I find a strange peace in stumbling across something that a Church Father wrote 1700+ years ago that seems to be unfolding yet again politically and even in the church. Athanasius writes:
“But human beings, being again foolish, despising the grace thus given to them, so turned away from God and so darkened their own soul, that they not only forgot the concept of God but also fashioned for themselves others instead. They fabricated idols for themselves instead of the truth and honored beings which do not exist rather than God who is, worshipping ‘the creation rather than the Creator‘ (Romans 1:25), and, much worse, they even transferred the honor due to God to wood and stones and to every material object, and even to human beings, and went even further than this, as we described in a former treatise…” – St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Article 11
I know it’s a mouthful, and sometimes it helps to break down what the old guys say in order to understand their long, flowing, quite possibly run-on sentences. It looks like this:
- Human beings are fools (we know this, which makes God’s grace both wonderful and undeserved)
- We tend to turn away from God because our expectations aren’t met.
- In our turning away, our souls darken and our memories of God slowly fade.
- In the vacuum of godlessness, we start finding idols to worship (Romans 1:25)
- Because we all want to honor someone/something, we make our idols out of whatever is tangible and valuable: money, notoriety, comfort — and people.
- We know that things are really out of hand when we start worshipping fellow human beings, wherein a hero (a billionaire, an artist, a president) take the place of God.
How does a person avoid this? We stop the pattern by acknowledging our shared human foolishness, which we have to keep in the forefront — not to make ourselves feel bad but instead to have a firm grasp on truth. I’m a fool.
Once stopped (I’m a fool!) we’re ready to change directions — and turn to (or back to) God. The church word for this is “repentance”. Followers of Jesus have to repent sometimes, as an idol works its way into our lives.
Even when we assume the centrality of Christ in our lives, it’s easy for other idols to sneak in. Sure, we like Jesus and even listen to him sometimes, but our comfort comes not from him but something else — simply defined as an idol.
Followers of Jesus are easily duped into idolatry of a human being (a pastor, a musician, a president) if that person happens to say the right things that employ the words of Jesus to affirm their biases. Once that happens, it’s a tough turn back. The gravitational pull of our perception of personal godliness, which is often the cross draped in a flag, is almost too difficult to pull away from. Why? Because we equate a disassociation of our patriotism/nationalism with walking away from Christian faith, and that’s a no-no.
But, when we have Christianity replaced by a crappy replica idol, the joke’s on us: it turns out we weren’t participating in orthodox Christianity in the first place, but rather a bastardized version of the gospel that fits predetermined parameters which align with our tightly held values. This particular gospel has very little to do with the gospel of Jesus and is, instead, a gospel of personal comfort that behaves so similarly to what has been normal in American Christianity that it is rarely, if ever, challenged.
Yet… here we are today. Dylan may have sold his entire catalog, but I think I can say without fear of copyright violation that the times are still a changin’.
I don’t write this as a know-it-all. Please, Lord, save me from any spirit that makes me sound better than anybody else. I believe that there’s Jesus “up here” (hands in air) and all of us “right here” (hands side to side). However, if we can step back and see the slick sophistication of idolatry and acknowledge our own proclivity to what Athanasius talks about, it might do us some good.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to second guess ourselves from time to time. “I’m right, and you’re wrong” is the only mantra that seems to generate a response these days. Who are we listening to? Where are we asking humble questions? How are our perceptions changing? Where is Jesus in all this? How can I be a citizen of the Kingdom in the midst of social and political chaos?
I recall the story of the storm. Jesus and his disciples, out on the lake. The clouds rise up, the rain and wind hit, and the waves threaten to overturn the boat. The disciples are freaking out while Jesus is asleep. So they ask him to do something, and he does. Here we are, watching all this go down, and Jesus is… asleep? Certainly at peace. This is the part where we stop panicking and ask him to do something. In me. In us. In the world.