Fireground, Adelaide Hills

Unworthy Worship

Worship in the Absence of God (2)


Idolatry is the giving of worship to the "Not-God." It is to worship something which is not worthy of worship, something less than ultimate in our reality.
Society offers we men a number of well tried idolatrous opportunities.

Idolatry may seem an outdated concept in today's world. However, we give credit to the notion of idolatry by our use of the phrase "to idolise." We use it of the teenage fan of a pop group, for instance. In that idolising we recognise that there is a worth given to the object or person which is not quite proper. They are not quite worthy of our attention in this way. There are occasions where we deliberately use the word "idolise" instead of words like "respect" or "esteem." We talk of "discipling" ourselves sometimes, or of using a person as a "mentor figure" or "life symbol." These are all different to what we mean when we say "idolise."

Work is the classic idol. We are invited to give our life to our work. When we say someone "lives for his work" we saying theologically that he "worships" his job. This is idolatry. Work is not worth it! It never was worth being only the extension of a company or job. Witness the alarming number of men who die relatively soon after retirement! Work today is even less worthy of worship. We live in the age of retrenchment, downsizing, and contract labour. Why worship something so transitory? There is nothing ultimate here.

Possessions are the great idol of our culture. We are the "consumer society." All forms of the media bombard us with the worship of things.... the media is funded by consumerism. Possessions are unworthy of worship. They are inadequate to the task of providing any sense of the ultimate.

All created things share in the essence of God who creates, says Tillich in Theology and Culture (OUP 1959) pp 53 -67. But how much worth, how much they reflect God, is always open to question. A treasured icon, or a Koran may have some symbolism that a Ryobi Impact Drill rather lacks! Being symbolic in this context is to in some way participate in the nature of the Divine.

Happiness is another idol. It is cleverly presented as something beyond mere material possessions. But happiness is itself unworthy. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, happiness is often merely diversion. We are not happy... we are unconsciously diverted to something else. We may feel "happy" simply because we have been diverted from being sad, or troubled.

Secondly, happiness is contingent, not ultimate. This is why it is so hard to be happy. Happiness comes from the old English word "hap" which essentially means luck. Things just "happen." An unlucky person is "hapless." Happiness is an ephemeral thing which just happens... it is dependent on circumstance. We may work to alter our circumstance, or may live in very fortunate circumstances, but all this work or good fortune may desert us. It is therefore very careful to discern whether we are working toward a life which is "blessed" or joyful (see below) or whether we are being sold an idolatrous concept of happiness.

Some techniques for happiness are useful; they help us make the best of a situation, and seize its opportunities. Others are ultimately about achieving material insulation from misfortune. I think these cost so much ethically if they are to succeed that they will make us UN-happy!

This is an area where issues about sex and pornography arise. Not only is pornography wrong because it is exploitative and degrading, treating people as objects. It is also diversionary. In the end it seeks happiness by diversion. Even where it provides some measure of happiness, what has it really done? It has diverted some attention away from one's own misery. An imagined physicality has relieved one's alienation and loneliness for real contact. There is no real happiness, let alone joy.

In contrast to happiness, Christian theology uses the word makarios which means "blessed." "Blessed are the meek," said Jesus. Blessed does not mean happy. It is more like joy, the knowledge and experience of something more enduring than lucky happiness. Happiness as an object of worship is an idol. Mat 5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Blessing and joy have to do with ethics, not just happiness.

Mat 5: 10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Blessing is not about happiness. The translation of makarios as "happy" is profoundly wrong.

Crusading can also be an idol. To take up a cause, even one of great worthiness may not be ultimately worthy. Is one crusading for good, or is one merely working out or projecting anger, alienation or hatred? The wonderful description of bin Laden by Arundhati Roy in The Guardian of Saturday September 29, 2001, shows the unconscious, almost demonic side of a Crusade. Ironically he is crusading back at the culture which originated the Crusades.

But who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He's America's family secret. He is the American president's dark doppelgänger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of "full-spectrum dominance", its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think. Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable.  Arundhati Roy.

The sidebar quotation is from an article currently (Oct 2001) here, although if you put the title, The Algebra of Infinite Justice into a search engine, it will show up in a number of places. The Copyright belongs to Arundhati Roy.

This is not to say that a Crusade is intrinsically unworthy. Perhaps the warning here, from Usama bin Ladin, and from President Bush is that the stronger the will to crusade, the more consuming and driving it is, then the more suspicious we should be of its real worth.

There is an increased urge to "crusade" in our society. Much of it is worthy. Action needs to be taken on many fronts as big business and globalised interest (not intrinsically bad perhaps) tend to ride rough shod over the interests of the local people and culture. But much crusading, such as (Pauline) Hansonism or the National Front in Australia is really dark underbelly stuff. It is tribalistic fear, unworthy of worship. The language and the generated passion are reminiscent of worship, but are ultimately pretenders.

The Family can also become an idol. In the end, family is people. People are not the be all and end all of life- especially if their worth is measured by the criterion of family. Tribalism and a move away from civilisation is what follows if we give a person worth by their relationship to us. Jesus (especially in the Gospel Of Luke) is noteworthy for his insistence that all people are our neighbours.

Luke 5:59 To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

This was not to say family is bad, but the claim of the ultimate is greater than family. If family is given the maximum worth then our ethics will always be under undue pressure to bend to keeping the family happy over the greater good. This is an especial problem for we Westerners who are so over sated with possessions.

In summary, these are only guides. Family is important. Possessions are important. As the old saw goes, "Man cannot live by bread alone... but without bread he cannot live." However, these guides show us important boundaries- features on the mudmap, if you like. They show the limitations and dangers of certain directions.

October 21 2001

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