From the Renovaré Newsletter Archive

The selection below is from a June 2000 Renovaré newsletter. Download a PDF of the original newsletter.

Dear Friends,

In the first year of the new cen­tu­ry and mil­len­ni­um I have been writ­ing to you on the issue of the Ref­or­ma­tion of the Heart which focus­es upon a vital, dai­ly obe­di­ence to Jesus Christ as the result of trans­formed per­son­al­i­ty. The trans­for­ma­tion of per­son­al­i­ty is essen­tial, of course, oth­er­wise we will lack the pow­er, the moral habits, and the incli­na­tion to obey Christ in all things and at all times. There are many facets to such a trans­form­ing work, but from a human stand­point it always involves both affirm­ing action (things we do) and abstain­ing action (things that we do not do). Over the years a large per­cent­age of my writ­ing and pub­lic dis­course has worked on the affir­ma­tive side of this equa­tion, and it is well that it should. But in this pas­toral let­ter I want to work on some of the abstain­ing action we must under­take if we are to pre­pare our­selves for a Ref­or­ma­tion of the Heart.

I am con­cerned that we think togeth­er about the idols of our day. Now, I know that this is not a feel-good top­ic, and yet if we do not clear­ly iden­ti­fy the reign­ing idols of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture we will for­ev­er be at their mer­cy and unable to obey the very first of the Ten Com­mand­ments, name­ly, you shall have no oth­er gods before me” (Exod. 20:3).

The idols of mod­ern soci­ety are legion, and in this brief let­ter I must not even try to touch on them all. But I do want to think with you about three of the most per­va­sive in the hope that this will enable us to look at the world with a view to nam­ing the many mod­ern idols that vie for our alle­giance. And once the reign­ing idol­a­tries of our day are named (and there­by iden­ti­fied) we can, in the pow­er of the Spir­it, defeat them in the Name that is above every name, Jesus, the Christ.

THE IDOL OF PER­SON­AL AUTONOMY

For vast num­bers today the ulti­mate goal in life is per­son­al auton­o­my: the pow­er to do my own thing, define my own future, deter­mine my own fate. I’ve got­ta be me,” I did it my way,” watch out for num­ber one,” if it’s gonna be, it’s up to me” all char­ac­ter­ize this idol­a­try. The dri­ving impulse of this unholy trin­i­ty of Me, Myself, and I is free­dom with­out respon­si­bil­i­ty. It spreads through­out the land by means of the numer­ous minia­ture, self-idols that peo­ple car­ry with them every day: self-indul­gence, self-pro­mo­tion, self-will, self-suf­fi­cien­cy, self-preser­va­tion, self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion, self-ser­vice, self-aggran­dize­ment, self-right­eous­ness, and more.

The idol­a­try of per­son­al auton­o­my per­vades our entire cul­ture: from the New Age mum­bo jum­bo that I am God” to the self-help books that assure me I can be and do any­thing and every­thing. (Which brings to mind a cor­rec­tive jin­gle: They showed him the thing that couldn’t be done,/ And with a smile he went right to it./ He tack­led that thing that couldn’t be done./ And found out he couldn’t do it.”)

How very dif­fer­ent the bib­li­cal and Chris­t­ian vision of per­son­al­i­ty and self-hood. Here we are called to deny our­selves and take up our cross, to seek first God’s king­dom and right­eous­ness, to do noth­ing from self­ish ambi­tion or con­ceit” (Mark 8:34, Matt. 6:33, Phil. 2:3). Here we are called into a com­mu­ni­ty life of mutu­al-love, mutu­al-care, and mutual-responsibility.

Our good friend and coun­selor, the Apos­tle Paul, puts it well, Let each of you look not to your own inter­ests, but to the inter­ests of oth­ers” (Phil. 2:4). Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer gives us a con­tem­po­rary com­men­tary on this real­i­ty when he speaks of Christ as the man for oth­ers,” the One in whom all delib­er­a­tions, all deci­sions, all actions are based on rela­tion­ship to oth­ers. And we are called to be peo­ple for oth­ers,” to live in exis­tence for oth­ers through par­tic­i­pa­tion in the being of Jesus. The church is the church only when it exists for others.”

