Monday, 19 October 2020

Idolatry and Purity

Recently, on ABC Adelaide radio, prominent educationalist and author Kevin Donnelly was cut mid-stream from the broadcast for referring to or quoting from, Mark Twain. (Ironically Donnelly was being interviewed about his latest book on free speech in education!) I'm sure the purists of the ABC were satisfied. 

Purity and extremism often follow one another. Purity is important in a recent Sunday reading today. (Exodus 32:1-14.) The people of Israel make for themselves an idol, a golden calf.  When it comes to sins, it doesn't get much worse than idolatry. Idolatry is held execrable because, among other reasons, it leads to all kinds of inhumanity. The worst idolatry is to substitute ourselves for God, rather than maintain ourselves as made in God's image. This was Solzhenitsyn's criticism of the monstrous history of the Bolsheviks, and more and more the modern world. In response to the danger of idolatry, Christianity has sought to overturn idolatry wherever it is found. But while this pursuit is pure, purity, as I said, often leads to extremism. Purity has no grace, and no place for failure, or the sinner. And it easily becomes an idol.

It is ironic that the quest to prevent idolatry ends in all kinds of inhumanities. Purity makes new victims in its efforts to prevent the impurity. But let us not restrict such puritanical pursuits to Christianity or religion in general. It seems to be a general characteristic of human beings. Think of all the great movements of purity from the French Revolution through to the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and Pol Pot. Good atheists the lot of them.

Irony abounds. The ranks of the new puritans in the West (including in the Church) are to be found in those who would claim to be dismantling old oppressive systems of purity or preventing their re-emergence. 

So, what is the antidote to idolatry? As I have said before, Christian faith does not develop by just trying harder. Purifying oneself of any skerrick of idolatry may have the opposite effect than the one desired. (By making an idol out of the pursuit of purity.)

Better to love God. Practice loving God, even if it comes hard, or we are imperfect in it. It is love that overcomes idolatry, not purity. 

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