Digging through the walls
Temples are places where the divine meets the human. Temples have been around since the beginning of human history. They’re as natural as anything we’ve ever known or done. It’s a part of who we are as human beings that we seek to connect or reconnect with some sense of the divine. We seem to have ingrained in us some sense that we need to meet up with the gods or a particular god. Thus we build temples. Years ago I went to Arizona to attend a conference on church growth and evangelism. One day I had enough free time that I was able to drive north towards the Grand Canyon. I didn’t make it to the Grand Canyon, since it was further away than I thought. That and I got caught in a snowstorm halfway up there. So I ended up turning around and stopping at Red Rock Canyon in Sedona instead. I drove through the town, noticing that there were numerous ‘new age’ type stores, but didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was headed for the park. Once I got to the park, I parked my rental car and hiked up the path to one of the peaks overlooking the area. There were some other tourists around along the pathways, so I found my way off the beaten path and headed up to an unpopulated area near the top of a peak. I remember that it was spectacular. The soil is really red. As you look around you, all you see are the surrounding peaks of the other mountains. As I drove up I could imagine the early people riding across the valleys, hunting deer, living off of the land. As I found a secluded spot near a mountaintop, I rested and just sat, enjoying the splendor of the surrounding scenery. But as I wandered a bit more, I came across something that I hadn’t seen in years, not since my childhood on Staten Island. In a clearing on one of the plateaus was an altar. It had been set up by someone else who had climbed the same mountain. They had climbed up seeking a place alone. They had sought a place to meet the divine. They had set up an altar. It wasn’t much. It was a simple collection of stones set up in an unmistakable arrangement. It was built with the idea that it would help in the establishing of a connection with spiritual reality, whatever that reality might be. Maybe it was offered to a god the supplicant or supplicants knew by name. Maybe it was seen as an impersonal force that nonetheless needed a structure to help in the sending and receiving of spiritual signals. Maybe it was seen as a way to communicate with previous generations passed on before. I wondered if anything had been sacrificed when the altar was built. I don’t recall seeing any remains. I think there were items that had been left on the stones, personal items of importance to those who had climbed up high, hoping to somehow connect with some ‘other’ or others. Beckoning to some great unknown, hoping that there is someone or even something there to listen to words spoken, words cried out, words unsaid, needing to be said. I’m sympathetic to their need. I know that I want there to be someone or something ‘out there’ who can hear me ‘down here’ and maybe even give an answer or two. We all climb hills. We all instinctively climb upward, seeking to find answers that seem not to reside in us. I am sympathetic to there needs. But I still destroyed the altar.
Would you drink water from a spring near Love Canal? Would you dare risk putting a cup to your mouth, knowing what might be in the water? Maybe it’s clean. It probably isn’t though. It’s probably been polluted by the nearby toxic waste that will not stay put. The pollution has seeped down and out into the soil and underground springs. Deep waters normally safe are no longer safe. If I were to block up a spring I knew to be polluted, yet nearby others cried out from thirst, I would, at first glance seem heartless, cruel even. Drinking waters from broken cisterns is a double tragedy. The cisterns are useless for what they’re intended. They can’t hold the water needed so badly. But the water that gives life is spilt. Is falls to the ground, unused. Energy spent to no end.
Temples meet us in the heights. They lift us up. They fill a need. The issue isn’t whether temples are needed or not. We cannot avoid temples no matter what we do. The question is what temple and to what end? The Jewish and Christian scriptures are filled with temples, both sacred and idolatrous. As we’ve seen before, the first temple was the Garden in Eden. It was a place set apart from the surrounding environment. It was a place of life, cultivation, name-giving, and authority. It was the place where God dwelled more tangibly than anywhere else. It was where He rested after His great creative work. We, through our primordial ancestors, the first couple, were called into His presence, breathed into and given life. We were called to bring order out of and into the chaos of the surrounding world. We were called to be the intersecting point between heaven and earth and spread the garden outward. Remember, we are soil and spirit, and we are very good.
When sin entered into the picture, when sin entered into our experience and we entertained sin, sin entered into us. We knew sin. Sin knew us. God recognized sin. God acknowledged sin’s presence, even in the garden. God warned our parents, our human representatives, of its presence, and of its consequences if partaken of by them. When our parents were bedazzled by the delights of knowledge and thought that being in the garden would automatically keep them safe, they took, ate, knew, and were blinded to God’s presence even as they saw their own nakedness. Then they were expelled.
