Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ideology as Idolatry, Part 1: Setting the Stage

Sacrifice and Worship

The photograph here is of a decapitated enemy of a Mayan ballplayer. The game was like a historical precursor to soccer, except what was kicked around was a combatant’s head, and more than a number in the win or loss column was at stake. The game was a microcosm of life on earth in the view of the Mayan people. Life or death was at stake. From the neck of the enemy’s torso, in the place his life blood that would otherwise spill out, abundant vegetation grows. With the sacrifice of death taking place within the artificially drawn lines of the game, the victim’s blood of life flows into the body of the victor. Notably, the lines within which the game is played are determined by the people in power, in whose territory the game takes place. Before the eyes of the people, the victor, quite actually, takes the victim’s life. This is what the game is really about.

In the Christian scriptures, this is depicted as the idolatry of a proud empire. Ultimately, the life of the sacrifice is taken (in and on) by the empire, at the head of which is the emperor. Said emperor is often worshipped as divine. The people see this exchange of life and death, and see their lives depend on it. They clothe their identity with the power they take on. In similar cases, the priest actually (we would now say literally) clothed himself with the skin of the sacrifice. By their giving of themselves over to this display and its meaning, the people of the empire are shaped into the image of the sacrifice, and the people become blind to the One God of truth, maker of heaven and earth, slow to anger and rich in love and mercy.

Also, generally, in the ancient world, such victories (or desired wealth, for example) were owed to deities whose hidden impulses, drives, and forces lied at the root or on the other side of what appears above ground or in the tent of heaven in what we now call nature. Those hidden realities were worshipped in the shape of idolatrous statues that came to rest in their home in the land of their people, i.e., in the Temple to whichever god to which was attributed the desired victory, wealth, or fertility. Notably, the statues were idolatrous less because the statue was worshipped and more because it wasn’t the One true God of Israel. Israeli prophets’ mocking of foreign peoples’ worshipping of wood and gold was more rhetorical, I believe, but – just as the terms of the Mayan victim’s sacrifice was determined artificially by the Mayans - the terms of one’s life, death, and worship in the land of an empire in the scriptures was still delineated by those in power in the land.

God was (supposedly) not the one in power; the one true God of Isreal was not the one giving the laws. Life and worship was crafted by men; idols are crafted by human hands. N.T. Wright, in Surprised by Scripture and in other places, sees this idolatry at work in the modern world, proclaimed by the prophets of the modern gods of sex, money, and power. These prophets Wright sees as Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.

Over against this idolatry, the God of the scriptures is zealously jealous, calling His people to a pure worship of Himself. He determines the rules of the game, so to speak. He is the maker of all things in heaven and earth. We live by His laws; it is Him who determines how we will worship Him. Through such worship, His people become living sacrifices to Himself. As the Mayan victor takes the life (blood) of the victim, God reverses the process of sacrifice, and His people receive His life freely and graciously by the sacrifice of His very own Son in the flesh rather than of some other enemy who has wronged Him or against or over whom He stands. Through the display of His ultimate power, love, and grace in this sacrifice, all His people come to be able to see rather than being blinded by the power of the Mayan empire (power obtained in and by the sacrifice). And the audience witnessing the sacrifice is shaped into the image of the one sacrificed.

In this blog series, I intend to study these dynamics of sacrifice and worship at work in our world. Notably, they are not dynamics at work in reading our bibles and going to church, but in our basic way of life and what drives it.

Translations of Languages

David Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism?, talks about this question of worship, as framed by the scriptures, in terms of an “empty” and/or “full” politic. Here, the empty politic of the world is the way of life of the nations outside of God’s plans and purposes, outside the sheepfold of God. The full politic is the way of life of a people who gather around the table of the Eucharist to remember the sacrifice that gives true life and shapes us into His image. In a short series of blog posts, I would now like to explore what I see as the relationships between what I see as the idolatry in our world as depicted, respectively and comparatively speaking, by N.T. Wright and David Fitch.

Notably, in The End of Evangelicalism?, Fitch doesn’t speak of the world’s empty ideologies as idolatry. As can be gathered from my brief description so far, although I tend to agree with and have learned much from Fitch, I think – in End of Evangelicalsim?, at least - he borrows his language for speaking of the world (and its idolatry) from somewhere other than the language of the church. Later, I intend to dive deeper into how and why I think he is actually talking about idolatry. A good summary of the ideas, through one example, can be found HERE. Also, I find this borrowing of language to be strange, because he often bemoans how other movements within the church lose some salt, because their terms are defined from somewhere other than what gives the church power and authority.

