Volume 41 - Issue 2

The Echo Chamber of Idolatry

By Michael J. Ovey

One of the most helpful books I have read over recent years is Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship.1 Beale takes up the biblical themes of idolatry (notably passages such as Ps 135:15–18) and notes that idolatry changes us – ‘we resemble what we revere.’2 This is a kind of satanic parody of real sanctification in which we become more like Christ.

One of the reasons this is so pastorally helpful is that it has a certain predictive power. As someone who from time to time does Christian apologetics, I want to know what makes my interlocutor tick and also what trajectory he or she is on. I want to see the way my culture (or some of the sub-cultures comprising my ‘culture’) is going and Beale’s identification that we are like, and become increasingly like, our idols is really helpful for getting a glimpse of what may be coming. It also reminds me that when I encounter an idolater (as humans naturally are after the Fall), I am not just encountering what someone thinks, but at one level, who someone is and who they are becoming.

You can see some of this line of analysis about a resemblance dynamic in Vinoth Ramachandra as he works through some particular examples:

[I]t is not surprising that those who worship technology eventually develop machine-like personalities: emotionally under-developed, shallow in their relationships, driven by a desire to control and quantify every human situation, unable to appreciate beauty and value in anything outside the artificial. Those who worship sex, on the other hand, are incapable of trust and commitment in their human relationships and hide a lonely existence behind a mask of superficial ‘adulthood’.3

This catches some modern personality types painfully accurately. Of course, it also builds on a strong line of Reformed thought which, following Calvin, sees the human heart as an idol-making factory, in which in particular we want to make a god according to our own personal specifications.4 All this makes the question to the effect ‘what do you worship?’ extraordinarily important in evangelism and apologetics. After all, until we know what the idols are that we worship it is difficult to see how or why we should repent, as Acts 17:30 tells us God commands, notably a call to repentance given in the context of the Athenians’ idolatry.

However, I want to blend this theme of the resemblance dynamic from the idol-making human heart with another ingredient from Calvin, along with a soupçon of Albert Schweitzer and indeed some duly crumbled Ludwig Feuerbach for extra flavour. (My culinary metaphor may be getting out of hand here.) As well as drawing out the compulsive designer-deity making nature of our hearts, Calvin emphasises right at the start of the Institutes that our doctrine of humanity and our doctrine of God inter-relate.5 Changing one will in all likelihood change the other. Indeed, coming to resemble what we worship is one outworking of this.

One implication of Calvin’s suggestion is that the reciprocal relationship between the doctrines of God and humanity means that a change in how we view ourselves readily engenders a change in how we view God. Schweitzer’s rightly famous comments on scholars searching for the historical Jesus are very much to the point here.6 Scholars look into the well of history and see their own reflections. In a sense Schweitzer was observing how close to the mark Ludwig Feuerbach was with his projection theory of religion, that humans absolutise their own ideals and virtues into a deity. On this view, no wonder an aristocratic Bronze Age warrior culture comes up with a set of deities such as you find in Homer’s Iliad who would in a more bourgeois society be by rights in and out of jail like yo-yos.

This has several consequences for evangelism and apologetics. First, alongside the predictive power of an idol → human resemblance dynamic, there is also a human → idol resemblance dynamic. We make (whether consciously or not) gods in our image, even as idols make us in theirs. This helps with the key question ‘Who do you worship?’ because I can start to analyse what God will look like for someone when I understand who and what they think they are. There is a predictive power in looking at what someone thinks of him or herself for envisaging what his or her god will look like. The two questions ‘Who do you worship?’ and ‘Who/what do you think you are?’ are related.

Secondly, precisely because the resemblance dynamic is two way – idol ↔ human – the resemblance dynamic will tend to be self-reinforcing. Here I want to modify Schweitzer’s image of seeing one’s own reflection to that of an echo chamber. In an echo chamber I hear my own voice back. I speak and the echo appears to be someone else saying the same things I do. Except in this case the echo is clothed with a higher authority than I think I might possess. I mistake the echo of my own voice for the voice of God/god and am therefore encouraged to make my own voice louder because the echo has agreed with me and reinforced me. My own louder voice produces a louder echo still, which encourages me to be still louder in my own assertions and so the process goes on.

Thirdly, the echoes will not always tell the same story. We should remember that modern western culture offers different and sometimes inconsistent pictures of who the human self is: for example, is one a sovereign autonomous individual inventing oneself or a self that is shaped and moulded by the sovereign voice of the majority consensus? Both versions are vigorously sold. But if I do not have a coherent account of myself, then my echo will not simply return one voice to me, but many voices. Of course the modern cultural west looks polytheistic: it is not just that people from London have different values from people in Ohio. It is that the person in London and the person in Ohio do not have an internally consistent view of themselves to project outwards as God. Feuerbach does have something to teach in his account of projection, but we have to modify what we learn from him by bearing in mind that the self who projects is both inclined to be individualistic and has an unstable, non-coherent individuality. This complicates the ‘Who are you?’ question. Frequently it may become ‘Who are you in which setting?’

Fourthly, let me mix a little Luther into the pot (to return to the culinary metaphor). Luther’s view of our claims to righteousness is that our good deeds are even more dangerous than our obviously bad ones. Our ‘good deeds’ delude us: while they may be relatively good or count as ‘civic righteousness’, they mislead us into thinking we can do absolute good. I wonder if when we Christians think of the idols of our culture we think of the deities of sensuality and pleasure and power. I think there is much truth in saying these are contemporary idols and they are awful ones. But Luther would also have me look at what look very much like civic virtues – democracy, toleration, the rule of law and duly enforced individual rights. These tend to be our culture’s ‘good deeds’ in Luther’s terms and when I hear spokespeople for this culture, these seem to me be the things that are to the front of what they absolutise and project. Of course, sensuality, power and pleasure may be there, but I suspect these idols are ‘backgrounded’ rather foregrounded.

This suggests that as I look at the idol ↔ human resemblance dynamic and ask ‘Who do you worship?’ and ‘Who are you just now?’, I remember that one of the effects of the echo chamber is not just to give me something to worship, but also to guarantee my own self-righteousness. And unless we tackle our culture’s sense of self-righteousness and the dynamics that sustain it, how can we bring it to hear the call to repent?

[1] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 22, where he notes this is the ‘primary theme’ of his book. See also on this theme Edward P. Meadors, Idolatry and the Hardening of the Heart: A Study in Biblical Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2006).

[3] Vinoth Ramachandra, Gods that Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission, rev. ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 112.

[4] Institutes I.5.

[5] Institutes I.1.1ff.

[6] ‘But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.’ Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. W Montgomery (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910), 4.

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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