Want to avoid idolatry? That is truly our subject in this post.
This is the same subject to which Professor David Koyzis referred in a comment way back in January as the difference between structure and direction and the issue of dualism which came up several times in my last post on Rob Bell’s book. Understanding these things often helps us to avoid idolatry, at least in our thinking but also in our practice.
Structure is a really good thing!
Structure: this word describes the orderliness of things. Huh? Yes, orderliness, which is more important than you might think. After-all, who wants to pour a glass of milk only to look into the glass and discover the milk has become earthworms? Or who wants to put on a clean, pressed shirt only to discover it has suddenly caught fire? The point is, creation is orderly. It has structure. Waste baskets do not suddenly become tree stumps and cabbages do not transmigrate into banana splits (however much we might sometimes wish or want them to do so). God maintains order in creation through his faithful Word, yes, the same Word which became flesh, but that is another part of the same great story. The “let-there-be” power of God, the wisdom of God, the Word of God called forth things, – not formless, structureless chaos – into being and the Word now faithfully holds it there in place. Bounds and limits: the whole creation is full of them. It is why we get up in the morning and morning is still morning, why up has not become down or sideways overnight and why we each remain ourselves, not someone or something else: because everything in creation has structure. I once had a lap top which on one particular day decided I could type “R”s and “M”s but not N, F or K. Then, a minute later, I could use F and K but no more Ms. I took it in to the retail store, showed them my problem and they replaced my computer, no argument. Why? Because it had lost its structure. It had ceased to be what it was created to be.
Structure is a witness to the love and faithfulness of God. As the psalmist says, the snow is allowed to fall and stay only so long – longer in Minnesota – and the sea must remain, most of the time, – except during tsunamis – within its boundaries. Structure is a way of talking about the goodness of God in an orderly creation. Even when things which God has made go wrong, they can only go so wrong and not completely, structurelessly wrong, like my computer, because everything God has made has structure within which each thing remains itself. Thank God!
Every Thing Has Structure
Structures can be visible on things like rocks and cabbages or they can be societal things like marriages and businesses, more or less invisible. Each societal structure has its own unique form which changes only within its own certain bounds and limits. For instance, a nation is not just a big family, even if it long before started out, like Israel, as a big family and a nation, like a family, like a friendship and like a business, is a good creature of God. However, a nation does not normally become a family, nor a friendship become a business, even if friends start a business together. Each societal thing has its own structure, an invisible but very real part of the creation which God called “good” from the very beginning. The structure of visible, individual things as well as invisible societal things is all about God’s good creation.
Direction: Toward God or an Idol
Direction is something altogether. Direction is not about the normal variation which exists within a structure. Direction is the reality which exists in practice because of human rebellion, because of the fall of humankind. In the beginning, all things moved toward God, everything, you could say, looked to God and nothing turned away from God. In everything which everything was and did, everything was turned, Corem Deo, toward the face of God. Then, with our own perspective, our own view of reality, based on ourselves as the center of all things, we human creatures changed direction; we hid from God; we turned our backs on God. So, direction, within this explanation of reality, is all about whom we serve as God: either God or some creature which we idolize, toward which we turn and move.
Only Two Directions
Although we think of a circle as having 360 degrees and so we might picture ourselves turning in 360 slightly different directions, there are really only two directions in this framework, toward the true God or toward 359 different idols. Each degree of turning, however slightly or acutely off from God, is still off. For instance, if I trade my love of God for my love of my mother, then my mother-love, however good it might be when I face God, is utterly broken when I turn away from God. If my love for my mother or a longing for my mother – who passed away in 1979 – replaces my love for God it becomes a destructive idol; it takes first place in some part of my life as God.
National Idols and Demons: Same Direction
In the same way, patriotism is a perfectly good thing if it exists under the Lordship of King Jesus, before the face of God. However, if I make an idol of my nation and I am blind to most or all of its failures and wicked dealings, the injustices which it does, then I am taking a good thing, my love of my country, in the wrong direction. On the other hand, many people do not make a god of their nation; they make it a demon. We have all heard people talk as though “the government” was evil, as though it could do nothing right. This is just as dangerous as the other error. To demonize what God has made is just as much making an idol of it as is making it a god. Both turning my country into my God and denigrating it as though it was a demon are wrong because countries are creatures of God, created good, but fallen.