We defeat the idol of per­son­al auton­o­my by com­pas­sion and ser­vice. Com­pas­sion turns us toward the good of oth­ers. Ser­vice allows us to enter the many lit­tle deaths of going beyond our­selves. Togeth­er they draw us into the gospel para­dox of find­ing our life by los­ing it.

THE IDOL OF PLEASURE

Close­ly tied to the idol of per­son­al auton­o­my is the idol of plea­sure. Plea­sure, of course, has to do with good feel­ings and there is noth­ing wrong with feel­ing good, but that has to be brought to an easy place in our life where it does not con­trol us. Plea­sure becomes an idol­a­try when it becomes an absolute right, demand­ed at all times and under all cir­cum­stances. I want what I want when I want it” becomes its trum­pet call.

In West­ern cul­ture (strange­ly enough) plea­sure is inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions. The irra­tional belief of mod­ern soci­ety is that mass­es of things will pro­duce plea­sure, and so the plea­sure god and the con­sumer god are found to be two heads of the same idol. Our attach­ment to things fuels in us an end­less appetite for more: more mon­ey, more pow­er, more toys. More. More. More. We can nev­er get enough. Never.

This lust for things has reached the lev­el of psy­chosis in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. It is psy­chot­ic because it has com­plete­ly lost touch with real­i­ty. We crave things we nei­ther need nor enjoy. We buy things we do not want to impress peo­ple we do not like,” writes Art Gish. Where planned obso­les­cence leaves off, psy­cho­log­i­cal obso­les­cence takes over. We are made to feel ashamed to wear clothes or dri­ve cars until they are worn out. Our lust for afflu­ence has con­vinced us that to be out of step with fash­ion is to be out of step with real­i­ty. It is time we awak­en to the fact that con­for­mi­ty to a sick soci­ety is to be sick.

In large mea­sure the plea­sure impulse is linked to the con­sumer impulse because of our deep-seat­ed feel­ings of inse­cu­ri­ty and inad­e­qua­cy. Sure­ly a lit­tle more of this or a lit­tle more of that will give us the secu­ri­ty we desire or the sta­tus we crave. But, of course, things can nev­er deliv­er, because inse­cu­ri­ty and inad­e­qua­cy are mat­ters of the heart and the soul, and we sim­ply can­not cure the heart or the soul by an ever increas­ing accu­mu­la­tion of things.

We defeat the idol of plea­sure by sac­ri­fice and sim­plic­i­ty. Sac­ri­fice empow­ers us to sur­ren­der our rights for the greater good of the king­dom of God. Sim­plic­i­ty ush­ers us into a way of liv­ing that is free from the pas­sion to pos­sess. Togeth­er they are able to dethrone plea­sure and put it, along with mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions, into prop­er per­spec­tive as sim­ple goods to be enjoyed, nev­er demanded.

THE IDOL OF EFFICIENCY

Of the three idols I am dis­cussing with you I view effi­cien­cy as the most entrenched and per­va­sive of the mod­ern era. And the most destruc­tive. The engine dri­ving this par­tic­u­lar idol­a­try is mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy. And the tech­no­log­i­cal advances of recent years are impres­sive indeed: cell phones, lap­top com­put­ers, the world wide web, palm pilots, and much, much more. And all these tech­no­log­i­cal advances are aimed at our han­ker­ing after efficiency.

Please don’t mis­un­der­stand. It is good to do our tasks in a time­ly fash­ion, and advances in tech­nol­o­gy have been extreme­ly help­ful in accom­plish­ing many tasks. (I am, after all, com­pos­ing this let­ter to you on a PC and you can even down­load this Heart-to-Heart from www​.ren​o​vare​.org.) But we have cre­at­ed our tech­no­log­i­cal soci­ety at an enor­mous human cost. Jacques Ellul, per­haps the most astute con­tem­po­rary observ­er of tech­nique, effi­cien­cy, and tech­nol­o­gy, writes, the tech­no­log­i­cal soci­ety requires order and effi­cien­cy. Even peo­ple must be reduced to being only machines … in order to be treat­ed tech­ni­cal­ly by the hun­dreds of tech­niques which con­verge on them.”

