A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXX.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXX. September 5, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“If those who worshiped idols knew and understood in their hearts what they worship, they would not be beguiled away from true reverence. Instead, seeing the beauty, order and divine providence of what God has made and is making, they would have acknowledged Him who created all this for man.”[1]

The primary feature of idolatry is the misappropriation of some relative good and making it as if it were not just a relative good, but the absolute good itself. There can be, and are, many goods which are worthy of being treated with respect, even if others had turned into idols. The fact that someone has misplaced their adoration and placed it upon such a good does not mean the object of their adoration is necessarily evil or to be reviled. They are to be respected according to their place in creation, according to the proper level of reverence due to their relative good. We must recognize that in and through them the true God can be made known:

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (Rom 1:20 -23 RSV).

It is, to be sure, true that humanity can come to know and appreciate God, the absolute in whom everything exists. However, this does not mean knowledge of the existence of the absolute itself would lead us to properly identifying or understanding that absolute. God’s transcendent nature makes it easy for us to mistake certain characteristics as being a part of God and lead to a failed understanding of who God is. When we do not realize the limited capabilities of the human mind and its inability to comprehend God, it is easy for the human mind to accept what it constructs as absolute as being absolute, leading to the creation of an idol which limits and blocks one’s access to God. For once one has accepted the imagined as the real, the construction put in place can block out God and be used to ignore any revelation from God which would seek to reform our understanding of him. We need to remove such constructs in order to know God. “When knowledge becomes purified of the obscurations of defilement, i.e., of those three mental supports [the three defilements], one dwells in nonobscuration.”[2]When we do not empty ourselves of any and all things which defile us, especially our delusional thought constructs, we will not have an unobscured access to God, the kind of access needed in order to fully worship him in spirit and truth.

In the other-dependent, the imagined does not exist,
But true reality does exist. [3]

All that is created is other-dependent; it is not self-existing, but finds itself depending upon another for its existence. As such, it is clear, whoever would imagine it as absolute would be in error, and the misperception of some created nature as absolute creates an imaginary entity which does not exist in reality. This is the foundation of any idolatry. The fact that we can find false absolutes does not remove the existence of the absolute, but rather, it is because we know the absolute must exist, that truth exists, we can overcome such false imaginings and allow ourselves to come over to the real absolute; when we do so, we find God.

In our journey in this world, a journey which is our journey with and toward God, we are all like Abraham. We have to abandon idols, and make our way in a strange, perhaps terrifying, territory of spiritual dependence where we live day by day through faith. We can’t limit God but rather, we must let God be God. When we think we comprehend God, it’s clear, it’s not God we comprehend, but an idol, a delusional mental construct set in our path. Will we continue our journey? It can be extremely disconcerting to go forward without knowing where we are going; we must, however, have faith in God. All that is, is from him; all that God does, God does for the good of creation. God loves humanity, and all things were created with us in mind. [4] It is when we open up in such faith and trust, when we have abandoned every expectation, every idol which gets in the way, including the idol of the self, God reveals himself:

Now revelation is precisely this: God himself is manifest as totally different from any idea that we can have about him. For God reveals himself by allowing human persons to receive themselves from God and also to receive God as other. To believe in God is therefore for persons to open their heart and their intelligence to a purification compelling them to accept that they are not master of the one who comes to them, and to accept that they are not their own master.[5]

The greatest delusion, the greatest idol, is the idol of the self. We create a false self, one where we see ourselves in absolute control. We then try to impose that false self upon the world, we try to be like God and make the world in our own image. Pride, self-love, ignorance all help reinforce and reify this false self, this false self which needs to be nailed up on a cross and crucified with Christ if we want eternal beatitude. We must accept we are not the master of the world and human destiny. There is only one absolute. We must not try to use God while claiming to follow him; what we are doing is making ourselves as if we were absolute, while we try to make God our henchman. Even if it is the most pious of words we use, as long as we try to control God, we find our words in contradiction with our action, and show we do not have God but an idol before us. Thus, Henri de Lubac wrote:

The supreme contradiction is to use God in order to control the flux of existence, to organize chaos, to make statements, to judge, to choose – in a word, to act spiritually and not fall into contradiction at each step, and then, simultaneously, refuse to recognize him; to think hi away without whom thought would only be a psychical manifestation: the supreme contradiction is to lean upon God in the very act of denying him.[6]

As long as we lean upon God so as to prop up the self and to try to turn the self into an absolute, we deny God. As long as we use God to justify domination in the world, we deny God. As long as we think of God as someone we can please by word and promises, and we try to please him with them so as to gain a reward of our own choosing from him, we deny God. In all of these instances, we turn God into an idol, and we treat God not as God, but as a tool for our own attempt to storm the heavens and take his place as Lord of all. The God who can be forced to be under our control is not God; the words we use, thinking we can control God, show themselves to be empty of real meaning as long as we think by them we gain control over him. God is not looking for words of praise, but hearts open to him with love. True reverence comes out of love, is open to experience the beauty of creation, and the praises which come to God reveal a heart which loves God and all that God has done; it sees no desire to make God do anything but to let God continue to sustain creation in the way God sees best.

 

There is nothing too surprising in this paragraph, and nothing in it which would surprise anyone as being from Anthony. We find a rather typical Christian exposition against idols, which of course, does not give us any sign as to who its author could be. We do know Anthony, not too surprisingly, contended against pagan idols, as we find in Athanasius’ biography of him. Nonetheless, therein he is shown as being interested in showing the powerlessness of idols: Christ’s cross overcame any demonic power which might lay behind them, demonic powers which pretended to be gods.  “The portents of the idols among you are being done away, but our faith is extending everywhere. You by your arguments and quibbles have converted none from Christianity to Paganism. We, teaching the faith on Christ, expose your superstition, since all recognise that Christ is God and the Son of God.  You by your eloquence do not hinder the teaching of Christ. But we by the mention of Christ crucified put all demons to flight, whom you fear as if they were gods. Where the sign of the Cross is, magic is weak and witchcraft has no strength.”[7]  Nonetheless, because of the generic nature of this passage, we cannot say more than it is certainly something we would expect from Anthony.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 348 (#122).

[2] Asanga, On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi. Trans. Janice Dean Willis (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002), 151 The defilements mentioned here are greed, hatred and delusion, with delusion being the false, imaginary thought constructs which hinder our experience of God as he truly is.

[3] Asanga, The Summary of the Great Vehicle. Trans. John P. Keenan (Berkley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1992), 57.

[4] This does not mean everything was made exclusively for us. Rather, we must understand the interdependent nature of creation. When we do, we can recognize everything was made for everything else. Saying God loves me does not mean he does not love you. Saying God made the world for me does not mean it is not also made for you. Thus, we must understand, while God created for our sake, we should not limit that as the extent of his intentions.

[5] Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Dare to Believe. Trans. Nelly Marans and Maurice Couve de Murville (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 117.

[6] Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God. trans. Alexander Dru (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eermans Publication Company, 1996), 36.

[7] St. Athanasius, Life of Antony, 216.

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