The Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, lied to himself. In that lie, he projected what he wanted to believe about himself—and life—onto the grizzly bear. He put life on his terms. And so the bear became his lie…his myth. In that way, the bear became his idol. Idolatry and mythmaking are simply two sides of the same coin. How is this so?
In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul declared:
They said they were wise, but they became fools. They traded the glory of God who lives forever for the worship of idols made to look like earthly people, birds, animals, and snakes. (1:22-23)
They traded the truth of God for a lie. They worshiped and served what had been created instead of the God who created those things, who should be praised forever. Amen. (1:25)
In the apostle’s day, people exchanged the glory of the invisible God for their own simplistic fabrications about God. They created their own gods. They exchanged ultimate truth for primitive myth. By today’s standards, those naïve myths foolishly included concrete images of people and animals. We don’t think that way today. Back in that day, no doubt some people also thought such myths were foolish. Still, innumerable people sincerely believed the unsophisticated nonsense—just like the Hebrew people under Moses centuries before at Mount Sinai. Moses was in intense prayer receiving the Ten Commandments from the living God while his people crafted a primitive statue, the golden calf, as a projection of the more manageable nonliving god of their imaginations. That was their myth. That was their idol.
Fast forward to the medieval ages. Church leaders actually believed something similar to this primitive icon. To be sure, they believed it in a more educated and savvy way. Still, they created their own “golden calf” myth.
With the little history I know (or think I know), Copernicus’ then radical idea that the Sun—not the Earth—was the center of the known universe grew into an enormous controversy. Scientists and the religious leaders of his day had to deal with the possibility of picturing their world in a whole different way. Galileo brought the issue to a head.
In that day, the Church and the state were one. Church leaders had enormous power. They not only forbade Galileo to defend, publicly discuss, or write about Copernicus’ view—they forbade him to believe it as well. Imagine requiring someone to not believe something under threat of punishment. Was this Christianity or Communism? But that’s how Christian leaders thought back then.
An ongoing challenge to the religious leaders’ dogmatic interpretation of certain Scriptures would ultimately not be tolerated. Human beings, and therefore the good Earth, were the center of creation. After all, we were made in the image of God. And God’s Son did come to save us; we were important. So the Earth had to be the center. Those beliefs may have contributed to the tenacious grip by which leaders held onto their interpretations of certain Bible verses.
In fairness, church leaders did allow Galileo to write about the Sun being the center. But he could do so only if he was offering the idea as a mathematical tool—and not the way things really were. This way, both sides could move forward. Years later however, in 1633, church leaders ordered Galileo before the Inquisition. A committee of theologians questioned him for about two and a half weeks. They formally found him suspect of heresy…of theological mythmaking. He was put under house arrest and had to do religious penances. In a ceremony at a church, they required him to formally denounce his heretical model of the Sun as the center—and banned his future writings. Galileo remained under house arrest until he died about nine years later, in 1642.
In the end, church leaders used their power to kill free dialogue and debate. Debate about reality. Debate about truth. For them, there was nothing further to discuss or argue about. They knew the truth. And they refused to let evidence shape the contours of debate.
Why is it so unnerving for people to talk and disagree about their beliefs? Why do they not search for good evidence for their dearly held beliefs? Or welcome evidence that challenges them? Really—why? Why were the religious leaders unwilling to look at the growing evidence? What was so scary about changing their view of the universe?
Is it perhaps that putting God and truth on our terms gives us the illusion of mastery and control over reality? After all, there is very little we actually have control over in this life. We try. Modern medicine and technology gives us some modicum of control. Still, after our fall into evil, the world has become a scary place where we do suffer and then die. And between now and death, as Genesis says, “You will sweat and work hard for your food.” If we can control God in some way, then maybe we can control the nonsense Mother Nature delivers. And if we can put life on our terms, then maybe we have a shot at managing God. Mythmaking makes us feel safer in our never-ending struggle for survival…in our never-ending search to feel secure and happy…in our never-ending retreat from Paradise lost—whether the myths we create involve primitive tribal dances to manipulate the gods for rain or the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe in order to make us feel important in the grand scheme of things.
Idolatry in all its forms is an unwillingness to bow the knee to the way things really
are—then fabricating the way we wish they were.
In refusing to bow the knee, we hold on to what we want to believe without tough, honest, iron-sharpening-iron dialogue or the grueling task of searching for solid evidence. Or we desperately hang on to our illusory beliefs in spite of the evidence. Beyond that, we hate challenges to the dearly held pictures of reality we’ve created for ourselves. We fear critical analysis of our beliefs about God. Or the meaning we’ve given Scriptural verses. Or what we believe about life. We fear being wrong—for, in being wrong, we’d have to admit to ourselves that we’ve not only been believing a lie, but living a lie.
