Theme: No Other Gods
In this week’s lessons, Psalm 81 serves as a warning to take care that our worship is of the true God, and in the right way.
Scripture: Psalm 81:1-16
A short time ago I came across an article in the magazine First Things by Robert L. Wilken, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. It was titled “No Other Gods” and it was a moving attempt to apply the first commandment to our times.
Wilken began with an analysis of our current secular Western culture, which he accused of undermining the beliefs, attitudes and conventions that have nurtured our civilization for centuries. In fact, that is its explicit goal. It is “to dismantle the common Western culture, to turn everything into a subculture. Secularism wants religious practice, especially Christian practice, banished to a private world of feelings and attitudes, while at the same time the realm of the public is to be expanded to include every aspect of one’s life.”1
Christianity stands against this goal, of course. And the reason it does is that it is committed to the truth that the true God has revealed himself in history, and those who have come to know him must witness to this fact. In other words, Christians must bear witness to the truth of the first commandment, though they are usually hated for it.
Wilken refers to Origen of Alexandria, the great Christian apologist of the third century, who insisted that Christianity is strong because it is confident of what it knows. Christians know that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in the history of Israel and in Jesus Christ. Of course, the knowledge of God possessed by Christians is different from secular forms of knowledge because secularism begins with man and man’s reason, and Christianity begins with God and God’s revelation. But Christianity is not less rational or less sure because of that. On the contrary, it is more rational and even more sure because it begins with these historical facts. Origen and the other early apologists often and rightly referred to John 1:18 in support of their position: “No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
Wilken also brings in some observations by T. S. Eliot, author of “The Waste Land” and other poems and dramas, such as Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot did his most significant work between the two world wars, when he perceived western society to be crumbling into a new paganism, and he voiced the challenge he saw in lectures later published as Christianity and Culture: “The choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one,” he said. Instead of showing that “Christianity provides a foundation for morality” we must show “the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity.” “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.”2 All this was a way of saying that we must return to the first of the Ten Commandments.
Wilken concludes that “Christians are… called to persuade others (including many within the churches) that our first duty as human beings is to honor and venerate the one true God, and that without the worship of God, society disintegrates into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-centered interests destructive of the commonweal.”3 “Only God can give ultimate purpose to our lives and direction to our society,” he says. “The First Commandment is not just a text to be memorized in catechism class; it is the theological basis for a just and humane society.”4
1Robert L. Wilken, “No Other Gods,” First Things, November 1993, p. 13.
2Ibid., p. 14. The quotes are from T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949).
3Ibid., p. 14.
4Ibid., p. 18.
According to Wilken, what is the goal of secular Western culture?
How is biblically-based thinking different from secular thinking?
What is our first and foremost duty?
Reflection: What is dangerous in restricting Christian practice to the private realm of feelings and attitudes?