A Perpetual Factory of Idols

The Protestant Reformer John Calvin once observed, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Calvin’s observation underscores our human propensity to worship. And while most of us in a Christian context are likely to associate worship with something we do at church, worship defies these arbitrary and cultural boundaries, and at its essence is much more indictive of who we are. Our very identity reflects our worship. Identity encompasses our being, our essence, our activities.

In Western cultures there is a temptation to elevate merely one aspect of our activities, such as intellectual acumen, athletic ability, sexual orientation, social status, work or leisure pursuits, to the defining characteristic or our identity. We live by the philosophy that what we do defines who we are. But biblically speaking our activities are a product of our identity, what we do follows who we are. When we get these reversed, the default disposition of our desires to pursue idols, sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment.

Echoing this sentiment, Pastor Timothy Keller quotes the novelist David Foster Wallace, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what we worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

Pastor Keller goes on to point out that these false idols may be bad things, but most often they are simply “good things elevated to god things.” Under this definition, even something as wonderful and practical as a liberal arts education may be worshiped as a false god. Knowledge becoming a pursuit of worship and identity, rather than a means of serving others and glorifying the one true living God.

A disturbing example of this occurs regularly in the modern appropriating of classical literature to reinforce the sinful attitudes and actions of misogyny and white supremacy. As Donna Zuckerberg points out in her book Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, “Knowledge of the Classics is used in these narratives to reinforce existing hierarchies. The potential for upward social mobility through classical education is not truly democratic or revolutionary; it merely continues the trend of excluding those who are not knowledgeable about Greece and Rome.” She goes on to detail the numerous examples of white men who are “particularly attracted to the ancient world because they see in it a reflection of their own reactionary gender politics…namely, that all women, over all historical periods, share the same negative characteristics.” These sinful appropriations of knowledge lead to furthering evil applications that aren’t rooted in the worship of the one true God. A commandment that Jesus points out as the “greatest commandment” with the second to “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31) Yet even a cursory survey of history reveals that knowledge is often appropriated by those in power to further marginalize and ostracize those who are deemed outsiders. This perspective sees knowledge as a sacrifice to be given on the altar of satisfying and further perpetuating the false god of power and hierarchy.

This has led to even the church abandoning its call to challenge the systems of the world at critical times throughout our history. As Michael Emerson and Christian Smith point out in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, The Church “…despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time.” The lessons of history should be clear, when we misappropriate the good gifts of God, elevating them to godlike status in our lives, individual and cultural depravity proliferate.

Like all false gods, knowledge pursued for the ends of power alone will only disappoint. In the words of James K.A. Smith, “It’s when I stop overexpecting from creation that it becomes something I can hold with an open hand, lightly but gratefully.” We should continue to faithfully pursue knowledge and education but only as a means of perpetuating its benefits to humanity and ultimately in praise of the glory of God, remembering the words of 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” To do otherwise continues the production and proliferation of the idols of our hearts