(Material for this column, including quoted citations from outside sources, is taken from Wallace B. Henley, Who Will Rule the ‘Coming gods’).
John Calvin: “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols … the mind begets an idol, and the hand gives it birth.”
The passion for idol-making is stirred when God is forgotten or intentionally cut off from society and its cultural memory. So, according to Judges 2, after the death of Joshua and his generation another authority rose up “who did not know the Lord or yet the work which he had done for Israel.”
The outcome, according to Judges 2, was that the new generation “served the Baals” — the false gods of the lands where they found themselves and made idols.
The similarities in American and, for that matter, of the whole of Western civilization, should be taken seriously now.
Will Herzberg, a 20th-century Jewish social philosopher, understood, and wrote, according to Samuel Gregg, that “post-Enlightenment ideologies could not escape the influence of man’s intrinsically religious nature … they simply channeled the innate desire to know the truth about the transcendent into this-worldly faiths.”
Herzberg wondered: “What’s faith without a deity?”
Thus, he believed that “Western civilization would die if severed from its Jewish and Christian roots.”
“From the time the most primitive of animists selected a curiously shaped rock or piece of wood and laid it atop an altar of stone and called it Baal — ‘possessor’ or ‘master of the land’ — humans have been trying to fabricate their own ‘gods.’”
That leads to the rise of “god factories.”
Contemporary tourists walking through the ancient ruins of Ephesus encounter hawkers still trying to peddle Artemis idols, fervently worshipped in Ephesus in Paul’s day and rigorously denounced by Saint Paul.
On a trip to one of the world’s most impoverished nations, a friend and I entered a shop that was selling idols. “What’s this one for?” my friend asked the dealer.
“Oh, that one drives out poverty and brings riches,” the clerk replied.
Motioning toward the streets crowded with beggars who slept each night in an alley rather than a mansion, my friend quipped, “That prosperity idol doesn’t work well, does it?”
And he could have made the same ironic comment regarding the growing number of people in the United States who have rejected the true and living God, and instead worship idols in the form of maddening drugs, and sleep in gutters and garbage-laden passages between towering buildings.
True worship centers on the transcendent God, His essence and Being. We do praise and thank Him for what He has done for us, but that’s not to be the sole motive for worship. Rather, as Paul wrote: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Utilitarian motive drives idolatry today in both the spiritual and material worlds, which includes the secular West. The “prosperity gospel” of some forms of Christianity often does not worship with a focus on true Transcendence but for material desires and goals, ranging from more wealth right down to a choice parking place at the local mall or shopping center.
Though many people, especially in the secular West, have lost the focus on God’s transcendence they cannot escape the need in their spirits and souls for it. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
And so, as John Calvin said, we build the “god factories.” Calvin went on to say that “(t)he human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity … then, laboring under dullness and grossest ignorance’ the mortal brain substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God … the idol ‘conceived inwardly’ the human attempts to embody outwardly.’”
Centuries after Calvin, Polish academic Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski, came right out and said it: “Today’s ‘secular deities’ are degraded substitutes for God … these inadequate idols are acceptable enough for so-called ‘modern man’ whose spiritual appetite seems satisfied with what is apparently greater than himself, but is also fully reducible to his petty limitations.”
This is not a call for ridding ourselves of machines on which people like me and millions of others write critical pieces on the new technologies, or that improve our medical care, but an urgent call to awaken society from the notion that we can forge on without an understanding of the importance of God’s transcendent majesty and all it infers, and that we are building devices that we can master when actually we are constructing machines that will master us.
As Dr. Noreen Herzfeld put it, we are moving from Imago Dei (the human made in the image of God) to Imago Hominis — “that which establishes an analogy between humans and computers.”
Dr. Herzfeld also cited a thought from Clemson Professor Todd May, who, in a New York Times article, surfaced the fact that “there are stirrings of discussion these days in philosophical circles about the prospects of human extinction.” The issue at hand is “whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings” Dr. May noted.
So, perhaps the time will come when the idols we create without any sense of accountability to higher authority will be metallic “angels of death” for us.
However, there is no reason for fear in a world where the machines work within the protocols of the 10 Commandments and the Character of Christ, and by the mind of Imago Dei. There is much to be concerned about if all this happens only under Imago Hominis.
As humans see themselves and the inventions emerging from their “god factories” it will be too late for a civilizational return to the pursuit and worship of the transcendent Lord Who came so that humanity could have real-life made in the image of God, and, through Christ, given abundantly (John 10:10).
Wallace B. Henley is a former pastor, daily newspaper editor, White House and Congressional aide. He served 18 years as a teaching pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist Church. Henley is author or co-author of more than 25 books, including God and Churchill, co-authored with Sir Winston Churchill’s great grandson, Jonathan Sandys. Henley’s latest book is Who will rule the coming ‘gods’? The looming spiritual crisis of artificial intelligence.
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