September 10, 2018

American Idol(atry)

If you were raised religious in the Western world, you’ve likely at least heard of the term “idolatry.” It’s all over the Old Testament, mainly talking about golden calves and whatnot that our ancient ancestors worshipped to ward off misfortune and inspire material prosperity. And, as such, we’ve come to associate idolatry with things like statues and gold, with popular culture even making the occasional theological joke (like Kevin Smith's Mooby the Golden Calf—a satirically accurate splicing of Mickey Mouse and the McDonald's franchise). But, the concept and problems with idolatry are really a lot more than just the simplified notions we have today that usually range from the seemingly innocuous golden calves of the Bible stories to the terrible bull statue-ovens of Moloch that the ancients roasted their own children alive in. There's the direly important quest to find a mate to make everything in life better (to own the golden calf), the ongoing "rat race" for status (to appease the golden calf), the insatiable battle for fame (to become the golden calf), and so many other things that are really just a hell of a lot of work for nothing.

So, this article is about conducting oneself in a world full of images and likenesses as well as their makers. It’s about recognizing the importance of transcendence. And, it’s about seeing the greater purpose of life, the universe, and everything.*

Idolatry is composed from a familiar term, “idol,” from the Greek word eidolon, meaning “image,” and a not-so-familiar Greek word, latreia, meaning “worship.” So, it literally means to worship an image. Well, when I put it that way, most of you who are of the Jewish, Christian, or especially Muslim persuasions are probably scoffing at the mere suggestion that you might be guilty of such a rank heresy or grave sin, right? “There’s no golden calves here. I remember my Sunday School stories,” you might say. Or, “I go to church every week and worship a quite definitely intangible and invisible God.” Well, I’m sure you do, and that’s good for you. But, just as so many people misunderstand the broader meaning of the term “idolatry,” so too they often misunderstand the meaning of the term “worship,” and even more often, the term “faith.” So, I’ll explain more so those of you who are already so far up on your high horse that you can barely hear me can maybe slide down its leg and bump your naughty bits on its knees a little.

Worship and faith get conflated and confused. Worship often gets mixed up with “idolize” and faith gets mixed up with “belief.” Although I might casually idolize someone like Ronnie James Dio for both his amazing musical skills and his unshakable rocker confidence in the face of an almost childlike height, as well as the most epically receding hairline the heavy metal world ever saw, I certainly don’t worship him.** While I might believe in my wife in the general sense that she’s generally awesome and can be trusted in a myriad of ways, I wouldn’t say I have faith in her the same as I would a higher power.

To worship something is to praise it as a creative force in your life.
To worship something is to praise it for its power as a creative force in your life—to cultivate what it gives you so you can offer it back to the One who created it. It’s almost like, in a way, how you give your small child a box of crayons and paper, and a few minutes later they come back grinning from ear to ear with a multi-colored scribbling that vaguely looks like a bat holding a tree with your name underneath it. You made that kid, you gave him the crayons and paper, and turned him loose to scribble whatever indiscernible doodles he could produce, and you loved it anyway. We do the same thing in religious worship. We take what our Creator gave us, stick it together with Elmer’s glue and yarn, call it things like “liturgy” and “cathedrals” and “rituals,” then run back holding it up high, grinning from ear to ear like the little happy monkeys we are, hoping God will love the macaroni duck we made Him.

To have faith means simply and purely this: to trust. We trust people and things for various tasks. We trust the U.S. Postal Service to make sure our packages arrive at their intended destinations three days late and beaten into a crumbled pulp. We trust our printers to run out of ink and jam up every time we need to print boarding passes or movie tickets at the last minute. So, faith is a different kind of trust than just all that mess. It’s an implicit and absolute trust. Faith is the kind of trust a baby puts in its mother by instinct and necessity. It’s the kind of trust in which we fall backwards with our arms crossed and eyes closed and just know that we’ll be caught, or perhaps allowed to fall into a soft down comforter, or a kiddie pool of Jell-O, or whatever tickles your particular fancy. This is why faith is so important to religion—we are expected to put our absolute trust in a God who created us and all the other stuff we need to live and get through this wackadoo circus we call life.

