Tag: Idolatry

Freedom is God: Wear a Mask

A friend of mine sent me a video in which Dennis Pranger of Prager U, addresses the graduating class of 2020 on what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught them about life.

The address is called Graduation 2020: The COVID Class

Early on in the address, he characterizes our unique times, not with reference to the contagious and potentially deadly disease that has swept across the globe, but as a time when “healthy people, and people living in free societies, have been confined to their homes.”

This take on our current situation is central to Pranger’s message which is taken up in his third point.  His first two points are spot on and part of my motivation to write this post is to pass on these astute observations and wise words.

Pranger U is a conservative American organization that creates videos on various political, economic, and philosophical topics.   There are a lot of Christians who like what Pranger has to say but being conservative and being Christian are not the same thing.  This is born out in Pranger’s third lesson to the COVID Class.

Lesson 1: Life is Hard, Unfair, and Unpredictable.

Your life is very easy.   In the developed West, all our lives are easy compared to those in other parts of the world.  We have easy access to food.  Clothing and shelter are not much of a problem for the vast majority of  North Americans.  We are healthy and have a lot of leisure time and a plethora of entertainment options.  We can easily get the idea that this is normal.  It’s not.

Covid-19 and its effects begin to help us to sense how hard life is, “and that understanding equips you to deal much better with life’s challenges, which are inevitable.”

Pranger’s right.  To walk into life from high school expecting the world to be easy, fair, and predictable will lead to disappointment and bitterness.  This is a valuable lesson.

Lesson 2: Always be Grateful

Pranger says that “gratitude is probably the most important trait you can have because it is the source of both happiness and goodness.”

I don’t necessarily agree that gratitude is the source of goodness, but I agree with his premise and that grateful people are happier than resentful people.   We have so much to be grateful for but, ironically, we tend to be ungrateful in our culture. This may be because we are continuously barraged with advertising and social media that teaches us we don’t have enough or are not good enough.

If Covid-19 has helped you to appreciate what you have both materially and relationally, then allow that lesson to colour and shape your life.  This is an incredibly valuable lesson.

Lesson 3: Freedom is Fragile–Very Fragile

Lesson 3 is the main point of Pranger’s video.  And, from a biblical perspective, I think he’s way off here.  Pranger tells graduates:

The ease with which most Americans acquiesced to the removal of many of their most basic rights . . . should take your breath away.  At the very least it should make you realize how easily any government can take away people’s most elementary freedoms.

Pranger is critical of the extent to which some jurisdictions restricted contact in their reaction to the virus.  In some states where there was very little infection people were told to stay home anyway.  I am not going to argue with Pranger on these particulars–he may be right.  Some governments may have overreacted–we won’t really know what the correct degree of response should have been until all this is over.  (Since this video was released, numbers suggest that the response of many American states did not go far enough.)

Judging from the graphics in the video, America’s most basic rights are freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to wear a hardhat.  These are the rights that he claims we have been so breathtakingly surrendered to governments.

In reality, the only fundamental right that we surrendered, temporarily, was freedom of assembly.  This has some immediate effect on freedom of religion and the economic (hardhat) freedoms of many citizens.

But wasn’t it a good idea to suspend the freedom to assemble in large groups?  Are Americans supposed to hold onto these rights under any and all circumstances?  Is not a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus, not the exact circumstance in which this right ought to be quickly surrendered?  I can’t even come up with an analogy to drive this point home.  No analogy is clearer than the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Isn't it a good idea to suspend our freedom to assemble? Are we to demand these rights under all circumstances? Is not a highly contagious, fatal virus, the exact circumstance in which to surrender this right? Isn't this biblical? Click To Tweet

Would Pranger have us ignore the quarantine and gather anyway?  Take guns into government buildings and demand our rights to assemble?  To defiantly not wear a mask as the new symbol of personal freedom?

The Statue of Responsibility

France gave the United States of America the Statue of Liberty, says Pranger, “because America, more than any other country, symbolized Liberty.”

The problem is, the American emphasis on Liberty has become unbalanced.  Someone forgot to give America the necessary and complementary statue–The Statue of Responsibility.

The Statue of Responsibility was the vision of psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl.

Frankl is right when he says:

“Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl is saying that without responsibility, freedom will degenerate into mere license–doing whatever you want.

In a practical sense, we practice freedom in balance with responsibility all the time.  We have the freedom to drive, but this is balanced with the responsibility to adhere to traffic laws.  We have freedom of speech, but we balance this with the responsibility to not yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

But now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people adamantly resist the curbing of dangerous behavior for the public good.  And the more we see this resistance, the higher climb the numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19.

