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Idolatrous Faith


Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 44:1-18

New Testament Reading: Romans 7:5-25

Last week in Sunday School, we were considering the passage from Romans you just heard. There are several different interpretations of this text. Probably what we think of first when we give it a casual reading is that Paul means to describe the state of moral paralysis we sometimes find ourselves in when, try as we may, we just cannot bring ourselves to break some bad habit. "The good that I would, I do not!" If you've ever tried to lose weight or to stop smoking, you can quote Paul's words with feeling!

But that may not be what he meant by them! There are serious objections to that interpretation, though I haven't the time this morning to go into them. Let me just indicate the broad outlines of an alternative interpretation of this passage suggested by Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann thinks Paul is talking about suddenly waking up to the fact that in being religious and trying to obey God's commandments he had all along really been building his own proud record of self-righteousness!

In the very attempt to be pious, it is possible to be pursuing one's own glory! "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men, not, for instance, like that miserable publican over there!" One is in reality doing the very opposite of what one intends or thinks one intends!

If so, one's efforts are worse than wasted! According to Bultmann, this is precisely the terrible self-realization to which the Risen Christ brought Paul one day on the Damascus Road. All his Torah-piety had been for naught because, as he says later in Romans, he had been zealous for God, but with a fatal lack of knowledge. As he says in chapter 7, he did not understand his own actions. He thought he was acting to effect one result, but in fact he was pursuing another, its opposite!

He experienced no discord, no frustration at the time. No, it was only later that he was brought to the realization of what he had been doing. I think such seeing, even if one sees nothing else, is perhaps the greatest revelation! It is like suddenly being able to observe the eye that sees! It is sharing the objective view of God toward you. But for that very reason it is the most difficult revelation to receive.

In his great book Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich explains how the same danger is, as 2 Corinthians puts, "common to man." The danger that overtook Paul waits in store for everyone. Indeed it is an occupational hazard of the believer. There can be no faith at all without this built-in risk.

Tillich says that faith is not primarily belief in certain notions, though notions and doctrines may well be involved at some point. Faith is rather concern with what one believes to be ultimate. One's concern may take more the form of belief today, of doubt tomorrow, but if one is truly wrestling with the question as of ultimate importance, one has a faith commitment.

You can tell if someone has faith in a particular object by observing to what extent he or she lives a life colored by it. We needn't expect the Christian to be always talking about Christ. But we would expect to see a life in which Christ is always the implicit question raised against this choice or that decision. If one posed as a philosopher, we would not necessarily expect to hear him or her always talking about Plato or Epictetus, about the Ontological Argument and the Problem of Universals. But we would expect his conduct and everyday speech to be characterized by a respect for truth. It would be pretty surprising to find him a cynical user of people, a spineless conformer to institutional policy.

Faith is one's ultimate concern. To you, nothing matters more than that ideal or cause to which you swear allegiance. To have faith, then, is to choose to live for something, not just to pass time until you die, not just selfish hedonism, but to stake all on something.

But what if the object of your commitment should one day prove to be an idol with clay feet? Suppose it proved to be unworthy? Or based on delusion or deception? What then?

Tillich says that in such a case you have fallen victim to "idolatrous faith." You had genuine faith, all right, but it was faith in what turned out not to be ultimate, or an expression of the ultimate, after all. But those are the risks if one is ever to be committed to anything at all! This is why faith always requires courage.  

Where there is daring and courage, there is the possibility of failure. And in every act of faith this possibility is present. The risk must be taken.... Only certain is the ultimacy as ultimacy, the infinite passion as infinite passion. [That is, you can only be certain that there is in fact an ultimate and that you feel a great zeal toward what you think it is.] But there is not certainty of this kind about the content of our ultimate concern, be it nation, success, a god, or the God of the Bible... Their acceptance as a matter of ultimate concern is a risk and therefore an act of courage.

There is a risk if what was considered a matter of ultimate concern proves to be a matter of preliminary and transitory concern - as, for example, the nation. The risk to faith in one's ultimate concern is indeed the greatest risk man can run. For if it proves a failure, the meaning of one's life breaks down; one surrenders oneself... to something that is not worth it.

We have just witnessed an earth-shaking example of faith-commitment to what proved to be an idol, the defunct ideology of Communism in the Soviet Union. It should have been clear for decades that the Soviet system was ruining, crippling, paralyzing the economy. Once Lenin was willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the sake of a society of economic equality. That was itself a dubious risk. But most of Soviet history witnessed the even more blasphemous sacrifice of individual freedoms, not to mention lives, for the cause of maintaining the illusion, saving face, not having to admit that the whole thing had been a disastrous mistake from the beginning.

Gorbachev was held under house arrest by Communist hard-liners because he had been willing in some measure to admit there had been big mistakes. But even he dared not let himself admit the full extent of his error in committing himself, and the country's committing itself, to Communism. After he was released, he still would not blame Communism, but sought to breathe life into the corpse by redefining Communism.

Never mind that as Gorby conceived it "Communism" would embrace free speech, decentralization, free worship, private property and a market economy! If he could just keep the Communist label, he could keep up the illusion. He could keep believing that Communism hadn't been a hollow idol like those statues of Lenin that are falling like autumn leaves all over the Soviet Union.

This is what Leon Festinger and his colleagues call "cognitive dissonance reduction." You have so much invested in some commitment or decision that the wronger things go the more you will defend your original decision, because you just cannot afford to admit to yourself that you were that wrong! What else can explain, for example, the continuing loyalty of Jim Bakker's disciples?

But it's nothing new. In our reading from Jeremiah we see a classic case of cognitive dissonance reduction. Yahweh has just caused the elite of Judah to go into exile because of idolatry and corruption. Jeremiah predicted it would happen and warned why it would be happening. Events vindicated him. But did a little thing like the Babylonian Exile avail to convince the idolaters to give up their error? No! They just couldn't afford to admit they had been that dead wrong! So they had a rationalization at the ready: We only went into exile because we weren't idolatrous enough! If only we'd offered a few more sacramental cakes to Ishtar, she'd have saved us!

What a miracle, then, that Paul was brought to realize he, too, had been dead wrong!

Forgive me for raising this possibility, but could it be that you once made a decision about what to give yourself to, and that decision was wrong? Could it be that life has become more and more unsatisfying, and it's because you chose an idol?

Was it a career based on selfish ambition? Or a theological position that you defend all the more zealously because deep down you have ceased to believe in it yourself? Is it a relationship you hold onto for what it once meant to you, though every day it becomes a more and more vicious caricature of itself?

What are you rationalizing? What are you refusing to face about yourself? You'd better face it, my brother or sister, because if you don't its only going to get worse.

Do you fear the collapse of your life as you knew it? If your god fails, is all lost? No! As Tillich says, "Faith risks the vanishing of the concrete god in whom it believes." But "A god disappears; divinity remains."

Jesus Christ is a God, an expression of the Ultimate, who will never fail you. He will never prove to be an unworthy idol. Your labor in the Lord will never be in vain. Your opinions about him, your definitions of him may change, as mine have, God knows, but Jesus Christ, he who became a life-giving Spirit, is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Come to him now.




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