We’ve been climbing hills ever since. It didn’t take long for the death predicted by God to fully enter into the picture. Only one generation after our first parents two brothers competed over a sacrifice to God. One’s was accepted, the other’s wasn’t. Words came to blows. Blows came to an end. One brother lays dead. One brother offers up meat. It’s accepted. Another brother offers up grain. It’s rejected. One offering from the soil is inadequate to the task at hand. It seems God wants more. The other offering takes a life as a first-fruit. God is pleased. If God won’t accept a grain offering, but wants an offering of blood, then he’ll get blood. Since death entered into the picture in the garden, death has spread out into the surrounding environment ever since. Abel’s blood still cries out and the soil still groans beneath our feet.
Throughout human history, there are two basic types of temples gone bad. The first type is the one that starts out bad. Like the tower at Babel, built to reach up to the heavens. But we also see it in Pyramids, various smaller hilltop sanctuaries, Pantheons, Monoliths, and any number of other meeting places of the gods. In each of these, the gods intersect with humanity, usually through a vice regent. Either it’s a priest or a king. Sometimes it’s both in one person. Usually that person is seen as a direct descendent of the gods himself. Sound familiar? Scary? It should sound familiar. But it shouldn’t be too scary. Again, even though there are numerous similarities between the Hebrew/Christian writings and the surrounding cultures they inhabited, common language and common imagery do show neighborly relationship but not necessarily total dependence. Again, the surrounding cosmologies had their similarities to the Hebrew narrative, but their differences were also quite striking. It’s in seeing both of these that we can better discern how to be on our guard to any idolatries that might make a claim to our spiritual loyalties.
In a little bit, we’ll look at the problem of when good temples go bad, and how that needs to be understood accurately. But for now, we should see how ‘out of the gate’ bad temples distort God, humanity, creation, and our relationship to God.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY
Ready made gods serve our whims. But these same gods do eventually want something, or better yet, someone, in return. The light gleams brightly and my eyes are dazzled. Its’ sharpness is almost painful. But it’s a pain that gives me that immediate rush I love. Every ounce of my being quivers in delight at the filling I’m feeling. Rushing torrents of power course through me and I feel so alive. I have the gods in my hands. I control them. I am their master. Our gods are the ones we seek after. They’re us, but more manageable. They’re us, but more powerful. They’re us, but more of what we wish we were. They’re us, and that’s why we hate them so much. Our gods are always too much and not enough. They always promise us more than they can deliver. As we gaze into their awful visage, we are transformed into their image. We ultimately become what we most fervently dwell on, or more accurately, dwell in.
My needs are many and my wants are even more. I want love. I want sustenance. I want meaning. These are all good, legitimate wants, even needs. But my wants go beyond my needs. My wants stretch out my needs until they don’t fit me anymore. My wants need more than my needs ever wanted. I’ve become super-sized in my appetites. And I need a super-sized god who can feed that yawning emptiness. But the strange reality is that this god of my understanding ends up being lesser than anything I could ever actually need. My super-sized god gives me fast food spirituality. He, she, it, ends up mal-nourishing me as I gorge myself on its paltry poisons masquerading as food for my soul. Instead my soul becomes the food fed to my gluttonous appetite god.
Our idols sell us to the highest bidder. We bid ourselves out to those who promise us everything, but in the end take us for all we’re worth. That’s the irony of idolatry. We sell ourselves for such a cheap price, when the One who made us tells us we’re priceless and offers Himself as the only payment worthwhile, just so that we’ll be able to take freely from the table prepared before us.
In days of yore, our ancestors built towers, shrines, and various other temples to reach out and placate deities afar off. Our modern totems speak volumes of what our idols are today. We have our towers. We have our shrines. And of course we have our many temples that speak to our ‘gods’, whether they are traditional spirit beings or our recent tendency towards material satisfactions. Being sold a bill of goods until you’re sold off as a bill of goods isn’t very good. But to our culture of consumerism, everything is a product including us, especially us. Walk through a mall sometime. Visit the latest incarnation of the oldest faux temples. It’s striking how much has stayed the same.
BEHIND THE WALLS
I titled this essay “Digging through the walls” because in Ezekiel, he is told to dig through the walls of the Jerusalem Temple. When he does so, he finds that they hide an untold number of abominations and idolatries. These are the hidden things of the priesthood. These are the secreted away corners that they don’t want anyone to see or find out about. The Jerusalem Temple was commanded by God Himself to be built by David’s son Solomon. The true God of Israel, Yahweh, not the false gods of the surrounding peoples, called for this temple to be built to honor His name above all other names. And yet this same temple had become corrupted. It held detestable things inside it. It had become a haunt of wickedness and rampant immorality. This temple that God had commanded to be built and had commended to His people was now a hateful thing in His eyes.
This is a work in progress, so I'll hopefully wrap it up soon. But since I'm moving right now, we'll see when that'll happen!