John Calvin famously said the heart is a veritable factory of idols. I used to think this was just typically dark, hyperbolic, Calvinist misanthropy. The older I get, though, the more I concede it to be a sober statement of fact. Idols are our specialty. We churn them out at a furious rate, an extravagant assortment of false gods, deities, and spirits that we’ve cooked up over the centuries. Zeus, Odin, Marduk—some real classics. Our capacity to lie to ourselves about divinity is impressive and extends as wide as creation itself.
More impressive, though, is our pantheon of false images of the living and true God. It’s not for nothing the Ten Commandments quickly move from ruling out the worship of false gods to censuring the false worship of the true God. While the first command is the most basic for a reason, the second is the more insidious and tempting for Christians to break. Satan’s been a liar and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44), and his first trick was to deceive Eve into thinking God is a miser (Gen. 3:4–5).
Our hearts still fall into that same satanic groove, quickly moving from confessing “I believe in God” to talking about “the God I believe in,” to making the most dire and pretentious utterance of all: “I could never believe in a God who...”
Of course, the sad joke is this “God” usually ends up being no more than our own shadows blown up to God-sized proportions. In that sense, Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th-century philosopher and insightful unbeliever, was on to something when he said all theology is really projection—a roundabout way of describing our own best thoughts of ourselves.
Feuerbach can’t claim all the credit, ...1
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