Idolatry can be subtle and pervasive. It manifests in the usual suspects like money or success and other familiar villains. But Christians ought to also be wary of the looming idolatry lurking in some of the essentials of the Christian experience.
I think of idolatry as a disproportionate worship of or devotion to something. Maybe you believe that the God who is Love—Creator and Sustainer of everything from the farthest galaxies to the nearest neurons in our brains—is the one to whom we ought to give our deepest allegiance and devotion or most permit to inform how we live and the choices we make. Idolatry, then, would be giving comparable adoration and devotion to something less worthy or worthwhile than God. Especially something that inhibits our ability to care for that for which God cares.
An idol can be visible or something invisible that manifests in visible ways. An idol could be physical, like the infamous golden calf (Ex 32:1-14), but should not be confused with icons, symbols, or visual aids. You might look at a cross and not worship the physical cross but, though looking at it, be led toward what is truly ultimate—the God who is Love. Idolatry might show up when the window becomes hazy and all you can see is the window and then you settle for the window.
What compels people toward idolatry? Maybe a desire for something that requires less cognitive and emotional work. Something that we can more easily wrap our minds around. Something that gives a sense of power or control or dominance. Something that permits us to remain as we are rather than become what we could. Something that makes “faith” no longer a matter of trust, hope, or commitment and turns into something lazy, comfortable, and deceptively simple.
In some cases in the Bible, idolatry emerges when anxieties run high. The Golden Calf event is no exception, where people seem to forget God (or assume God has forgotten them) and look for something more tangible and immediate in which to place their hope.
What examples come to mind when you think of possible idols? Maybe materialism. Nationalism. Guns. Sports. Celebrities. Our pride and how we think we are perceived by others. Our immediate desires and cravings. Our devices, phones, tablets, which can absorb us and separate us from the people we are with.
And that might be one of the greatest problems with idols—how they cause us to lose sight of people, especially the most powerless. If you imagine staring at a literal golden statue when the sun feels its brightest, you could imagine the blinding quality of it, drowning out the people around you.
When we are devoted to God, we remain open to seeing God in one another. But God—and love—can sometimes feel daunting, difficult, vague, mysterious, demanding, convicting, too complicated. So we settle for gods that are more expedient, less demanding, and less transformative.
Idols like money or success are non-religious in nature, even if you find them within religious communities. But what about the good elements of our own Christian experience? Are there things that we can treat with a level of sacredness they don’t deserve, things we can elevate too highly?
Heaven? The afterlife is shrouded in mystery. This life, at times, can feel very hopeless. So maybe to cope with this ambiguity and hardship, some Christians fixate on the afterlife, even speaking with surprising certainty about what it’s like and who will be there. And then, consequently, salvation is a re-imagined, no longer as a re-creation of our hearts, relationships, communities, systems, and planet but now more like a ticket to a weekend party at the end of this long, exhausting work week of a life. We make heaven an idol that distracts from following God where God is—right here.
The Bible? The Bible is marvelous but complicated. It is full of profound, radical, and troubling ideas, some of which seem to contradict one another. But to have our core, normative text be so ambiguous about some areas of life bothers some. So the Bible becomes treated more like an uncriticizable constitution, plain and simple and unambiguous in its application. We elevate it to a status for which the Bible never asked. We ought to take the Bible seriously. We should probably not take our understanding of what it says and means quite as seriously. The Bible is not God; it points us to God.
The Flag? Secularism and religious pluralism scare many Christians in the USA. Perhaps out of fear of irrelevance, we neglect Jesus’s constant and perpetual opposition to empire and make critique of our nation and its symbols a greater sin than the sins of racism, sexism, violence, and neglect of the poor. Sure, we should absolutely take a moment to recognize the good things afforded us by the country we live in (the quantity and quality of such good things, of course, differing from person to person based on a number of factors, some fluky and some sinister). But where our country’s practices do not align with the way of God who is Love, our country does not deserve our unfailing praise but our criticism, resistance, and counter-testimony. We should be especially vocal about ensuring that our sense of feeling threatened by outsiders—whether well-founded or no more than a contrived distraction—does not cause us to overlook the hurting and neglected among us. It is tempting to abandon the needs of those on the margins in favor of our defense budget, assuming that we need to be protected from foreigners more than people in our country need to be protected from our own greed and sense of entitlement.
