Category Archives: Idolatry

Fortuna favours the bearded

Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day – an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He was described as “Varro, that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”.  Back in the final years of BC, Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular religious author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists from Constantinople to Carthage.

It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in Book 6 of City of God in order to refute the widely held belief that, the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps, he asks, we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?

It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life, from the growing of beards (Fortuna) to eternal life (Juventas) to everything in between. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the fabulous (from fable), natural and civil.  The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro states that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theatre; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.

Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude. In frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.” Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.

Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people as superstitious, just as today’s atheists look at Christians as equally superstitious. We live in the age of secular humanism, where there are absolutely no gods behind the scenes, only the mechanistic mono-dimensional world where the only reality is the reality I see with my eyes. The so-called rational secular humanists claim the voice of reason as they heap scorn on our belief in things that the human eye cannot see. In chapter 6 of City of God the roles are reversed. It is society that sees hundreds if not thousands of gods everywhere, and it is Augustine who is claiming the voice of reason. In chapters 1-5 he has argued against those who believe that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of benefit in this life, in chapters 6-10 he takes on the belief that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of eternal life.

Mankind has always oscillated between pantheism and atheism, with a healthy dose of monotheism thrown into the mix. The world is such a wonderful, capricious and unsentimental place and our lives are so fragile that we struggle to reconcile the certainty we long for with the uncertainty we experience. Are the failed crops a sign of divine displeasure, a random act or ecological karma? The response of people in Augustine’s day was to humanise their gods and make each one accountable for a different aspect of life, even the growth of beards. Their gods were an integral part of everyday life – the topic of the theatre, the focus of ceremonies, the theme of the academics. They were awash with superstition and contradiction.

Augustine asks the key question, “can these gods give you eternal life?” Does following them bring reward in this life, or the next? Augustine sought to refute the idea that the gods had any real power to control events and uses the most well known philosopher of the day on the topic. Atheists say that Christians are right to argue there are not thousands of gods – but that they stop one God short of the correct answer. But this underestimates the magnitude of the binary difference between 1 and 0. For me it is like finding a spouse – for the boy desperate to find his perfect girl the difference between no one and someone is immense. It is the difference between happiness and sadness, joy and despair.

No matter what the prevailing fashion of society is, there will always be Christians who hold to the reality of the Someone. For they have met their true soulmate and have found lasting, deep joy. The contrasting religious background may be black or white, pantheism or atheism, but the red of the cross will always stand out. Let society say we are alone in the universe, or let them say there are hundreds of mini-gods under every stone, we cannot agree.

Discover The Business Connection

Business has changed.bad-interview

We all know that business is built on relationships and relationships at work come with expectations. Our relationships with our customers, our colleagues and our contacts all bring expectations of what we will do, by when and how we will do it.

A firm handshake and an exchange of business cards has been exchanged for a new Twitter follower and LinkedIn invitation. We don’t read reports, we scan an infographic.

Instead of hanging out at the Rotary club we publish our own blog post. Career progression is determined more by our online networking skills than our childhood school.

We have digitised our business exchanges. This has dramatically increased what we can do in a day, we can literally communicate with thousands of people electronically that we could never reach face to face. Mobile communications and a global industry mean we now work faster for longer.

And it doesn’t stop in the office, we check our tablet before we check out for the night. Instead of the paper it is the early morning emails that greet us long before we have arrived at our desk. On the train, in the coffee shop, restaurant and airport we are catching up and checking in.

Don’t get me wrong, much of this is good and has improved our standard of living. But if this is price for life in the fast lane, what is the cost?

The cost comes in the fragmentation of our personal lives. With everyone wanting a piece of us, what is left for those who set no expectations for delivery? Family life is squeezed and social time disappears. Marriages suffer, kids withdraw, hobbies get neglected, health deteriorates.

The cost comes in our isolation. We become islands of activity, a vortex of velocity spinning endlessly. Work life balance slides into fire fighting perpetual emergencies or dispensing quality time to our kids like a Las Vegas slot machine.

The cost comes in our superficiality. Much easier to click Like or Accept, than arrange a Saturday evening BBQ. We have 500 acquaintances on Linked in, 1000 Twitter followers, but only 2 real friends ‐ that we see once a year. We skate across the surface of life, only pausing to sharpen our blade every summer holiday.

The Business Connection is a charity for such a time as this. It meets you where you are at, seeks to understand what you are dealing with, and lifts you back on your feet. Run by people in the business community we know how easy it is to become caught up and cut off. We are Christians working at the heart of Aberdeen’s business community, with the community in our heart. Coming along to our range of events in Aberdeen to find out more.

In the business community, a life connection…The Business Connection.

