Thursday, November 08, 2007

Religious ambition as idolatry

Consider the people who built the tower of Babel. They might, to modern eyes, seem very religious. Didn't they accomplish great things? Didn't they seek with all their might to get to heaven? They had goals, they had dreams, they sought better for themselves. They were organized, they planned, they achieved, they accomplished. Isn't this commendable? But what they sought was not what God had asked of them, what they accomplished was not worth the trouble they put into it, though they would have denied this to the end. They sought to become great, to make a name for themselves. The goal of their religion, the pinnacle at the top of their tower, was their own glorified selves instead of God.

Sometimes we also think of climbing up to heaven by works and effort and continual improvement. But does God ever ask us to climb up to heaven? Have we forgotten that, in the beginning, God used to walk on earth; that he only withdrew his direct presence from this world after our sin? Even if at Babel they had succeeded in building their tower, they still would not have gotten to heaven that way. Not only was heaven not at the top of the tower, but they were seeking their own glory instead of God's. The kingdom of heaven is where God is glorified, not just a place that happens to be up high. And we too can work very hard at seeking a higher ground and being better, but if our greatest goal is our own betterment, then we are self-worshipers and idolaters.

And if we strive, the purpose of striving cannot really be to reach God, since He is already here with us. As Paul says, "do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend to heaven?' that is, to bring Christ down, or 'Who will descend into the deep?" that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. But what does it say? 'The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart." Where God meets man is here on earth. The word is not far from us. It does not have to be chased or pursued. As Christ says, "I will never leave you or forsake you." God is not at the top of a ladder that we climb; he is God-with-us, he is Immanuel. God meets us in His word, and He meets us in Christ, here on earth. He meets us in our humility. How often, trying to seek him, have we forgotten that God is already with us, and have instead left the sheep-pen? Have we thought that God was not in such a humble place as we have, or in such a humble life and service?

And when we remember our works and our striving -- for what writer in the Bible does not ask us to remember them? -- let us remember what God says works are for: "that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." When we come down to earth and humbly feed the poor, visit the sick, look after widows and orphans in their distress, then people glorify God. And we discover what Christ has told us all along, that he was already among us: "I was hungry and you fed me. You did it for me." That is true religion.


Drew Tatusko said...

I think I see your point, but I got lost a little bit and it may be just semantics.

When you say "if our greatest goal is our own betterment, then we are self-worshipers and idolaters" are you saying that in the context of works righteousness? The kind of self-improvement as a means to attain reconciliation with God? If so, absolutely. Paul could not have been more clear with his repeated exhortations concerning the law as a vehicle for failure as a means to reach God.

This kind of self-improvement through folks like Osteen and Creflo Dollar on the one hand and the kind of fundamentalist preaching that espouses holiness do have inherent problems when we do consider the role of law in terms of salvation. And it seems reasonable to relate what that kind of preaching to the problems that adherence to the law as a means of salvation raises.

Or does this refer also to a more general sense of self-improvement where I work hard to be a better husband, a better teacher, a better caretaker of my home, a better dad, etc.


LutheranChik said...

I agree with you insofar as the persons striving is doing so with the intention of "earning points by doing stuff" instead of merely helping his or her neighbor in the footsteps of Christ, Bonhoeffer's "Man For Others." And this may be your point. But I would disagree with the idea that striving for self-improvement is somehow wrong in and of itself. To me that smacks of quietism -- as my pastor puts it, "Me and Jesus under a blanket with a flashlight."

Having had the benefits of cognitive therapy -- just to name one kind of self-improvement -- I'd argue that learning to think and behave in a more mindful, rational way is a good thing, a thing a believer can do to the glory of God and the good of his or her neighbors.

Weekend Fisher said...

Think about this, though: Striving for self-improvement for its own sake amounts to doing it for our own sake; it's self-centered. It makes us into our own gods. It turns God into a self-improvement program. Backwards, badly backwards.

If we want to be a better husband/wife, teacher, dad/mom -- if we want any of that so that we look good in the eyes of others, "surely we have received our reward." If we're improving ourselves with a sidelong glance at the mirror for self-approval or a sidelong glance at those around us to get admiration, "surely we have received our reward."

Though works-righteousness is certainly wrong, a thing doesn't have to be works-righteousness to be wrong. Self-improvement can be self-serving.

When we are trying to serve others, we worry less about ourselves, not more. And our goal at that point isn't self-improvement per se, but loving the next person.

Self-improvement as such always keeps one eye ourselves. It divides our love. It's not just wrong to "become a better you" to earn favor with God; it's also wrong to "become a better you" for its own sake as if our own personal excellence were our aim in life, as if we were our own main goals in life. Love of God and neighbor is our goal.

Weekend Fisher said...

Afterthought: If you're familiar with Gerhard Forde's writings, remember his point about Eden in Where God Meets Man: the fall was at its most basic level a religious fall, one that corrupts our religious perspective. The fall was based on an appeal to self-improvement and was dressed in religious clothing.

The religious area of life is often the least redeemed area of life -- it's where the fall owns us most deeply. We still think trying to climb up on that pedestal is true religion, when God asks us to go the other direction: back to being humble creatures who love him and love each other.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Babel was about men trying to make a name for themselves. We need to focus on giving God the glory, not ourselves.

Weekend Fisher said...

Absolutely. Babel was about men trying to make a name for themselves. So was the fall ... Likewise most human efforts towards anything.

Which, as one of my pastors once said, was one of the big differences you see in the ultimate prayer. First petition: Hallowed be Your name.

slaveofone said...

“Sometimes we also think of climbing up to heaven by works and effort and continual improvement.”

This is a very bizarre thing to say… Who thinks of trying to climb up to heaven through works and improvement? This post seems way behind the times…stuck in the age of Modernism while the rest of the world has already gone postmodern…

Perhaps you’re also being further confused by the Babel narrative. Contrary to Josephus, the focus of the narrative is not on people trying to build a tower to heaven nor is there any idea present of the people trying to become their own gods (neither is the tower any focus of the narrative) and neither is the attempt to make a name being used in a negative way—a very positive thing in the ancient world and in scripture. The focus was on the people trying to, as Genesis explicitly says, stay in one place as one people speaking one language (cultural homogeneity) instead of going out into all the earth and diversifying as was commanded of them through Adam at the beginning by YHWH. Despite their efforts, Genesis explicitly tells us that what YHWH desired, he accomplished despite them—scattering them out across the earth, changing their languages, and such. The Babel account acts as a description of how the Table of Nations which preceded it came to be a reality. The purpose of the building of a city (with a tower in it) and a “name” is the way of settling down and becoming urban and rejecting diversity instead of being dispersed over the surface of the earth and developing different languages and customs as nomadic peoples would. There is no idolatry involved in this text.

Weekend Fisher said...

Y'know, if you don't know anybody who's stuck on the "continual improvement" treadmill, or in the "build a name for ourselves" treadmill, that's terrific. That kind of sin might be "so yesterday" in your book, but some sins are perennials. They just keep coming back. Yesterday the perfectionist monks trying to outdo each other in "holiness", tomorrow the church trying to build their name recognition or the pastor's name recognition instead of Christ's name recognition, y'know ...

There's definitely self-idolatry both in Babel and in Eden. Re: Babel ... if they hadn't "switched gods" from the real God to themselves, they'd have done what God asked in the first place and moved along to fill the earth, rather than parking and starting a building program. Making a name for ourselves is an egotistical goal. It reflects idolatrous priorities.

Good thing that God is gracious, ey?

Take care & God bless

brent said...

I have nothing cute to say... nothing to add... just 'nice post'.