Pastoral Study Project: Appeasement and Idolatry

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.

Appeasement and Idolatry

 For me, I quickly learned seminary wasn’t about asking big bold questions and exploring vast open wonderings about the Divine.  For me, it was about learning the right answers, listening and watching people debate theology, doing my best to stay out of these conversations and passing the test.  Some gatekeepers in the endorsement process may be more open to bold wondering but I played it safe and learned the theologically correct answers in a very cognitive way.  I could recite the Small Catechism, and quote Ezekiel 36:26 in Hebrew and rattle off the core Lutheran theological tenets and even discuss Luther’s kidney stones.  But “saved by grace through faith alone” and the Luther rose never transformed my heart in an incarnational way that gave shame a real run for its money.

But sometimes all you need are the right words at the right time because the way you’ve been doing faith just doesn’t work anymore.

Those words can in an insightful conversation through the Pastoral Study Project grant with Dr. Walter Brueggemann, a renowned Old Testament scholar, I asked him about appeasing God, atonement theology, and expanding out Incarnational theology.  His words freed me.  

Sometimes you just have to hear the message in a new way.  

His response to the word ‘appease’ was this, “appease God - if you take a bad marriage one way to keep it going is to appease your partner.  Appeasement isn’t faithful or honest, appeasement reflects a skewed failed relationship with God or another human being, God doesn’t want to be appeased, God wants to be related to honestly.”  

These words could be my tattoo (although getting a paragraph inked on my lower back sounds like more pain than I’m interested in.)  Hear them again, 

“Appeasement isn’t faithful or honest.  Appeasement reflects a skewed failed relationship with God or another human being.  God doesn’t want to be appeased, God wants to be related to honestly.”

That is grace.  For me.

That is invitation.  For me.

That is enough.  For me.

In that moment, I realized that appeasement led one to idolatry - to believe the worst things about God; to have that understanding of God be based in fear and to misconstrue God’s nature.

Never has the debunking of idolatry looked so good!  I had clung to a limited understanding of idolatry: 

1) that made God in our own image - I believed this was connected to moral behavior; or caused us like the Israelites in Exodus 32 to dance around a golden calf crafted by human hands. 

2)  that replaced God’s role in our lives with another person, success, security, health and wealth, etc.  That we put our trust in things rather than a relationship with God.

3)  or a twist - that we set aside being created in the image of God to conform to standards of beauty, success, worthiness that others, culture, dictated for and to us.

All of these seemed to be centered in an anthropological way.  Focused on how humans understood themselves or how humans behaved in relation to God but - 

What if idolatry was believing the worst about God?  What if idolatry shifted the focus from Immanuel to the God who must be appeased?

What Dr Bruggeman offered made sense to me in a neurobiological way - if I feared God as a child because I would need to explain my actions at the judgment throne, without the assurance of Jesus ‘taking my place’ if you want to delve into atonement theology - than, of course, I would fear God and create an understanding of God that involved a lot of . . . fear.  When you are in fear you subconsciously keep searching the environment to confirm you should be afraid.  Except the fear only provided a narrow lens for reading Scripture.

A lens that is skewed.  Dr. Brugeeman gave me a lens that is more honest.  God doesn’t want our appeasement.  God wants a relationship.