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12 October 2011

"If they don't love you, so what!" (Reflections on golden calves)

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, "Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord." And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.  (from Exodus 32)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin

The last time someone got me to think about the story of the Golden Calf was in Systems Class at the Blanton-Peale Institute. In his textbook classic, "Generation to Generation", Edwin Friedman uses Moses and Aaron to demonstrate healthy leadership and dysfunctional leadership. 

Aaron is guided by reaction -- he re-acts to the actions of the people and loses himself in the process; he caves in to their anxiety and gives them what they crave: a god to hold on to; fearing conflict, he leads, as Friedman says, "as a sentimentalist". 

Moses, on the other hand, is guided by vision -- he observes the actions of the people even as he remains secure in himself; he is not afraid, and he doesn't avoid conflict. Moses is the model of the self-differentiated leadership style Friedman and his various "disciples" attempt to teach leaders of churches and synagogues.

While not everyone connects the story of the Golden Calf with two different leadership styles, the story continues to fascinate, as it manages to confront us with the old question of the ultimate object of our faith. In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther brought it to a simple point:  

That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god. 
"Upon which you set your heart and put your trust" -- what is that for you?  We human beings seem to have an infinite capacity to create idols. Aaron describes the process when he says afterwards, "I cast the gold into the fire and out came this Calf!"  The Calf has no interior space. It glorifies itself. It is "full of itself."  Perhaps the greatest idolatry, the real Golden Calf that must be confronted, is the fixed sense of self that we build up in reaction to the constant threat of pain and separation. Ironically, the self we construct isolates us further. Our golden calf is our "ego": the personality (or sense of self) that we construct can become our fortress, which we must then protect at all costs.  This is from a reflection by David Foster Wallace:

[I]n the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs,cliches, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
It has been suggested that the sin of idolatry is the key to understanding and unraveling every other sin, and that every sin has its roots in fear, and that every fear can be traced back to our fear of Death. The Golden Calf is built when we lose faith in an invisible, un-nameable God who may have abandoned us to die in the wilderness. We can build a life around this Golden Calf, placing something other than God-the-essential-mystery at the center of our attention. That life built around the worship of security or happiness or wealth or fame obscures the root fear of Death that has unconsciously driven us. 

So the question becomes: How have I made for myself a Golden Calf, limited my reality, closed myself off from the infinite unknowable Mystery that surrounds me? How do I defend this idol of Self with the delusion of separateness?  This is by Stuart Wilde, the British philosopher and mystic: 

What matters is that you allow your heart - not your ego - to rule your life. Then very little matters because you will be a humble person and you'll take most of life as it comes. If it rains, you get wet; if they don't show up on time, you wait; if they don't pay you, you eat less; if they don't love you, so what, you didn't come to please them anyway; if they don't think you're special, that's marvelous, it frees you from having to thank them for their compliments. If life doesn't go the way you want, accept the way it does go, use it as your teacher.
So, if they don't love us, so what ... we didn't come to please them anyway.  While we often travel together for a time, each of us must find their own journey -- a journey guided by our invisible, unnameable God who hasn't abandoned us, but who expects us to abandon everything that's limiting, including the stuff we believe about ourselves.  

Just for a minute think of what God sees in you -- then you'll see that indeed you're good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough to deserve the miracle of re-creation and freedom. May faith be an adventure for you every single day.

Exodus 32:1-14

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