Sermon: January 29th 2014

Sermon for Keble College Chapel Evensong

1 Cor 10:14–11:1

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Flee from the worship of idols, St. Paul says with a sense of urgency that seems strange today. There does not now seem to be an epidemic of idolatry. We are, we think, immune from such silliness; much too clever and well-educated. On the other hand, some people maintain that we are nevertheless unwittingly prone to many kinds of “idolatry”-in-inverted-commas: misplaced faith in modern idols like money and sex, and even ourselves. This is true as far as it goes, but not especially interesting to me. It does, however, help to illustrate what idolatry is, which is, in a nutshell, to turn things into gods.

We turn all sorts of things into gods but perhaps the most subtle forms of this tendency involve not things at all, but God. We turn God into a god, and that is a very pernicious kind of idolatry indeed. But, you might object, God is a god: one example of deity among many. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, you might think, are monotheists in that they believe in one god, which is fewer than polytheists who believe in many. Atheists, of course, believe in one fewer gods than do Jews, Christians, and Muslims: they believe in zero gods. This is a very common way to think, but it is quite mistaken.

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People have had gods for as long as anybody can remember. For many people for much of this time, gods are part of the furniture of the Universe. The world contains gods and non-gods, which are more or less similar, except that the former are usually more clever or powerful than the latter. Gods are, on this view, things in the world that interact with other things in the world: they cause things to happen, just like an impersonal force or human action might. Gods cause the Sun to rise and set and, more menacingly, the earth to tremble and the mountains to smoke. This is why, for some people, moral interpretations of such events are appealing, whereas scientific explanations are threatening. The laws of nature are seen as competitors to the gods, which leave them unemployed and ill-equipped to deal with our favourite vices. Along similar lines, many people also think that gods are powerful like Genghis Khan or Napolean or Margaret Thatcher were. Gods influence historical events, and—like other powerful people—can themselves be influenced, bribed with pious deeds. This may be why people get more religious in times of war and exams and important football matches. This view is, as I have said, venerable and extremely popular; indeed, it is shared by believers and unbelievers alike, including modern atheists, who are at least sensible enough to recognise that there are no gods.

In this, modern atheists and traditional Christians agree. Christians—and others who believe that God is the one source of all being, present and active in all things—will have no truck with gods. For us, the belief that God is one is the belief that there is really no point in trying to count the infinite. God and the Universe do not add up to make two things, because as the source of all things, God cannot be a thing at all. Likewise, God is not a cause in the world alongside other causes because God could not possibly be alongside anything, be at the same level as anything. Rather, being behind and beyond the world, God is thus in every cause, far from being in competition with them. This is why Christians do not ask whether it is God who causes the tides to ebb and flow, or whether it is the Moon’s gravity. The recent kerfuffle over “science and religion” is, on the whole, without theological merit. Finally, God is certainly not like a politician, who can be bribed into performing partisan parlour tricks; after all, what leverage could we possibly have on God, who simply loves everything into existence?

Of course, I realise that many Christians do treat God like a god—like a thing in the world—just in the way that I have repudiated as a kind of primitive heresy. And this is precisely why St. Paul’s exhortation—for us to flee from idolatry—is appropriately urgent. Idolatry of this kind is so easy, so natural; it is very tempting to be an idolator, because idolatry is easier on the mind than orthodoxy.

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Flee from the worship of idols, St. Paul says, before turning swiftly to the more mundane matters of food and drink, the political matter of how to live with people different from ourselves, with Jews and Greeks alike, the church of God and unbelievers alike. This move may also seem strange to us, because Paul seems to advocate religious intolerance while telling us to avoid offending religious others: a case of wanting to have one’s ecumenical cake while eating it too, if ever there was one. All the same, this move makes perfect sense. Paul’s warning against idolatry reminds us that God is a profound Mystery, which is as good an antidote against dogmatism and fundamentalism as any. It is difficult to be bloody-minded about our pet theological theories when we begin by confessing that God is immeasurably greater than anything that could occur to our feeble and fallible minds. To say that God is a profound mystery is not to retreat into silence. Quite the opposite: as most sensible people know, the only decent way to speak of unutterable mysteries is to say as many things, using as many images and metaphors, with as many people as we can. To flee from idolatry is therefore to join others at the table for conversation—and hopefully—for bread and wine.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.