Today I read in part two very different books: “The Pursuit of God” by A.W. Tozer and “Saving Appearances” by Owen Barfield (friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein).  Read them for free here and here. I read both of these books for the purpose of “pursuing God” and found an unexpected common thread which led me to begin searching my heart regarding the issue of idolatry.

Barfield and Tozer speak of two very different types of idolatry–Tozer in the classical sense and Barfield in a new one.  While Tozer identifies idolatry in this way: “The roots of our hearts have grown down into things, and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die.  Things have become necessary to us, a development never originally intended.  God’s gifts now take the place of God, and the whole course of nature is upset by the monstrous substitution” (page 18 in the online version mentioned above).

Barfield, on the other hand, identifies (with complex terminology and argument) a different kind of idolatry.  To oversimplify, Barfield challenges the idea that things (the cosmos) are separate from human consciousness.  In many ways he anticipates postmodernism.  According to Barfield, the world can only be experienced through the senses and then interpreted by the human mind.  Therefore, all we have of reality is what we have imagined based upon our sensory data.  We pool our ideas of reality into a set of “collective representations.”  Then all our new ideas of reality are attempts to line up experiences with that understanding.

Barfield explains that the industrial revolution and scientific age (terms now almost synonymous with modernism) led us to think of things (the cosmos) as separate from our consciousness and fully observable.  We then began to think of ourselves as simply “objects among objects”.  Barfield then argues for a view which positions man not simply as another creation, but also as a partner in creation.  He calls this arrangement a “directionally creator relationship” (132, 144).  According to Barfield, we make things idols when we attribute to them meaning outside of human experience, or more opaquely, when we

set up the appearances of the familiar world […] as things wholly independent of man […] the independence and extrinsicality of of the unrepresented itself.  But a representation, which is collectively  mistaken for an ultimate–ought not to be called a representation.  It is an idol.  Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.

A blog post is not the appropriate place for me to try to prove or disprove Barfield’s epistemology, but I think there is always something to be learned from every source.  As I began to contemplate Tozer, I was given a clear application: be poor in spirit.  Live in a way that reflects complete satisfaction with God alone.

My application from Barfield is understandably more complex: don’t think of the universe as irrelevant to spiritual life.  “The happy bird-watcher does not say: ‘Lets go and see what we can learn about ourselves from nature’.  He says; ‘Let’s go and see what nature is doing, bless her!'”  I have been guilty of being fascinated with the world for the sake of curiosity alone.  I will now look for meaning behind the observable world.  The universe is one means of revelation of God.  There is always something our senses can teach us about who God is and about who we are meant to be.


~ by Joshua Long on July 29, 2008.

8 Responses to “Idolatry”

  1. the All-In-All Himself is truly that… a co-creative existence of those extensions and representations of the source, and the source. these extensions of God cannot be God themselves. can the source act as God without the co-creative perception? this is not important to know, i do not think. so idolatry is a state of mind? there are important aids and representations of our Father that are being cast aside in the modern church out of fear of idolatry. these aids are our Connection to that Greater Source. prayer is not purely God but let us keep it close to our hearts and be thankful that it is an aspect of God that we are allowed to experience. i had just consider capitalizing all words that represented God that we would typically not honor… it was every word.

  2. What in particular are you referencing when you mention that there “are [aids and representations] being cast aside in the modern church out of fear and idolatry”?

  3. allow me to clarify firstly: i stated “these extensions of God cannot be God themselves”. example: the earth alone is not God. it is an aspect of God and should be held in high esteem, though to singularly worship the earth as God is idolatry and does not fulfill the role of All-In-All. this is not a popular philosophy in the christian church. the earth is not God I am told. and so the elders of the church remove the earths precious fuel, murder without regard the animals of God’s kingdom, remove the forests and pollute the waters. the “great followers” of our Fathers Word see the Earth as below God. the Earth is our connection to Jesus Christ, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. the christian church follows the Christ external. this can be debated as the foundation of christian faith is told to be the acceptance of Jesus Christ into the heart (the internal). i do not see this expressed in the lives of the modern christian. thus a plethora of these extensions of God are abused as lesser than the All-In-All. this cannot be contended or explained.

  4. It is certainly true that orthodox Christian teaching asserts that the created world is separate from the creator. Panentheism and Christianity simply don’t mix. That does not, however, excuse evangelicals to treat the earth carelessly. I think that my friend Ben Parker understands well why some feel that way: because of the stigma of liberalism/humanism, and because of poor theology (i.e. God will surely return within the next year so who cares about anything). Read more from Ben here…

    I do believe that we can continue to believe in a transcendent, holy, infinite God and still care deeply about the universe around us. In fact, we are commanded to do so (Genesis 1, Lord’s Prayer, etc.)

  5. i look forward to hearing the words of friend Ben Parker and am thankful that he is addressing this situation. i must agree that panentheism and christianity do not possess the characteristics which allow them to integrate. however i must express some perplexity in the simultaneous orthodox ideals that God is infinite, transcendent, and omnipresent, as well as completely separate from His very creation.
    this is another huge source of the environmental problem we are now facing. if we can believe that creator is separate from that which he creates then we need no conviction as to the properties of that creation. thus, a mans every decision being a system of creation, he need take no regard as to the outcome of those decisions. i believe this is a philosophy suspended in the practice of apologetics.
    if a man believe his own personal creation is apart of his very temple he would certainly be more conscious of its purpose and its affect.
    again, i believe my creator is purely omnipresent relying on absolutely no condition.

  6. I agree that any philosophical talk of God usually ends in a logical puzzle. But should it not be so that he who is before time and matter and who is existence itself should be beyond simple comprehension. Even the world around us, when studied to fine detail and in grandeur presents logical puzzles for our minds. For instance, the law of gravity falls to pieces on the scale of the atom. How much more beyond comprehension must be the creator above his creation.

    But because of his love, he has revealed himself to us in some helpful ways, even if we do not all agree on the list of revelations or the rank of importance in interpretation. So, according to scripture, he is infinite yet has spoken into time; he is transcendent yet immanent; he is omnipresent, yet personal; he is separate from creation but intimately involved in it, even entering creation in the form of a man to reveal himself to us in the way we best understand.

    As far as our role as humans in caring for the earth, I think we can agree that we have a responsibility to do so. Some say we are responsible simply because our children will be affected by our decisions. Some say we are morally responsible because we have great power beyond any other created being and must use that power to create and to nurture. I would argue that we are responsible for caring for the earth because it is a part of creation, just as we are and we must honor it. Also, we have been charged with the care of the earth (Genesis).

    Would agree with this statement, “not only are our bodies the temple of God, but also all of creation”? I think it is an interesting proposition, but am not yet sure how it stands up to scripture.

  7. Barfield always made me feel straight-up crazy. Maybe that had more to do with trying to speed-read through it for class.

  8. I agree, Brooke. Barfield can really get your head spinning. His style is nowhere near as clear and fun as Lewis and Tolkein.

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