Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation o f them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. Exod. 20. 4-6.
WHAT SHAPE is an idol?
I worship Ganesa, brother, god of worldly wisdom, patron of shopkeepers. He is in the shape of a little fat man with an elephant's head; he is made of soapstone and has two small rubies for eyes. What shape do you worship?
I worship a Rolls-Royce sports model, brother. All my days I give it offerings of oil and polish. Hours of my time are devoted to its ritual; and it brings me luck in all my undertakings; and it establishes me among my fellows as a success in life. What model is your car, brother?
I worship my house beautiful, sister. Long and loving meditation have I spent on it; the chairs contrast with the rug, the curtains harmonize with woodwork, all of it is perfect and holy. The ash trays are in exactly the right place, and should some blasphemer drop ashes on the floor, I nearly die of shock. I live only for the service of my house, and it rewards me with the envy of my sisters, who must rise up and call me blessed. Lest my children profane the holiness of my house with dirt and noise, I drive them out of doors. What shape is your idol, sister? Is it your house, or your clothes, or perhaps even your worth-while and cultural club?
I worship the pictures I paint, brother.... I worship my job; I'm the best darn publicity expert this side of Hollywood.... I worship my golf game, my bridge game. . . . I worship my comfort; after all, isn't enjoyment the goal of life? ... I worship my church; I want to tell you, the work we've done in missions beats all other denominations in this city, and next year we can afford that new organ, and you won't find a better choir anywhere.... I worship myself....
What shape is your idol?
The first carvers of idols were perhaps devout and innocent men. Anthropologists have a fashion of talking as if religion originated in mumbo-jumbo, in blind fears and blind, unconscious desires; as if men set up elaborate rituals and made strange sacrifices without ever actually thinking about the nature of their gods.
Yet in all historic religions the metaphysics and philosophy have come first, the mumbo-jumbo a late and corrupt second. Need we think worse of the men we have forgotten than of the men we remember? The inventors of idols must have had minds seething with the idea of God. Creator, Helper, Destroyer, he was all about them; the trees whispered and the animals cried aloud of him; the life-giving sun and deathdealing thunder spoke of the Most High. What was he like? How put him into words? They had no words: the language of savages is at best a clumsy tool, incapable of abstractions. But they had mind pictures and they had comparisons. His strength was as an elephant, his knowledge like the hawk's keen eye, his sudden anger like the crocodile striking unseen in the water. All these were forms of him and symbols of him. Musing, the savages felt that they knew what the Power was like; felt too the inexorable urge of all men to communicate their thoughts to others. They made an image of their thoughts.
So simply and innocently, perhaps, the idols may have begun; the elephant-headed, hawk-headed, crocodile-jawed grotesques, the man shapes with too many arms or too many teeth or even too much beauty to be merely mortal. There is no need to credit their inventors with a whole Freudian mythology of dark motives. Whatever their motives, this much is certain: the idol makers were trying to say what they thought about the nature of God. They were inventing what we call theology.
And we shall think less ill of idols if we remember that, after all, they were an advance upon the primitive creed in which God was in all things equally and was essentially all things. To the idol maker God is one thing and not another; if he has the strength and wisdom of elephant or owl, he definitely does not have the weakness and silliness of mouse or jackdaw. However crude the concept, the human mind had to imagine a god who was elephant rather than mouse before it could understand a God who was good and not evil.
