Why we worship idols

Monday, October 01, 2018 - Updated: 12:48 pm

By David Mills

He calls it “the default mode of human thinking.” It’s the way we think when something doesn’t make us think better. That mode, says writer Scott Shay, is what the Bible calls idolatry. And it offers a warning for election season.

Shay, who is Jewish, is one of those people who manages to be really good at several things. He founded and runs a bank, for example. He writes thoughtful books as well. The latest is “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism.” The quotes below come from my friend David Goldman’s review of the book in the Jewish website Tablet.

Shay told David that idolatry means “to ascribe supernatural powers and authority to finite beings.” We make some guy, or some group of guys, a kind of god. We don’t just follow them. We believe they can do things no one else can.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it in the same way. Idolatry, it says, “divinizes what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God.” It lists examples like “power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.”

“Most people would think that we licked idolatry 3,000 years ago with the god-king Pharaoh,” Shay said, when the Israelites left Egypt to follow the one true God. The Egyptians believed their ruler to be a god and that he could do whatever he wanted to do. Which included marrying his sister. It also included oppressing outsiders like the Israelites.

The Israelites said, “Pharaoh’s not a god. He’s just a man making our lives horrible. We’re outta here.” Moses told them, “God says go this way,” and they took off for the Promised Land. In the biblical story, the true God makes things clear with a twin miracle. He dries a path through the Red Sea so his people can get away, and then he drowns Pharaoh’s army who wanted to drag them back to Egypt. The message is: “I, the Lord of Israel, am God, and Pharaoh’s not.”

But we didn’t kick idolatry then, Shay said. It’s something people always do. Modern man has his idols. They tend to be tyrants. Shay explained: “We had Stalinism. We’ve had Pol Pot. We’ve had Maoism, and we still have the present Kim dynasty. We had Nazism. We have had so many different people and ideologies to whom people have ascribed supernatural powers.”

We ask how all those people could follow a horrible man like Hitler or Mao. Why did they treat him like a god? How could they be so stupid? Those are good questions. Many fat books have been written to try to answer them.

I think we can see the answer from our lives. We can fall into worshiping some smaller idols without realizing it. Think of the hopes we tend to invest in political causes and candidates. The temptation works this way: We get caught up in the politics. We feel that really bad things will happen if our side loses the election. People who feel so desperate want the perfect solution. We need something to believe in. That means making our candidate and cause bigger than life.

The candidate could be Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. During election season at least, a lot of people really do believe that their candidate can make the lion lie down with the lamb. We act as if our guy has supernatural powers. He’ll eliminate the deficit. He’ll solve poverty. Whatever we think needs doing, however impossible, our guy will do it.

So we make politics an idol. There’s a problem, though. Idols don’t work. They demand more than we can give them.

In one of his general audiences (June 15, 2011), Pope Benedict XVI explained that we try to get through idols what we should get through God alone because we think the idols will make it easier for us. The ancient Israelites worshipped the pagan god Baal. They thought he would bring them rain and life to the land if they sacrificed to him.

A good deal. Except for one thing. Baal liked you to sacrifice your children. Idolatry doesn’t end well.

Mills writes a weekly column for Aleteia (www.aleteia.org/author/david-mills) and is a member with his family of St. Joseph Parish in Coraopolis. Read David Goldman’s book review at https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/269596/scott-shay-leap-of-faith.

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