Oct 15, 2023
“An idol is that with no this…the sound of one hand clapping. It is Alice’s Cheshire Cat – all face, no body; all hat, no cattle!”
Moses Maimonides (c. 1200 CE) wrote: “We are commanded (Deuteronomy) to demolish all idols and their places of worship with all kinds of demolition and destruction — breaking, burning, dismantling, and cutting down. Each method is to be used where most effective, where it will achieve the most complete and speedy destruction…there should not remain any remnant.” (That’s the 185th Mitzvah.)
Maimonides is not alone. Others have spoken out concerning the need to destroy injustice at its roots:
Barry Goldwater (1964): “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Jean-Paul Sartre (1948), Franz Fanon (1960) and Malcolm X (1964): “…by any means necessary!”
Jesus of Nazareth (30): “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12: 49)
Interesting bedfellows, no? And yet, if Jews and Christians agree on anything, it’s peace! “The lamb shall lie down with the lion.” (Is.11: 6–9 & Rev 21: 1-4) But how do we get there from here? Tolerance of sin? Not according to Scripture! We are commanded to rid the world of sin - root and branch. (Job 18:16) Mercy for the sinner? Absolutely! “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)
Is idolatry sinful? Of course, it is! “Thou shalt not have other gods beside me.” (Ex. 20: 2) But idolatry is not just a sin, one sin among others; idolatry is sin itself! To put it another way, all sin is, at its root, idolatry. In fact, anything and everything is sinful precisely to the extent that…and only to the extent that…it functions as an idol, that it displaces God.
Nothing is sinful in itself (everything is good to the extent that it is); it is only made sinful when we turn it into an idol (something it is not). Gold jewelry is not sinful, but it becomes sinful when we melt it down and form it into the likeness of a calf for us to worship.
In the cosmology of Hasidic Judaism, everything this is, animate or inanimate, contains within it a divine spark. When we treat what is as it is, we release that spark and allow it to ascend home to YHWH. When we use what is as it is not, we further bind the spark in its spatiotemporal prison.
The Judeo-Christian God is not merely ‘truthful’ and ‘just’; YHWH is Truth and Justice! Therefore, we commit a sin, a sin against God, whenever we engage in behavior contrary to what is true or just, i.e. whenever we practice idolatry.
Every sin honors our own perverse will at the expense of God’s transcendent values, i.e., at the expense of God, who is Value, who is the Good. For our sophisticated selves, golden calves have lost their luster. No problem! A modern-day idolater may confer ultimate value on his personal safety, comfort and prosperity, on her schedule, agenda and career, all in lieu of God.
No surprise here. Whenever we fashion a golden calf (or purchase a new Lexus) and place it on an altar (physically or metaphorically), we substitute what is inert and irrelevant for what is living and true.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is built on mercy…up to a point; we are told that sins against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. Why not…and what is a ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’ anyway?
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (God’s Spirit) and therefore the foundation of what is real. When we deny what is real, we turn our backs on the Holy Spirit; and when we affirm what is false in place of what is true, we commit the sin of idolatry. We place the object of our false trust and belief on the altar in our hearts that should have been reserved for God alone.
So why unforgivable? To sin against the Holy Spirt is to sin against Truth itself, to substitute an inert and decomposing idol for the living God. Our sins cannot be forgiven as long as we maintain personal maps of the world that are not congruent with God’s logos. i.e., do not conform to reality.
It is a commonplace both of home discipline and social jurisprudence that a miscreant cannot be forgiven until he accepts responsibility for his misdeeds. Until we internalize God’s logos (aka Torah), we are condemned to practice idolatry.
There can be no question of forgiveness because, without an acceptance of logos, there can be no sincere resolution to ‘amend our lives’.
Those who ignore logos persist in the practice of idolatry; they cannot accept responsibility for their actions, and therefore they cannot be forgiven. This is the sense in which it is correct to say that all salvation comes through Jesus: Jesus is the incarnation of logos. (John 1: 1 – 3)
But all is not lost! When we do adopt logos, our idols literally vanish into thin air. They were no-thing to begin with, they are nothing now! Where there was once a golden calf, there is now just a lump of gold. Our past sins are not forgiven…because they don’t need to be. They are well and truly ‘forgotten’: it is as though they never were!