Creatures of God, in Need of Redemption
In our fallen world, every nation is a good but broken expression of what God intended nations to be. There is no such thing in our world as a perfect country. Some policies and behaviors of every nation should be questioned. Some things any nation does should be called out as downright wrong. We must treat our nation and its government as a good but fallen creature. Unless and until we turn toward God, treating his creatures as creatures, good beings which are often caught in the wrong-way currents of our fallen world, we distort our view of creation and become incapable of providing much healing and help.
Sex: Another Good Creature
Let’s look at another example, the good thing we call sex. Sex is a good thing which functions within many structures of creation. We are able to talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ because even those creatures procreate within a system which depends upon the difference between males and females, another of the typical elements which functions within some structures in creation but not in all. (Which is why we talk about ‘the birds and the bees,’ not ‘the protozoans and the earthworms.’ Those creatures procreate, but without the male/female thing: it’s just not the same.)
The Greek Spirit-Flesh Dualism
Ancient Greek philosophy was heavily weighed toward a preference for the activities of the mind over those of the body. Christians, largely because of early Greek influence on Christian teaching, became quite ambivalent about pleasure in general and about human sexual relations in particular. In the fifth century, St. Augustine went so far as to write what many were already suspecting, that Adam and Eve’s “original sin” was sexual intercourse. Almost all Christians today reject this foolishness, yet we still often suspect there is something wrong about sex itself. Might this be because we can all see the frequency with which sexuality is taken in the wrong direction, that is, treated as either an idol or a demon? Yet, everything God made is good and is to be redeemed, made whole.
Structure and Direction and Dualism
Sex can be a wonderful aspect of a good marriage or it can be taken in the wrong direction outside of marriage where it inevitably becomes an ugly thing, something to be avoided. Yet like every other thing, God made sex as a good part of his design. God made every thing good and Satan, who created nothing, can only twist what God has made. This is where the issue of dualism comes in. In a true dualism, two things exist but they each have a separate origin. Although we can imagine such a situation, no such dualism exists in God’s creation because everything which does exist was created by God and nothing which exists was created by anyone else. Only God creates. While this seems obvious, in practice when we treat government or sex or any other created thing as though it was innately, from its beginning, evil, we are saying it must have some other creator, some other origin than God. Yet this is impossible. This same observation can be made about everything in creation; nothing can stand outside of God’s design. Good things have been twisted but nothing was always bad or is irredeemable.
Power, Another Good Creature
This same twisting has often been done with ‘power.’ Many people talk as though there was something wrong with power and as though power itself should be shunned as ungodly. There is nothing wrong with power, in itself. Power is just the ability to get things done: to be productive. Yet, the British so-and-so, Lord Acton is quoted as having said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton was about three ticks off and therefore, really, truly wrong. We human beings, good but fallen creatures, are corrupted and when we use our power you can tell how corrupted we have become because our use of power magnifies our corruption. Therefore, if you give any human being absolute power, the corruption in the human heart will be absolutely magnified. Checks and balances are a very good idea when humans exercise power, but not because power is bad. When handled by people who know themselves to be creatures who need checking and balancing, power becomes the ability to sometimes get really wise and good things done. Power, because it was not created by some other diety, can be redeemed as the crowns of God’s good creation, human beings, are redeemed.
Creation Is Frustrated But It Is Good
Every thing, visible and invisible, in creation can and should be viewed in this same way. Every thing in creation is good, every thing is God-created and God-given. Each and every thing is given for each and every good purpose. When each thing is in its free and creative place, each thing contributes to harmony, to shalom, to a creative fruitfulness which delights both God and you and me. We are God’s project mangers over creation, God’s male and female human servants, charged to be fruitful, to bring blessing to all of the earth. Only God should be treated as God and only demons should be despised and opposed as the creation-twisters they are committed to be. The very business of idolatry is taking a good, structured, created thing in the wrong direction. That is why we are all called to repent, to turn and face the living God in how we live our lives. Ours is the high calling of restoring creation through our daily work, before the face of God: glory to God and great joy for us!
Please help me out with this post. Please comment: what other good things (structures) are sometimes idolized or demonized (taken in the wrong direction) and what other good creatures are set up in false dualisms as though they had some other creator?