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Saturday, March 28, A.D. 2009
Beyond Idolatry

I believe that Christianity offers no compelling rational arguments for its ultimate truth, and I have always found this disturbing. For it seems that the evidence for deciding the greatest choice should be readily accessible. However, as I have wondered before, it is possible that we do have the means to make an informed decision, though not with discursive reasoning. If so, this arrangement might even be more just. For it is abundantly clear that men are unequal in their philosophical capacities, and if the highest life / salvation / achieving one’s end depended on rationality alone, then very few people, by nature and by circumstance, would have the possibility of attaining God’s desired plan for his creatures. If God desired a communion with mankind through rational means, he would have designed the race more suitably. For Christians, at any rate, the idiot is as able as the scholar to reach God—perhaps more so.

Nonetheless, human beings remain rational creatures. It is our nature to employ discursive reasoning. Rationality is one of our excellences; for the philosophical Greeks, it is the chief virtue of man, the “rational animal.” Thus, even as Christians, we should expect a theositic employment of our natural reason. For we should see and glorify God in all things. Moreover, we are by nature agents of truth, and we use our natural reason to disclose truth to us. It is meet and right to use our minds to understand what we can understand about God and his providence.

That said, I think that there are many encouraging apologetics for the Christian religion that do not, however, compel reason’s assent. With Thomas, I think that such arguments are useful for those who are already Christians as enlightening confirmations of their faith, as long as we do not pretend that our faith rests on such arguments lest we discredit the gospel before the heathen. If an intelligent pagan asks you why you are a Christian and you respond with some flimsy inconclusive arguments, he may think that such is all that Christianity has going for it. This situation repeats itself endlessly, as Christians often cannot express the reasons for their faith and unbelievers add to their list of reasons why they find Christianity abhorrent.

One of these non-compelling arguments involves Christianity’s answer to idolatry. If God is beyond being and if we are to worship nothing but God, then we face an insurmountable difficulty. For anything that we posit as an object of worship will incur the sin idolatry. Any conception that we have in our minds of God will be an idol. For how does one give particular content to a concept that does not thereby make the object of the concept a being among other beings?

The ancient Hebrews were the first people to begin to realize the truly supernatural. Having discovered how to speak of a real creator God (rather than a demiurge), they were yet unable to theologize beyond a tribal deity. Furthermore, the practices of the Mosaic religion, without the light of the gospel of which they were types, formed a contradictory tension. Consider the iconic prohibitions in the Law designed to elevate the people beyond crude pagan idolatry, but then think about the immanentist features of Hebraic religion. The Israelite could not depict God, but he knew that God dwelt in the Temple. God had no limitation in time or space, but he sat upon the throne of the cherubim and it was holy. The Lord’s name could not even be spoken, but the Ark of the Covenant was his footstool. Of course, one could argue that philosophical speculation about infinity and limits would not have been very developed among the children of Jacob. Moreover, the Hebraic religion, like all ancient religions, was highly mythological and symbolic. Still, such tensions are latent in the Abrahamic discovery of God’s ultimate transcendence. How can we have any relation to God, who makes all that is from nothing, except as a created image?

Christianity resolves this tension, or at least some of it, through the incarnation. While the incarnation itself remains mysterious and unintelligible to our normal categories, it provides an ordering nexus to this problem. For in the incarnation, God becomes a creature and yet remains God. Through Jesus Christ, we have seen God. We can depict God. We can talk about God without having to resort to apophatic gymnastics. Most importantly, Christ allows for the worship of God—in a manner that does not do violence to our nature as limited creatures bound in time and space. The incarnation, in summary, reveals God to the world.

The incarnation has always been “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness,” but it marks the specific difference of Christianity. As Christians, the incarnation shapes our understanding of God, man, man’s relationship with God, the world, and man’s relationship with the world. The Mosaic features previously mentioned become consistent and intelligible with the revelation of Christ. Indeed, the special relationship of the chosen people with God is revealed as a preparatory unfolding of God’s plan for all beings. God is the transcendent creator who incarnates himself in all being as an image of himself. However, God connects the image and the really real through the incarnation—the ultimate, awesome, cosmic keystone of all reality.

It might be useful as an intellectual exercise to think as an enlightened pagan. In such a world view, the divine is transcendent, but the life of here and now—namely, the life lived by human beings—is rather meaningless. We are but shades that never escape the futility of becoming. The wise Buddhist realizes this and seeks to escape it in his own flight to and from nihilism. The Platonist acknowledges that the world of sights and sounds cannot be taken very seriously. As beautiful as contemplation might be, the realization of transcendence pains man because it presents a rift, even an orderly rift, in existence, and we find ourselves on the longing side of the chasm. It was for this reason, I believe, that Nietzsche so emphatically resisted Buddhism, Platonism, and Christianity as siren songs that lead to spiritual decay.

I wonder, though, if that beautiful German soul misunderstood the gospel. For the incarnation bridges the gap and, in doing so, renders the image splendorous, as Irenaeus of Lyons taught that Christ recapitulates the whole world in his person. In becoming man, God reveals himself to us, but he also opens up the possibility for us to enter into a communion with God that transcends our creaturely natures through him. Athanasius wrote that God became man so that man might become God. In granting men reason, God provides them with a glimpse of his hyperousia. In the gospel, God offers us the possibility to commune beyond being.

Posted by Joseph on Saturday, March 28, Anno Domini 2009
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