Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Institutions and Idolatry

Isaiah 44 speaks of the irony that is revealed when a man cuts down a tree to create fuel for his fire and an idol for his worship:

"Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it." (Isaiah 44:15)

The wood offers a reasonable service to the man--the wood can be used to build a fire for warmth and for cooking. The wood becomes a servant, giving of itself for the blessing of the man. But the wood then becomes the master, fashioned in a shape that the man deems worthy of worship.

Even though the Bible sometimes refers to idols as "nothings" (see, for example, Isaiah 44:10), they become demonic when they are given the power of mastery. The wooden idol is nothing; and yet, it has power over the man when he grants that power, permitting himself to orient his life around that which is nothing.

There is an application here, I believe, to the power of institutions.

Institutions are constructed to give shape and organization to something organic and alive. In their best contexts, institutions serve human beings in a variety of ways. Over time, however, institutions often morph from servanthood to mastery, and serving the institution becomes the primary interest of the people connected to it. When that which was initiated as a servant becomes a master, the demonic becomes real. The idol is no longer a nothing.