March 22, 2023

Everyday Idolatry

Before I begin, don’t get me wrong, our senses are great and all and I appreciate them abundantly. In fact, they’re some of the greatest biological assets we have. It took many millions of years to evolve things such as the lenses of our eyes and the nerves that connect them, the delicate fluid balances of our inner ear that help to both hear and balance standing up, even our squishy skin that can sense the slightest changes in ambient temperature or surface pressure. But, unfortunately, they can also be our worst liability sometimes. They often drive us to overindulgence, making bad decisions from physical/emotional pain or perceived danger, you name it. This is ultimately the purpose of meditation (particularly in Buddhism) – to subdue the bodily senses and clear the mind of their influence to focus on higher ideals.

These higher ideals vary by culture and religion, but they’re always generally insight into the world, philosophy of living, justice in society, love, and faith. This is the reason meditation can be so difficult too. Our brains are evolved to only process sensory information and reflect on it. Even creativity can be deceptive, since the brain really only processes bits of our mental inventory of sensory data we’ve collected since the moment of our birth to recombine it in different ways. If you’ve heard of Christopher Booker’s theory of the seven basic plots – that every story of any kind in the world can all be reduced to one or more of seven essential plots, that’s what I’m talking about here too. And, like the old saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Our wonderful senses can unfortunately be the greatest obstacle to faith.

Our wonderful senses can also unfortunately be the greatest obstacle to faith. And I don’t just mean spiritual faith, but even the most basic and essential faith we should have in each other or ourselves. Our senses are what caused the infamous biblical golden calf event, which is classically referred to as idolatry (the disordered worship of images). An ancient people lost faith in a God they couldn’t see or fully comprehend (even though He had just done a whole bunch of miraculous stuff to save them from slavery), so they just decided to make their own. As ancient and unrelatable as that story might seem, we’ve been doing this for millennia.

We shape our identities and social status around corporate branding, we imitate and nearly worship celebrities and royalty, we devote decades of our lives to the pursuit of money, and we even throw all our trust in on science. If you’ve followed my writings at all, you’ll know that I’ll be the first to defend and promote science. While science is a truly great and noble discipline, the simultaneous truth is that it also doesn’t have all the answers and never will.

Idolatry is losing faith in something we know to be true in favor of something more convenient.

That’s what idolatry is really all about – losing faith in something we know to be good and true in favor of something that is more fun, easier to understand, or sometimes just more convenient. As a younger and more atheistic man, I idolized a few different things. But, later (after some introspection and a few life experiences), I realized that it was because theological and philosophical things were simply too difficult to understand and too abstract to deal with in a practical, everyday sense. Logic and material reason were the only things that made sense to me until I learned to dig deeper into human potential. We all do this, worst of all, with people.

Couples most often cheat on each other, not because they find someone more attractive or fall in love with someone else (though that does happen), but because things may get difficult in the relationship and they seek affection or catharsis with an easier or more casual encounter. As a people, we most often turn to destructive dictators, maniacal tyrants, and corrupt liars with rich promises when a government is in turmoil or economic downturn.

The solution to all this certainly isn’t easy, but it is simple.

The solution to all this certainly isn’t easy, but it is simple, and something most religious speakers and educators don’t encourage us to do, but I will now do that very thing. Scrutinize everything. Question everything. Accept nothing at face value... even God. I often say in my theology classes that while spiritual concepts can (and should) never be proven empirically, they should always make sense, or be reasonable. The same goes for people. We may not always like a person or understand everything they say or do, but if they are reasonable and genuinely care for you, they are probably at least worth listening to. As the philosopher Karl Popper said, “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.”