The Vault

On Building Temples

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In all ages and among all peoples men have built their temples, and that from a variety of motives. Sometimes these motives have been pure and lofty, and sometimes they have been somewhat discreditable, but even though we recognize this latter, it comes as something of a shock to read the bitingly ironical words of Hosea – “Israel hath forgotten his Maker – and buildeth temples”!

In this prophet’s day his nation had reached a very high level of prosperity, perhaps the highest in all its history, although the wealth of the land was by no means evenly spread, and there is evidence of the direst poverty alongside great riches. Moreover this prosperity had not come as the outcome of great inventiveness or much hard work, but rather as the result of the nation’s geographical position (trade routes passed through her borders) coupled with a period of peace as the little nations who would normally have been bickering with her conserved their military resources in view of the advancing might of Assyria. As often happens when wealth comes without effort, it was accompanied by moral degeneration, and the prophecies of Amos and Hosea leave us in no doubt as to the extent to which the nation had departed from the law of God.

A Religion of Externals.

Yet outwardly they were very religious. With all the wealth that had been accumulated it was possible to erect magnificent shrines, and to see that the sacrifices offered on the altars in such places were of the best quality and unbelievably numerous. I imagine that if anyone had accused them of being lacking in devotion they would have pointed to the many obvious tokens of their piety. Yet through it all the prophet of God could say, “Israel hath forgotten his Maker.”

The point is that they had forgotten that God is a person, and begun to treat Him as merely a thing. The distinction between a person and a thing has been underlined for us by the learned Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, who in his book “I and Thou” discusses the relationships which he calls “I-it” and “I-Thou.” The “I-it” relationship is the relationship of a person to a thing, the relationship wherein the person seeks to make use of the thing, to make it the instrument of his purpose. This is the only right attitude to take to a thing, for unless it can be put to some use a thing is, simply, useless.

Persons Differ from Things.

But a person must not be treated like that. The “I-Thou” relationship reminds me that the “Thou” in question is a person, with the same rights of personality as I, and if I attempt to use him simply as a means of furthering my own needs, I degrade his personality and my own. Just in passing we might notice that one of the problems of the modern industrial community is to find out how to use conveyor belt methods, without infringing the rights of personality.

Hosea’s contemporaries had fallen into the error of treating God as a thing. They did not wish to suffer the penalties of neglecting Him, for the wrath of God was something very real in their thinking. It was imperative that they should avert this, and so they offered their sacrifices and built their temples and performed all the outward ordinances of religion. But their heart was not in it; they had no real love for God, no realization of the depths of their sin, no heartfelt repentance, no genuine consecration to the setting forward of God’s purposes in the world. They thought that they could use God to avert the ills they feared.

The Temptations of the Outward.

And sometimes we are a bit like that. So often we use the wrong standards, and think of Christianity in terms of the outward. Ask anybody you like how things are going at the church where he worships, and the chances are that he will answer in terms of the externals. “We’re doing well, the congregations are improving,” or “We’re not doing as well as we could wish. Collections are down on last year.” These are the sort of answers that men give, and, while the facts to which they draw attention are important in their way, they are not the essence of Christianity. Surely the measure of the success or failure of a given church is its spiritual power. What matters is whether it is bringing men and women to God, and we must be satisfied with nothing less.

Our trouble is that we tend to externalize religion. Not only do we measure success in terms of attendance and finance, but in our own approach to God we so often put our attention on the outward, on being in the house of God at stated intervals, on devoting so much time to this or that Christian activity, on priding ourselves on our orthodoxy; that we are good “Protestants” or good “Catholics”. Let us remember that at the crucifixion the solders were as close to Christ in externals as it is possible to be. And they gambled for His clothing. It is quite possible for you and me to be as close as close in outward things, and to be as far away as conceivable in everything that matters. It is still possible for Israel to forget his Maker, and yet build temples.

God is A Person.

But God is a person, not a thing, and puny man must not presume to use Him to effect his own purposes. How often, perhaps unconsciously, men try to use God so that they will avoid a dire fate in the hereafter, or so that they will obtain peace of mind in the here and now, or for some other reason connected with their own desires.

But the personality of God forbids all this. Just because He is a person it is imperative that we treat Him as a person. We serve Him, not in order that we may induce Him to do our will, but as the outcome of a right attitude to such a person. So it is that the Bible continually calls upon us to exercise a personal attitude to God, namely that of trust or of love, or as Paul puts it “faith that worketh by love.”

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, April 14, 1955.

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