This is the great dan­ger of tech­nol­o­gy – and the rea­son it must be viewed as a con­tem­po­rary idol. By its very nature it dehu­man­izes peo­ple, turn­ing them into objects to be man­aged and con­trolled. In the end it sig­nals the tri­umph of means over the end. All in the name of efficiency.

Also dan­ger­ous are the exces­sive, god-like claims made for tech­nol­o­gy. We’re told that, giv­en time, tech­nol­o­gy will sure­ly solve every prob­lem, restore every loss, deliv­er every good. The claims for the Inter­net, for exam­ple, exceed all cred­i­bil­i­ty — it is, in fact, the new utopi­an move­ment of con­tem­po­rary culture.

Now, I admit, it is nice to trav­el along the infor­ma­tion super high­way,” as we call it. But I would like to put in a word for the infor­ma­tion coun­try lane.” The super high­way does give us infor­ma­tion by the ton, but that does not par­tic­u­lar­ly trans­late into insight, dis­cern­ment, or wis­dom. In fact, the sheer vol­ume of infor­ma­tion often mit­i­gates against insight, dis­cern­ment, and wis­dom. Some­times, instead of zip­ping along an elec­tron­ic super high­way we need to mean­der through some of wisdom’s back roads, paus­ing now and then at a phrase from a John Mil­ton (“They also serve who only stand and wait.”) or an Eve­lyn Under­hill (“Being, not want­i­ng, hav­ing and doing, is the essence of a spir­i­tu­al life.”)

Then, too, instant acces­si­bil­i­ty is not always what we need. A day of qui­et reflec­tion is often far more pro­duc­tive than a con­stant bom­bard­ment of online ser­vices, emails, and fax­es. If we want to be gen­uine­ly help­ful to peo­ple, we need the per­spec­tive that can only come from soli­tude and silence.

Anoth­er cau­tion I have about all this amaz­ing tech­nol­o­gy – and it is tru­ly amaz­ing – is that its very amaz­ing­ness can eas­i­ly dis­tract us from think­ing. We can get so intrigued with the process of infor­ma­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion that we miss the infor­ma­tion, not to men­tion insights from the infor­ma­tion. As a result many peo­ple nev­er even ask the ques­tion of what infor­ma­tion is worth com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Again, all in the name of efficiency.

The king­dom of God, on the oth­er hand, oper­ates from a pat­tern exem­pli­fied by Jesus on the cross. From a human per­spec­tive the vision of life that Jesus gives us is one of inef­fi­cien­cy, inef­fec­tive­ness, and ulti­mate­ly, irrel­e­vance. After all, would an effi­cient king­dom wel­come in strangers and seek out prodi­gals? How effec­tive is it to preach good news to the poor or to search for one lost sheep? And would a rel­e­vant pas­tor real­ly spend time lis­ten­ing to indi­vid­ual human pain and sor­row when mass media tech­nolo­gies that could reach mul­ti­tudes await?

Friends, it is time to say, No more!” No more time­sav­ing tech­nolo­gies, no more rev­o­lu­tion­ary ways to pri­or­i­tize our day, no more habits for high­ly effec­tive peo­ple. Rather let us give sus­tained atten­tion to life-giv­ing rela­tion­ships: rela­tion­ship with God, rela­tion­ship with oth­er peo­ple, rela­tion­ship with all of creation.

We defeat the idol of effi­cien­cy by holy leisure and spir­i­tu­al friend­ship. Holy leisure tem­pers our ever­last­ing itch to get ahead. Spir­i­tu­al friend­ship helps us to val­ue peo­ple for who they are rather than for what they accom­plish. Togeth­er they dethrone effi­cien­cy and free us from an intol­er­a­ble scram­ble of pant­i­ng feverishness.”

Auton­o­my, plea­sure, effi­cien­cy – these are the three unques­tioned assump­tions of our day. God give us the wis­dom to see through their idol­a­trous ten­den­cies and the strength to place them in their prop­er role as ser­vants rather than masters.

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

Text First Published June 2000 · Last Featured on Renovare.org May 2022

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