Tag Archives: Idolatry

Get out your red pen; “exclusivism” revised

…for the new Redeemer blog

Redeemer Presbyterian is starting a new blog for Seekers, or those who are considering the claims of Christianity (and other world religions).  They have offered me an opportunity to do some writing. I wrongly supposed I could simply take content from inklingz and allow them to post it on the new blog, but they’ve asked me to trim (that is, massively edit) my work.  Here’s an edit below of Exclusivism that welcomes all. I’m curious to hear if you prefer the shorter version to the original post. Get out your red pens and have at it.

An exclusive invitation for all, revised and revisited

Christianity is unique among world religions because of the unique claims of Jesus Christ. No other religious leader (of a major religion) claimed to be God or promised to destroy death; and followers of no other religion claim its leader’s resurrection. Therefore, I contend that Christianity is either “better” or much worse than all other faiths. I use the word “better” simply because Christianity is based on truth claims that supersede all other truth claims. That is, either Jesus was God and was resurrected from the dead; or not. If not, then Christianity is a farce based on lies; I accept that.  But what if?

I recognize the intellectual problem presented by exclusive truth claims particularly for thoughtful modern people (that is, True Truth or truth that is universally true for all all people at all times–The Lens through which all other truth claims must be viewed). The general form of the argument against True truth is often illustrated with a story about blind men trying to understand the full nature of an elephant. One feels its trunk and believes the elephant is snakelike. Another man feels a leg and thinks the elephant much like a tree. A third man feels the tusks and has quite a different interpretation. Each man understands a part of the elephant, but none of them has the full picture. Such is life, the argument suggests. All any of us can hope to offer is the unique understanding we derive from our experiences, but none of us can understand the full elephant, as it were. That is to say, a person’s truth claim will reflect (only) his limited understanding, but it cannot be the complete picture–it cannot be True Truth.

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Idol Hope

The story is often told that John D. Rockefeller, an oil magnate and one of the richest men of his time, was once asked when he would be happy. He is said to have replied, “When I make one more dollar.”

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.   —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.  —Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

***

I have spent some time thinking about idols recently, mostly because I find the idea to be so challenging. An idol is something, anything, our hearts desire above God—something we put our hope in and believe will make us happy. I usually have no difficulty listing those things by the handful in my life. And yet, I believe idolatry is at the very core of a lack of peace and joy that often haunts me. Since we were created for a relationship with God in which He is central in our lives, displacement of Him from that place displaces everything else. We end up with broken relationships with one another, a distorted understanding of who we are and either an over- or under-appreciation of the good things God has put in the world for us. To be sure, I mean that loving even things as good as family and friends more than God—or the other way around, even loving our own virtue or sacrifice in not valuing the things of this world—will ultimately leave us broken and disappointed.

Said another way, we were created for a “vertical” relationship with God—created to enjoy all other good things, including our “horizontal” relationships with one another (and the world around us), in light (and proper understanding) of that relationship. But we often try to make the horizontal relationships central, and everything deteriorates from there. This is the very definition of sin in the Bible. Not “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”

Anyway, all this contemplation about how very many things I am inclined to make central in my life over and above God made me realize two (perhaps?) more encouraging things about idolatry. One—we were made to worship. And two—though basically everything we worship disappoints us, they all point to the One who will not.

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The problem of good in the world (Part 3/3): the end that has begun

“The great Spanish poet, novelist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, once asked a farmer if he believed it was possible there is a God but no afterlife.  The rustic responded ‘Then wherefore God?’” (The New Criterion, Martin Garner, Nov 2008).

He came into our neighborhood—John 1:11 (Dale Bruner)

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field”—Matthew 13:44

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—Matthew 27:46

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay—Matthew 28:6

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In part 1 (here) of this series we discussed the essence of God and what it tells us about the Creation—both humanity and the natural world.  We deduced from God’s inwardly loving nature that He created us for relationship with Him—and that with a proper understanding of our relationship with God, we can move out into relationships with one another.  Because we understand God to be a loving God, we also deduced that the natural world is inherently good—and also full of good things for our enjoyment.

But in part 2 (here) we acknowledged life doesn’t always feel so good.  We feel isolated from God, suffer on earth and are left to wonder what it all means and why God would allow such pain and loneliness.  We began to consider whether we have displaced God in our lives with the pursuit of other things—all good things, but none the right shape to fill our hearts—and in so doing have severed the relationship with God for which we were built.  The problem of good in the world being that it has lured our eye from the Creator to created things.