American Christians once sang hymns to God while owning and sometimes beating slaves. Who was the God of their imaginations? Who was Jesus to them? And who were they fooling?
For over seven decades, women once actively fought for the right to vote. What God were American men bowing the knee to? Didn’t these men think their own wives or daughters should have the right to vote? Who were they fooling?
Instead of facing truths that challenge our pictures of life—like slaves and women are human beings who deserve equal rights, or the Sun is the center of the world—we run. Like the Grizzly Man, we run from ourselves and life…and hide behind myths in fear. It is a strange and twisted kind of fear. It reveals itself in not wanting to talk; in getting too angry when challenged; in burning the other at the stake; throwing the other in prison; entering a Civil War with one’s own brothers; hating, beating, and lynching other people for the color of their skin; and men dominating women.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II—the same Pope who, when he spoke, held vibrant, youthful audiences in the palm of his hand—asked a dedicated team of theologians to study just what happened between church leaders and Galileo. Thirteen years later, the Vatican shared the results. Pope John Paul issued a lengthy statement reversing the position—and attitude—of previous medieval leaders. Here are two brief comments from the Pontiff:
Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why donly the Sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system.
While what the Pontiff affirmed was, in the late twentieth century, commonsense—Galileo had long been proven right—he nevertheless exercised humility. That humility showed in his review of the Church’s own theologians. He pointed out that the theologians who judged Galileo—and had punished him severely—had refused to look at themselves. But why? The Pontiff alludes to these leaders’ tragic lack of humility. Quoting St. Augustine, a Catholic theologian that both Protestants and Catholics deeply respect to this day, the Pope made it clear how all of us should look at ourselves:
…St. Augustine…wrote: “If it happens that the authority of Sacred Scripture is set in opposition to clear and certain reasoning, this must mean that the person who interprets Scripture does not understand it correctly. It is not the meaning of Scripture which is opposed to the truth but the meaning which he has wanted to give to it.”
(Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264), November 4, 1992; italics mine)
Pope John Paul—and the great Augustine with him—were right. God’s truth is never opposed to the hard evidence. But it is opposed to myths.
Sadly, there is no dearth of mythmaking out there—or the blind faith to receive it. Our culture searches for happiness, not truth. When clients come to me for help, they typically say, “All I want is to be happy.” In their parenting struggles, they say all they want is for their children to be happy—not wise, not leaders, not truth-seekers, not sound in character, but happy. If the timing is right, if I’ve earned their trust, and if my client has earned my trust to hear me right, I do assert tongue-in-cheek, “I don’t do happy.” Typically, I get a nervous chuckle in response. Deeper down, they know the truth. Still, in our mad search for happiness, we create our own grizzly bear idols—from sexual promiscuity, to drug and alcohol abuse, to packing our schedules with one happiness moment after the next, to making enough money to secure that happiness, to New Age versions of spirituality to be shown on PBS, to our own dearly held interpretations of Bible verses, to chasing spiritual feelings at worship, to finding a book or preacher who tells us what we want to hear, to elevating our beliefs above any and all evidence. There is no end to our running from truth or the God who is there—and running from the insecurities, suffering, and death that come with it.
In prayer, Jesus discussed with our Father that those of us who followed him were not “of the world” any more than he was. However, he didn’t ask our heavenly Father to save us from living “in the world.” Instead, he asked him to sanctify us in the truth. (John 17:15ff) Jesus didn’t want us to live “in the world” blindly. He didn’t want us to attach ourselves to the world order…to the world’s fabricated beliefs. To do so would make us sheep. We’d be led to a religious, political, or philosophical slaughter.
Like Jesus, the apostle Paul was deeply concerned that Christians would go backwards to once again embrace the world’s mythmaking. He warned us—time after time actually—not to be seduced by the crazy beliefs out there in the world, nor end up behaving in conformity to those beliefs. The apostle encouraged us to fight the fight to keep transforming ourselves. (Rom. 12:2) He said we needed to do that by working hard to think straight. He encouraged us to study God’s Word and give reasons for why we believe what we believe. He wanted us to struggle to live in the world always seeking the truth…while not living like the world making things up. He didn’t want us to be mythmakers.
Idolaters are mythmakers—and mythmakers are fools. They will believe anything without careful thinking. A fool doesn’t listen to sound logic or look at the tough evidence. Ultimately, a fool really doesn’t care about truth. Nor does he desire understanding. He wants reality his way. His way…no matter what. In doing it his way, even if he is sincere, he brings destruction. (Proverbs 1:32; 14:12,15; 18:2) A fool says to himself: I’m okay. And I don’t care who or what evidence challenges me. I do say that with the keen awareness that we can all be, by degrees, foolish. I have been foolish. I have been very foolish at times. Having said that, one can make foolishness a way of life, becoming the Proverbial “fool.” My fervent hope is that I am not one of them.