The pagan culture into which Christianity was born had a “god” for every aspect of life. They were worshipped, in addition to their individual shrines, in structures like the Pantheon (literally: all the gods) in Rome, which we may have seen in our travels. But the real worship of any “god” is not the temple ritual: It is the daily activity that is inspired and directed by that “god.”
In his book Spiritual and Religious: the Gospel in an Age of Paganism Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright suggests that the culture of Western Civilization is today not Christian but in fact pagan. (I wrote about Moloch, the Canaanite god who in the Old Testament offered prosperity in exchange for child sacrifice, last week as an example.) Wright has several other suggested idols which are worth thinking about.
Let’s continue with Mars, the “god” of violence and war. Do numbers of contemporary “non-religious” people (and, sad to say, perhaps even some who think they are worshipping the Christian God) in fact worship violence? (Again: “Worship” does not mean ritual – although many contemporary idols have their rituals. By “worship” I mean orienting one’s life and actions as if that “god” should direct them.)
Start with the trivial: How much time is wasted on violent computer games? (Is this an “offering to Mars”?) How much “entertainment” is filled with violent themes? More important, how often are violent words and gestures a part of, say, driving through town? How many households live with the threat or fact of violence every day? To what degree is culture shifting from a time in which forgiveness was at least given lip-service, to an expectation that (as Wright says) “hitting back is the norm”? And on the national and international scale, how much money and how many lives are expended in threatening or causing destruction?
On the ritual front, what is the meaning of military displays at sports events? (I’m not talking about proper respect for people who serve in the military, given that sometimes force is necessary to preserve order and human life.) And (again, not entering the discussion about whether the personal possession of firearms for hunting and/or self-defense may be legitimate) why do some people collect dozens or hundreds of guns, or defend the Second Amendment as if it’s Holy Writ? Have guns become for some people amulets as well as tools? Is this worship of Mars?
The British writer G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have said, When people stop believing in God, it is not that they then believe in nothing; the problem is that they then believe in everything. Human beings want to, need to, worship something. When the Christian God effectively disappears, other “gods” will fill the gap. And those “gods” are too often the creations of uneducated human instincts, such as the instinct toward violence. We sometimes forget that we humans emerged from, and are still part of, “nature red in tooth and claw.” The God of Jesus invites a transformation of instinct, not its celebration as Mars does.
This is a key we’ll meet again: Human instincts are good, because created by the true God, the Father of Jesus. However: Instinct is a good servant but a poor master; the process of transformation through grace is meant to nurture but also to reshape our instincts (damaged, remember, by original sin) so that they serve us, the entire human community, the natural world, and the true God.
So look around this week for instances of the unwitting worship of Mars; you’ll probably find more than you thought. And next week we’ll look at another idol hiding in plain sight, Mammon. Until then, peace.