THE book to read to understand culture, government, and God's judgments on nations
Reviewed in the United States on April 14, 2014
Some time ago a friend posted a question on Facebook, asking, “What happens to the nation whose God is not the Lord?” Thirty years ago, Herbert Schlossberg sought to answer this very same question and his conclusions were published in a remarkable book entitled Idols For Destruction. This book, like few others, prophetically captures the essence of our culture—critiquing and chastising it. The book was relevant when published, but its relevance has only increased in the years since its publication. Schlossberg argues that idolatry is at the heart of cultural decay, and describes in horrific detail the results. He writes, “…when the people turn to idolatries, and the outcome of those faiths become incarnated in society’s institutions, the rot sets in. What happens in the future depends on the moral state of the people who decide to follow one course of action rather than another.”
One can immediately see Schlossberg’s intent in the opening chapter of Idols For Destruction as he ponders the meaning of the fall of civilizations. His concern, writing in the early 1980s, was to diagnose the ills of society in light of God’s Word. He begins the book examining what the Bible says about the decline of civilizations. He observes, “It is a curious fact that the Old Testament, which describes the beginning, course, and end of a number of societies, never assesses them as being on the rise or decline, as progressing or regressing, as growing to maturity or falling to senescence.” Instead, “…the biblical explanation of the end of societies uses the concept of judgment. It depicts them as either having submitted themselves to God or else having rebelled against him.” (p. 5)
Schlossberg echoes C.S. Lewis’s remark that, “…human history… [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” Schlossberg argues we went astray through the rejection of God’s authority and the enshrinement of humanism. He begins by decrying humanists who, “are hostile to any notion of law that is external to the legislative organs under human control, and this means that morality cannot be predicated on universal codes." (p. 43) The humanist has rejected the supernatural and embraced the material—all that exists is matter, and only matter, matters. He writes, “Being poor is the greatest evil, in humanitarian thinking, because having material possessions is the greatest good… Modern materialism is not only an ethical philosophy that places a high value on money and possessions but a social philosophy that says that human relations are determined by material factors.” (p. 61) This materialist philosophy being at the heart of humanitarian project, explains what is perhaps the most important concept in the book—the power of envy, and jealousy, in shaping and reshaping human institutions—something Schlossberg calls ressentiment. The Humanitarian impulse, “is not to raise those who are down but to topple those who are up; ressentiment is the motive.” (p. 55)
Schlossberg exposes the fraud of humanitarianism—it seeks not the betterment of society, but simply to “exercise power.” The state is the humanitarian’s “lever of power” to reshape society. (p. 75-76) It is the state who, rather than God, becomes “the Father.” Schlossberg says “Looking to the state for sustenance is a cultic act; we rightly learn to expect food from parents, and when we regard the state as the source of physical provision we render to it the obeisance of idolatry." (p. 183)
Herein lies the central lesson of Idols For Destruction:
“The paternal state not only feeds its children, but nurtures, educates, comforts, and disciplines them, providing all they need for their security. This appears to be a mildly insulting way to treat adults, but it is really a great crime because it transforms the state from being a gift of God, given to protect against violence, into an idol. It supplies us with all blessings, and we look to it for all our needs. Once we sink to that level, as Lewis says, there is no point in telling state officials to mind their own business. “Our whole lives are their business.” The paternalism of the state is that of the bad parent who wants his children dependent on him forever…The paternal state thrives on dependency. When the dependents free themselves, it loses power. It is, therefore, parasitic on the very persons whom it turns into parasites. Thus, the state and its dependents march symbiotically to destruction.” (p. 184)
The paternal state grappling for power, in opposition to God, and its Machiavellian means of maintaining power, lead to the kinds of policies en vogue in national capitals across the globe. Governments use monopoly power over the creation of currencies and their inflationary policies to enrich themselves at the expense of its citizenry, all the while giving the perception of economic expansion. America has been pursuing inflationary monetary policy for decades, but never so rapidly as the last three years. These policies, Schlossberg writes have, “both moral and economic consequences.” (p. 99) He adds, “A society that inflates its currency tampers with a moral value. If the economic system lacks the basic honesty that permits economic transactions to reward both seller and buyer, lender and borrower, there can be no sense of justice.” (p. 101) Yet it is “both a cause and effect of moral decline… As long as people think they are advancing economically, the pressure to continue inflating outweigh those for stopping. When a society becomes pragmatic, the moral considerations seem less important than the economic ones.” (p. 102)
Inflationary economies “promise wealth without end.” Yet Christians know, as Jesus teaches, “the poor you always have with you.” (John 12:8) Ours is not a world of “wealth without end”--ours is a “world of scarcity.” He argues, “…compound interest without end and growth without end are in the same category as entitlements without end; they are illusions. But illusions in which people place their faith take on a sinister reality. When they are cashed in without sufficient resources to pay everyone off, then a process of allocation must be devised to settle claims. That process often is violence.” (p. 108) If you doubt this, recall the power of envy—it “cannot be assuaged any more than cancer can be; they are both pathologies whose very being requires expansion to their neighbor's territory. There is no fence that will ever be respected, no limitation that will be recognized as legitimate, no sense of proportion or humility sufficient to smother a sense of inferiority.” (p. 104) We’ve recently seen these forces unleashed around us—look at Greece (or Wisconsin, for that matter) where people facing the loss of entitlements resort to violence and mass protest.
The state has become the central god in the Humanist pantheon because of the power inherent in its function as arbiter of justice and role as law keeper. Schlossberg compares our age to the Kingdom of Judah: “Ecclesiastical support for the state idolatry is unconsciously imitative of the temple religion that endorsed and undergirded the unjust rules of Judah.”
He condemns the modern false prophets and those with “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3):
“People desire false teaching because it enables them to absolutize contingent systems to which they have given allegiance. They seek religious leaders who will bless their idolization of the nation, or the state, or the unrestricted pursuit of wealth or power, or the acting out of their hatred and ressentiment through humanitarian policy.” (p. 255-256)
America long ago switched allegiance with the One True God to The State, and the American church, in the guise of being “subject to the governing authorities,” (Romans 13:1) is in danger of the same apostasy. So, “what happens to a nation whose God is not the Lord?”
Schlossberg argues that one of the clearest manifestations of God’s judgment is a decline in wealth—moral and monetary. Christianity has built “moral capital” that we’ve squandered, and upon which we are now living. Once this reserve has been used up, a range of horrors will be unleashed upon a people. This is the civilizational collapse—the long prophesied lapse into barbarism. One only has to read the Old Testament to be reminded of these scenarios. Recall Gideon threshing wheat in his winepress, hiding from the Midianites and Amalekites, so as to avoid being plundered by these foreign armies. (Judges 6) Ben Hadad’s Siege of Samaria in 2 Kings 6 was appallingly brutal—people resorted to eating dung and even human flesh. The Israelites in 2 Kings 17 “burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” These are the sort of judgments levied upon idolatrous nations in the Bible. Our own national history records analogous judgments: the Civil War in particular was a time of savagery, famine, mutilation, destitution, rape, and pillage. The Bible teaches that these things are judgments from God—where guilty and innocent are caught up together in the judgment of God.
Schlossberg has much more to say than can be summarized in such a brief review. But Schlossberg is clear, “The practice of idolatry has serious consequences, which the prophets of Israel identified as oppression, injustice, and bloodshed.” (p. 262) But as C.S. Lewis writes, “Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it?”