The gods must be … hungry
One way to tell whether the object of your worship is a small-g god or the capital-G God is to check your preferred deity’s (or deities’) diet.
Small-g gods need regular feeding. Though they never let you know this, they are in need of an energy source from outside themselves. For the Olympians gods of Greece it was ambrosia that sustained their god-lives. For other gods it was a regular diet of virgins, children, the hearts (or other body parts) of enemies, sacrifices of animals, valuables or, the harvest from farmlands, human ecstatic experiences, young men in war, or sexual congress with shrine prostitutes.
The Bible has a terrifying phrase for this: to cause your children to “pass through the fire.” Idols of certain ancient Middle Eastern gods were sculpted to have large mouths and literal fire in their bellies. Sacrificial children were “fed” into the mouth and proceeded to pass through the fire. Israel’s God described this practice as something that had never entered God’s mind, human idolatry and the resulting depravity almost seeming to take the Almighty by surprise.
And not just anyone can feed a god. It’s a bit like a Don’t Feed the Animals sign at the zoo—you have to have some special training and status to offer the right foods in the right ways and have your limbs stay properly attached to your body. Those authorized to serve and feed the gods are priests and priestesses.
So you can tell a lot about a person, or a people, by paying attention to their priests and to the diets of their gods.
And this isn’t ancient history, or academic anthropology; it’s all around us today. We are of course more modern, more enlightened and more all-kinds-of-things compared to people 200, 2000 or 20000 years ago. And we imagine that we have long since outgrown all that worship-and-sacrifice business, but we haven’t. Our gods are less finicky eaters than their ancient counterparts, but they need feeding, and we all act as their kitchen and wait staff.
Consider the god that goes by names like Utility, Efficiency or Productivity. It turns out that there are all kinds of people—the aged, the very young, the deficient in mind or the disabled in body and various other odd ducks—who just don’t seem to be good for much. They use more resources than they generate; they are slow, or stuck in old ways, or ”a burden” upon the more efficient and productive among us. So we feed them to the gods.
If you are found to be Down syndrome in the womb, there are many places (Iceland, Denmark, and many cities in the US) where your chances of seeing the light of day are essentially zero. Serious thinkers among us are saying that, once you hit about age 75 or so, you may have a responsibility to the rest of us to “check out”. Some of the best and brightest among us are determining that certain lives (never their own, of course!) are just not worth living, so into the maw of Utility goes another shovelful of the weak and needy. At first, just a few are shoveled at a time; down the road, and not all that far off, we’ll be using bulldozers instead of hand shovels. Yes, some victims do in fact go voluntarily—after all, isn’t it rather an honor to be a sacrifice to a god? If you’ve had it hammered into you that your life isn’t really worth much to anyone, at least you can go out in a blaze of … something.
In the old days, the gods had to be fed something pretty special, out of the ordinary: a vestal virgin, a firstborn child, an unblemished animal, a solid gold piece of jewelry. These days, the gods are more democratic, less picky, and easier to please (but not to satiate). They’ll eat just about anyone. But there is a problem: the less haute, the more cuisine is needed.
Progress is another favored modern deity. Other names include Change, Innovation and Creative Destruction. Progress will not allow you to ask “progress towards what?” or “what makes progress truly progress?” It simply assures us that progress is being made and refers all questions to the priestly class of futurists, technologists, leading-edge thinker-experts, and, of course, celebrities. The priests of Creative Destruction sing the praises of the Creative part, and do some appropriate tsk-tsking over the Destruction part. Those priests typically find themselves well-positioned so as to avoid the worst aspects of Destruction.
Progress has a healthy appetite. It happily consumes the waste products of the great leaps forward of its past: neighborhoods and communities, open spaces, businesses and especially the employees thereof, traditions, the environment, while all the while assuring us that all is not only well, but only getting so much better all the time.
[Of course: I paint with a broad brush. But not too broad. Of course there has been wonderful small-p progress in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of areas, that makes our lives immeasurably better: medicine, climate science, democratic norms and institutions, communications, weather forecasting, education, human rights and much, much more. We can be grateful for the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, while also being circumspect about its costs, such as global climate change. The same kind of mindsets that brought us the Industrial Revolution is now signing us all up for the current Revolution. There’s a profound difference between a wise and thoughtful gratitude for small-p progress, and the adoring worship of Progress.]
Capital-G God, the God we meet in Scripture and uniquely in Jesus, doesn’t require any feeding; in fact. God doesn’t need anything at all from us. Instead, he gives us, gratis, all good things to enjoy. Yes, obedience matters, but not because God needs it; we do. If I’m about to play a Stradivarius with a hacksaw, or improve a Rembrandt with my finger-paints, someone needs to intervene, for the sake of the Strad, the Rembrandt, myself, and everyone else.
The only deity that isn’t hungry is that God. All the others are looking at you and licking their chops.