Monday, September 06, 2010

All the Old Gods

All the old gods haven't gone away - they've just changed their names a bit.

There's a line which I hear quite a bit when we talk about idolatry - something like this. "In the old days, idolatry was much more obvious because you'd worship Thor or Jupiter or someone. But now it's harder because it's much more subtle."

I've been thinking about that a bit over the last few days, and I disagree.

In Roman times, for example, you'd worship Bacchus, god of wine in two ways. One was going to the temple of Bacchus, and the other was partying and eating lots of food and drinking lots of wine and getting drunk. Except often what you did when you visited the temple of Bacchus was parting and drinking.

Or you'd worship Venus, goddess of sex, in two ways. One was going to the temple of Venus. And the other was ritualised pursuit of sex for its own sake. And sure enough, at the temple of Venus there were loads of ritual prostitutes who "helped" people seek sex.

I think we do exactly the same today, except without naming the gods. We still worship Bacchus, and Venus, and others.

Plato's Academy, in many ways the prototype for the university, was built around a temple to Athena, goddess of wisdom (known to the Romans as Minerva). And in the same way, a lot of people at universities today still worship her.

We worship the old gods whenever we pursue sex, drunkenness, wisdom, knowledge, sporting prowess, fitness, anything, for its own sake or for its own enjoyment rather than for God's sake. As St. Augustine wrote:

He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.

And one of the great things about Roman religion was that it wasn't fussy or exclusivist. It was perfectly happy with people worshipping Bacchus one evening and Venus another, then taking a trip to the temple of Athena. They weren't fussy about what the gods were called, and were happy to identify them with foreign equivalents. They were fine with people worshipping whatever and whoever they wanted, as long as they let them get on with their own business and devotion to their own gods.

And where other cultures were happy to go along with that, Rome just tended to assimilate them because of its greater cultural output and power.

Where the problems came for Christians was that God claimed exclusive allegiance. Christians could not just go to the temple of Venus for a quick fix of casual sex and then go home as normal. They couldn't burn incense to the emperor when they started claiming their place in the pantheon. And they said that other people should abandon their worship of all the old gods, which was seen as far too exclusive.

Sound familiar?


Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Custard, but can I not love my wife both for her sake and for God's sake?

John said...

That's a good question, Daniel.

Was it John Newton who used to be paranoid about the fact he was idolising his wife?

I think I'd say that spouses are different because of the nature of marriage as promises made before God and modelling God's love for us. But maybe that's a get-out.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Custard. I hadn't known about Newton, but suggests that the idolizing was mutual!

I'd say that I can also love my son for his own sake and for God's sake. Indeed, to be honest, if a Christian said to me `I don't love my children at all in or for themselves, of course, but just to glorify God' I'd really worry about how such a person had managed to suppress such a natural (God-given) instinct that almost all parents, believers and unbelievers alike, have it.

John said...

I think I got the bit about Newton from Aitken's biography of him ("Amazing Grace").

I'd agree with you on family. Of course, there is still a danger of idolatry (such as if Thomas's convenience / preferences stopped you from going to church regularly).

And once again, the parent / child relationship is seen Biblically as being a picture of God's love for his people...

In some sense then, is loving your wife and son for their own sake also loving them for God's sake because of the nature of marriage and parenthood as pictures of God's relationship with us?

Daniel Hill said...

Custard, I agree that there is a danger of idolatry -- but idolatry is, it seems to me, not when one starts loving something other than God for its own sake but rather when one puts the thing above God in one's affections.

I think the same goes for friends as for family: if a Christian friend of mine said to me `I am friends with you only for Jesus's sake and not at all for yours' I'd be a bit disappointed. I think I like my friends for God's sake first but also for their own sakes.

In fact, I think it goes more generally. I have read stuff by you on your love for physics in which you have cited other reasons than the glory of God (e.g. the beauty of the equations) for your interest, and I don't think that's idolatry, since I know the glory of God is part of it for you.

John said...

I think wanting to put God number 1 might not be strong enough. "No other gods before me" doesn't mean "Me number one" - it's "no other gods before my face" - i.e. monotheism rather than henotheism.

What if we broaden the understanding of loving something "for God's sake" to loving something as it rightly is in relation to God?

So when I love my wife, I love her as a created (and fallen, and redeemed) human, albeit a rather wonderful one. Wouldn't idolatry be if I stopped loving her as a part of God's creation and stopped thanking God for her and started treating her as in some sense the ultimate grounds of my eternal happiness rather than as a wonderful and gracious gift of God to me?

So with Bacchus, for example, if I stop treating wine as a pleasant gift of God, and start seeing the release and freedom of getting drunk as an end in itself, that looks like it has become worship of Bacchus.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Custard. I agree that it would be idolatry to treat one's worldly spouse as the ultimate grounds of one's eternal happiness. But why can we not treat one's worldly spouse as a ground of one's worldly happiness, albeit one sub-ordinate to Jesus? I think that's part of the reason why God has invented marriage.

John said...

I think that's fine, Daniel - for the very reason you give.

But it's a case of recognising that the blessings of marriage are part of God's gracious gift to us.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Custard. My point in a nutshell is that recognizing that something is part of God's gracious gift to us doesn't imply that we have to like it only because it is part of God's gracious gift.

John said...

And I agree with that.

My point is that the recognition that something is God's gift to us necessarily implies a change in attitude to that thing which means that we aren't idolising it.

John said...

I should say thanks, Daniel, for helping to clarify my thinking on this. I often find when discussing something with you that my ideas shift slightly so that I'd express them differently afterwards.

And this has probably been one of those occasions. Hence the confusion, I suspect.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Custard. Well, I shouldn't be reading your blog if I didn't gain an awful lot from it myself . . . Keep up the good work!