I have been thinking about Idols a lot recently (not the Paula Abdul kind). The second commandment says you shall not make carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven or above.
If you go with the narrowest interpretation of the commandment, it would be pretty easy to keep. I do not routinely carve anything, so I should be off the hook. Check. Done.
But what if you take the bigger picture? I may not carve images of Moloch, but I do a heck of a job creating images of God with my words and writings. Why is this a big deal? I think the real intent of the second commandment is not to put God in a box. Don’t think you have it all figured out, because you don’t and you never will. The minute you say God is, you are limiting him. I don’t think the graven image thing is the real problem here. It is thinking that you have captured the essence of God and you worship that single aspect.
Religious art is ubiquitous in our world. Is that idolatry? Our Islamic friends might say, yes. Me personally, I am not bothered by religious art or even icons, so long as it is used as a metaphor. There is a big difference, in my mind, between saying God IS and God IS Like. One is trying to convey an idea; the other is saying it is the truth.
So why bring it up? Why does this bother me? Here is the thing. I am really struggling with what I see as modern religious idolatry. I see this present in every faith tradition I explore, but I will focus this entry on what I see as Christian idolatry. And it centers around three words: cannon, theology and orthodoxy.
I am not tempted to worship and golden cow. But what the golden cow represents is as much a problem for me as it was for those desert wanderers some 3 thousand years ago. The image limits what in truth is limitless. No one is making golden cows these days. But limiting God with words is ramped.
The Christian church, both Catholic and protestant have agreed with some variation, that the cannon or sacred texts have all been written. Everything we need to know about God is in the Bible and the Bible cannot change. …so, everything we need to know about an infinitely complex God is contained in a finite book? Nothing in the last 1700 years is worth writing about? Changes in science and culture do not warrant new metaphors and new inspired works? God is no longer allowed to give insight or inspiration to today’s seekers. If we venerate this book as the end all be all, we are putting God in a box. That meets my definition of idolatry.
Theology is the study of God. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. But theology runs aground when paired with the cannon of scripture. We have decided that the Bible is “done.” But clearly people still have questions. So the theologians try and infer from the finite scriptures the answers to an infinite number of questions. These inferences vary greatly depending on how you prioritize conflicting passages of scripture. You can end up with a theology, like Calvinism, where humans are almost robotic and salvation is completely out of our hands. Or using the same source texts, you can end up with a theology of God as clockmaker who is not really in control of things once the universe was set in motion. These ideas, in and of themselves, are not bad. They are ideas. But when I go to religious discussion groups, these schools of thought are vehemently defended by their disciples as “the truth.” The minute a theological concept is said to be “true,” it is putting God in a box. That meets my definition of idolatry.
Orthodoxy or right thinking makes a mess of everything. There are countless denominations and sects of Christianity. Each of them claims to have special understanding of what God is or how God operates. Having preferences is no vice in my mind. But the second your orthodoxy excludes or diminishes another group of people, it is putting God in a box. That meets my definition of idolatry.
Idolatry has its advantages. It puts a neat bow on the world. Idols are objective. They can be studied. They can be measured. They can be held up against a set of standards. But they are not God.
I just need to constantly remind myself that I am a seeker. Once I think I have arrived, my destination is an idol. I will probably spend much of my remaining years trying to tear down the idols in my life and refocusing my attention on seeking. The truth may be out there, but I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend it.