On Seeing Idols

The last six weeks have been eye-opening for me. At the beginning I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I’m now in Siem Reap, Cambodia—home of Angkor Wat and other ancient Khmer ruins. Today, a Sunday, I’m also in the Psalms in my current Bible reading; and the collision of these vastly different experiences calls for a comment.

First, Kathmandu. As Lareau, my Barnabas colleague, and I met there with local Christians for a four-day visit we drove through an area where craftsmen were busy fabricating idols—dozens and dozens could be seen as we drove through the “idol district”. Images from Buddhist, Hindu, and perhaps still other religions, were being shaped and gilded with obvious devotion. Kathmandu is a place devoted to serious worship!

Then yesterday and today, with memories of Nepal still fresh, I toured the widespread Angkor complex with some friends after we concluded our time at a conference in Battenbang. In the process of our tour we found modern devotees among the ruins of the varied divinities that were once celebrated there hundreds of years ago. Figures of often headless Buddhas—desecrated by competing Hindu devotees in times long past—already had pungent incense sticks burning as we visited in the early morning. We were offered the chance to light some ourselves by attending priests but we politely bypassed the offer. Other expressions of active worship were to be found at many points among the sites we visited: orange saffron robes covered some of the larger ancient statues that are still intact; and in some cases additional modern items surrounded them.

Finally, this morning in my Bible reading I reached Psalm 136 where the call to thank God for his goodness is stated and elaborated; and it offers a steady refrain after every stanza, “for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Here’s what struck me: we are all worshippers. Where we differ is in what we worship and why. The Psalmist was worshiping God as one whose love had captured him. The devotees in Kathmandu and Angkor Wat were also expressing forms of worship in their own manner and for their own purposes.

So my point in noticing this juxtaposition of worship events is neither to endorse some form of pluralism—the notion that everyone must do what seems best to them—or to set up a debate about the superiority of one over the others. A discussion of what is true and what is false is needed but this posting is not that venue.

So while I am a Christian, and I certainly do believe in Christ and not in the others, in taking that stance I have no inclination to be sharp or uncaring towards those who travel in different directions from my own. In fact I long for words and ways to draw them to the God I love and who loves them.

I can be positive towards those with whom I disagree deeply, in part, because I am happy to find others in the world who are bold enough to worship. And in the Western world I admire those who worship even in the face of a fierce bias against any type of worship. In our “enlightened” West an aggressive secularism despises spiritual passion with a misguided passion of its own.

Which should be a signal to us that even the most ardent secularist is still a worshiper—even if his or her worship lacks statues, or candles, or baptismal fonts, or choruses, or prayers. I think, for instance, of the great secularist idols. And by the term idol I have in mind the sort of biblical warning against “greed which is idolatry”—that is, the sorts of devotion that participants fail to recognize for what it really is: worship. The secularist, then, may have become a follower of wealth, or health, or power, or status, or even altruism—all of which are ambitions that make them into increasingly “god-like” figures in their own eyes and in certain select circles of fellow devotees. What bonds them together is their ultimate devotion to autonomy—to a self-defined independence—which is a supreme form of worship.

The reason for making such a blanket claim is my Christian certainty that we are all made by God and for God as lovers—lovers made to respond to him. In that creation-context our existence as processing beings is, then, always affective and heart-based. Not surprisingly even secular neurobiologists have sometimes described our ability to process experience as “thinking by feeling”.

The point is that we orient ourselves to the world through what we love—”desire” or “like” or “want”—most, and that love is our purest form of worship. It is what Paul pointed to in Romans 1:25 in charging the world with guilt for having “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator”.

Let me return to my multiple exposures to worship in the past weeks. What I found in common among them is a deep devotion expressed through various outward behaviors. Money was being invested in the worship exercises; time and energy were part of the process; and efforts to refocus the soul in new, other-worldly, directions were paramount.

What struck me as dramatically different about the Christian faith was embedded in the orientation of the worship. In reading the Psalm about God’s goodness, with its refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever”, I find a focus on God’s initiative, not ours. It offers a confidence that God already knows about our sin. For those of us who have come to him he—as other Psalms and the New Testament make clear—has already removed our sins far from us, as far as the east is from the west.

So at the meeting of Christians in Battenbang, before we came to Angkor, and at the meeting with Christians in Nepal, what characterized our unity was not an effort to please God but a celebration of God’s pleasure in us: of his love for us. And with that we find the encouragement of being freed from guilt, shame, fear, and doubt, all because of what God has already done for us in Christ.

So it is that we bring to other worshipers a sense of appreciation for their felt longings, and for their efforts to do the right thing. But where we differ is in knowing that the right thing is to focus on the right person, on Christ. There we discover a love that endures forever; a love of response rather than an unending burden of duty.

So let me end this reflection, and this trip to Cambodia, with my own response to God and an invitation to worshipers of other gods: “Oh, taste and see, Jesus is good! Come to him and find your desired peace and refuge!”



  1. Nicole Shuts

    I so much appreciate this reflection and response to what you have seen in cambodia. in reading this today, i am reminded how i am to approach others in my life with beliefs so different than mine. i like your wording about being happy to find others in this world who are bold enough to worship. your sincerity in that statement, while being completely tempered by the true need to worship the right person however, has left an imprint on me today. thank you for sharing.

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