We trust in friends to get us home drunk, but we have faith in a higher power to hurdle us safely towards our destinies.

So then, we trust in good friends to get us home drunk, but we have faith in a higher power to ensure that we can hurdle safely towards our respective destinies for the best. We idolize our favorite role models to entertain, teach, or inform us, but we worship our Creator for giving us all the stuff we need to enjoy the stuff we want and need. But, why do either one, and why is it important? Well, in concept, imagine that you’re a painter and you’ve just hung your finest masterpiece in a gallery showroom. You’d be pretty pissed off if everyone came by and admired your work of art and threw money at it, but never actually paid you a dime or even acknowledged you as the originator of the work. Likewise (not to hit too close to home in the digital age of copyright disregard), if you were a musician who made your greatest song ever and people took it without ever paying you a dime and shouted off the mountain how great it was, but never credited you for a moment, you’d also be pretty unhappy.

Properly placed worship and faith condition us as people in a vast world full of potential stuff to worship and have faith in. If we find ourselves trusting absolutely in things that are temporary, fleeting, or purely material, then we could actually be worshiping them, perhaps unintentionally. The usual suspects here are things like money, our own bodies, sex and other sensual pleasures, status and the pursuit of fame, institutions, or even other people. But, alas, money runs out, bodies break down, sensual pleasures become boring, status seems relative, fame fades, and pretty much everything in this world is just sort of, well... flimsy and fleeting. So, what are we to do?

We need purpose to survive and succeed.
This is where the real purpose of religion comes in. It gives us something permanent and transcendent to aspire to—a greater purpose that is worthy of worship and faith. We humans have a lot of great qualities, but while we’re filled to the brim with exploratory aspirations, symbolic ingenuity, and endless wonder, we’re also painfully deficient in the one thing that keeps every other animal in a harmonious balance with their environment, which is contentment. We always look up and out, then further up, then yet a litter higher than that, for better or worse. So, as a species (although not always as individuals), we need purpose to survive and succeed.

Images are a shadow of their creator, and similarly all of creation is a shadow, or a vestige, of a transcendent Creator. This isn’t to say that it’s an old, bearded guy in the clouds that made the world 6,000 years ago or anything so silly as that, but rather a divine source of all of existence at every moment in time. If we are to understand anything further about the painter, then we have to look beyond the painting. If we are to truly enjoy the music, then we have to seek out the musician for more great songs. If we hope to know more about what it is to be human, then we have to look beyond the simple problems of the human condition.

An idol is just an image of a greater and more perfect original.

An idol is just an image of a greater and more perfect original. We too are images. But, who is it that which we image? Do we worship ourselves, putting faith in the things that come to be and pass away, just as we do, or do we seek out the larger and more permanent things—divine things? I’ll close this piece with a bit of text that I wrote long ago as a brief philosophical exposition on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

This is to whom the greatest love should be turned. There is the person or thing to which your heart and mind are inclined (a person or thing that you love), that is your beloved, and there is the One which made your beloved, the One from which the very essence and existence of your beloved flows, emanates, and owes being to. Without the One from which your beloved originates, your beloved would cease to be entirely, or cease to have ever been (as time itself is a creation, inseparable from matter, and owing its existence to the One who created it), or at the very least, depending on the degree of the deficiency of origination, cease to be in the same form or state in which you came to know him, her, or it. Therefore, to whom do you owe your first and greatest devotion?

This is not to diminish the degree of love and devotion one owes to a person, because as the Creator must love the creation in order to sustain it, so also should the creations love each other insofar as they praise the creative work of the Creator.

Therefore, this is why the greatest of laws are said as such: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).

*It’s a little more than “42.”
**Or, his memory. Rock In Peace, Ronnie.