Unfortunately, the idols did not stay innocent long. There is an important distinction to be made between idol maker and idol worshipper. An old Hebrew legend declares that Abraham was once an idol maker, and that that was how he came to understand that idols are things made with hands and no true God. The idol maker may know, more or less clearly, that he is only giving shape to the half formed concept of God in his head; that his images are solid metaphors-what we call symbols. The sceptical Greek philosopher may remind us that, after all, the image of Athena is only a symbol, only a means of fixing one's rambling thoughts upon the spirit that is Athena. Yet the idolater will persist in losing sight of the forest for the trees, and the god for the image. The gold and ivory statue of Athena becomes holy in itself, an answerer of prayer, a mysterious source of power, a material object somehow different from other objects. The crucifix, the plaster image, the saint's relic or miraculous medal or cheaply and illegibly printed Bible may become themselves things considered holy and magical, able to stop a bullet. Worse yet, the god confined in an image is a shrunken and powerless god. Because you have limited your concept of God to a man shape on a carved crucifix, you may be in danger of inferring that you are free to outrage the man shapes walking and breathing around you. Because you worship the god in a specially baked wafer and a specially designed chalice, you may forget to worship the God of all bread and all wine. And yet it was said of the universal act of eating : "This do in remembrance of me."
Symbolism may thus be taken literally, so that the idol will rapidly beget mumbo-jumbo. The mysterious Power, vast, formless, uncontrollable and unpredictable, which once filled the universe, is now for the idolater conveniently reduced to something he can imprison in a few ounces of wood or plaster. Do not think the idolater too foolish to know that his god is man-made and breakable. He does know it; that is precisely the sort of god he wants-a god he can control.
The essence of idolatry is its attempt to control and enslave the deity. If the idol has power over man, so has man power over the idol; he can bribe it, he can drive a bargain with it, by certain rituals and sacrifices he can compel it to grant his wishes. Or, so, at least, the idolater thinks. For an idol is not just an image, of one shape or another, meant to represent a deity. An idol is a material object, by the proper manipulation of which a man may get what he wants out of life.
Only, of course, he can't. The universe is not made that way; there is no such power in any material object. Sacrifice as much as you please, cajole and flatter as you please, beat your disobedient idol with a big stick if you please-the thing still won't give you what you want. In consequence, all idolatrous cultures tend to get nastier and nastier. If a small bribe doesn't succeed, they offer more. The idol will not respond to a dance of virgins with flowers? Very well, let's try a dance of warriors mutilating themselves with knives. You have cut off a lock of your hair and laid it before the idol, yet life is still dark? Try cutting your first-born's throat and offering him. Nor does the idol's continued silence teach you better sense, if you're a natural-born idolater. For if Mumbo-Jumbo is so bard to please, what a very great Mumbo-Jumbo he must be !
All Mesopotamia wallowed in this nastiness when the Hebrews, first of history's iconoclasts, rose up and said : "Thou shalt make unto thee no graven images."
They were thorough, those Hebrews. Since images could be so misused, they would have no images at all-not for the most innocent purposes. No chryselephantine statue in the Temple, no gnarled wood lumps of household gods in the home; no, not so much as an animal head to ornament an armchair or a bird shape woven into a rug. By the time of Christ the Roman eagles, which were essentially what a flag is today, were regarded as an abomination which could not be admitted into any Jewish city. In the end even making a mental image of God was prohibited.
How effective was the Commandment? It was very effective in one way : it completely destroyed the graphic arts of the Jews. Solomon's Temple was splendid with cherubim and golden bulls; yet for the last two thousand years the Jews who have accomplished so much with music and literature have done almost nothing with sculpture and painting. In the same way the Mohammedan world, which borrowed the prohibition of images, was compelled to limit its art to the intricate and formalized doodles we term "arabesques." But as for destroying idolatry itself .. .
What shape is an idol?
Need it be a man shape or a beast shape? May it not be any possible shape men can devise-anything from a dynamo to a mink coat-as long as you look to it for your salvation? The rigid Hebrew rule kept you from ornamenting your furniture, but it never kept you from worshipping your furniture. As well try to rescue a man from slavish devotion to his automobile by removing the trophy on its radiator cap!
