by Ben Pugh.
I have just started writing a little devotional book about the attributes of God, and meditating on who he is has already, I think, opened my eyes to some things that were opaque before.
One observation is about idolatry. I am hardly the first to point this out, but, if there is a god that we worship in wealthy Western countries more than any other, it is greed. We don’t call it that, of course. We reify it as ‘the Economy’: this huge thing that must be continually placated, and onto whose altars we must sacrifice the poor and the natural world. The effect of this is plain to see. Like all the false gods of the Hebrew Bible, this idolatry blinds us to the obvious.
Take some of the most recent big issues: social justice, for instance. Being fair to each other is basic. Why haven’t we learned that yet? The answer, to some degree at least, is that we did once know about fairness. When we all lived in close-knit communities, fairness to one another was axiomatic. Things were far from perfect but a basic level of decency towards one another did not need to be codified in legislation or inspected against a set of criteria by someone holding a clipboard. In a community where everyone knows everyone, if you are not a fair-dealing person, the community will deal with you accordingly. And good behaviour towards one another was confirmed Sunday by Sunday by the messages heard from the pulpit. But then came the massification of culture and the massification of greed along with it. We forgot how to be fair.
Or, take the environment. When we relied on nature, with all its awesome unpredictability, we knew we had to work with it. We had no choice. We felt keenly the fact that we are part of nature. If we wanted to feed our family, we had to treat it well. Then, we bowed down to profit and forgot that all the things we make and sell are the products of nature’s bounty. So here, too, we are faced with the humiliating reality of having to learn all over again something that used to be obvious. What we were talking about at Glasgow is truly complex but, on another level, it is ridiculously basic, a mere starting point for living on planet earth. Our idolatry has dealt us a dose of collective amnesia. Our greed has made us forget how to look after the earth.
The biblical writers were ever conscious of how the allure of other gods could make Israel forget, so they never tired of restating this one simple truth: God is the only God. God’s singular entitlement to our devotion is undergirded by his self-existence, expressed programmatically in the all-important ‘I AM’ moment of Exodus 3:14. He will always be what he will always be: underived, the first cause, himself uncaused; entirely independent in thought, will and action.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that this moment of revelation to Moses kicks off a story within the story of the whole Hebrew Bible. From this moment, the underlying story it tells, and the theme it constantly returns to is, ‘Will the people of God worship the God-who-is or will they go after gods-who-are-not?’ The exodus story is a story of triumph over the gods of Egypt, not the people of Egypt, or even Pharaoh necessarily. The Ten Commands begin with: ‘you shall have no other gods before me’(Ex.20:3). The story of the wilderness wanderings is a story of faithfulness to God and the covenant He had just inaugurated through Moses, versus the allure of other loyalties tugging at the people’s hearts. The conquest and settlement of Canaan is a story about a generation that had no memory of the great wonders that the God of Israel had performed, and which now faced the shock of a sedentary existence in which the skills of agriculture must be learned. They noted that the natives worshipped Baal to make the land fertile, so they did the same. The story of the monarchy is a story of monarchs who did what was right in the sight of the Lord by honouring and obeying him and monarchs who went after other gods and led Israel in the same idolatry. The prophets are all aghast at how completely their own people had bowed down to useless gods of wood and stone. In the New Testament too, the spectre of idolatry has not gone away. John warns against it (1John 5:21); Paul warns against it (1Cor.10:14), and the main argument of Romans begins with the assertion that humanity’s primary problem is the fact that we have worshipped the creature rather than the Creator (Rom.1:18-23).
Are we following the God who really is God, or are we walking in the ways of gods that can be seen – and even controlled? There is no neutral, worship-free ground where we can stand. From the divine viewpoint, we were created to worship, and we are, therefore, all engaged in it. The starting point for remedying greed and every other idol is the same as it was for Israel. It is to give honour to the God who is God: ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ (Deut.6:4). Will we be part of humanity’s ancient worship disorder, or will we be part of the answer?