One of the unexpected bonuses of our present involvement in Iraq has been the number of programmes on TV about the history of this ancient land. I have not seen all of them, but what comes across from those I have is that, in modern commentators’ eyes, our old friend Nebuchadnezzar was a thoroughly good egg. This conclusion is based on the perception that he grew an empire built on multicultural tolerance: rather than thrusting allegiance to his gods on to those he conquered, he allowed them to carry on worshipping their own gods, in their own way.
To him, taking away the ruling class of a conquered society, and moving it to distant parts of his empire, was not just rendering his provinces headless chickens that would not have the leadership to revolt: it was also a jolly exercise in building a mutually tolerant multi-faith society.
‘How come?’ I hear you thinking. ‘I associate this man with Daniel 3; with the command to bow down to the golden idol; with the punishment of the burning fiery furnace hanging over anyone who wouldn’t toe the line.’ Jewish tradition as found in the Apocrypha does not portray Nebuchadnezzar as a smiling liberal: ‘[he sought to] destroy all the gods of the land so that all nations would worship Nebuchadnezzar only, and all their tongues and tribes should call upon him as god’ [Judith 3.8].Scholars date Daniel 3 at 587 bc, by which time Nebuchadnezzar had ruled for 17 years. Scripture does not tell us whether the image was of Nebuchadnezzar himself or of his god, but that is immaterial. The king was the channel by which the god poured his protection onto the nation, and thereby the king became ‘one flesh’ with the god: to worship one was to worship the other.
If Nebuchadnezzarwas, in intention, as tolerant as current documentaries portray him, what caused him to change gear? Basically, try and build a multi-faith society, and the wheels will come off. A multitude of gods will lead to a multitude of moralities. Everyone follows their own god and the morality he/she espouses, and there is no glue, no common morality, to hold society together, since there is no common world view to act upon. The Romans, faced with similar religious variety, looked for a common bond of allegiance: enter, predictably, emperor worship.
Was Japanese emperor worship the same kind of thing? I do not know enough about things oriental to judge, but certainly the nation they surprised at Pearl Harbour, whose constitution eschews any union of politics and religion, is held together by fierce patriotism and a daily swearing of allegiance to the Flag. You’ve got to have some common core of belief to hold you together.
Increasing state control
What do the antiquarian happenings of a distant, long-gone empire have to do with you and me? They may explain my fears that I, now the possessor of a bus pass, am becoming a grumpy old man. I find I am becoming increasingly cross with paperwork, be it CRB clearance forms, risk assessments, or whatever. Bearing in mind the churches’ dodgy record with regard to paedophilia, and since I do not want any of our Sunday School lost or maimed on their trip, this may seem unreasonable: but there seems to be an unreasonableness about the nature, and extent, of the paperwork itself. A retired businessman, writing to our local paper, complains, ‘it is a sad day when our Government decided to throw out common sense and substitute it with the madness of political correctness. It is sad that we, as intelligent human beings, should have to suffer the continual brainwashing of our leaders, intent to strengthen their grip …by increased interference in personal relationships and family life.’
You may agree with him or not, but there is strong public anxiety at what he is describing – increased state control of what we can do, and where and how. You may have read in your national daily about a cleric from a parish neighbouring mine who was visited by the might of Police and Social Services for the heinous crime of…kissing, in public, a little girl who, struggling with her maths, managed to make some progress. He subsequently received well over a thousand letters, cards and emails, from those who knew him and those who didn’t, from far and near, from churchgoer and non-churchgoer – all supporting him.
A new idol
It is not just the prospect of our losing our personal liberties that worries us: whether we realize it or not, it is the erection of a new golden idol, with its own prescriptive beliefs, behaviours, practices and philosophy, that appals us. Believe-what-you-like personal freedom is palpably allowing society to fall apart: enter Secular Legislation, with its own ersatz morality, to glue us all back together again. You’ll note our correspondent appeals to ‘common sense,’and here is the problem: having allowed our common sense of things about God to be undermined, there is little common perception of what is right and wrong left.
Paganism is inherently destructive of any unity. Propositional people, who believe certain things to be true, can approach one another in the light of day. They are able to determine what they believe, and what they agree or disagree about. They can be united in what they believe together, charitably disagree about other matters, and reach an appropriate bond of emotional, or organizational, unity.
Ongoing conversations and periods of reception make sense with people like this: it is worth the effort. Uniting with paganism, on the other hand, is like trying to take hold of liquid jelly. Doctrinally, it is shapeless and evanescent: practically, it moves its ground with effortless nimbleness: empty of anything ultimately solid, dealing with it is like trying to make shapes out of fog.
You and I may understand that a lot of our nation’s woes can be laid at the door of our apostasy, but to Joe Public the matter is not easily perceived. Paganism is a complex, many-layered thing, which hides its directions and conclusions behind a myriad ecological and moral causes. The Bible, first speaking of paganism’s originator [Gen. 3.1] notes, ‘Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals…’ At least he has not changed.
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