Understanding Idolatry: A Reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I grew up being taught that Catholics were idolatrous.  Why?  Because they had statues in their churches.  That was enough.  To tell you the truth, I think it was mostly a defense mechanism to being in the religious minority, Methodist in an overwhelmingly Catholic community.  Methodists do not have statues in their churches.   

And then, lo and behold, I became an idolater, too, at least partly.  I became an Episcopalian, which seemed to my family an awful lot like Catholic.  It is not even uncommon to find statues in our churches.  I think my family had to resort to distinguishing between statuary in good taste (by which they meant English in nature) and statuary in poor taste (by which they meant inexpensive). 

A lot of the confusion stems, I think, from the story of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:1-14), which seems to be about statues, but actually is not.  The whole thing seems to turn on the making of a statue (which, since it was made of gold, would seem to have fit my family’s definition of good taste free from idolatry).  Or it may turn on disobedience, but it’s hardly like that’s a new thing in the story.  Whatever it is, though, it sure makes God angry.

The problem with idolatry in actuality has nothing to do with statuary, taste, or disobedience.  It has to do with substituting a reality we prefer for the reality God has given.  It makes us more comfortable to conceptualize God in some concrete (or golden) way, in the case of Exodus, a calf, and so we create a reality of our own rather than dealing with the reality that God is beyond any human conception or definition at all, 100% mystery, something very akin, in God’s own way, to staring into the abyss.

And from that stems all the rest of the problems.

The so-called prosperity gospel, which teaches that God blesses the faithful with wealth, isn’t actually unconscionable selfishness in the midst of natural disaster and its consequences.  It is that the reality given by God, at least as lived by Jesus, is quite other than that.  The prosperity gospel is idolatrous, although I doubt you’ll find a single statue around. 

Capitalism seems to work pretty well, at least for people like me.  The only problem is that the reality God gave encourages communal property ownership (Acts 5:1-11).  It is a matter of idolatry. 

The problem with classism, which also works pretty well for people like me, is that it is quite contrary to the way the world actually is to the Gospel (e.g., Lk. 22:24-27).  Classism is idolatrous. 

The problem with racism is that, as much as it may protect my privilege, and I quite like that, it is not the reality given by God, which is instead that God has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26).  Racism is not just vile.  It is idolatrous. 

Ignoring what fossil fuels are doing to the environment strikes me as turning a blind eye to the world as it actually is, at least according to most scientists.  That’s idolatry.  Claiming climate change is a Chinese hoax, is not just idolatry.  It’s ignorant idolatry.  A lot of idolatry stems from denying realities that are inconvenient, or God forbid, unprofitable, and a lot of idolatry hides itself as ignorance.   

 It’s no wonder, as the Exodus story goes, God got pretty upset.  Reality as it actually is may be harder to face, but in truth, it’s still all there actually is.


                                                                        Bishop Stacy Sauls