Idols

**This is another blog post assignment for Church History**

But human beings alone, having rejected the good, henceforth fabricated things that do not exist instead of the truth, and ascribed the honor due to God, and the knowledge of him, to demons and human beings fabricated in stone. -St. Athanasius[1]

 

Reading AthanasiusOn the Incarnation is a journey through the deepest parts of our theological understanding and a fully formed view of the debates and dialogues that fuel our current understandings.  It is, by all accounts, a theological treatise concerning the incarnation of God in the fully human form of Jesus Christ.  In our time, this may seem like a settled issue among the faithful.  We read through the Nicene Creed and rarely pause to consider the painstaking work and debate that formed its beautiful words and framed its powerful philosophy.  Taking a moment to embrace the totality of our history and its passionate cast of theologians makes the encounter with Athanasius really quite moving.  Throughout his discussion of the incarnation, Athanasius makes multiple statements about the human tendency to create and worship idols that ultimately separate us from God.  From the golden calf to the modern worship of material, there is little that separates us from the tendencies of our ancestors.

I suppose it seems a bit cliché to be discussing the idols of our modern world; and yet, it stands to reason that some clichés have the added virtue of being true.  I admit that this is not a new topic; however, I think that we can find in the writing of Athanasius both a stark reminder of what idols do to us and how the incarnation changed our focus.  Athanasius described the actions of idolaters in his time like this:

They fabricated idols for themselves instead of the truth and honored beings which do not exist rather than God…and, much worse, they even transferred the honor due to God to wood and stones and every material object, and even to human beings…[2]

That sums it up nicely and it transfers easily to our own reality.  I am not ruling out the possibility that people still worship wood and stones; but, for the moment I think it is best to stick to what we know well and focus our attention on the worship of the material.  We exist in an echo chamber of messages that tell us how to get rich quick, find the perfect mate, pick the best car, and obtain any number of creature comforts at the click of a mouse or at the end of a toll-free phone number.  Our lives are fueled by ambition, excess, and pharmaceutical treatment of our collective disappointment when we fall short of obtaining perfection.  Yes, brothers and sisters, we are worshippers of stuff and we are addicted to things.  All of us know this in a conscious way and yet we consistently surrender anyway.  These are the easy idols.  These are the idols we can point out and decry because they are so incredibly obvious.  These are not our only idols.

We also worship a host of idols that are much less gaudy but no less dangerous.  We have also become worshippers of anxiety, of busyness, of power, of self-worth, and of each other.  Think about how many times someone has told you how stressed out they are, how busy they are, how much they work and then think about the almost celebratory tone that comes through in those moments.  Our daily lives are consumed by the idea that we must move faster, worry more, work harder, and freak out more than anyone around us lest we be seen as worthless or lazy.  Our value is determined by who makes more, sleeps less, and has more.  Worse yet, we begin to make gods out of the people who have what we want and do what we can’t.  Our obsessions themselves become deities and our ideals become their own idols.  Demons of the mind show themselves to us in robes of gold and convince us that we need to succeed at all costs.  We are surrounded by a swirling multitude of unhealthy little gods that exist in our minds and in our expectations of ourselves and others.  We are worshiping our brokenness and our self-destruction and we are calling it success.

If this idolatry is so normal, then why should we be concerned with it?  Well, every act of idolatry is a moment that turns our focus away from God.  Our obsessions turn our heads downward, away from heaven, and immerse us in our own brokenness.  With eyes cast down and thoughts trained on the material and psychological gods of humankind, we are no longer looking to God as the source of our true redemption.  We are so bent over in selfish obsession that we are no longer able to see that the origin of our self-worth is the Creator.  Self-inflicted oppression removes us from God’s presence and separates us from the very thing that can calm the demons and heal the brokenness.

This all sounds quite bleak.  Fear not!  Athanasius does not simply describe the illness; he also offers the cure.  Through the act of incarnation and the life, works, and death of Jesus Christ, the gaze of humanity is reoriented.  It is no coincidence or act of chance that Jesus Christ was a human being in form.  People had been gazing away from heaven, focusing on themselves, separated from God and, as Athanasius writes, “…since they were not able to lift their gaze to his invisible power, they might be able, at any rate, to know and contemplate him from things similar.[3]  That’s right, knowing that we would be a stubborn and resistant bunch of idol worshippers, God came to us in a form we could comprehend and would notice.  This man, Jesus Christ, through a life dedicated to teaching, healing, and to the transformation of a broken world, gently lifted the faces of humankind up toward the heavens.  Through sacrificial death, Jesus refocused the attention of the world to the love and the reconciling grace of God.  Through his resurrection, Christ fixed the attention of a faltering humanity on the power of God to conquer even death and on the Kingdom yet to come.  If we can focus even a moment of our time and attention on the incarnation of God, our idols begin to crumble.

athanasius1

“For where Christ and his faith are named, there all idolatry is purged away, every deceit of demons refuted, and no demon endures the name but fleeing, only hearing it, disappears.[4]  This is the power of faith to take us away from our self-involved worship of human ideals and to cast our eyes to the heavens where all of our worthiness resides.  Even the demons we create in our minds cannot obscure the light of faith and are chased away by the very mention of it.  The act of incarnation didn’t just rescue us from the influence of wooden, stone, or even golden idols, it also rescued us from the many idols of self that were separating us from God.

I would like to say that this is the end of the story, that all is well; but, we know better.  We are living in a time of idols and we can see the downcast faces turned away from heaven.  I suppose we could surrender to the normalization of this state or even to the cynicism that dismisses is as simple human nature.  But this is not who we are.  Athanasius highlights the incarnation as a timeless act of love and hope.  We are still witnesses to this incarnation and we are still offered the gracious hand of Christ to lift our eyes to the heavens even now.  Our idols are only powerful because we allow them to distract us from God.  The moment we begin to refocus is the moment we let go of idols and begin to reclaim the totality of our faith in God.

 

[1] Athanasius, Penelope Lawson, and C. S. Lewis. The Incarnation of the Word of God : Being the Treatise of St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei.New York: Macmillan, 1946. 95

[2] Athanasius, Penelope Lawson, and C. S. Lewis. 61

 

[3] Athanasius, Penelope Lawson, and C. S. Lewis. 96

 

[4] Athanasius, Penelope Lawson, and C. S. Lewis. 81

 

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