Is idolatry possible?

A modern philosopher [Max Scheler] supposes that every man believes of necessity either in God or in “idols”–which is to say, some finite good, such as his nation, his art, power, knowledge, the aquisition of money, the “ever repeated trumph with women”–some good that has become an absolute value to him, taking its place between him and God; and if only one proves to a man the conditionality of this good, thus “smashing” the idol, then the diverted religious act would all by itself return to its proper object.

This view presupposes that man’s relation to the finite goods he “idolizes” is essentially the same as his relationship to God, as if only the object were different:  only in that case could the mere substitution of the proper object for the wrong one save the man who has gone wrong.  But a man’s relation to the “particular something” that arrogates the supreme throne of his life’s values, pushing eternity aside, is always directed toward the experience and use of an It, a thing, an object of enjoyment.  For only this kind of relation can bar the view to God, by interposing the impenetrable It-world; the relation that says You always opens it up again.  Whoever is dominated by the idol whom he wants to acquire, have, and hold, possessed by his desire to possess, can find a way to God only by returning, which involves a change not only of the goal but also of the kind of movement.  One can heal the possessed only by awakening and educating him to association, not by directing his possession toward God.  If a man remains in a state of possession, what does it mean that he no longer invokes the name of a demon or of a being that is for him distorted demonically, but that of God?  It means that he blasphemes.  It is blasphemy when a man whose idol has fallen down behind the altar desires to offer to God the unholy sacrifice that is piled up on the desecrated altar.

When a man loves a woman so that her life is present in his own, the You of her eyes allows him to gaze into a ray of the eternal You.  But if a man lusts after the “ever repeated triumph”–you want to dangle before his lust a phantom of the eternal?  If one serves a people in a fire kindled by immeasurable fate–if one is willing to devote oneself to it, one means God.  But if the nation is for him an idol to which he desires to subjugate everything because in its image he extols his own–do you fancy that you only have to spoil the nation for him and he will then see the truth?  And what is it supposed to mean that a man treats money, which is un-being incarnate “as if it were God”?  What does the voluptuous delite of rapacity and hoarding have in common with the joy over the presence of that which is present?  Can mammon’s slave say ‘You’ to money?  And what could God be to him if he does not know how to say ‘You’?  He cannot serve two masters–not evern one after the other; he must first learn to serve differently.

–Martin Buber, from I and Thou, (transl. W. Kaufmann)

A couple of thoughts:

  1. I think both Scheler and Buber make valid points.  It’s true that everyone must have something that functions as a supreme value, and so he must have something functionally similar to God.  On the other hand, his devotion may be very dissimilar in quality, in substance.  Similarly, people often debate whether Marxism is a religion or an anti-religion, whether modern culture is a culture or an anti-culture.  The first is true for the thing’s function, the second for its substance.  For example, popular materialistic culture does provide a set of shared understandings that help people get along, and in that sense it serves the function of a culture.  On the other hand, if by “culture” we mean what most cultures would take to be their heart, those beliefs and customs that elevate a man with the collective wisdom of a whole people, then popular materialistic culture should be regarded as the opposite of a culture:  it maladapts a man for wisdom and holiness.
  2. I wonder if there really is such a thing as idolatry.  It seems that when someone worships God and recognizes Him as the fountain of all holiness, he realizes that God has a certain quality that creatures don’t have at all.  God doesn’t just have more of it.  He’s the only one with it; other beings only bear this quality to the extent that He dwells in them.  This seems to me a valid intuition.  But if it is true, then anyone who ever really revered and worshipped an idol must have seen something of the true God in it.  Was his worship really idolatrous then?  Something about Saint Boniface cutting down sacred trees doesn’t sit well with me.

4 Responses

  1. Couldn’t your position on idolatry be applied to any kind of sin?

    After all, even the murderer does not murder for evil’s sake but because he sees some good in it — whether justice or security or release from psychological torture or material necessity.

    It may be the case that it is not pure idolatry in the strictest possible sense, but even an imperfect sin can damn a soul.

  2. That’s a good point, but I still sense that worship is a unique case, something that can’t really be triggered by finite goods.

    Come to think of it, there is a case of pure idolatry in the world today: New Age feminist pseudo-spirituality. Here a woman worships “the goddess within”, i.e. herself. The ancient pagans, though, were engaging in something far nobler.

  3. Of course, even in this example, the word “worship” is being used analogically. A woman doesn’t really apprehend herself the way she would God.

  4. The object of the worship defines the worship? Or are there degrees? That is, I worship God, willing to praise Him above all things, if necessary to die for the object of my worship, but most people who have material idols aren’t willing to die for them, yet I would still say they are worshipping, because even though they aren’t willing to die for them, they are that which their entire life is centered around, what they consider gives their life purpose or meaning.

    I’m liking your provocative posts! 🙂 Keep them coming!

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