I am the Lord thy God.... Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exod 20. 2, 3
"HEAR, O ISRAEL; The Lord our God is one Lord !" What a surprise ! What an incredible thing to say !
Everyone knew that the universe was a wild and chaotic thing, a jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, male against female, life against death. There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest, a spirit who put fish into fishermen's nets and a being who specialized in the care of women in childbirth; and at best there was an uneasy truce among all these, at worst a battle. Now along comes a fool, from an insignificant tribe of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One !
Whoever he was, he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all the time. From the minarets where the muezzin cries that God is God; from the synagogues where the cantor calls in sonorous and unchanged Hebrew; from the churches of Christendom, the voice is the same, and the word the same. The universe is one process, created by one Maker.
It was the greatest discovery ever made.
Scholars are not sure who first phrased it : perhaps the tribal hero Moses, perhaps the idealist Pharaoh Akhnaton, more likely a host of nameless God-haunted men slowly working it out over the centuries. However it came, it is the fundamental assumption of modem science as well as that of timeless religion. And however it came, the belief in one God slew a host of horrors: malign storm demons, evil djinn of sickness, blighters of the harvest, unholy tyrants over life and death; belief in God destroyed the fetishes, the totems, the beast-headed bullies of old time. It laid the axe to sacred trees watered by the blood of virgins, it smashed the child-eating furnaces of Moloch, and toppled the gem-encrusted statues of the peevish divinities half-heartedly served by Greece and Rome.
The old gods fought among themselves, loved and hated without reason, demanded unspeakable bribes and meaningless flatteries. While they were worshipped, a moral law was impossible, for what pleased one deity would offend another. If your wife ran away from you, it was not because you beat her, but because you'd forgotten the monthly sacrifice to Ishtar; just offer a double sacrifice, and you'd get two new wives prettier than the old.
Then came the knowledge of God. An almost unimaginable person-a single being, creator of heaven and earth, not to be bribed with golden images or children burned alive; loving only righteousness. A being who demanded your whole heart.
In the scalding bitterness of the Babylonian Exile, Jehovah's prophets saw, not a victory for the enemy's gods, but the justice of their own. Nebuchadnezzar was merely the scourge with which God punished His people for their sins. With that concept a God-ordered universe was envisaged and men set about accepting the moral law of the Decalogue-a shining rainbow bridge stretching between earth and heaven.
Yesterday's thrilling discovery, however, may be today's tame commonplace, and when men have heard a statement too often, they grow incapable of hearing it at all. So with the idea of one God. Why shout it in our ears again? we ask fretfully, turning in our sleep. Have we not accepted it since childhood? Except in that dark underworld of the mind where dwell astrologers and numerologists and cash-on-the-spot psychics, nobody really believes in many-god notions any more. Why tell us what we know?
Perhaps because we know it only with our lips, not with our hearts. With some of us, the question is not One against many, but One against none. The old pagans had to choose between a brilliant, jangling, irresponsible, chaotic universe, alive with lawless powers, and the serene and ordered universe of God and law. We modem pagans have to choose between that divine order, and the grey, dead, irresponsible, chaotic universe of atheism. And the tragedy is that we may make that choice without knowing it-not by clear conviction but by vague drifting, not by denying God, but by losing interest in Him.
A nominal deist will say : "Yes, of course there must be some sort of Force that created the galaxy. But it's childish to imagine that It has any personal relation to me!" In that belief atheism exists as an undiagnosed disease. The man who says, "One God," and does not care, is an atheist in his heart. The man who speaks of God and will not recognize the presence of God burning in his mind as Moses recognized him in the burning bushthat man is an atheist, though he speak with the tongues of men or angels, and appear in his pew every Sunday, and make large contributions to the church.
We live in an age of lost faith and lost hope and empty hearts. Today the Commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," must include, "Thou shalt have me."
For the beast gods have come creeping back. If we will not have the One, we must in the end accept the many after all. A man with nothing to worship is a man in a vacuum, and the false gods will rush in. They are not idols nowadays-not Dagon of the Philistines or "the brutish gods of Nile." They are worse things. The ancient image worshippers were, at least, worshipping something not themselves, a Power greater than themselves; they were trying in their limited way to make an image of God, and when the image proved faulty they could break it and make a better one, until the day came when they needed no image at all. But the false gods of today are things of the spirit, and as hard to pluck forth as it is hard for a man to pluck out his right eye. The beast in the heart is always the self.
