Thursday, November 6, 2008

Against Temples Made By Hands

Last week in Acts class, we covered chapter 7, Stephen's court defense that led to his martyrdom. It's really an amazing speech, that shows precisely why he was so hard to argue against, because he brought up foundational events from Israel's history that showed when God had sent someone to save or deliver Israel, and that person had been rejected. Then he went about talking about how God's holy ground moved around a lot, and implied that the tabernacle was a better and older picture of God's presence than a Temple built by human hands. He drew out the constant temptation to idolatry that plagued Israel throughout its history, implied that it had taken place even in the tabernacle times, and then told them it was still happening that very day, with the Temple made by human hands taking the place of the calf made by human hands.

They weren't too happy with that conclusion (although the real capital charge came a little later, when he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he told everyone about it. Then he finally was really convicted of blasphemy).

It's easy to push that Temple worship issue off on someone else, just like it's all too easy to consider idolatry as something that we've gotten over. But if Israel had an idolatry problem with the Temple, even when the Temple was good and a place where God met people, then really, anything "made by hands" can be an idol. And that should bother us, because that means idols surround us and we just plain don't see it. It means our new church building could be an idol. Or our music program. Or Sunday School.

I hope when I talk about present-day idolatry that I don't sound too much like an old-timey preacher. This is something I struggle with identifying, and realize that anything, even the process of identifying idols, may become an idol. I think about it not because it's other people's problem, but because it is my own.

What structures "made by hands" do we worship? Ideologies are an easy target (again, very easy to identify in others!), in which a set of assumptions gets built up politically and then you conclude that the standard-bearer of that set of assumptions is either the Messiah (if you agree) or the Antichrist (if you don't). The Romans deified their Emperors, and you can still detect in current political discourse the same tendency to worship power, just a little less overtly. Think of the focus on the Supreme Court justices before the election on the right, an emphasis that implied that because justices hold so much power you should never elect someone from the left who will nominate a different kind of justice. Never mind that the two oldest justices are already the most liberal, or that the right-wing justices are the youngest and numerous... because that position carries great power it should be protected at all costs.

What about something that hits a little closer to home for me? Stephen quoted a passage from Amos in which it was implied that Israel fell into idolatry even during the "Tabernacle Days," and identifies the gods they worshipped: one of which was an Akkadian God that we now know as the planet Saturn. No one worships Saturn today, right? I read in my research that part of the pattern of star-god worship was to carefully measure and calculate the path of the planet-god. So star-god priests were the first astronomers (think of the calculations needed to get up, say, Stonehenge), and science may have been tied up in of the first idolatries.

As someone who juggles the demands of various "good things" that are "made by hands" (teaching, research, service, politics, theology, yes, theology), I'm struck by the fact that working for a job that demands so much of your time that you might as well be worshiping it ... that's not a new thing.

This has more implications I'll have to think about as study continues.

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