Friday, September 9, 2011

False devils?

Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils by making me afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.  (G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 9/11/1909)* 

      One thing common to just about every religious tradition I know is the counsel against idolatry.  That is, the counsel against setting anything up in the place of God; it can be money, sports figures, self-interest, Simon Cowell, love-of-country, anything!  Such a tendency must be common to all of us, given the universality of the caution against it.  (And the caution is not against making little statues of animals with horns.  They are simply physical representations of some spiritual/psychological issue.)
       I was struck, however, by the nice turn-of-phrase by turn-of-the-20th-century English author G.K. Chesterton.  Certainly, he recognized that we are prone to setting up false gods (or idols).  But his assertion that setting up false devils is just as dangerous seems a very appropriate consideration at this time, of this year.
       First, we are on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001.  That awful day, ten years ago, was the manifestation of Chesterton's observation (reported, VERY coincidentally, ninety-two years previously, to the day!).  The terrorists had apparently set up both false gods (as in their understanding of religion), AND false devils (as in blaming America for all of their problems) . .  and many innocent people suffered.  But that awful day, ten years ago, also prompted many Americans to set up OUR own false gods and false devils . . . and many innocent people have suffered as a result.
       But, second, we are also on the eve of the start of another academic year at the University of Denver (and elsewhere); classes begin here the day after September 11th.  Many of us at colleges and universities--whether students or faculty--cling both to false gods and false devils.   When we are at our best, we hope the light of inquiry and knowledge will help dispel some of the darkness of both falsehoods.  But that takes a lot of humility-not a virtue that is highly appreciated these days.
       We begin anew.  We can choose to cling to the darkness, to false security, to the gods and devils of our own making.  Or we can choose to humbly seek the truth--even with those whom we might disagree or not understand--and follow that path wherever it may lead, perhaps to peace.  Chesterton would probably say that such humble searching was an act of great courage.  And, I believe, it would honor the memory of all the victims of the horror of that day.
       Here's to a new year, new possibilities, and a better world.


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