Idolatry and the World

What use are the Ten Commandments today? Last time we looked at the First Commandment as it specifically relates to the Church; now we’ll consider it with respect to the world in general.

As it appears in the Bible, the term “world” could mean a couple things. In some places it means the wide, universal scope of humanity; in others it means a counter-community, an opposing kingdom to the Church. When examining how the Ten Commandments apply to “the world,” I mean the world as a broad, all-inclusive culture, encompassing Christians and non-Christians of the Western world specifically, particularly in its American expression.

With that, let's return again to the First Commandment:

"You shall have no other gods before me"

In one sense, we can hardly expect the world to abide by this, or by any of the ten commandments for that matter. Unless we want to return to high-age Catholicism, where we begin rounding up heretics who sleep in on Sundays, we need to embrace political pluralism. Yet therein is one of our world’s chief sticking points—what are the boundaries of pluralism?

The great danger of our times comes not so much from false worship, but from the failure to acknowledge worship for what it really is. Our world today unwittingly worships two other gods above the true God: secularism and science. The insidious threat to our society’s moral compass and atmosphere of mutual respect is not the devout Muslim who claims no God but Allah, but rather the man who adheres to secularism because he believes it is the neutral high ground.

Pluralism is not the same as secularism. Pluralism requires freedom and even-footing of all religions. Secularism is a religion. The secularist religion would not be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that people who embrace secularism tend to believe they’ve escaped religious dogma entirely. They believe they have ascended the highest peak—the sole mountaintop refuge of religious neutrality from which one may view, adjudicate, and affirm or deny the various doctrines of competing religions. In reality, secularism has its own very intricate set of moral values which it affirms and denies. It has a code and a confession, albeit a perpetually progressing and predominantly hidden one.

Take a hypothetical example. Morgan stands up during a company board meeting, and argues that, because of his religious convictions, the company should institute a dress code policy requiring all the women to cover their hair and wear long dresses. The board informs Morgan that the firm is secular. As such, they don’t enforce any religious expectations. Fast forward a few weeks later. Morgan is informed by an HR representative that the firm will not tolerate the sharing of crude or offensive jokes.

The point is not to consider whether that balance of policies is a good or a bad one. Most of us would support those policy parameters. The point is that subtly, without acknowledgment, religion has made an appearance. Moral judgments have been laid down. The firm was unwilling to impinge on employees freedom of dress in order to conform to a particular moral preference, but they were willing to impinge on employees freedom of expression in order to conform to another moral preference. They have not transcended religion as expressed in moral maxims. Such transcendence is actually impossible.

This is the real, potent idolatry of our age: the assumed neutrality of secularism. We need to recover a communal acknowledgment, a uniform understanding that we all operate on the basis of deeply held moral (and thus religious) convictions. No one packs away and hides their private religious and moral convictions when they step into the public square. Such a person would no longer have anything to say at all. That does not mean we can’t find compromise. That doesn’t mean we will always be talking past each other, or at cross purposes. In fact, when we are self-aware and communicate our presuppositions, we can more quickly reach mutual understanding and benefit.

We must also turn and shine that same spotlight of religious exposure on science. No one in their right mind is going to argue with science. Science is fact. But what does someone mean when they posture their position as based on science? Are they referring to the percentage likelihood of a treatment being effective, based on controlled data sets? Oftentimes, the word science assumes that level of empirical, objective authority, while in reality the word has been kidnapped and enslaved to a foreign power. People frequently make leaps of theoretical causation veiled under the protection of the term “science”.

For example, someone could point to the animal kingdom and say: “Because of the predominant mating patterns we have observed across nature, we now know that humans are not wired for monogamous relationships, but these have been a necessary evolutionary construct to preserve and perpetuate human beings within the stability and protection offered by family structures.” Such a statement assumes a vast number of scientific, philosophical, and theological beliefs that are just that—beliefs. But it does so in such a way that it smuggles in the aroma of scientific authority. It all sounds very final and unassailable. Phenomena have been observed. The tests have been run. These conclusions must be drawn. As soon as we migrate to the territory of answering questions of “why?”, we have left the boundaries of the observable data of science, and moved into science as religion.

Like in the realm of secularism, there’s nothing disingenuous about making moral assertions, or answering “why” questions, but we need to be honest about what we’re doing. Likewise for Christians, we never need to check our faith at the door. It’s a sort of compromise to the god of secularity to do so. Rather, part of our aim should be to help others recognize the moral and religious assumptions they operate from, so we can understand each other better.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. 

Related Links

Podcast: "Unmanipulated Trinity"

"The First Commandment" by John Hartley

"Christ Kept the 10 Commandments" by Mark Jones

The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham

Only One Way, with David Wells, Albert Mohler, and Ligon Duncan.