Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Golden Calf

As I mentioned in 2018, the golden calf the Israelites made in the desert while Moses was up getting the Ten Commandments may be partly misunderstood. As bulls were often worshiped as steeds for gods, Aaron and the boys may have thought they were expressing their admiration for YHWH by making him this really cool thing to ride on, showing his power. I very much doubt this was their primary motive, as the traditional explanation likely holds, that they followed the usual pattern of what people did for miles around whenever they got nervous and things seemed to be going wrong: they made a figure that they hoped their god would inhabit, to both speak to them and listen to them. Still, I think the secondary explanation has some real weight. It is exactly the sort of rationalisation humans engage in all the time about God.  Oh, I'm sure he'll like this. This is what gods in general like, so I figure he will, too. It's really all the same thing, y'know? We keep our old way of doing things, and please the new god too.  Win-win. We don't make such gods now, so we can't fully enter into their understanding anymore. The thought is distant.

If this is even partly correct, it provides a pretty dramatic tie-in to the gods of our own age. This is pretty much what Christians getting into politics looks like, doesn't it? Oh, I'm sure he'll like this. Jesus cared for the poor and marginalised, and this is something nice for the poor and marginalised, so what's not to like?  Win-win. Or, This is good for America, and America protects religious freedom, and anyway lots of Christians have lived here, and the founders had mostly Christian ideas, so I'm sure God is on board.

As usual CS Lewis has the most appropriate comment, when he has Screwtape advise Wormwood on how to neutralise his patient's Christianity and slide him ever-closer to hell. This passage was written in WWII, by the way, when the stakes were high in both the secular and spiritual realms. A choice between pacifism and patriotism* has few real consequences for the individual now.  One can find friends either way, or jobs, or mates, or churches. There might be some consequences with family and with old friends, but often these can be smoothed and the topic simply avoided.

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism.

Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University has commentary with a more modern example.

But a subtle danger threatens the congregation that would be overly intentional in its intention to institutionalize racial and ethnic diversity. If the church allows its multiethnic mission to define its central and sole identity, it will be tempted to mute, ignore, or even revise aspects of the Bible, orthodox theology, and/or sacred tradition that do not support and promote that identity. It will be tempted as well to judge other congregations (and individuals) not by their adherence to the gospel message but by how they measure up against the diversity yardstick.

If such a congregation continues to slide down the slippery slope toward idolatry, it may discover, too late, that it has ceased to be a multiethnic CHURCH, and has morphed into a MULTIETHNIC church. Ethnic diversity will no longer be one of the fruits of the Great Commission; rather, Christianity will have been reduced to one more helpful ally in the building of an egalitarian, multiethnic utopia.

I use the multiethnic church as my example, not because I think the ideals that undergird it are bad ones, but because they are so praiseworthy. But then, to paraphrase a line from Lewis, brass is more often mistaken for gold than clay is. To the modern American mind, nurtured since birth to believe that equality and inclusivism are absolute virtues on par with faith, hope, and love, it is easy to so conflate the promise of ethnic diversity with that of the gospel message that the latter comes to serve the former, rather than vice versa.

"Brass is more often mistaken for gold than clay is." This, exactly. We love hybrids and excuses. One of my own maxims is that "Of course wolves hide in sheep's clothing.  It wouldn't do them any good to hide in wolves' clothing." 

This is not part of the Tim Keller/Jonathan Haidt/Michael Novak (Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is) posts, but it does relate.

*Understand, please, that those two are not necessarily opposed in any era.  They often have little overlap and much antagonism and are thus a good example of Christian difference, especially in wartime. But Lewis did not consider them logically incompatible, nor do I.



Unknown said...

At one point in past bible reading I noted the people's desire to create Asherah statues, as if God needs a consort to be happy. We know that they were surrounded by polytheistic religions, so I find this surmise about the calf quite plausible.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is an interesting matter of definition. I heard someone recently say that the Jews didn't adopt monotheism until about 400BC. They did keep messing with other gods, as I mention at the link. One could also pick a date of 2000BC, or push it back to Adam and Eve. Something similar happens when we discuss Christianity. "When did Germany become Christian?" I dunno. Maybe not ever. How about England? Okay, that's difficult. They have a state church that is Christian - or was. But so does Sweden. When did America become Christian? Same problem.

Nations are not Christian, nor are causes or movements, even religious ones. In the Revelation, the believers are describing as coming from every tribe or nation. Churches, now are described as being Christian. The New Tribe, perhaps, even if some of those don't make it.

Texan99 said...

Every ancient culture in the world worshipped bulls, probably from the dawn of husbandry. I'm not sure there's a lot of evidence that they were worshipped as potential steeds for deities; they were just symbols of life, food, strength, and fertility--power and plenty in all its guises. The Jews were therefore surrounded from their earliest history by cultures that worshipped bulls. It had to have been a constant temptation to go back to what everyone else in the world thought was a perfectly obvious choice, any time the Jews backslid a bit and lost faith in their special culture. Ditto the polytheistic and fertility cults they were surrounded by.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

I know a lot of cultures that seem to worship Bull S___.

james said...

In the Americas, with no cows..

Apparently the Inca did not worship lamas
Nor the Aztecs (jaguar, snake, eagle, hummingbird...)
I started in north of the border and got swamped : did anybody worship moose? Moose Jaw has a Hindu temple...

Did the buffalo have the same status as bulls? Not quite the same way... It might be an interesting thesis for somebody to compare cow cults in the Old World with bison rituals in the New.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The line from the link said bull-worship "from India to Spain." That's a fair bit of territory. Bear in mind that this included the northern route, as cattle were of enormous importance to Indo-Europeans. The earliest known written prayer from those cultures is "Save, protect, men and cattle."

But cattle, calves were also worshiped. The thought was that Jeroboam was announcing "This is how we show that the real god lives here. With calves."