Garner’s farmer was right in a sense, but perhaps didn’t have enough time to fully think through his answer.  Yes, if this temporal life—with so much suffering and so many broken relationships—is all there is, we are left to wonder why God bothered; wherefore God (indeed!)?  On the other hand, if there is an afterlife—that is presumably more of what God had in mind—wherefore this life?  The latter is an earth-as-purgatory approach that suggests this was the best God could do for now—but that He’s engineering something better for us later. This is a notion we dismissed here, so we’re left to consider the farmer’s question.

Wherefore, God?

There are a lot of ways one can answer this question, though we’ve dismissed a whole set of them in concluding that God is loving (part 1) and that the law is an expression of His character (here) rather than being arbitrary or dictatorial.  Much of what’s left in popular thought can be grouped into two categories that might be expressed something like:

  1. God is a means to a happy life here (or)
  2. God is the means to an afterlife

If we look closely, I think we see they’re the same thing with different objectives: God as an assistant to help us get what we want—loving and benign, but with goodies in his bag for us if we can get His attention; earning them or otherwise.  But God as a means to anything suggests that something is more important to us than God.  It’s using God to get what we treasure—not treasuring God as an end in Himself.

He came into our neighborhood

There was another man, another rustic, who had plenty of time to think the whole thing through.  He was a man of little standing like the farmer. Though civilization had awaited his promised arrival for thousands of years, he was not recognized when born amongst animals in a stable.  He was a fugitive from birth, running from those who would have him killed.  He was a wanderer with no home, rejected.  He was upright, lived a life of service calling people back into relationship with God.  He offered comfort to the afflicted, friendship to the lonely and performed restorative acts—giving sight to the blind and healing the sick. He was comfortable in the company of the irreligious; he was ridiculed by the religious. They eventually had him killed.

While on earth, he was an ordinary man in most senses, certainly fully human, but also much more.  This was Jesus, the Nazarene, a baby born of a woman, yet conceived by the Holy Spirit.  He was the promised Messiah to the Jews—the One who was prophesied to come and bring them out of exile.  Yes, He was much more than human; He was Deity who had come into to our neighborhood—Jesus Christ, part of the Triune God.

The brokenness and separation from God that results from our idolatry is not easily reversed.  We have been expelled from the Garden, as Adam and Eve were when they chose the apple over God.  Israel never made it back into the Garden, but rather spent much of its history in exile.  Like the ancients, we are on the outside trying to get back in.  We have lost the privilege of being in God’s presence.

So He came to recover His treasure

In the end, He was brought up on false charges but didn’t defend Himself.  He was stripped, mocked and beaten;  forsaken by His friends.  He was hanged on a wooden cross between two common criminals to die of asphyxiation, when he could longer get a breath by hoisting himself up by his nailed wrists and feet.

It was in this—the greatest of all defeats— that he prevailed (see also upside-down, inside-out.  It was on this day that everything changed forever.

JC was taken outside of the city, so that we could come in.  He was forsaken by God, so that we could be reunited with Him. He gave up his standing and record so that it could be credited to us.  He wandered so we could be invited home.  He was a nobody, so that we could become somebodies.  He was annihilated, so that we could be restored.

It was through Jesus’ sacrificial death that the depth of God’s love was made known; the means of exalting God to the proper place in our hearts was made simple; and the restoration of the creation was begun.

He loved us enough to give everything to have us back.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field

Though we treasured Him not, He treasured us all the more! By Jesus’ death, we see that we are God’s treasure—the thing He was willing to give everything to get.

Only by understanding this can we restore Him to the proper place in our hearts—above all the good things of this world.   Only when we reflect on the way He loves us can we begin to love Him as we should.  Only when we see the beauty of the cross can we joyfully give everything we have to be near Him again.  Only when we see that we are God’s treasure can he become ours.  The we will cherish Him to no other end except to see His face.

The end that has begun

But Jesus didn’t just die; He rose again—signaling an ultimate end to death and decay.

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

In Him, we not only find a God who understands what it’s like to suffer (beyond that which we will ever suffer!), but also the promise of an ending that has already begun.  We find in Him not only understanding as we struggle in a world that is not yet perfected, but also the assuredness that the restoration has begun!  So we can mourn our present hardships and the world’s suffering with hope.  We can groan with Creation itself for the day when all sad things will come untrue.

It’s consistent with that for which our hearts hope, but also with what we see playing out in the world .   It’s the highest view of life and creation.

What Garner’s farmer didn’t understand is that this life and the next are part and parcel—that God’s love and presence are available in both. Yes, we are eternal souls in a world full of suffering, but we’re also children of God in a world full of His goodness.  The world is not against us, but is rather subjected to the same condition to which we are.  But the victory has already been won—death and decay are conquered.  We groan together with creation as we wait in hope for the end that has begun, but is not yet fully realized.

part 1 here.  part 2 here.