A Primer on Idolatry

“WELCOME TO THE MUSEUM OF PRIMITIVE RELIGIONS!  Step this way and now look at the peculiar display on the subject of idolatry.  We modern people cannot comprehend how superstitious were the ancients, such that the Hebrews prohibited carving little statues and bowing down to them…”

Since we religious folk have a 3,000 year old tradition and an ancient story crossing several cultures of the ancient world, I thought I would try to explain a word that seems so outdated and dull: idolatry.  The prohibition of it is one of IDOL3the Ten Commandments, and so it would seem rather quaint for our time.  After all, we have a show called “American Idol” and we talk about “idolizing” someone.  The ancients would have been terrified at such casual talk, but since we’re fairly casual about everything, maybe a museum lecture would be interesting.

In the ancient world, people represented their faith all sorts of ways–they worshiped trees, poles, statues, images, rocks, and projected divinities upon all of nature.  Generally, they created these images with the understanding toat there might be a little sympathetic magic possible–to guarantee a good crop, success in life, or victory in war, by appeasing the god with offerings.

The Hebrews were forbidden this luxury.  Only the mysterious God of Moses, a God who would not even reveal his name except as another mystery, was the true God.  They could not control this God, manipulate the Lord for their own purposes or take God for granted as a national plaything or prop for the king.  This God demaned justice, brought them to judgment when they failed and humbled kings when they became too haughty.

Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, is, essentially, confusing Creator and creation. When we elevate anything created into the place only rightly for God, it becomes idolatrous. Thus, Paul in Colossians, moves from concern about greed to idolatry (NRSV Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).

IDOL2
Modern Usage

It is idolatrous precisely because it rules over our life. Addictions are the idolatry of that which was created good–but not ultimate! Thus, food, sex, work, even family, patriotism, religion, can all be “idolatrous” if we do not live loosely attached to them–that is, understanding our right relationship to them. They and we will pass away. It is not worth ruining one’s spiritual life, for example, simply to feed the bottomless need for affirmation, fame, money or stuff.  Food, sex, work, family, country and religion are all also good.  But they are not ultimate.

It is equally idolatrous to want to be the most spiritual person in the world, to identify one’s own interpretations of God’s word and will with God’s word and will. This is the most dangerous of all. Idolatry is twofold–to lift up the earthly to the place of God and forget God. It is equally and also the desire to bring “god” down to earth, to create a manageable god who doesn’t ask too much of us, who is always just what we want God to be, our “buddy,” and never our judge or mystery. To understand God truly is to never forget that only God is God, and that our attempts to know God are never all that God is. To remember this is the beginning of wisdom.

The only way, then, to rightly live in this world is with contentment regarding what we have and humility with regards to our self-understanding, and for that to be enough. It is to be humble with regards to who we are, and to accept ourselves as God made us, and accept and care for others as they are, not imposing ourselves on them. To demand the impossible of oneself or others is also to stand at the border of idolatry. Truth about ourselves, our lives, and what is right is the aim of life. It is enough to see what God has made and simply say, “It is good. This is enough.”

Healthy self-regard means accurate, balanced, true self-understanding and to accept oneself.  Period.  It is the delusional need to project ourselves upon the world to deny our limits that can lead to wars, violence, self-hatred and hate of others.  And it is precisely here that we understand why both politics and religion are so often destructive.  We elevate our own views, demands and needs beyond criticism, discussion and conversation with God’s other creatures.  Rather than listening to one another and figuring out the best way, we engage in the most expensive and nefarious games to avoid ever telling or admitting another’s truth.  “Spin” is simply another word for deceit, even if it is oneself who is deceived.  The motive for the deceit is the real culprit, and both religion and politicians should spend much more time and energy there, for the good of themselves and the rest of us.  When one is more consumed with preserving ones own position, power or advantage than the good of our neighbor, an idol is nearly complete.

IDOL“Thanks for your patience, folks.  I hope you found this interesting.  That ends our museum lecture from these primitive people so long ago.  Quaint, isn’t it?  Well, back to our progressive, technologically superior world.  Fortunately, we are more evolved.  Our politics more humane.  Someday, we’ll live together in peace and everyone will have what they need.  Humankind never had it so good.  There is no problem we cannot solve, is there?  And if we can just get our people elected, the sky’s the limit…”

A Case for Thanksgiving Eve

So it is Thanksgiving Eve.  If Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) can be an elaborate anticipation of the solemnity of All Saints’ Day and Fat Tuesday a wild and wooly welcome to the austerity of Lent, there should be a similar welcome mat to Turkey Day, something to usher it in, not stomp it out a la “Black Friday.”

 Thanksgiving Eve should be something of an antonym to carry true to “Eve-ness” (Christmas Eve, naturally, being the all-time great, with it’s dark sense of Herodian murder plots, shivering shepherds, and wandering wise men).  It should be a day of shameful reminders of ingratitude, self-absorption and congratulations that can be followed with humble rejoicing and remembering the next day that nothing was deserved in the first place.

Any holiday that began with Europeans almost starving to death and depending on the kindness of the poor natives they would eventually wipe out or addict to alcohol on reservations should not be one in which the self-congratulating is mixed with feasts and football.  It just doesn’t seem right.  Better to blow out the egotism and delusions on the eve and then wake up to something like, “My gosh, we don’t have anything to eat.  How will we make it?”  Then have your neighbors bring something over and re-enact the whole helplessness.  How did it get to be, “Boy, are we ever BLESSED.”

There is something about powerlessness, helplessness, vulnerability and fear that drive you to important truths.  I think about the Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw’s book, having endured a childhood in the Great Depression and Coming of Age on Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach.  No wonder they came home and were glad just to have a little house in a new suburb and work the same job for 45 years and retire still married to the same woman.  And maybe this same absence of profound deprivation has left us unable to genuinely “feel” Thanksgiving as it is meant to be.

Could be, of course, that the past few years are getting us a little closer to the truth.  9% unemployment has unleashed predictable politics–all we need is a new president, throw the bums out of congress, shoot lobbyists, and so on.  What I never hear is, “Life is hard.  We better pull together and help one another.  Hey, I don’t have to have my whole bonus this year.  Let’s figure out how to keep Jim employed–he’s got three kids at home.”

We’ve got a grand opportunity to remember something that we seem determined to forget. I think about this while I hold my nine-month-old granddaughter.  She is so precious and full of life, and I am terrified for the world she is growing up into, terrified into prayers and more prayers.  I am helpless to prevent that world or fix it, so I am humbled terribly on this day.  I won’t be here for her whole life, God willing, so it will go beyond me.  You love a grandbaby this much, and suddenly you feel this helplessness again, like you haven’t felt in forever.  It drives you to a different gratitude, one not rooted in your importance or competence or being the World’s Latest Big Deal.  It is purely, powerfully helplessness that does it.

So let’s consider the Wednesday Before Thanksgiving as Self-Reliance Day.  We can wear giant inflated heads and have Big Shot Parades, football games and overeating as though it was our destiny.  Then, as is appropriate, consider a day of forgiveness, humble gratitude, reconciliation and remembering that without the rest of us, none of us is worth a dime, and don’t forget it.  So while there are some hours left in Wednesday, put on you Big Head.  Thanksgiving is coming.  Act like a selfish jerk for a few more hours.  Then come to yourself and remember what your life is really about.