I was thinking today about idols. More the “gods we make” type than the “Billy” type. Though both are interesting to ponder.
I was taught in Sunday schools to avoid worshiping anything other than the version of God my parents and church knew. It was always presented as a lesson about respecting God and God’s jealousy. But as I age into more independent reflection, I am beginning to think the lesson was more about integrity than deity.
As you probably know, many religions espouse a certain exclusivity that suggests that treatments of God other than their own is a sort of falsehood to be avoided at all cost.
Christianity, the religion with which I am most familiar, seems particularly locked in on this type of doctrine. It is at least the explicit subject of the first 2 “Ten Commandments” and arguably a major point of the third. Commandment number 1 is “Have no other god.” Commandment 2 is “Don’t make idols of other gods.” So, at least 20% of perhaps the most well known and oft-quoted set of rules in history are dedicated to the concept of idolatry. Someday I might endeavor to explore the irony (hypocrisy?) of this fact given Christianity's near obsession with polytheism and the creation of idols while preaching vociferously against both. But not today.
Today, I’m interested in a more practical question: what’s the point?
If you know me, you know I am a sports fan. I’m really just sort of generally a fan of things. When I like something, I tend to evangelize and advocate and represent as if that thing is paying me. The 49ers, the Blazers, Nike, Pepsi, America, Sneakers, the (baseball) Giants, the Ducks, the Waves, Portland, Dame, Montana, Bird, Audi, the Coen brothers, West Coast Rap, and so on. It is likely born out of my competitive nature weaving itself into the way I experience tribalism and belonging. Or I just really like the stuff I like. Either way, I have a tendency to put certain things on a pedestal…almost like an altar.
I would stop short of saying I worship these things, though an objective outside observer could quibble with me on that point. I don’t think Dame is a god. Basketball is not my religion. …but, many things take on a place in my psyche that is perhaps beyond what they merit.
Christianity taught me that I should not worship a person or an object or even an idea because the Creator of the universe is sensitive and jealous and apparently quite a stickler for fidelity. Perhaps, though, the ancient wisdom of Judeo-Christian scripture was trying to make a different point with the idol-related “Thou Shalt Not”s.
Maybe this was to protect us from ourselves rather than to protect God’s delicate self-esteem. When we elevate a person or thing to something bigger than the person or thing itself, we are easily pulled to defend and apologize and advocate for that thing at deep cost to our integrity. The idol we create is not the person or thing itself, but our own certainty and need to be right. So, when I am a fan of Barry Bonds and I begin to elevate his importance, he is not the idol, but rather it is my need to be right about his importance. And so after arguing that he is the greatest baseball player of all time, I am then forced to minimize and justify his cheating not to protect Bonds but my own opinions of him. And in that way, idolatry is not so much about creating gods or worshiping something other than God, as it is making myself a god. Religious like fervor attached to a person, thing, institution, idea, etc is almost never as much about that thing as it is our perceived need to find self-assurance in that thing.
And so, it is not so much that I love a sports team or political figure or brand as it is that I need to be right about loving that thing. And therein lies the danger. Because the moment I begin to deify the people and things around me is the moment I must sacrifice reason and humility at the altar of my own ego.
This is why when people latch onto a political figure or party, they can struggle to see or accept flaws in that person or party or see value in the opposition. To do so would require an open-mindedness that is the enemy of worship and devotion. And that is when we lose our integrity. That is idolatry.
When the QB of our football team is accused of sexual assault, we defend him, attack the victims, call for mercy and second chances. When our favorite basketball player rapes a woman and pays her off, but then goes on to lead our team to a championship we continue to hold him up as some sort of hero. When our political heroes lie, cheat, abuse, etc. we minimize, defend and then attack their critics. Why? We value honesty and integrity and treating people with decency and respect. Right? So why would we defend those who build their power on values that run counter to this? Because we have used them to make our own views our gods. Our worship is our idol. It is our “graven image” our “golden calf.”
So maybe, the admonitions against idolatry in ancient wisdom were less about a jealous God and more about a warning against a part of our nature that will lead us away from our values. When we elevate flawed humans (redundant) to something superhuman we too readily blind ourselves to their flaws so that the certainty we need in life can remain in power. And that allows those people to abuse and hurt and destroy. The “good” people that should stand in their way instead empower them, excuse them and even justify their abuse.
Perhaps “Don’t make idols” was another way of saying, do not elevate that which is finite and flawed to the point that you lose yourself in that thing. Otherwise, you will find yourself defending the indefensible, protecting abusers instead of the abused, and allowing a cycle that elevates the comfort of our certainty to a matter of religious absolutism. Whether or not you believe in God, none of us should be worshiping something as transient, fickle and dangerous as our own ego. And maybe that was always the point.
If you must elevate something other than what you think of as God, elevate the treatment and lives of others so that you avoid making yourself your own religion. Said another way, elevate love. Even the Bible says God is love.
“I’d sell my soul for you babe” is just fine when you’re singin’ Idol in karaoke, but likely the wrong approach in nearly any other context. Like what you like but don’t like it so much that you need to keep liking it at any cost.