Saturday, January 15, 2011

Geographic gods

Long ago, people entertained the oddest notions about gods. They thought of gods in terms of geographic regions, as if they were tied to or centered around a physical location. The god's power was greatest in his “home” territory, and diminished beyond his boundaries. Physical place, even actual earth, was deemed important to the worship of a god. This explains Naaman's desire to take home with him a couple mule-loads of Israelite dirt (2 Kings 5:17): he wanted to worship Israel's God on Israel's soil, even if that soil had to be taken to the “land” of another god.

It is true that the Israelites also thought this way – after all, God promised them a land of their own, and even set aside a special place within that land, Mount Zion, as the center for His worship. He probably had many reasons for this, one of them being accommodating the preconceived notions of His people, but another thing became more clear as time went by: the God of Israel was truly god of the whole earth, not just the land occupied by Israel. Furthermore, He was no respecter of places when it came to being obeyed. When the Israelites didn't obey His laws, He did not hesitate to deport them from the land, starting with the nation of Israel in the north and ending with Judah in the south. He even gave hints through His prophets that He could be worshiped anywhere on earth, because all lands (and, ultimately, all people) were His.

These days we consider such notions as geographic gods to be quaint and simplistic. As if God had a jurisdiction, like a secular authority, that you could get on a plane and escape! As if the authority and power of God Almighty could be delimited by something as arbitrary as geographic boundaries! We might smile knowingly when we read accounts like Naaman's, thankful that we're sophisticated enough to have moved beyond such elementary views of God's nature.

Or have we?

The older I get, the more I wonder if maybe we post-moderns don't have our own twist on the regional god mentality. Though we may not think in terms of “the god of Oakland County” (or whatever), we nonetheless tend to partition our outlook on the world into “regions”, and behave as if different “gods” reigned over these conceptual regions. For instance, I know businessmen who are Catholic, but whose business practices are indistinguishable from those of their totally worldly colleagues. If you were to ask one of them whether his workplace attitudes conformed to the teachings of his faith, you'd draw a blank look. Teachings of the faith? Those were for Sunday at Mass times – what did they have to do with closing out this month's sales?

See what I mean? Virtual regions – mental areas where people assume other gods have sway. Oh, someone with such an attitude might acknowledge in the abstract that the One True God has authority over everything, but at the day-to-day level, he would behave as if the workplace was controlled by different gods than the one he thought about at Mass on Sunday. He wouldn't call them gods – he'd call them marketing principles, or business precepts, or whatever – but he would certainly consider them to be more influential in his work environment than God Himself. It isn't that he'd think God impotent, it's that he'd consider Him irrelevant.

Here's another one: entertainment. If you were to ask the average person what God thought of what they did to entertain themselves, you'd probably get another blank stare. Why would God care what television shows I watch? Outside of glaring extremes such as pornography (which is increasingly being seen as a matter of taste, not morals,) most people would wonder why you'd mention God and entertainment in the same context. God has no relevance to their entertainment choices – another “region” where other gods hold sway.

You could find plenty more examples: investment, childrearing, education, health and fitness, and so forth. We Westerners tend to have very compartmentalized lives, whether we profess a religious affiliation or not, and over time we tend to see these compartments as being influenced by different forces. This is simply the idea of regional gods in different guise.

This is one thing I think most Evangelicals do better than most Catholics, at least in this day and age: make a conscious, deliberate effort to make Jesus the Lord of every aspect of their lives. This is often presented as a caricature – e.g. the coworker who punctuates every conversation with “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” – but the reality is an important one. Certainly we behave differently in the workplace than we do in worship, and differently again at the ball game, but God Almighty is our Lord wherever we are and whatever we're doing. Sure, He's interested in how we comport ourselves at worship, but He's also interested in what influences us as we draw up that contract or make that repair, albeit in different ways. God doesn't recognize any regions over which He has no control, no matter what we think. He will be Lord over every aspect of our lives. We can cooperate with that or not, but there's one thing we can't do: run anywhere, geographically or in our minds, where He is not Lord.

There is no such place.

2 comments:

Lindsay said...

I've found this to be somewhat difficult. Most Christians seem to have fully embraced a "don't ask, don't tell" policy where religion lies--brush your Christian faith under the carpet so as to not offend. The sad thing is that you really do get backlash, whether overtly or passively, if you're very open about your faith unless you house yourself in company who shares your beliefs. If you don't, you're sort of up creek without a paddle. You get ostracized somewhat, you get judged. It happens. Jesus said it would. I find it particularly difficult in the respect that I'm looking for employment, and I know that the best way to get a job is to be quiet about it, because I *need* a job. I have loans to pay off, I have rent to pay, I need to put food in my stomach. Yet I also don't want to be hired by someone who thinks I'm someone other than I am. That's been my biggest problem and the biggest area where I question how... honest and open I should be, only because I suffer so much financially right now. I take the flack from acquaintances/friends/family/whoever most of the time, though it's certainly difficult, but this is the first time I've seriously had difficulty with my Christian identity.

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