Monday, May 31, 2010

Am I constructing an idol?

During the last one week, I was reading Karen Armstrong's The Case for God, borrowed from the Boston Public Library. It was a really good read. In the book, Karen Armstrong raises a valid question of constructing an idol. Previously, I thought money or friends or spouse or kids could be an idol if it or he/she takes precedent over God. Armstrong points out that by confining God within our framework, we could similarly be constructing an idol.

This brings to my mind the Westminster Shorter Catechism,
Q4: What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

There are traditionally two ways to describe God. The first is perhaps univocal way. By comparing what we know about a person and compare that similarity with God. That is to say, this person is wise, but God is infinitely wiser. This person is good. God is the absolute goodness.

The second way is the equivocal way, i.e. to disavow the similarity. That is to say there is nothing we know on earth that is comparable to God, which means we can only say what God is not. For e.g. God is not a liar. God is not this. Thomas Aquinas adopts this line of thought and goes further saying that our language about God is analogical. Since God is not this, we can say that God is like something. For e.g. God is strong like a rock, but God is not a rock. God oversees us like a shepherd taking care of his flock, but God is not that shepherd.

(There is a third way, which is not so well-known, called mysticism. This approach believes that since God is beyond our ability to describe, we can only experience God. Some called this the apophatic tradition. This approach has generally been shunned by the mainstream tradition, but I believe this approach should be carefully guided and not discounted in one's tradition.)

Here comes the idol part. When we relate to God, do I mistake God to be whom I project Him to be? Is God an infinite projection of what I think goodness is? Is God an infinite projection of what I think love is? Am I making an idol? Yes and No. First, I recognize that the concept of infinite is really beyond human's capacity to phantom and understand. When I say infinite, I am acknowledging my finiteness and ability to articulate what is beyond me. This is a qualifier. Yet, if I try to imagine God within my perception of goodness, then I seriously think I am making an idol. Similarly, if I imagine God is like a father, God is not "the father". God could be a mother, a friend, is a Spirit, and all these are unlike how I relate to a human being. When I say God is like "...", I must not mistake God to be that "...", and confine God in that role or else I am also making an idol.

To be even more strict about constructing of idol, I may not be entitled to say "God exists". Why? The word "exist" is to presuppose a being or something that is present in time-space dimension. Can I say God is a being? If you adhere to the univocal approach, you will probably say yes. But if you prefer the equivocal approach, you might probably say no. Next is the question of existence. If the God whom I believe in transcends time-space dimension, how can I say "God exists"? Is God even a Being the way I understand what is a being? The sentence "God exists" is very problematic because the God whom we come to know through God's revelation is beyond our vocabulary and categories. To say "God exists" is confining "God" into categories.

Going back to the Westminster Catechism answer, I can see the response is trying to point me to what God is, i.e. "a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." I understand the Westminster confession and catechism were compiled in the 17th century, a time when the theology was becoming more rationalistic and orthodoxy was the rule of the day. But anytime I allow the Westminster's response to be my static description of God, I have just constructed an idol. The concept of eternal is beyond me because I live in a temporal time-space dimension. Unchangeable is more like a Greek concept of the First Principle, and less like a flesh-incarnated-God. So, this description does have limitation. "wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth" are attributes affirming the characteristics of God, which serves to elicit trust and faith in this God, but are by no means constraining God into each category. I realize that sometimes, when I attempt to put up a defense for God, I may actually be putting up a defense for an idol. For e.g. if God is wise and good, why does He allow the disaster to happen? I may have to say "I don't know". But one thing is know is that I can do something for the afflicted in the world. I can act. God speaks through my action. My action affirms what I believe about God.

In prophet Elijah's encounter with Yahweh in 1 Ki 19:11-13, he expects Yahweh to appear in the fire, or thunder or lightning, or earthquake, i.e. the usual expectation of encounter with God (theophany) through powerful encounter of forces of nature. But God finally encounters Elijah in moments of silence. For me, that is an idol-shattering experience. An idol need not be the golden calf that the Israelites built below Mt. Sinai (Ex. 32). That idol-shattering experience changed Elijah.

As I put down Armstrong's The Case for God, I started to reflect upon the idol(s) I may have constructed. Though I hold a conviction of what God is, my conviction must not be an obstacle for how God continues to act in the history of humankind, and how God speaks to each and everyone of us. I vividly recalled that towards the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God, and it was so overwhelming that he refused to write anymore. He said "I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value" ( The greatest medieval theologian in the Latin West had such a transformative experience that he couldn't write anymore about God, and that humbles me when I attempt to articulate about God for fear that I may be constructing an idol.


miaksiew said...

Hi Swee Long.

i read with interest your blog, especially coming from a fellow Singaporean who is pursuing a MDiv in the US.

i came to the US a year after you, and i will complete my MDiv next year before returning to Singapore.

in my time here, i have come to see how Christianity is different in Singapore - especially after writing and researching on syncretism.

i believe that God is moving and there needs to be more progressive voices in Christianity in Singapore and i wish you well as you seek ordination in the Presbyterian church.


ArthKohSL said...

Hi, Miak,

I definitely agree on the need for more progressive Christian voices in SG, and it will be an uphill task.

It will be great if you leave me your email or your blog address, and we could follow up on what we have learned here.

May God bless you and watch over you.