In the last analysis there are only two things to worshipthe true power and the false power; God or devil; God or self. The primitive mumbo-jumbo worshipper was often serving God in intention. The modem monotheist is frequently adoring his own image in the mirror.
It is true that few of us can worship the self naked and unashamed for very long. For one thing, it simply doesn't work. Living for his own pleasure is the least pleasurable thing a man can do: if his neighbours don't kill him in disgust, he will die slowly of boredom and lovelessness. The age of fear seems to say, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" But how merry can a man be with his mind obsessed by that fatal tomorrow?
Then, too, we are really not bad enough for undisguised self-worship. We have inherited two thousand years of Christian tradition; we have inherited, also, that innate moral sense of all mankind which makes even the most corrupt of us yearn vaguely for something better than himself to serve. And so we disguise the beast in the heart as a worthy cause; we borrow some shining virtue from heaven to robe it in, and make it into a false god. We proclaim that man will find salvation in art or science or education, in ending poverty or ending prejudice, in world government or in no government at all-everywhere but in the knowledge of the One.
They are hybrid creatures, our beast gods. Their strength comes from the true God, their weakness from disguised selfworship. Those which are most self-centred are easily rejected; any sane man can see that the alcoholic will not find salvation in the bottle or the nature boy in eating raw carrots and acquiring mosquito bites. But the really dangerous beasts are those cast in nobler shapes, with benevolent human masks on their faces. We call them by such names as human dignity, world peace, and freedom from want. And we revere them so deeply that we scream with horror when some iconoclast points out that at best they are means, not ends.
For of course such causes are good things-if we see them as angels, messengers of God, means by which we may come to know him, they are strong angels indeed. But if we make them our sole ends, they may easily become strong fiends. The ardent feminist who smashes her own home in the name of equal rights for women, the devoted pacifist who counsels submission to a Stalin and shuts his eyes to the bloodstains on his peace; the bureaucrat who in one country muzzles college professors in the name of free democracy and in another sends thousands to labour camps in the name of a Workers' Government-these are creatures for whom the angel has turned devil. What started, perhaps, as a genuine effort toward virtue has decayed into an excuse for self-righteousness and self-importance and personal power : a disguise for the beast in the heart.
Almost all of us, nowadays, are placing one or more of these false gods before God. The atheist gives himself wholly to his worthy cause, often achieving a burning singleness of purpose that makes him seem more religious than the religious; witness the whole-souled devotion for which the churches often envy the Communists. For the churchman is not capable of this evil simplicity. His heart is divided; he wants to worship both God and the beast. He speaks of God and country. God and prosperity, God and peace; forgetting, in the conscious nobility of his goal, that no man can serve two masters; forgetting, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me, or in addition to me."
What thoughtful Protestant has not bewailed the lukewarmness of so much contemporary Protestantism? wondered over its halfhearted convictions, the limpness of its worship, its much chaff and little grain? A man trying to serve two masters is always halfhearted. We are torn by our conflicting loyalties; because we have not put God first and alone, we see no clear way before us in a crisis. When a man finds loyalty to God conflicting with loyalty to the Superstate, he is often incapable of deciding for himself at all. And the voice of God is a still, small voice at such times, whereas the beast god brays as loudly as the thunder.
Greatest among the false gods are these: Sex, the State, Science, and Society.
Smiling at us from the billboard, the film star proclaims "Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you! Ah, at last I know the meaning of it all ! " In the magazines the advertising captions clamour : Do as we say and you too shall know the meaning of it all ! The insinuating voice on the radio whispers, "A woman's duty to herself . . ."
Openmouthed, the impressionable young drink it in, and proclaim that in love is their salvation. He who is not continually fizzing like champagne with sexual excitement is considered a failure in life. Nothing, no "outmoded morality" or promise or sense of obligation, must come between the worshipper and this supreme goal. The beast god has usurped the temple. And yet none of the false gods betrays his servant so quickly and obviously as the god Cupid, no pleasure vanishes so soon and leaves so much weariness and heartbreak behind. Sexuality can become a lasting joy only by becoming a sacrament in intention, a means to the service of God-a form through which men and women can feel for each other some slight prefiguring of the divine love. God comes first.
