Idolatry: Taking A Little Closer Look (II)

Idolatry

Idols Often Come In Pairs

Because the duality (viz., to trust in God and subdue creation) mentioned in part I of this article is so deeply imprinted in the human psyche, idols frequently come in pairs. Remember, an idol, by definition (and I’m speaking biblically here), is a counterfeit of the true God. It does not just substitute God’s existence, but it can exist as a counterfeiting of His attributes and characteristics as well. With this understood, it should be realized that God’s transcendence can be made into one idol and His immanence into another. In No God But God, which is edited by Os Guinness and John Seel, Richard Keyes wrote an excellent chapter entitled “The Idol Factory” in which he calls these two counterfeits of transcendence and immanence the “faraway” and “nearby” idols (1992, pp. 29-48). He claims these designations are not so much spatial as they are psychological in nature. The far-away idol, who is intangible and, thus, always inaccessible, serves as an overarching idea that gives meaning to all of life. But it is the nearby idol, who is much more tangible and, thus, accessible, that allows the idolater to manipulate his world to get what he wants. This faraway-nearby construct is so typical of idolatry that it is not just the key to understanding classic idolatry, but essential to understanding the occult as well. With this said, we’ll take a closer look at the nearby idol first.

The Nearby Idol

When one has alienated himself from God, the nearby idol is a substitute for God’s immanence. Because he is no longer dependent upon the blessings of his Creator to help him exercise stewardship over his environment, the idolater seeks a sense of well-being through control. (In the occult world, this control is called magic.) The nearby idol, whatever the idolater conceives it to be, permits him to exercise this control. It is, of course, a delusion.

This is illustrated in the rebellion of the Jews who fled into Egypt contrary to the Lord’s command (cf. Jeremiah 44:1-30). It had been their custom, even when they were back in Judah (cf. Jeremiah 7:18), “to burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her” (Jeremiah 44:17). Of course, they were not doing this for nothing. In fact, they were deluded into thinking they were being blessed by their manipulation, through their sacrifices, of this counterfeit god (cf. Jeremiah 44:18). They were wrong, of course. It was actually God, due to His longsuffering, who had been blessing them. Finally, though, they started to experience God’s punishment for their idolatry which, it just so happened, coincided with the Jews ceasing to sacrifice to their false god. As a result, they mistakenly came to think they were no longer enjoying blessings because they had quit offering cakes to their idol, the queen of heaven. Grossly deluded, they believed their nearby idol allowed them to experience a certain leverage over the important forces that control life. Consequently, they were convinced that their fertility goddess was able to give them good crops, more livestock, and more male children. This nearby idol was all they needed to enjoy the good life, they mistakenly thought. But it was theirtheir devotion to this counterfeit god that ultimately caused them to be consumed by the famine and sword of God’s wrath (cf. Jeremiah 44:27).

Although idolatry can’t really deliver, polytheists and occultists believe their rituals and sacrifices permit them to tap into (or connect with) invisible powers that will allow them to exercise control over the visible (or natural) world in which they lived. To these devotees, the nearby idol, whatever it might be, is a means to some desired end, and to accomplish this end they are willing to genuflect to their substitutes gods and goddesses.

The Nearby Idol For Many Americans is Carpet

“And what,” you might ask, “is Carpet?” It represents the comfortable home with its decorations, color combinations, furniture, appliances, and video/audio systems. Carpet is the “nice home” so many Americans think is essential if one is to experience the “good life.” As a result, many have bowed down and done obeisance to Carpet. In doing so, they have demonstrated there isn’t anything they won’t sacrifice for the comfort Carpet promises. Think, for example, of the millions of “latchkey” children who come home to empty houses every school day who, then, must fend for themselves because mommy and daddy are too busy sacrificing to Carpet. These children, who are a blessing are from the one true God, have placed on the parents certain obligations. But consumed, instead, with the demands of Carpet, parents ignore their familiar duties to children in order to be comfortable, But who cares? Unfortunately, not even some who call themselves Christians. Yes, they shudder at the thought of ancient Israelites sacrificing their children to Molech (cf. Jeremiah 32:25), but then they turn right around and leave their children in the hands of perfect strangers in some daycare center or, worse yet, they cause them to fend for themselves while they both go off to work in order to worship obediently at Carpet’s totem. It is most unfortunate that while the divinely ordained family structure is being offered up on Carpet’s altar, many Christians just don’t seem to care. Worse yet, some are, themselves, worshiping in the shrine of this cruel and ogreish god. Like all idols, Carpet promises much, but is unable to deliver on anything of real value. The messages of the idols are all lies, and Carpet’s message is no different. It promises safety and comfort from the troubles of life, but when trials and tribulations finally come, and they will, the Carpet god is completely powerless. Carpet cannot comfort us when we lose a loved one; it cannot be our friend when we are alone; it cannot help us when we are dying. Even so, many believe Carpet’s lies and, in turn, sacrifice everything, even their children, to worship at its altars. The Bible, which pulls no punches, says that covetousness, which is personified in Carpet, is idolatry (cf. Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5).

