Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Wages of Idolatry

Last week, Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period (not counting Sundays) in the Christian calendar that is focused on repentance and preparation for Easter. During Lent, Christians talk a lot about sin, an idea that for many bears the mothball scent of a religious relic long packed away and best left forgotten. For some, the terms “sin” and “sinner” seem self-hating or judgmental. For others, they sound silly, associated with things like lingerie and decadent chocolate cake, what the English writer Francis Spufford deemed “enjoyable naughtiness.” Even those of us comfortable with these terms often think of sin as individual bad choices, like stealing and committing adultery. All of these notions seem inadequate to describe the source of so much oppression, violence, chaos and heartbreak in our world and our lives.

Yet there is a specific though less discussed category for sin that sheds light on human fault and failure that is particularly helpful in understanding our society and ourselves: idolatry.

Idolatry may also seem far removed from modern life, conjuring images of ancient peoples bowing to golden statues. But we should understand that those who bowed before images did so because they believed they could persuade or manipulate the gods to give them what they longed for — fertility, rain, abundant harvests, victory, happiness, security and safety. We may use different means today, but modern people are driven by the same motivations. We also seek, in our own ways, to control our world and to wrest from it what we need and desire.

The idea of idolatry is not, necessarily, having false gods that we can name — or sculpt, for that matter. Instead, it is a term for disordered love. It describes a devotion to even good things that is excessive or obsessive. It conveys to us that well-meaning people who desire worthy things can seek them in ways that harm themselves and others, that we can be driven by longings that we may not know, understand or be able to articulate but that determine the shape of our lives and our society. The 16th-century Protestant theologian John Calvin famously said that “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” We are constantly devoting ourselves to what will make us feel secure and safe, things that promise to provide what we most desire and need. Idolatry, Calvin thought, is a subconscious motivator. Our idols are the deepest loves and urges driving us under the hood of our conscious minds, our default mode of being.

In his book “You Are What You Love,” the philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith points out that what most deeply drives us is often not what we articulate as our deepest love. In other words, he says, you may not love what you think you love. We may not worship what we say we do. Part of why idols can remain invisible to us is that they are often not individual in nature. Typically, communities, nations or subcultures have particular idols, which become so normative that they are no longer recognized as idols. They become the water we swim in.

The idea of idolatry explains why evil often feels like more than the sum of its parts, more pervasive than just individual actors and actions can account for. It’s why lots of seemingly nice individuals can end up living in a society full of oppression and dysfunction. In his book “Seek the Peace of the City,” theologian Eldin Villafañe notes how our actions are not merely transactions between one person and another but are more like threads in a “complex web” of social existence. The institutions and structures that form us “seem to have an objective reality independent of the individual, and thus can become oppressive, sinful and evil.” Individual actions ricochet within the larger whole in far darker ways than any person can orchestrate alone.

What does this look like on a societal level? Days after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, I tweeted, “If you want to know who or what a culture worships, look at what people are willing to let kids die for.” I was thinking about idolatry. The United States has a profound devotion to guns.

We are, German Lopez reported in the Times, “a global outlier when it comes to gun violence,” with more gun deaths, by far, than any of our peers. With more guns in the United States than people, many see gun ownership as part of their identity and an inalienable right. Guns take on a sacred quality among devotees. Sometimes this is overt, such as the trend highlighted by The Atlantic last year of Catholic gun enthusiasts posting illustrations of saints holding AR-15s or photos of guns draped in rosaries. Usually, idolatry presents with far more subtlety. Most people would not valorize violence. They would not profess a worship of weapons. But our devout attachment to guns springs from a broad societal adoration of power and of individual rights. These interact with other cultural idols, like money, in complex ways as the gun lobby buys an outsize voice in politics. Our inability to pass meaningful gun control measures is irrational. Idolatry, however, is impervious to rational arguments because it is driven by passions deeper than cognition.

The gun debate makes sense only when we understand that individual gun owners are mostly very kind, friendly people who love their kids and their neighbors but who, despite evidence to the contrary, share a kind of cultural faith that guns are a means to security, safety and freedom. They articulate the problem of gun violence in individual terms; the problem, they argue, is the sin of the individual who pulls the trigger, who commits murder. And of course, that is a grievous sin. However, to cast America’s gun deaths as purely the fault of individuals is to deny a broader cultural idolatry that makes any individual sin far easier to commit.

The false gods of power promise to keep us safe and make us strong. That is why we love them. Yet what they deliver is more and more death. This is how idols work. Ironically, our ardent devotion to them, in the end, subverts the goods that we think they protect, including the safety of our children. The concept of idolatry reminds us that things can be good and valuable — like freedom, autonomy and individual rights — and end up harming others if we hold them above all other goods.

The example of guns, which is largely a politically partisan issue, implicates the ideological right, but idolatry occurs across the entire political spectrum. The left has its own idols as well, which, like those of the right, remain largely unconscious and invisible to its adherents but drive societal dysfunction. It has its own manifestations of disordered worship of power and individual rights. The challenge, for all of us, is that it is easy to spot the idols of our ideological opponents but far more difficult to see our own.

Part of why the practice of Lent is helpful is that it offers an invitation each year to search out and seek to identify the idols of our ideological tribe, our political party, our church, our community and our own heart. It asks us to look at those things that we find our hope in, things we believe without questioning, things that promise to make us whole, safe or happy but don’t or, worse, that harm others in the process.

Understanding our hearts as idol factories invites us to the difficult work of honesty and humility. It tells us that people do harm, sometimes without knowing it or without meaning to, which means that we probably do as well. It tells us that we are not driven by pure rationality or unfettered love to the degree we suppose we are. And this humility allows for compassion and charity to others, even our enemies. It tells us that they are not uniquely evil. They are driven by disordered passions and loves just like us.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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