Again, according to John (8: 31-32), “…The truth will set you free.” To the extent that we reject what is true, we forfeit that ‘freedom’ and choose slavery. We roll back the Exodus. We willingly return to Egypt, ‘that house of bondage’ (Ex. 20: 2), just as the early Hebrew idolaters urged us to do.
When we practice idolatry, we crawl back to Pharaoh with our tails between our legs, “We apologize for the seditious acts of Moses and Aaron, and we regret the disloyalty we exhibited by following them instead of you, O Great Ruler! Please let us build your pyramids again. (You’ll have to admit, nobody builds pyramids like we do!) So let us build for you again – and we’ll gladly make our bricks without straw as a way of showing you just how sorry we are.”
In a famous movie, Cool Hand Luke (1967), the sadistic warden determines to torture Paul Newman until Newman’s character ‘gets his mind right’, i.e., until he conforms his will to that of the warden. It is not enough for Newman to obey; he must adopt his captor’s map of the world.
Likewise, we are called not just to obey commandments, but to adopt our savior’s map of the world. That is what the Great Commandment (Matthew 22: 35 - 40) is all about…a map of the world: God…and neighbor.
Per Jean-Paul Sartre (above), freedom is a precondition of every virtue and value. A value is only valuable to the extent that it has the potential to influence events as they unfold in the world. Likewise, an action can only be virtuous if it is performed freely.
Per Barry Goldwater (also above), “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice.”
In 1941 (Escape from Freedom), Eric Fromm argued that there is a basic human tendency to trade freedom for comfort (physical & existential). Is that tendency what we refer to as ‘original sin’? Is our fascination with idols our original sin?
The heroes of scripture are those who traded comfort and security for wisdom and understanding. Adam & Eve, for example, traded Paradise for the knowledge of Good & Evil. Abraham, Moses, Solomon, the prophets, John the Baptist and, finally, Jesus all traded comfort and security for wisdom and knowledge.
In the 20th century, British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, coined the phrase: “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” (Process and Reality, et al.) Idols are nothing if not concrete! And yet, as substitutes for God, they are illusory. They represent conceptually something that does not exist materially. Therefore, to idolize anything is to ‘misplace concreteness’.
An idol is that with no this, there with no here, then with no now; an idol is the sound of one hand clapping. It is Alice’s Cheshire Cat – all face, no body, or to borrow a line from the modern American political scene, “all hat, no cattle!” Idolatry is just exactly what it says it is: the substitution of ‘not-God’ for God and ‘not-neighbor’ for neighbor.
We all have our own idols, the things we either confuse with God or knowingly and willingly place above God according to our own, personal hierarchy of values. For example, if you’re living in Canaan in the 2nd millennium BCE, you might confuse Baal (a local god) with YHWH (the maker of heaven and earth).
If you’re living in America in the 21st century A.D., you might be placing certain ‘material things’ above God on your ‘altar’. You know they’re not God, but at the end of the day, they exert more influence on your behavior than God does. We believe in God, but we put our faith in idols: alcohol, drugs, sex, money, power, affluence, notoriety, and fame…to name just a few.
To be clear, these things are not ‘bad’ in themselves. We make them ‘bad’ when (and only when), we place them above God in our own personal ‘hierarchy of values’. All true values subsist in God’s essential being. In fact, those values are God’s essential being, but they are God’s essential being according to an order, a logos.
When I substitute my personal hierarchy of values for the hierarchy of values that is logos, I create an idol. The logos (ordering) of God’s essential values optimizes the role each value plays in the whole. Logos is the expression of God’s values in the context of creation, in terms of the World. When we say that God exists, we assert the reality of God’s essence (values) and his logos (Christ). Idols are not just not God; they are not-God! They do not instantiate the values we associate with God, nor do they project his logos onto (or into) the world.
The philosophical journey of the Israelites began with God’s self-revelation to Moses: “I am what am.” (Exodus 3: 14) Which begs the question: “What is?” And now we are in a position to answer that question! (Drum roll please.) ‘What-is’ is God’s values, ordered via his logos and experienced in concrete actual entities that occur in the world for the benefit of others. ‘What-is-not’ is idols!
Paraphrasing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “idols, idols, everywhere but not a drop to drink,” not a drop of the living water that is, i.e., the spring that is the source of eternal life.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.