When we consider the nearby idols to which men bow, it is not hard to see the devastating effect they are having on our society. With this said, it is time to turn our attention to the faraway idol.

The Faraway Idol

The faraway idol, which is a substitute for God’s transcendence, is usually not very well defined. It is fashioned to give some overarching and ultimate meaning to life. Man, of course, was originally created to trust in God, but in his fallen condition, he creates a force or idea (an idol, if you will) that rules the universe in God’s stead. When we listen, we can hear people saying that they believe there must be something, or someone, ultimately responsible for the way things are. Ask them what this is, and they are unable to describe him, her or it with any specificity. This, then, is the faraway idol.

Some say their god, because he is a loving god, could not send people to hell for an eternity. Again, this is a faraway idol, a construct that takes the place of the Sovereign of the universe who has said that He will, in fact, consign the disobedient to hell if they reject His gracious offer to save them through the blood of Jesus Christ. The true God is, of course, a God of love, as 1 John 4:8 makes clear, but the creator of this false god has made Love his faraway idol—the standard by which everything is to be judged.

A point of clarification needs to be made here. For the purpose of this study, I will continue to talk about the faraway idol, even though the faraway idol is not normally thought of by its adherents as an idol. This is because we normally think of an idol as something tangible, and the faraway idol is neither tangible nor visible. The following excerpt from the Roman author Cicero is an example of this kind of thinking:

When we behold the heavens, when we contemplate the celestial bodies, can we fail of conviction? Must we not acknowledge that there is a Divinity, a perfect being, a ruling intelligence, which governs, a God who is everywhere and directs all by his power? Anybody who doubts that may as well deny there is a sun that lights…. For this reason, with us as well as with other nations, the worship of the gods and holy exercises of religion increase in purity and extent every day (From Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 1:279).

As we can see, the polytheism of Cicero’s day embraced the faraway idol, which was a single transcendent “ruling intelligence” as well as the many nearby idols (“gods”), who were associated in the minds of their adherents with the different functions in the tangible, visible world. This clearly reflects the two levels of religious allegiances we’ve been discussing—the nearby idol, which is more accessible and which is directed toward power and control, and the faraway idol, which is far more inaccessible, but which provides meaning or legitimacy. Both of these (the faraway idol and the nearby idol) are representative of a universal trait that runs through all idolatry. And as idolatry is but the attempt to counterfeit the true God, it ought not to surprise us to hear Him asking His people in Jeremiah 23:23, “Am I a God near at hand…and not a God afar off?”

We can observe this faraway-nearby paradigm in the Canaanite pantheon. According to these people, “El the Benign,” the Creator/Father/King, was the chief deity. As such, his mildly benevolent persona served, in the background, as the overarching presence in their religion. But even so, he was not thought to be nearly as effective in delivering concrete help as Baal, who was described in cult texts as one of the sons of Dagon, the national god of the Philistines. Baal became the Canaanites’ fertility god, representing the powers of rain, fullness of life, and fertility. By the use of magic, incantations, rituals, and priestcraft, they believed they could exercise control over the forces of nature. Their worship of this nearby god was orgiastic and sensual according to 1 Kings 14:22-24. Obviously, then, it was a religion enthusiastically pursued by its adherents. The Bible called the things these idolaters practiced “abominations,” and those who practiced them “perverted persons.” It was not just that Baal worship authorized sexual license, although this was a powerful incentive, there was a much higher logic to it than this. The fertility gods and goddesses were thought to be voyeuristic. Consequently, it was believed that it was only through the sexual activity of humans that the fertility gods and goddesses were stimulated to lust after and pursue one another. Seduced by the human sexual activity they observed to engage in sexual intercourse themselves, they produced, it was believed, fertility on earth.

(continued)

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