An idol is worshipped, not for its shape, but for its imagined power. The scribes and Pharisees did not succeed in stopping idolatry; they only changed its vocabulary. Instead of asking a man shape for help, we now "look for the salvation of society to the proper harnessing of the forces of the atom." There are still some who kneel before images, making small offerings and promising big ones, begging for their heart's desire and watching the painted plaster face for miraculous smiles or tears. But most of us modem Christian idolaters worship gadgets instead of images. We will be happy if only we can buy the new television set or the new patent washing-machine. Lenin thought the salvation of Russia lay in electric power; Americans, having tried the dynamo in vain, now look further-to the mysterious powers of the cyclotron. The greatest idol of our time has the shape of a mushroom cloud.
Does it matter which of our toys we make into a god? What matters is that the thing is still a toy, an idol-a material object on which we rely to bring us happiness. Idolatry's other name is materialism. As long as we hope to be saved by the work of our own hands, we remain idolaters and the Second Commandment applies to us literally. What shape has your idol, brother? It may be quite primitive still-a rabbit's foot set in a cheap brass mounting. Or it may be subtle and civilized-a radiation perceptible only to the electron microscope. Whatever men have made, that they may worship; there are men who worship modern plumbing and hope to redeem China and India with the flush toilet.
All sins, theologians tell us, are entering wedges for the great and ultimate sin of self-worship. Why should I prefer to worship a small and limited idol, rather than a great and universal God? Perhaps because I can own the idol, whereas no man can own God, whose justice is incorruptible. Tom's elephant godling is supposed to answer Tom's prayers, not Dick's; and Dick's snake fetish is expected to protect Dick against Harry. The great and universal God, however, loves all men alike-how, then, dare I ask him to help me to get the better of my competitors? But my Rolls-Royce sports car confers glory upon me alone, not on the lesser breeds without Rolls-Royces. Mrs. Jones' perfectly appointed house gratifies Mrs. Jones precisely because Mrs. Robinson, who lives next door, hasn't got it.
The tragedy is that we really know better. We know happiness is a spiritual state, not to be achieved by piling up wealth or seizing power. For two thousand years we have been listening to preachers tell us that; and we have never failed to nod our heads in agreement. Nowadays our psychologists and even many of our popular novelists are repeating the same lesson. We buy their inspirational books by the ten thousand, we condemn materialism every hour on the hour, we denounce with horror that rigidly organized idolatry called Communism, with its doctrine that by the work of your factories you shall be saved. Daily the revival of religion gains new strength-only by a return to Christianity, we proclaim, can we save the things we most value in life. Of course we know better than to worship idols !
If only men could live up to what they know ! But men, Saint Paul said, are creatures corrupted by original sin, living by the law in their members rather than the law of their minds; creatures who obey emotion and appetite and habit far more often than they obey knowledge. In the very act of appealing to Christ, we relapse into our habitual idolatry. We must return to Christianity, yes, but why? Because it is true? But do we, in our hearts, believe that it is true, that Christ is the Son of God and that we must follow him even at the cost of renouncing this life and all its pleasures? We say little about that, much about our need for Christianity to protect our treasures. Yet surely Christianity was not meant to save the world for us; it was meant to save us from the world.
Unlike Buddhists and Hindus, Christians have usually held that the good things of this life are good indeed, that all enjoyment is a foreshadowing of our ultimate enjoyment of God. Our earthly loves and joys are meant to lead us to Christ, and we may certainly ask the Christ in whom we believe to preserve them for us. Yet this is very different from using Christ without believing in Him-from making Christian doctrine into a propaganda weapon, a pep talk to hearten us to go out and fight for good old materialism. We must return to Christianity in order to preserve the things we value-but we cannot return to Christianity at all unless the thing we value above all else is Christ. If we are reviving religion only in order to defend our own works, from Parliamentary democracy to Yorkshire pudding, we are in effect asking Christ to save our idols for us.
Thus we can't automatically shed our idolatry just by going to church. Certainly we will progress to a better grade of idolatry as it were; the church will make us ashamed of our grosser and more selfish idols. I began, perhaps, by wanting a television set in my own living room to impress the neighbours. After a year of churchgoing, behold me out raising money to buy a television set for the teen-agers' clubhouse ! I have come a long way. A self-centred materialist has become an unselfish, public-spirited pillar of the church. Yet, though I have been cured of trying to save myself by gadgets, I still think the community can be saved by them.
