What are your idols of choice?
Don’t have any? Are you sure of that?
Idolatry is, in biblical thought, the longest running, most damaging and most pervasive human problem. While it is generally seen in contemporary life as a relic of the ancient world (who worships a golden calf these days?), idolatry is just as potent and common today as it ever was. This is because idolatry is ultimately not driven by the object/item worshiped (i.e. a statue, a dollar bill, a chemical feeling of happiness), but is instead driven by the human condition, which is always in search of validation, vindication or escape… which are what the idols offer the worshiper.
A few months back I read a brilliant (and difficult) little book, Sharing Possessions, by a theologian named Luke Timothy Johnson. If you get the chance, read some of his stuff, it’s quality! In this book, Johnson offers a brilliant assessment of idolatry: what it is, why it exists, and how we can find it in our lives. Below, I am quoting my favorite part of this discussion, and encourage you to read it and reflect on your own life. But reader beware, because if you are honest here you might find some painful truths… I know I did!
From Sharing Possessions, pages 49-53…
Idolatry, in simple terms, is the choice of treating as ultimate and absolute that which is neither absolute nor ultimate. We treat something as ultimate by the worship we pay it, meaning here, of course, neither the worship of lips or of incense but of service. Worship is service. Functionally, then, my god is that which I serve by my freedom. Whatever I may claim as ultimate, the truth is that my god is that which rivets my attention, centers my activity, preoccupies my mind, and motivates my action. That in virtue of which I act is god; that for which I will give up anything else is my god. Diagnostically, I can tell what my god is by seeing what it is around around which the patterns of my life organize themselves.
Our lives, after all, do form patterns. Our freedom is not found in scattered outbursts of random activity, but in the shaping of a direction. There is in all our lives some sort of consistency in response to situations… The patterns in our lives form about the deep and usually unarticulated attitudes we hold towards ourselves, the world, and others. Within this fundamental orientation of our lives, our personal project of existence is being formed. The choices we make at this moment or that flow out of this orientation and either strengthen it or weaken it…
Phenomenologists of religion have been telling us for some time that the human creature is one that inevitably centers itself in this world, and does so by choice, The primordial sense of creatureliness, that is, our accurate perception that we are powerless and without self-generated worth, moves the human creature to seek power and worth in something outside the self. The human organism is instinctually impoverished and existentially threatened; meaning does not come to us automatically or easily. We do not have a place in the world given simply by birth and instinct as do cats and dogs. Somehow, it is in the centering activity of our freedom that we seek this place in the world and our significance. Where the center is located determines the pattern of human activity… It is from the center that the human person expects power, meaning, identity, worth- everything, in short, which should go with being.
We are lonely creatures, then, who find ourselves lacking worth and meaning (we are not the sufficient cause of our own being) and who feel impelled to seek them outside ourselves. Where we identify the source of our life and power (our being) and our worth is for us our center, and our center organizes the patterns of our perceptions from which our actions flow. Where the center is, there is our god.
Some questions like the following may help us get the point: What is it, really, that enables us to get up and face each day’s activity? What is it that we will make room for during the day, no matter how busy our schedule? By what measure do I look back over the day, or week, or year, and consider it a success or a failure? In the daily round, is the high point the end of work and the beginning of leisure? The first drink? Is that which I will fit into my schedule no matter what my three mile jog? When I lie awake in my bed with a feeling of discontent, is it because I did not get done all the work I intended to do that day, or did not get some time to myself, or did not spend time with my children and wife, or looked foolish in a conference, or dread facing a job interview tomorrow? When I look at others of my own generation, as I suspect we all do, and think about “where I am” in my life, what measurement do I use? Do I think of myself as a success or failure in relation to others, and on what basis- my health, my wealth, my work, my fame, my family, my power over others, my good looks? These are not complicated questions, but they are, for most of us, difficult ones, for they have a way of locating our center. And this brings us back to idolatry, For, if idolatry is a functional phenomenon, the real question comes when I ask, “Where is it that the meaning and power of my individual human life is sought? In what or where do I seek my sense of worth and identity? What is it, seen or unseen, which is the ‘bottom line’ for me, the source of my hope? What is it without which life would not be worth living? What is it for which I move and act, without which I stumble and fall? What gets me depressed? What is it, in my actual life, that functions as my god?”
Counterfeits are the more dangerous the closer they come to the genuine article. No one is much hurt by a wooden nicker, for no one is fooled by it. But people can be badly hurt by artfully printed thousand dollar bills… the important idolatries have always centered on those forces which have enough specious power to be truly counterfeit, and therefore truly dangerous: sexuality (fertility), riches, and power (or glory).
The attractiveness of idolatry lies in its claim to manipulate ultimate power; the folly of idolatry lies in the fact that any power which can be manipulated cannot be ultimate. The idolater says, “This which I can see and feel and handle and use, which is within my disposition, is the ultimate source of my worth, my identity, my security, my being. The power I have is the measurement of my value”… Idolaters are persons who, filled with the terror of nonbeing and worthlessness- the built-in threat of contingency- must construct their own worth (as the Scriptures have it), “with the works of their own hands.”
When we hand over the measurement of ourselves to forces which are just as much created as we are, then our gods are truly illusory… This illusion and folly is completely compatible, we should note, with a verbal confession of the “true god”; idolatry flourishes as much within orthodoxy as without. We can pledge allegiance to the most orthodox and theologically discriminating of creeds; it does not matter, Idolatry is found in the service of the heart, the way we concretely and existentially dispose of our freedom…