Pastors and programs? Maybe if we’re not careful, we idolize our pastors and programs. Instead of being participants in our religious communities we become consumers, our feelings fluctuating depending on how well our pastors and programs perform to our liking and meet our needs on our terms. Maybe our market economy trains us to be a bit entitled, selective, ready to be indignantly vocal or even move on when a product is not working for us. Pastors deserve to be criticized when their words and actions are dismissive, degrading, imprisoning, bigoted, or ignorant. Maybe less so when they’re simply failing to fill our feels-good-spirituality bucket.
Practices and beliefs? Maybe our spiritual practices become idols, ends in themselves. Rather than a pathway to the God who is Love, maybe our practices get in the way of Love. Maybe our beliefs and values become idols, like trinkets we keep on a shelf for our guests to see, rather than guideposts that point us to the God who is Love, or descriptions of how we actually live out our faith, in practice.
Jesus? Are we susceptible to making Jesus into something he isn’t or doesn’t want to be? If anyone deserves to be idolized it’s the Son of God, right? But I do think we should take care that our reverence for Jesus is not simply about celebrating his way but learning it. If a school year ends and the students have acquired no skills but simply stand up and say to the teacher “great show, great show!” then the learning process has been a failure. I wonder if we’ve made Jesus into an idol when he becomes something that maybe comforts us a little but ultimately stifles rather than facilitates our love for others.
God? It might seem like nonsense to suggest God could be an idol. But we all have particular understandings of God, expectations about what God wants, how God works, who God roots for. We can settle into these beliefs, and forget that God might be more than our current understanding of God, that God might surprise us from time to time. Further, I wonder if we idolize God when we neglect our responsibility to improve the lives of others. Maybe we use “depravity” or “grace” as excuses and abandon our call to become better, more loving people. We then replace this call with God-praise, equating deep spirituality with the frequency and sincerity with which we remind God how great God is and how hopeless and inconsequential we are. We idolize God, oddly enough, thinking we’re being humble but in actuality just letting ourselves off the moral hook.
Comfort? Can our comfort become an idol? Newness, change, and personal adjustment can feel threatening. It is tempting to abandon our readiness for the surprising and unexpected work of God in favor of the idol of “how we’ve done things” or “what we’re comfortable with.” I wonder if sometime my highest commitment is not to the God who is Love but to maintaining my comfort, defensively fending off threats to that comfort. A sense of entitlement may fuel such devotion to comfort, especially to such “liberties” like the freedom to say what we want and own what we want. Like most good-things-turned-idols, liberty is a good thing until it’s not, until we value our entitlement more than our commitment to the common good and to others who do not, despite our most reassuring narratives, actually have that much liberty in practice.
To remain committed to the God who is Love and avoid idolatry, we may need to address our anxieties. We may need to notice the temptation to reduce our spirituality to nothing more than a thumbs-up to a set of values or beliefs. We may need to become more like scientists in our approach to God—willing to passionately give ourselves to what we believe while at the same time recognizing that what we know is always provisional, tentative, soon-to-be expanded upon or transcended by new learning and the inclusion of new voices. We might have more to learn.
I want to be open to the call of God to love people in new, surprising ways. I want to keep looking for the God who is beyond my present understanding of this God. The way to Love—to God and with God—is difficult but worthwhile. May we continue to walk it, even when it becomes tempting to settle for something inferior.
(Adapted from a sermon given at Camas Friends Church on 10/15/17, based on Exodus 32:1-14, the story of the Golden Calf.)