Why we have gods
April 2, 2014
The false gods are not capable of becoming something less than their exalted and powerful selves – of becoming unworthy of the honor that is their due. They cannot become lowly, for who would cast his lots with a lowly god? Who would worship a lowly god? Therefore, these gods must not and cannot enter “into the far country” – our world of sin and shame and death. The false gods must remain apart and must never become “neighbor to man” (CD IV.1, p. 159). These gods are worshiped and adored precisely because they are not mundane and weak and pathetic as us. Moreover, these gods must not humble themselves to something lower than themselves, an obvious betrayal of their strength and glory. They are what we most desire of ourselves – self-sufficient and healthy and in control, subject to no one.
Man must become divine (through spiritual exercises that sublimate finitude), but the divine must never become man. The “divinity” that is proper to their majesty is incapable of becoming meek and burdened with the load of another. Natural man does not want to carry such burdens, much less would the gods they honor. “In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it” (Ibid.). Barth identifies these gods as a “reflection” of the worshipper, because the gods are a projection of their own desires. They worship themselves through their religious practices. By contrast, the God who made covenant with man is one who condescended to be a neighbor to man, to come alongside him in his hostility to Himself. This is the God who defines his own majesty as one of humility. God does not change from one into the other – for from eternity God is the humble One who became flesh: “for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high” (192).
This humility contrasts with the elemental sin of human pride. The false gods of our own construction have all of the features that we most admire within ourselves, if only we were not limited and bound to forces out of our control. This sin of pride is overcome in the humility of the Son, wherein the Lord becomes servant to man. Man’s pride rejects this God, so man rejected the Son and put him on the Cross. This is God’s judgment on man, a judgment borne in his flesh and destroyed in the same flesh. His death was the death of this sin — the sin of all.
Image: “The Mocking of Christ” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)