The Minor Polytheism

Mumford & Sons, Doug Phillips, and Martin Luther all share some things in common. But beyond the superficial banalities, I want to note two in particular. Firstly, they are all examples of popular Christians. Perhaps not popular with everybody (who is?), but at least Christians who are known to be Christian and have a “following” of some kind (in the case of Mumford & Sons, “fans” would probably be better, though that’s a short form for “fanatics”).

Yet they also have something else in common. They have very public failings. Mumford & Sons was recently ejected from a burlesque establishment. Not only were they present, but they did something bad enough to get kicked out. Doug Phillips has just confessed to having a long term non-physical but “inappropriately emotional and affectionate” relationship with a woman who was not his wife. (It’s worth noting that his apology seems sincere.) Finally, Martin Luther wrote copious amounts of venomous anti-Semitic literature.

Now, as spectators, we could easily sit back at this point and condemn them from a vantage point of moral superiority. And, let’s be honest, it’s probably likely many of us would be morally superior to these individuals in specific ways. But that would miss the deeper lesson here.

Perhaps not ironically, it was Martin Luther who memorably taught us this lesson in recent history. One way of understanding his singular insight is as a recognition that the “inner” and “outer” of the human world can fail to match up. The believing poor are saved, while the unbelieving and proud rich and powerful are damned. The believer is united to Christ by faith in his heart, and yet continues to sin in his body. Furthermore, he recognized the imperfectability of human beings in the time before the consummation of the kingdom.

Or, in other words, we can never expect things to be just as they seem, and we can expect even the people on the highest pedestals to have real flaws. We should not identify the kingdom of God with any visible institution, since God does not work so infallibly through any such thing as to be identifiable with it. And this means we ought to kill in ourselves what some Muslims call the “minor polytheism”: the worship of man. All people, even Christians, are tempted to this sin, since human beings are often glorious in many ways. But when we fail to remember that these are just created beings, and that their glory derives from an uncreated Glory, we can begin to put our hope in those creatures. And this step will always be a catastrophic one to take, for human beings will always let us down.