You gotta serve somebody

Book I Chapter XII Section 1-3

What is worship? How does it differ from respect or reverence? How does serving God differ from how we are to serve people? This is the issue Calvin addresses in Chapter 12. While the scriptures teach that all honour and worship should be given to God alone, Calvin recognises that mankind instead “gives Him the highest place, but at the same time surrounds Him with a tribe of minor deities”.

After this Calvin goes on to consider the false worship of dead saints through a discussion on the difference between latria and dulia. These are two Latin words that have been used to distinguish between the worship (latria) due to God alone, and the service (dulia) given by some to revered saints. Calvin states that the words are sometimes used indiscriminately in scripture, pointing to Galatians 4.8 as an example of the term “service” being used in reference to the worship of idols. But even if the distinction is allowed, he asks whether to serve something is any lesser than to worship it, “for it were often a hard thing to serve him whom you would not refuse to reverence” i.e. you can more easily pay reverence to someone that to serve them.

Calvin then looks at a number of examples in scripture of inappropriate worship (Matthew 8.10, Revelation 19.10, 22.8-9 & Acts 10.25) and concludes that “we can never appropriate the minutest portion of his glory without retaining what is His due”.

Response:

We should remember and have respect for all those who have walked the path ahead of us – that great cloud of witnesses. Moreover, we are commanded to honour our parents and respect those leaders who oversee us in the church. This is the proper attitude towards created beings, anything more is beyond the scriptures for they are clear that there is only one class of people in the world. All have sinned and fallen short, none have sought God, everyone has turned away.  God and God alone should receive our prayer, adoration, confession, supplication, thankfulness and praise. It is Jesus and Him alone who interceeds on behalf of His people at the right hand of the Father. Supplicating dead saints is something King Saul tried, and while it worked, I don’t think Samuel appreciated it, or God approved of it (1 Samuel 28.7-24).

When we look at worship in the bible the more important distinction is not between latria and dulia, but between light and darkness, between God and mammon and between Jesus and Satan. There are the two choices when it comes to worship and service. We either worship and serve Jesus or we serve ourselves, and unwittingly we serve the Prince of this world. Bob Dylan got it right when he said:

“You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage,
You may be a business man or some high degree thief,
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Father, give us an undivided heart to worship and serve You only, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Perfect in purity, majestic in power, we worship and adore You today. Amen.

Images of the invisible God

invisible-man4Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter XI Section 1-16)

In this chapter Calvin addresses the issue of idolatry and, interestingly, includes in the discussion his thoughts on the appropriate use of images in the worship of the church. Calvin begins by considering God’s opposition to any representation of Himself in Exodus 20.4 and how God “makes no comparison between images, as if one were more, and another less befitting; he rejects, without exception, all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by which the superstitious imagine they can bring him near to them”.

Following this, Calvin exclaims how absurd it is when mankind tries to represent the invisible, omnipresent Spirit by a visible, inanimate piece of wood or stone. God Himself is at liberty to manifest His presence by signs – but each of these point to His “incomprehensible essence”. For example the cloud, smoke and flame on Mount Sinai and the Shekhinah glory over the ark of the covenant, both illustrate His unapproachable and awesome nature. Other manifestations of God in the bible include the figure who had a form of a man walking in the fiery furnace (which may be a theophany – or pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God) and the dove at Jesus’ baptism.

For the remainder of the chapter Calvin addresses the issue of images and pictures in the church. He traverses many topics, including statues, crosses and pictures (either historical or pictoral). He concludes that only the historical pictures, which “give a representation of events” are of some use “for instruction and admonition”. In fact he is in favour of having no representations of any kind within the church, pointing to the success of the early church in its first 500 years when there were no images in the churches. Moreover, he points out that the church already has two “living symbols, which the Lord has consecrated by His word”, ie baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Response:

It is sad to think that while God was manifesting His presence at Mt Sinai, Aaron was leading the people in the worship of a golden idol. Moreover, even the ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence among the people, became something of a lucky charm to the people. They believed that it would lead them to victory irrespective of their covenantal backsliding.

Although I may draw the line on what images and pictures are acceptable in the worship of the church in a slightly different place to Calvin, I agree with his principles on imagery. In driving the Reformation away from the intense pageantry that had been associated with the worship of God he called for a clearer statement of what was essential. In examining the two images that are essential we find that they are also are most instructive. We ourselves become part of the living illustration of Jesus’ death and resurrection (baptism) and His coming again (communion). Let us not neglect these symbols that have been given to us as divinely appointed reminders of God’s redeeming work.

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens; who created all these?” Isaiah 40.25+26

Father, grant us to make use of the symbols you have given us to illustrate your great love and forgiveness. Help us to remember and be thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate our obedience and love for you in our act of baptism and fellowship around the Lord’s table. Amen.