Idolatry in the Modern Day
Idolatry—the slavish and universal quality inherent to all men—can be described as being two things. For one, as it pertains to its object, we might call it reverential. This, by the strict confines of its definition, is quite explicitly what idolatry is. It boasts of no further affiliation than that simply. There’s an ideal, a quintessence, an external and exemplary “Form” of perhaps a Platonic type upon which or upon whom our reverence bestows itself. That is, in a word, the idol. Yet to this, we add something extra. Our reverence is not only bestowed upon, but ultimately besotted with this eminent idol of which we speak—the towering, omnipotent figure of which we’re so involuntarily enamored.
As for the second thing to which idolatry makes a claim, it is, now in regard to its subject, what we might call essential. To be idolatrous is vital and fundamental to the subject’s constitution. It’s inextricable from its very core. And this “subject” is, of course, the only being consciously capable of so ancient and anthropomorphic a practice as idolatry appears to us to be. We know him at once exceedingly well and disconcertingly incompletely. He’s both nearest our perception and furthest from our grasp. The subject is our own self, our own ego, the human being through whose eyes we venture to see the world and with whose hands we shape it in our image. The tendency in man toward idolatry is as much a part of his own enigmatic essence as is his propensity to look with kindness upon friends, with devotion upon kin, and with hostility upon foreign tribesmen of unfamiliar birth. To be idolatrous, in a word, is to be human.
Man has been an idolater, whether he was aware of his mortal flaw or not, since time immemorial. One might even make the claim, though perhaps without the buffeting assurance of modern science or the brilliance of fMRI machines, that man was prone to idol worship before he was even able fully to think. At least before he was able systematically to reason. We know that the savage man—ensnared for eons in vacillating states of stupid credulity and blind misbelief—bowed to idols of wood and stone. Confusing the earthen for the ethereal, the hickory and the gold for the Yahweh and the Elohim, this early man of the atavistic age thought that he was holding in his hands semblances of the divine. Although his was a laughably crude and materialist way of thinking about what remains the most inscrutable and immaterial of all human thoughts, we don’t blame him nor diminish his idolatrous attempt. He knew no better. His was, after all, an age of wood and stone merely and the soil from which he grabbed these tangible gods wasn’t yet sufficiently fertile for the subtlety of theology, the secrecy of Gnosticism, nor the complexity of a coming Trinitarian creed.
Yet in time, this fertility would come. The gardens of our mind would grow verdant and in this healthy climate, our inherently inquisitive nature would take root. The flowers of our efforts would blossom and the landscape of our thinking would change from barren to brazen—from merely mental to philosophical. We now had before us and within us a beautifully floral and iridescent jungle of curious thought and tangled ideas. It was the type of terra incognita, the tempting uncharted land through whose mysteries any bold voyager never refuses to travel. Navigating from old worlds to new, so intrepid a man of intellectual adventure would find his home somewhere along the cliffs—perhaps like Nietzsche on the precipice of a Pompeiian volcano. He need only match the speed of his gait to the restive rhythm of his frenetic and searching intellect. Eventually, he might find himself sufficiently comfortable to settle down, but even this would be unlikely. He might colonize this novel land, though he’d probably just as happily continue forever in his dizzying search.
Upon arriving at this welcoming and hospitable point, our voyager and the rest of us have passed through two observable stages. Namely, we’ve lived out the stage of our benighted youth—so long and so reportedly savage a moment in the life of man—whence we then arrived at the next stage of our development. It was for us a long-awaited, numinous adolescence. Whither we’re headed from this post-pubescent age of god-fearing and loving thought, many conjecture but no one really knows. Clergy and laity are at odds in drawing a conclusion. Scientists and positivists, likewise, have strange and conflicting aspirations their own. Philosophers do us no better. It’s in the writing of these words that I join these perplexed and perplexing professionals in wondering about man’s next idolatrous step. So desultory has been his current path, so stubborn when he’s offered direction from above, that it’s become nearly impossible to predict from which idolatrous exit ramp he’ll ultimately turn.
But we might speak of where we are today. The adulthood of our development, assuming it’s been reached, feels to me coldly skeptical, if not overtly scornful of its religious, idolatrous bent. Upon whom, now, do our idolatrous eyes gaze? At whose feet do we genuflect and pray? At whose pedestal do we grovel in prostration and reverence and fear? Surely we’ve moved from our fetishistic days of yore, our years of animistic devotion to wood and stone and pebble and ox. Those simpler, halcyon days of animal, mineral, and elemental hero-worship are over and we miss their simplicity not. Moving past them, we’ve turned toward the deification of our own ilk. No longer are the things that so long demanded our reverence inanimate objects like wood and stone. Neither golden oxen nor endless oceans move us to veneration as once they did.
Now, the things that move us to idolatry are far too recognizably, humanly animate if you ask me. The things demanding of us our reverence are objects of flesh and blood. And replacing the hapless credulity of our antique grandfathers of old is the newfound cupidity and envy endemic to our own day. We’ve dashed the golden calf and melded the statue of man in its place. The aureate cow, the bovine king has been refashioned into the gilded, celebrity human form.
But it’s possible that the human’s status as the object of his own veneration has come to an end. It could just be that his appeal as the de facto deity in the theater of his own life is disintegrating before him in real-time. Arguably, he might’ve become by his own doing a sort of personalized Ozymandias—trunkless, sneering, and half-sunk in far-off Egyptian sands (an image that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic marriage of terseness and eloquence makes memorably clear). The eponymous, sunken king stands, famously pompous yet pitifully unaware of his current station in life. He obstinately refuses to recognize his own defeat as his buried head literally sleeps next to his forgotten toes. Still, after all these centuries, he thinks himself lord of not only northern Africa, of not only every latitude south of the Mediterranean Sea, but of the entire conceivable world. He taunts posterity with open defiance and dilapidated pride. He was the idol—first as flesh and blood and king and later as stone statue—who combined all aspects that we’ve mentioned so far: the corporeal and the elemental, the transitory and the transcendental.
It’s impossible to say where our idolatry will lead us next. Perhaps we’ll return back to fetishes or progress with Christ-like figures. Maybe we’ll make a Pagan movement back to oxen, snakes, and rocks. Maybe we'll think of something altogether expansive and new. But we’d do well always to remember this: the idols that succeed in avoiding destruction in one age aren’t necessarily those that last for all to come. All idols, given enough time, tend to crumble and fall of their own accord. Not every idol need be smashed, but certainly every idol need be built. Peculiar, vain, superstitious craftsmen we are—of what forms shall we henceforth conceive? To whom will we apply the name of deity? Where shall we follow our new day of idolatry?