidden idols.
The true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention. What do you enjoy daydreaming about? What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement? Or material goods such as a dream home? Or a relationship with a particular person? One or two daydreams are no an indication of idolatry. Ask rather, what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart? [p. 168]
Idols are false gods but that does not mean they are powerless. Whatever shapes our values will have an impact on how we live, our choices, relationships, and priorities, and that in turn will impact those around us, for good or for evil, and that in turn can change the culture.
One need not be religious to appreciate the issue. Centering our deepest affections on the wrong things, taking something small and elevating it to the status of the Ultimate is a danger easily recognized by anyone who thoughtfully observes how human beings live. No one can live without some center or focus, some cherished end and purpose that shapes our ambition, even if we seem singularly unambitious to those who have adopted different ends.
A man may center his life on his job, and sacrifice (another religious term) his family for it. A woman may climb over the backs of fellow employees to get ahead, and surrender her humanity and healthy relationships in the process. These two examples involve things—work and advancement—but ideologies can fulfill the same function. Consumerism, for example, not only argues (correctly) we are all consumers, but makes consumption central to life, becoming a measure of our worth, a basis for our values, and a standard for our direction in life. It tells us that buying something can help get us out of the doldrums, and that updating our things makes us feel aware and in touch. Ideologies have the added advantage of being systems of thought, philosophies of life defended by pundits and thinkers and so seem to have added gravitas. “Idolatry distorts our feelings,” Rev Keller says.
Just as idols are good things turned into ultimate things, so the desires they generate become paralyzing and overwhelming. Idols generate false beliefs such as ‘if I cannot achieve X, then my life won’t be valid’ or ‘since I have lost of failed Y, now I can never be happy or forgiven again.’ These beliefs magnify ordinary disappointments and failures into life-shattering experiences [p. 148]
We love these things, believe them worthy of attention, serve these things and follow their implicit dictates for our time and priorities. In other words, we worship them.
As a Christian I would argue this is—intrinsically and essentially—a religious issue, that every person worships something or someone. Human beings are worshipping beings. What we worship—or adore as of ultimate significance to give us meaning and our lives direction—will be either for blessing or curse, for flourishing or destruction. I do not mean that we must use religious terms to talk about it. Secular friends need not adopt religious terminology to observe the reality of it, but the conversation will naturally invite some creative mention of how Christian faith speaks so intelligently to this very vital human issue.
As we get to know someone and prove we are safe for honest conversation about the things that matter most, questions about this issue suggest themselves:
What are you living for?
If someone from another planet visited earth and watched you for a month, what evidence would they see that you, in fact, live for what you claim you live for?
Why are you living for it?
Who do you know or heard about that lived for this?
Is there a religious, philosophical, or cultural tradition, or ideology that defines what you are living for and captures your perspective on life?
What difference does it make in your life? How does it determine or shape your priorities, use of time, values, lifestyle, politics, etc.?
What are you willing to sacrifice for it?
Would you commend it to me, to live for it as well?
Hard questions, serious questions, questions we must be prepared to answer with honest humility if we are to ever earn the right to pose them to others. Our answers should be thoughtful and creative, not triumphant, inauthentic, formulaic or in language inappropriate for those outside our tribe to understand and appreciate.
One reason these questions are so hard is because try as we might, our heart and affections are never utterly pure. As a Christian I truly want my end and purpose in life to be glorifying and enjoying God, but it is easier to say that than to live it. The difficulty increases when fatigue sets in, when the pace of things picks up, when choices seem to be between equally ambiguous options, and when I am suddenly faced with something for which I am not prepared.
They are also hard because even if it occurs on a subconscious level, the pressure to adopt an ideological perspective on political, economic and social issues is relentless. This is true even in some Christian circles, where fellowship is predicated on one’s political convictions or association as well as theological conviction. It is astounding that the unity of Christ’s body might be fractured over how someone votes, but it does reveal the immense power of ideologies to attract passionate worshippers.
“Christ is the answer” is a truth that too easily becomes a truism. Some unduly assume that if enough individual persons accept Christ as Savior, the restoration of social and political structures will follow as a matter of course. Others improperly attempt to use the state apparatus to effect a broader social transformation that can come only with multiple efforts from a variety of directions. Moreover, the crusading mindset risks not only underestimating the opposition, but harnessing Christian faith to one of the very ideological visions [popular in the public square].
However, the assurance of God’s ultimate victory means, not that we are excused from the hard work of fleshing out the command to do justice in his world, but that we know the end of the story in advance. We do not know quite how the twists and turns in the ongoing plot will contribute to the final chapter, despite the efforts of some Christians to seek such knowledge. We cannot know how soon Christ will return to bring his kingdom to its promised plenitude. It may be tomorrow. It may be a thousand years from now. Nor can we know the extent to which our own fallible labors will contribute to its advance. But we do know that the finale will come and that God sees fit to use these frail efforts of ours for his own purposes and glory. In short, every act of doing justice, whether in the political realm or in any other realm of human activity, is a signpost to the coming of God’s final reign of justice over the new heaven and new earth. [Koyzis, p 267]
Regardless of being hard, the questions about what we are living for and why are too important not to answer. And to take the time, in community, to translate our answers so we can speak about them in the public square in a way that our non-Christian friends and neighbors might be able to understand and appreciate. And to identify the idols that populate our world, name what makes them attractive, and how we might keep ourselves from them.