What is going on here?

The Idolatry of Freedom

Tim Keller describes idolatry as making a good thing into an ultimate thing.  Freedom is a good thing.  But when it takes the place of God as the ultimate thing, it becomes a cruel deity that demands sacrifice–human sacrifice.

Both liberals and conservatives have a problem with idolatry. They both worship Freedom and are willing to make human sacrifices to this cruel deity. The only difference is the particular victims they respectively place on Freedom's firey altars.Click To Tweet

Both the Old and New Testaments are consistent in saying that God is God, and he created all good things.  The Bible tells us not to worship these good things.  He also created human beings in his image, making human beings are more valuable than any good thing–more valuable than money, beauty, fame, power, America, the flag, or freedom.

The Bible teaches that we obey governments unless their laws come into conflict with God’s law.  Quarantines and social distancing are not contrary to God’s law, they are merely contrary to the law of our false god.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks, quarantines, and social distancing save lives–this becomes more and more clear every passing day.  To refuse to wear facemasks, and defy quarantines and social distancing mandates, is to choose freedom and the economy over human life.  It’s to choose a good thing (freedom) over the image (humanity) of the ultimate thing (God).

If we don’t worship God, we will worship something else.  In America, we worship Freedom and the Economy.  In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical.

If we don't worship God, we will worship something else. In America, we worship Freedom and the Economy. In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical.Click To Tweet

Ironically, the numbers seem to indicate that those jurisdictions that most faithfully complied with quarantines and social distancing regulations, will be the jurisdictions that most quickly restore freedoms of assembly and recover economically.

But this is not why I reject Denis Pranger’s third lesson.  I reject it because it is unbiblical.

I’d like to replace it with my own.

My Lesson #3: It’s Not Just About You

The global pandemic and the quarantine reminded you that it’s not all about you.  Lots of people will tell you that there is nothing more important than your individual freedom.  This is a tenet of our society.  It’s the only thing that liberals and conservatives agree on, albeit in different directions.

You hear it from the college kids on the Florida beaches and the conservative radio hosts and bloggers:  “If I’m willing to risk catching Covid-19, I can do what I want.  It’s my life.”

A friend of mine has a university-aged daughter who works at Starbucks and lives in their home.  He also has several sets of older parents who he is taking care of, since they are vulnerable and, consequently, are taking the quarantine seriously.  The daughter’s co-workers ignore social distancing protocols.  They like to party with friends.   Because they are not worried about catching the virus, they believe they can ignore the protocols.  They are free to choose risky behaviour if willing to take the consequences.

They are not vulnerable.  They correctly assess the risk to be minimal.  Why should they give up their freedom?

The answer is, they have a responsibility to others.  They have to protect themselves from the virus so that they don’t pass it onto my friend’s daughter, so she doesn’t pass it onto her parents, and her grandparents.

Freedom is a good thing.  But it’s not the ultimate thing.  Your life is interconnected with those of many others.  You can’t always do whatever you want because you are responsible for other lives.

My objection to Pranger’s third lesson is rooted in my faith.  Christians are to love God and love our neighbour.  In our current context, we love our neighbour by limiting movement, social distancing, wearing a mask in public.  It is not possible to love both Jesus and Freedom as ultimate things.  One must give way.  One results in human flourishing, the other results in human sacrifice.

 

God Shaped Hole?

Photo by Valentin Lacoste on Unsplash

A lot of Christians talk about a void in every person that can only be filled by God.  We are compelled to fill it, but we will never achieve peace /fulfillment /wholeness unless this space is filled with God.   This “God-shaped hole” is an innate human desire to connect with the transcendent.

It’s a cliché.  And like most clichés, it’s an oversimplification, but it carries some truth.  Human beings have desires.  Besides physical needs and desires–we were created for relationships, we were created for community, and we were created to be in relationship with God.  To say that all we need is God is to deny the other good things he created us to desire and enjoy.  These ought not to be tossed aside, but understood as good gifts from a loving Father.  But, yes, our most profound desire is to know and be known by God.

For this post, I am borrowing from Tim Keller, particularly his book Counterfeit God’s and a lecture of the same name that he delivered at Cambridge Passion.

In his exploration of idolatry, Keller differentiates good things and ultimate things.

