Thursday, June 16, 2005

Just wondering... II

My perplexity earlier was genuine. But I also want to be utterly clear that I believe that this is a critically important issue with wide-ranging implications.

It seems to me that the Old Testament is preoccupied with this question of idolatry, and more broadly, worship. Not for nothing is it the first commandment. The question of idols is in large part one of worship: whom do we worship? In what ways do we worship? And so the problematic in the Old Testament, on one level, has to do with other gods versus The Lord, the God of Israel, and also with graven images.

But there is more to the story than that. When the Israelites construct the Golden Calf and bow down to it as an idol, they are bowing down to their own creation as a god. Given the narrative, it hardly seems plausible that they actually consider it to be another god (Or am I misreading?); nor is it a "graven image", an embodied figure which is intended to depict the unseen God of Israel. This simply seems to be an act of (self-conscious?) mystification, almost along the lines of the Wizard of Oz -- "Pay no attention to the goldsmiths fashioning my likeness!"

We might in our more honest moments envy the Israelites, for they were at least aware of what they were doing, they could murmur to themselves sotto voce "well, we know it isn't really a god, just a rather fetching golden calf statue. But if we say it is a god, then we can do whatever we -- er, it -- says, and claim to be faithful to our god. It's a matter of principle!" The risk is that when you do this for generations, somewhere along the line someone might forget to let the next generation in on the joke.

At this point, you might think I am sounding angst-ridden or skeptical enough to suggest we just lift the shimmering curtain and gaze at the absence of God, but that is not the case. I do think we need to be honest and searching in rooting out idolatry and worshipping the real God, not a convenient one of our own making. (This was a strong intuition of mine in finding the Episcopal Church -- about which, more later.)

I am convinced that when we worship the true God, and do so in the right way, that everything else falls into place. One upshot of this is that people find their proper place in the world, and that as we bend our lives towards the one who is worthy of all honor, we can let humans be human, rather than either more or less than they are meant to be. Idolatry not only mars God into something God is not (often a Mars-god), it also de-faces other people around us as it disfigures our own souls.

If this I true as I have set it up, then we have reason to believe that when our souls are disfigured, we have fallen into idolatry, worshipping something other than God. (For you logicians keeping score at home, I've just denied the consequent, which entails a denial of the antecedent.)

One particularly troublesome (but commonly observed) idol in the West, and America in particular, is money. Our eonomy is based on one of the seven deadly sins -- greed -- and it actively strives against contentment. This is not a small aspect of our lives, and yet the way we've constructed it and allowed it free reign (bolstered by such myths as the "blind hand of the market" or "rising tides") it is idolatrous in that it consistently values money at least as much as and often more than people. There are all sorts of ways that this is clear -- homelessness, rootlessness and job insecurity, inhuman work schedules, unrealistic sales expectations, overemphasis on "ownership" and "what's mine" to the detriment of any public entity, health "care" that is aimed to make a profit, it goes on and on.

Here's the thing -- and this brings us back to my initial question -- the economic system is a human creation which might conceivably be changed. But to the degree that human poesis is (also) intimately involved with our theological imaginings* how can we change to something which is less idolatrous? Specifically, how can a Christian -- given that we have been implicated in many of these inhuman, idolatrous creations -- pursue a nonidolatrous life worshipping the God of Israel and of Jesus?

One way might be through a pragmatic immanentism, which I think Emily might have been suggesting in her response to my first post. (That is, focus on human(e) results, and let the worship take care of itself.) That is attractive in ways, but I'm not entirely comfortable with it for a number of reasons. One is that, practically speaking, I think it results in neglect of (true) worship of the (true) God, which seems to me to actually be the fountainhead of all else. Another is that -- not that Emily is suggesting this, of course -- it is also the road which the West has taken since (at least) the Enlightenment, that is to say, liberalism and modernity, and I think that is actually a major part of the problem.** The thought was a pragmatic one, and which I am willing to regard charitably as motivated by benevolent concerns: let's set aside all of these specific little stories and focus on means and ends, in order to build a just and rational society. (Ironically, this was both the rise and fall of modern Metaphysics.) In other words, why worry about pre-modern myths of exodus from Egypt and speculations about a trinitarian God, when we can just focus on making people's lives better? As I say, I'm not at all convinced it worked.

Another way forward is by a post-critical return to our narratives: worship, prayer, living with the saints, sharing Eucharist, spreading the Kingdom. After all, it is these narratives which give me the angst about idolatry in the first place. At our best, perhaps, we try to keep each other honest and listen together for the God of Israel and Jesus.

But it's still sometimes hard to sleep at night.

P.S. There are some brilliant philosophers and theologians working on this issue of idolatry, among them Jean-Luc Marion. I am eager to do more reading (and writing) in this area, particularly because as I have put together this issue, it is not a disembodied, purely theoretical matter, but something which cashes out in real-world practice and critique pretty easily.

Your thoughts and feedback, as before, are eagerly solicited.

*I don't want to sound entirely like a non-realist here; in fact, my angst is because there is some irreducible core of me which is a realist, even while I admit that most everything is also constructed and human.

** By "liberalism", I imagine that you understand that I don't simply mean "leftish national politics". Plus, my constantly cavilling about modernity should not be understood as a blanket rejection or condemnation, as if we could simply return to premodernity: voices and faces for women, trade unions, an end to slavery, modern medical and dental technique -- there is much to be said for modernity. But there is also much for which modernity has to answer.


Blogger Emily said...

Of course, in the case of the golden calf, the Israelites were not just worshipping something of their own creation, they were worshipping their own material goods, which, come to think of it, were not theirs to start with and were essentially given to them at the command of the very God they were blowing off.

Thursday, June 16, 2005 3:26:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Right, great! -- which suggests some natural parallels with our modern world. (At least it was the product of their own hands, rather than manufactured by cheap labor abroad.)

Thursday, June 16, 2005 3:52:00 PM  

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