14 May 2004

Ramachandra on idols and ideology

As mentioned earlier, I recently finished reading Vinoth Ramachandra's Gods That Fail. Ramachandra lives in Sri Lanka and is regional secretary for south Asia of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Following Bob Goudzwaard and others, he makes a connection between idolatry and ideology. He is particularly astute in understanding how our idols become tyrannical and their connection with contemporary ideologies:

When human beings give to any aspect of God's creation (for instance, sexuality and/or fertility) or to the works of their hands (e.g. science, the nation-state, the market mechanism) the worship that is due to the Creator alone, they call up invisible forces that eventually dominate them. When what is meant to be a servant is treated as a master, it quickly becomes a tyrant. . . . [T]he cult of idolatry leads to the sacrifice of the weak and apparently useless members of society (from foetuses to other ethnic groups, to the infirm or the mentally handicapped), to the destruction of the earth's eco-systems and the abdication of human responsibility for the planet.

Idols are sustained and animated by belief-systems which disguise their role in human affairs. These belief-systems (or ideologies, which after Marx have acquired the pejorative sense of 'theoretical reason corrupted by self-interest') lend an air of legitimacy to every idol. Thus we may call nationalism the ideology that encourages uncritical allegiance to one's nation over other communities by fostering myths about ancestral heroes, sacred territory, a united past, the superiority of traditional customs and systems of knowledge, etc. It thus justifies acts of violence against all those deemed to be outside the nation and boosts the credibility of those who assume themantle of 'leaders of the nation' (pp. 112-113).

Although I had not come into contact with this book before writing my own book, any reader of both will find a number of similarities in analysis, primarily, I am inclined to think, because we have both read Goudzwaard's writings (although Ramachandra cites Goudzwaard only once in the entire book). What is not clear to me after reading Ramachandra on ideology is whether he sufficiently distinguishes between a Marxian definition of ideology as "false consciousness" and a "Goudzwaardian" understanding of ideology as idolatrous. The two are not precisely the same, although there are connections between them. For Marx an ideology is always conservative and is oriented towards propping up an existing power arrangement in society. To be sure, such power can be exercised in idolatrous fashion towards the achievement of idolatrous goals. But the mere exercise of power by some over others is not itself idolatrous. Indeed, the legitimate exercise of power is known as authority, which is properly found in a variety of social settings. The legitimacy of authority is something a Marxian analysis is unable to make sense of.

Perhaps my esteemed colleague Al Wolters' distinction between structure and direction has something to offer here. Authority is part of the structure of society within God's world. As such it is the good creation of God. However, due to the impact of sin, it is capable of being exercised either in obedient fashion or in service to some idol. Within the political realm the latter would entail the acceptance of an ideology of some sort. Thus the possession of power is not itself idolatrous unless exercised in the service of an idol. I believe Ramachandra understands this on some level, but he would do well to make it more explicit.

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