Good Things and God, The Ultimate

God created everything, and he declared them to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The list of good things is obviously very long and it includes:

  • work,
  • romantic love,
  • family,
  • pasta,
  • baseball,
  • acclaim,
  • reason,
  • beauty,
  • self-expression,
  • justice,
  • pleasure,
  • and cherry trees.

The list goes on and on.

Above all these good things, God places humanity.  Humanity occupies this place above the good things because we alone were created in God’s image.   Here’s the text which articulates humanities special position in creation, above all the good things.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

–Genesis 1:26

Innate value has been conferred onto human beings by God.  Our value is linked to God.  In a properly ordered life or society, God is the Ultimate thing.  Human beings occupy a position above all the good things because they were created in God’s Image.  All the other good things are good, but they do not have more value than God or humanity.

“Disordered Loves”

Augustine called sin “disordered love.”  Sin is, in essence, replacing God with something else.  We take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing; we replace the Creator with the created.  The good thing in the ascendant position is an idol.

Career advancement is a common idol in our culture.  There’s nothing wrong with career advancement–it is a good thing–but when it becomes an ultimate thing, all other things must give way to it.  The marriage and the children will be sacrificed to it.  “Friends” becomes a name for those who can be used to aid advancement while others will be treated as rungs on a ladder.  Idols are very demanding overlords, they take and they want it all.

Beauty is a good thing.  And it is another common idol.  it demands huge amounts of money and often ones dignity, and it always fails those who worship it–we cannot stop beauty from fading.

Family is a good thing, but it is a terrible master.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite books.  It could only come from a brilliant and tortured mind.  His “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College class of 2005, presents some of the wisdom Wallace has aquired through his struggles.  In this passage he explains the problem with false gods:

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.  Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

(If you listen to the whole speech, you will hear Wallace come dangerously close to pointing to a realignment of our loves under the transcendent god, for our sake and for the sake of others around us.)

Whatever your idol, it will eventually eat you alive.

God-shaped hole?  We should maybe stop using the phrase, but behind this cliche is the idea that everything you desires will destroy if they are put into the position of a god.  Conversely, if you subordinate all your desires to Christ’s Lordship, you will achieve the peace and fulfillment and wholeness you seek, because it was for Christ you were made.

We have a Fatal Attraction to Freedom

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

I used to have sheep, about a dozen ewes and a big ram named Joe.  This combination resulted in about twenty lambs in the spring.  Once these little ones discovered the wonderful world beyond the teat, they became a huge problem.

The ewes and Joe would happily eat the grass in the center of the field, but the young ones would walk around the perimeter of the pasture always testing the fence.  If there were any weakness, they’d be out in no time.

The Idolatry of Freedom

In the Modern West, we worship Freedom–our understanding of it.  We think of freedom in socio-political terms.  We must fight for freedom from those who would take it away.  We’ve recast history to become the story of shaking off oppression.

The ancient conception of freedom is much different.  To ancient peoples, the threat to freedom wasn’t other people and institutions, it was the lack of wisdom or virtue.

We worship Freedom and we believe we must fight those who would take it away. To ancient peoples, the threat to freedom wasn't the somebody else but one's own lack of wisdom or virtue.Click To Tweet
Sheep Fence

My experience with my sheep tells me that the ancients have the truer understanding of freedom.

If my young sheep could get out, they would.  This is a problem; outside the fence was death.

Freedom Kills

Death came in two forms.  The first was coyotes.  I don’t suppose any further explanation is needed on this point, but let’s say there no sheep would survive the night.

The second threat was grain.  I had a lot of whole corn and high protein pellets on the farm to feed the 4,000 pigeons.  There were also various grain-based feeds for the cows, sheep, pigs, and horses.  If these lambs got into any of this feed they’d die.  Their behavior was predictable—they’d gobble up too much for their digestive systems to handle.  The next morning I’d find them with their legs sticking in the air.

Sheep eat grain with a kind of desperate ecstasy.  I know this because we fed it to them regularly.  A few cups per day.  If you ask a young sheep what he’d wish for if he could have anything, he’d ask for a pile of grain, and, the next time you saw him, he’d be on his back and his tongue would be blue.

When the Bible refers to people as sheep, don’t picture the white fluffy ones you see in all the Sunday school books.  Picture one that spends all day striving for the glorious freedom beyond the fence.

In Modern terms, freedom comes from opposition to the fence put up by the evil farmer.  In ancient terms is freedom means understanding, or at least trusting, that death can come through personal indulgence as easily as though external threats.

Sheep just don’t seem to understand that true happiness and freedom lie within the boundaries of the fence.

 

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