January 10, 2007

The New Idolatry

1501 page6 cap 5ou shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3) is the first, and arguably most important, of the “ten words” Moses brought down from Mount Sinai on two stone tablets. The cultures that surrounded the ancient Israelites were notoriously diverse and superstitious. The deities they worshipped were by degrees violent, capricious, and petty. The very idea that one all-powerful Deity created the heavens and the earth and governed it with love, faithfulness, mercy, and compassion was surely a novel concept for that time and place (see Ex. 34:6, 7).
Now, some millennia removed from that mandate, people of practically every culture are creating and worshipping gods of their own making.
Take, for example, the religious extremists who strap explosives to their bodies or pack them into cars and trucks to kill and maim scores of innocent men, women, and children. In their twisted minds, the god they worship not only sanctions that warped behavior, but promises a life of immortal (and immoral) bliss to those who carry it out. Their behaviors reflect the tragedy of investing in faulty concepts about God, just as do those who claim that God wants us to vote for this or that political candidate or initiative.
1501 page6 intext 9The danger in worshipping false gods is not that people don’t know enough about the true God; it’s that they fool themselves into thinking they know Him better than anyone else.
That danger is further complicated by those who believe God can be “explained” in the same way one can explain quantum physics, astronomy, or airline fees and schedules. In spite of all that’s been revealed about God in the Scriptures and in nature, His being is so far removed from our reality that all we can do is bow before Him in humility. “‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One” (Isa. 40:25). If we claim to completely understand the complexities of the infinite God, doesn’t that imply we consider ourselves His equal?
We share this planet with lots of smart people, who can tell us everything there is to know about computers, or aerodynamics, or nuclear fission. But even the smartest theologians know only as much about God as He has chosen to make known. Is that 10 percent? One percent? One one-thousandth of one percent?
The purpose of this editorial is twofold: First, I’m writing to remind us that we know less about God than we think we know about Him; that any attempts to explain God or His activities should be done with the greatest of care and humility.
But second, I’m writing to affirm that throughout human history God has chosen to reveal Himself in a variety of ways, the greatest of which was the incarnation of Jesus Christ. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” wrote the writer of Hebrews, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:1, 2). If we want to know what God is like, we have only to look at Jesus.
But, frankly, Jesus did and said some things that are hard to understand as well. Another reminder, as if we needed one, that our knowledge of the transcendent God is imperfect and incomplete.
In an age when religious people of almost every persuasion are increasingly regarded as reactionary and misguided, those of us who claim the title “Christian” should dedicate ourselves all the more carefully to living as Christ lived. As disciples under His lordship, we must be ever open to the leading of His Holy Spirit—especially as individuals, but also as a group. We should resist the arrogance that says we have nothing more to learn, and embrace the humility that led Jesus to offer His life in service to humanity, even to those who misunderstood not only His mission, but the character of the God He came to reflect.
“Now we see but a poor reflection,” Paul wrote about the limits of our knowledge, “then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Until we know Him as fully as He knows us, let us resist the temptation to create a god in our own image. God is not a problem to be solved; He is a mystery to be experienced.

Stephen Chavez is managing editor of Adventist Review.