Another year, and I may have got past this social-services view of religion. It has dawned upon me that the church is more than a convenient tool for community reform; I see it now as something unique and desirable in its own right, something of which better housing and better child care and better citizenship and better government are the by-products and not the goals. What I want now is to build the church itself.
And I am still an idolater. I have fallen into the last and subtlest trap; I bow down to wood and stone, in the shape of a church building. Through regular attendance, through handsome financial contributions, through raising the minister's salary and redecorating the altar and improving the organist's technique and encouraging the foreign missions, I expect to be saved. To put it bluntly, I have forgotten that the church itself is not God.
So easy to confuse the means with the end ! And yet, if the church is anything except a means to the knowledge of God, the church is nothing but a bore. (Perhaps that's why it so often is a bore.) When the church becomes an idol, a thing mysteriously holy and powerful in itself, then the goal of religion becomes getting people to church-no matter why they go or what they get out of it. Rope them in with a whistdrive or a lecture on Freudian psychiatry, it's all one; the act of crossing the threshold has the magical power of saving them.
Christianity has never been quite free from this particular form of idolatry-what some have called "churchianity." The seventeenth-century Puritans saw that a beautiful church and a beautiful ritual could easily become idols, and hoped to avoid the danger by making ritual and church as base and ugly as they could. But almost at once there arose new Baalim: church organization, church discipline, or even the Bible itself, read assiduously morning and night and seldom understood at all. Men thought they were bringing their children to Christ by forcing them to sit still, white and frightened, listening to the edifying tale of how Joshua slaughtered babies or Elisha sent she-bears to eat up bad little boys.
Today we are especially tempted to worship of the church because we often have nothing left to worship except the church. In our eagerness to end the old vain feuds between creeds, many of us have adopted a "modernist" Christianity with practically no creed at all; in our desire to escape religious prejudice, we have proclaimed that the important thing is to have a place of worship, no matter what sort of something you worship when you get there. With such an attitude, the church becomes an idol by default. At this moment there are people in our cities whose "divine services" consist of sham mind reading done by sleight of hand-and their congregations accept them as Christian ministers.
Very well then! We are all idolaters still. But why not? After all, our best thoughts about God are only metaphors, verbal and mental idols; we speak of God as a spirit, without body, parts, or passions, yet we cannot conceive a spirit without inventing some sort of form and substance for it. Granted that most idols are crude and silly metaphors indeed, still a man can learn only from his mistakes, and sooner or later we'll progress to better metaphors. Meanwhile, we may reason, we're worshipping the best thing we know, and though the gadget is not God, neither is it the devil. An idol is only an inanimate object that can do no harm....
So is a gun. But a man can do great harm with it.
Idolatry lies not in the idol but in the worshipper. It is a psychological attitude that governs his whole life, and a very murderous attitude. We begin by offering others to the idol; we end by offering ourselves. Men threw their babies into the fiery furnace of Moloch and threw themselves before the crushing car of Jagannath; men unconsciously sacrifice themselves and their children daily to the automobile juggernaut and the brain-consuming furnace of the modem city. The house devours the housewife, the office rots the executive with ulcers, and canned entertainments leave us incapable of entertaining ourselves. Have our idols done us no harm?
The real horror of idols is not merely that they give us nothing, but that they take away from us even that which we have. By the act of imagining power in the fetish we rob ourselves, and the Holy Spirit within us, of that much power. If our car alone can rush us away from danger, we have lost the power of saving ourselves by our legs. An idolater is always a spiritual paralytic. The more we look to material objects for help, the less we can help ourselves or ask help from the grace of God. If we are to be saved, it will not be by wood, however well carved and polished, nor by machines however efficient; nor by social planning, however ingenious. If we are to be saved, it must be by the one power that is built into a man at his beginning and that he does not have to make with his hands-the power of the Holy Spirit, which is God.
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