Hitler screams, "Kill the Jews!" and a legion of disciples springs to obey, bleating, "Orders is orders." Stalin proclaims, "All effort to combat the designs of imperialist warmongers!" and the young Communists fling themselves with fierce joy against Czech workers or Korean peasants. Meanwhile, what of the nominal Christians, the people who remember that God also has his law? Some of them die as martyrs. But many hang paralysed with indecision, impotent with conflicting loyalties. On the one hand the Lord is God; on the other hand, the State is God-how is a man to know? In the end, like the Pharisee in the parable of the Samaritan, they pass by on the other side of the road with averted faces. Who stood out against Hitler, who stood against Stalin, in those countries of the total State? Almost no one except the few Christians who knew that, even if a man must die for saying it-and how better can a Christian die?God comes first. It remains to be seen if He will come before a Parliamentary committee !
"Science will find a way ! " the professors tell us. Only ignorant and lazy men, they say, look to God for help; the intelligent modem can solve all his own problems, answer all his own questions, lift himself to an antiseptic heaven by his own bootstraps. "We can really begin to think of ourselves as responsible co-workers with God ! " says the author of Peace of Mind naively. We no longer need an "outworn moral law"; all we need is a few more statistical surveys by a few more sociologists, and we shall be willing and able to get along with our neighbours. And yet all our sciences are no more than tools to increase our power of getting whatever we already want. They are an extension of what happened when the first savage made the first dub. And unless the supreme authority of God tells us how to use our new tools, we shall use them exactly as the savage used the club -to beat out our neighbour's brains. Science will find a wayto make our cities huge blisters of radioactivity, to canker our countryside with new diseases carefully cultivated for their horror, to turn our planet into a white-hot globe of incandescent gas; unless we remember that God comes first.
What if a man be too temperate for sex worship, too just for State worship, too logical for Science worship? Is he free of the beasts? Alas no; the subtlest of them all lies in wait for him. Nothing could seem more harmless, and indeed more Christian, than the adjuration, "Thou shalt serve the common good," given by one modern reviser of the Decalogue. "The safety of the people is the supreme law," was the way the Romans put it. All things are just-if we do them for the good of society. Or, "It is expedient . . . that one man should die for the people."
So rapidly does the "common good," without God behind it, sink into a mere blown-up projection of each man's private desire ! So readily does "the welfare of society" become a cloak for the seizure of power by an individual or a clique ! The religion of Society has in our time become a well-organized worship, with its sociologist priests and its psychiatrist prophets. In that religion, "antisocial behaviour" has been substituted for sin, and the "antisocial" man (i.e., the rebellious or merely unconventional man) is at once accused of "mental disturbance" -that is, of wrong thinking or what used to be called heresy. We lock up the heretic and torture him in ingenious ways with electric shocks and psychiatric third degrees, until he abjures his error and consents to serve the common good as we conceive it. And in all this we have the best intentions, as did the Spanish Inquisition. The "common good" may become a Moloch to which the countless individuals are sacrificed, if we forget that all good is in the love of God, and that God comes first.
There are other beast gods-as many as there are men to invent them. They wrangle in the temple, turning it into a den of thieves, deafening us with their conflicting counsel until we become incapable of acting effectively in any direction. In the end we cannot stay here; we shall choose one master or the other, and be saved or lost. But for the moment the choice is still before us. Let us remember that the complete backslider is always worse off than the man who never started to climb. The ancient polytheist was only a primitive, with a bright future of growth ahead of him. But the modem who whores after strange gods is a decadent, and there is nothing ahead of him but the dust and ashes of a burned-out world. Yet it was not to a primitive age that Christ came, but to one rotten with decay even beyond our own. Perhaps it is only the decadent-the man who has failed to live by the law, and who admits the measure of his failure-for whom the law will really prove a schoolmaster to bring him to Christ. Perhaps it is only the twentieth-century self-worshipper who can learn the full meaning of the First Commandment.
Hold to this, and the beast in the heart has no power. The present loses its confusions, the future its terrors, and death itself is but the opening of a door.
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
That is the law of life and happiness and courage. Courage himself, God the Lion, stands beside us to help us live by it. Whatever we desire, whatever we love, whatever we find worth suffering for, will be Dead Sea fruit in our mouths unless we remember that God comes first.
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