Secular Temples: What Shapes Your Soul?

Last week we looked at God’s mission through the temple.* Today I want to look at one of the more subtle roles of the temple: spiritual formation.** The New Testament envisions God’s people as, “being joined together, [growing] into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21).We are a spiritual temple, built not by human hands or works, but by Christ himself.

This spiritual temple is gathered by Christ, to be shaped by his indwelling Spirit, through regular worship, the teaching of God’s word, the sacraments and fellowship. Together, God works through these rituals, and practices to shape our imagination, giving us a vision of the good life or “shalom.”

In Desiring the Kingdom James K.A. Smith, argues that humans navigate the world as desiring creatures. He says that our desires (which shape our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings) are oriented by what we love. Namely, what vision of the good life or shalom we love. He writes,

We are talking about ultimate lovesthat to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world …Our ultimate love is what we worship

K.A. Smith wants all of us to ask, “What’s shaping my ultimate loves?” He challenges us to not only look our beliefs (though we must do this first!), but to also look at our practices. He writes,

Habits are inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends. …Over time, rituals and practices – often in tandem with … pictures and stories – mold and shape our … disposition to the world by training our desires.

In other words, he’s restating what the Bible implicitly argues through the temple: our worship, our habits, our community, and our rituals shape our souls.

So yet again, what is shaping our picture of the good life? What “temples” outside of the church are shaping our desires? We might wonder what relevance “temple language” has for us today. But the prophets understood pagan temples as dark places that presented twisted pictures of “shalom” or the good life. Ezekiel 31, for example, satirizes the Assyrian cultic system as a twisted Eden, presenting a false good life, that centered on violence and political domination.

The harsh polemic against Assyria warned the Judah. Assyria did not have the key to the good life. But, they would be tempted to buy in, to be re-shaped so that their idea of the good life matched Assyria’s. Ezekiel warned them: Don’t let their vision of petty gods shape your desires against the will of the one true God.

Today we need to revisit this old understanding of temples. We need to consider how our habits, our practices, and our rituals – whether at the bank, the mall, the stadium or the work place – can function to shape our desires. How they all present a twisted vision of “shalom” which we must learn to resist.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be developing this idea, first with an example from fiction of how secular temples shape our desires, and then with real world examples.

*The temple, as God’s special dwelling place, was a microcosm of the universe. It was picture of God’s original intent for the world: a space unspoiled by idolatry and sin, where mankind could live in loving communion with God and one another. It was a picture of the good life or “shalom,” God’s plan for human flourishing. Jesus was the fulfillment of that mission. By his death and resurrection he began to form a temple not made of bricks, but people. As new creations in Christ, we have become the dwelling place of God and a foretaste of a renewed creation where God will dwell perfectly amongst his people.

**God shaped Israel into a peculiar people through regular worship, festivals, sabbaths, sacrifices, and the teaching of his word. They were a living picture to the nations of God’s ultimate picture of the good life: God and mankind dwelling together. 

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