N.T. Wright, on the other hand, I think, in talking about Freud, Marx, and Neitzche as prophets of the modern gods of sex, money, and power, attempts to provide an understanding of the ancient world, and then to translate it into the now. I wonder if Fitch lacks NT Wright's conviction that the ancient myths are translatable to today. In other words, I suspect Fitch may not believe that we can really or fully know what meaning ancient myths had for the life of ancient people (though Fitch is a disciple of J.H. Yoder, who, like Wright, was a biblical realist (Wright calls it critical realism)). Or, I wonder if Fitch wouldn’t think ancient myths can provide a way a telling our contemporary story. Maybe a new world emerges from a new language (and hence the need for the book). In any case, I see the contemporary languages of Wright and Fitch as pointing to the same concrete reality, and I think those languages have implications for our worship.

I also think that the terms that delineate Fitch’s discourse are borrowed from a long history rooted in philosophical critique (which is different from criticizing). In The End of Evangelicalism?, Fitch was using the psychoanalytical framework and methods of Slavog Zizek, which sort of turns between social critique and psychanalytical diagnosis. So, I am here to ask whether, when we address the issues, problems, or concerns of our contemporary church and world, are we approaching the world and the church to critique (or diagnose) or to worship? This is partially a personal question I ask of myself.

Is it possible, in the act of critique, to change modes of thought and speech – which even includes switching ontologies (Zizek is an atheist) – and to continue in the act of worship of the One (true) God of Israel? Does changing modes of thought, especially if we change to a mode in which we must “suspend our disbelief” and assume there is no god in order to think in that mode, change the direction of our worship? Is to think like there's no god to worship another (Psalm 16: 4)? On the other hand, is it possible, as a mode-rn human being, to simply live a life of worship without the implication that thinking differently (in a different mode) changes our being (and, thus, our worship)?

Is to clothe one's self in the thought mode of critique to implicitly take a place at the top of the Tower of Babel, thus abdicating the power of Christ in weakness - a central truth of daily worship of the God of Israel revealed in Christ on the Cross - and refusing the place of man's feet on the horizon line?

Nothing and Something

In architecture school, I learned two lessons about modern architecture which, at first thought, seem contradictory. The center of a modern space is nothing; the center of a modern space has to be what you could call open (or empty). On the other hand, if you can’t stand in the center of a space and have a good view of everything, then you are not standing in a modern space. These sound contradictory, because, if you stand in the center with a view of everything, that places man – rather than an opening, an openness, or an open space (something closer to Nothing than to Something) - at the center of everything. What has to be understood in order to reconcile these two lessons is that modern man IS because he thinks (“ergo cogito sum”). This turns the two apparently contradictory lessons into one. A thought is a no-thing.

In the center of ancient spaces, and of the ancient world, stood some-thing. The being of ancient man did not center on or begin with the no-thing of (to) think(ing). The idols, quite actually, are what ran the ancient world. In Israel, the Romans were surprised to find nothing in the Holiest of Holies, but the actuality of the physical Temple still stood tall as the center of the life of ancient Israel.

This creates an interesting dynamic in the study of N.T. Wright’s translation of ancient idolatry into today’s world as compared to David Fitch’s study of the empty ideologies that run our politic(s).

When Wright says, essentially, that Freud was a prophet of Aphrodite (or Neitzsche a prophet of Mars, or Marx a prophet of Mammon), as moderns, one of our first instincts is to respond with skepticism of thought. There is no actual(ly) (hidden) being of any substance moving and guiding everything that happens from the center of our world (that could or should be embodied in a statue, a Temple, or a people)! A man can’t see that happening! Material cause is all that “matters”! There is nothing at the center of what you face, but the something of the face is all you are allowed to see when you face it.

On the other hand, when Fitch says our politics are run on an empty ideology that is fueled merely by unfulfillable fantasies of desire, our first instinct is to respond with indignation. Ronald Reagan was an actual person! How dare you insult my beliefs by calling them empty; things were better in our country then! Libertarianism is like empirical physics, you numbskull; you can watch it work! Others, accusing Fitch of being blind to his plight as a rich white man of power, would point out the obvious and actual economic and power dynamics at work in our world. How could he miss that, and how could he miss the need to do something about it? There really is nothing (a theory of how things really work) at the center of what you face (or of your face), but you are supposed to obviously not miss the something right in front of your face.

In this blog series that intends to study the questions of worship and politics in our world as presented by N.T. Wright and David Fitch, the dynamic at play between Nothing and Something is implicitly at work. That interplay will probably be drawn out at times. It will help explain why some truths appear that may at first seem counter-intuitive.

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