Too Sophisticated for Idolatry? Think Again

Existence is like a river. History is a current. Whenever humans simply go with the flow, the current always carries them to the side of the river where the idols stand. Humanity is inherently idolatrous and idolatry is its besetting sin.

Moderns think of idolatry as something that died a natural death in the early centuries of the common era. Zeus fell on hard times. His children, no longer fed by the worship of the humans, grew emaciated and wasted away to nothing.

Hardly. They merely changed their names. Athena became Education. Ares became Technology. Hermes became Media. Plutus became Economy. Nike – okay, Nike stayed Nike. Humans merely shifted their hopes for success and security from the old gods to the new or, more precisely, to the same gods in different guise.

Idolatry was the great sin on the pages of the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Leading the Ten Commandments (or “Ten Sayings”) is, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Yet, Israel didn’t even wait for the ink to dry on the commandments (or the commandments to be engraved on the tablet) before breaking that first command.

We think that idolatry was not a problem for Christians. It’s a comforting thought but it is an illusion. St. Paul warns the Corinthian church to “flee from idolatry.” St. John ends his famous first letter with the admonition, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” These apostles saw idolatry as a very present danger.

But post-moderns would never fall for (or before) an idol. We are too sophisticated for that. We understand how things work in a way our ancestors did not. They attributed change and progress (and regress) to gods because they did not know physics, biology, economics, or medical science. We, however – or at least our physicists, biologists, and economists – do.

But we’ve done nothing more than update the dress and liturgy of the priests and prophets. We pay attention to them because of their relationship to the gods, as surely as the citizen of Delphi paid attention to Apollo’s oracle.

Take, for example, one of today’s most powerful, most feared, and most worshiped gods: the great Economy. This god’s name is known all over the earth. He has temples in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, and Frankfurt. He has priests serving in the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and around the world.

Economy’s prophets are some of the most influential voices on Capitol Hill (which is not altogether unlike Mount Olympus). Some of these prophets are respected (consider Warren Buffet) and others are dime-a-dozen fortunetellers. They are constantly making forecasts, with a “Thus saith the Lord” intensity that causes their hearers to tremble.

Idolatry has always been detrimental and never more so than now. When economy is deified, that is, when it becomes the idol Economy, two things happen: God is dethroned (in the eyes of the public), and people are dehumanized.

Wherever Economy is worshiped, people become ciphers. What one hears from Economy’s prophets are “the jobless numbers,” the number of new unemployment insurance claims, and “April’s numbers.” Human beings become statistics and their pain becomes irrelevant.

When Economy becomes a god, government is pressed into its service and citizens become its slaves. When this happens, Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” does indeed “perish from the earth.” Rather than securing the unalienable rights of people, government feeds the insatiable appetite of Economy.

Both those on the political left and the right accept this state of affairs without protest. It was a Democrat who slapped us in the face with the line, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and both parties have operated as if this is holy writ ever since. Idolatry always begins in the hope that the idol will make the worshiper’s life better, but always ends with the worshiper becoming the idol’s slave.

These great powers – Economy, Education, Technology, Media – can be made to serve the true God but cannot replace him. In this time of crisis, Christians must stubbornly refuse to put our hope and trust in the economy or any other idol. Our hope and trust belong with God alone.

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