Some Reflections on “Idolatry”

 This is the second commandment
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them… [1]
This commandment forbids idolatry. However, recently I have been considering what this could possibly mean to people today.
It is normally applied by stating that our world today is one dominated by idols that we should avoid. In fact it is said
that anything can be an idol; music, sex, money, power, ourselves etc. and so the list goes on.
I’m not so sure. I don’t think this is good enough.
Idols were a container for the divine. The divine could be appealed to through idols. Idols were worshipped because through them you worshipped a god.
Peter Rollins puts it like this
Idolatry… can be understood as any attempt that would render the essence of God accessible, bringing God into either aesthetic visibility or conceptual visibility. [2]
With this in mind it simply doesn’t seem at all right that money, music, sex etc. (even when they are abused, which is of course not okay and deserves challenging) get lumped into the concept of “idolatry”. They do not “render the essence of God accessible”. They are treated neither as gods or the images of gods because they are not gods. And they are most definitely not worshipped because we all know they are not gods.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses the point better than I have
The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, sensuality, and pride’ seems to me quite unbiblical. That is a piece of moralizing. Idols are worshipped, and idolatry implies that people still worship something. [3]
This gets to the crux of it. What we name as idolatry in people’s behavior is, I am lead to think, simply not idolatry.
Nihilism and Transcendentalizing Behaviour vs. Idolatry
Bonhoeffer, in fact, takes us even further. He states that really
We don’t worship anything now, not even idols. In that respect we’re truly nihilists. [4]
We’re nihilists. Skeptical about everything we encounter. Questioning and rejecting political structures, epistemologies, philosophies and theologies of god, never mind idols.
This is life in, what Bonhoeffer calls, a world come of age.
Now. Can we, or do we, transcendentalize the things we prioritize in our lives? Yes. That is to say, do we allow objects to surpass, and move beyond, the significance you would normally attribute them?
Money, sex, power, family, food, politic agendas etc. These often become obsessions, they are allowed to take on ultimate meaning and become the sole goal of many people. This can be, and is, true even of religious people. But being obsessed or enraptured with something and worshipping it are not the same thing.
When it comes down to it not even transcendentalizing something is idolatry.
Why? Because we do not worship it. “Idolatry implies that people still worship something”; idolatry “render[s] the essence of God accessible”. In idol worship we, strictly speaking, invoke the god we perceive to be behind the something.
But do we, does anybody, ask this of our list of supposed “idols”? I really don’t think so.
In a secularist, materialistic, post-religious, post-Christian culture we’re bound to find value in something. It just won’t be in the gods or the Christian God – they are believed to not exist.
Should we transcendentalize these things?
No! Of course not!
We see this happen all the time and can recognize it as immensely unhealthy. Behaviour like this is damaging and should, quite rightly, be challenged.
It is in transcendentalizing objects, not idolising them (which in so doing we would understand ourselves to be perceiving the divine and worshipping it), that people are attempting to find life, meaning, fulfillment, purpose, hope. Objects that do not (and we know cannot) offer them.
(After)Life, Jesus and the Absence of Idols
Maybe it is in thinking this way that the words of Jesus begin to ring in all their fullness?
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [5]
Maybe in Western society it confuses matters to speak of idols?
May there be but the decision to live for that which lasts or that which does not?
This is an attempt to understand, in our own context, the words of Jesus, to the people of his day, not to transcendentalize and locate life, hope and so on in mere objects, here on earth
Where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. [6]
It is an attempt to listen to Jesus when he says
Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. [7]
Christians point to he who is transcendent, to he who is also immanent. To the one in whom there is life (John 1:4), fulfillment, purpose and hope (Ephesians 1:18-21). To Jesus, who says “Come, follow me” (Matt. 4:19).
He is the image of God (Col. 1:15) and it is in his image (the one who now reigns earth from heaven, who we might say is our ‘treasure in heaven’) those who follow him are being made. It is in the same life and power of his resurrection that we to shall be resurrected (1 Cor. 15:21-23). [8]
The inverse of this (taking it no further than where the Bible might be pointing) is that those who locate their life; their hope; their purpose in the things we (mistakenly) describe as “idols” (not least because they could be said to be symptomatic of a deep seeded disbelief in god) get what they, themselves, really expect to receive from them in the long run – nothing.
This is not a rejection of the 2nd commandment! Idolatry is not a good thing. When and where it is engaged in, we have cause to question and challenge it. But we do the term injustice by misusing it, and therefore watering it down, in a society that is, for the most part, post-idols.
So, what then shall we say regarding idolatry?
Well, I think the answer to that is, very little.
Maybe at this point in time all we can say is that there are only those who live for Jesus and those who live for anything (and perhaps, everything) else.
[1] Exodus 20:4-5 (NIV2011)
[2] Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak of God, 12
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 336
[4] Ibid., 336
[5] Matthew 6:21 (NIV2011)
[6] Matthew 6:19 (NIV2011)
[7] Matthew 6:20 (NIV2011)
[8] In talking and speaking of “heaven” and “resurrection” so on, I am not, I repeat, I am not, talking about general, over-spiritualised, chilling out on clouds, “going to heaven when you die” understandings of things. In Israelite thought heaven is anotherdimension of space, time and matter and resurrection means bodies. Resurrection means solid, walking around on planet earth experiences. I do not want to be seen to be advocating popular, unbiblical, escapist theology regarding these things.
(The picture is a bronze idol rendering visible the ancient Ugaritic ‘god’ Ba’al.)