…There is a deeply embedded notion, a concept of humanity’s fallenness at the heart of the generation of idols. As objective symbols, they have been carried by various tribes and peoples, as part of their legacy, whenever they were forced to move. Even the Tower of Babel was allegedly built by King Nimrod, as a counter-punch to god threat to flood the lands, on the premise that the tower’s height would outstrip the level of the waters….and when the people scattered, they took their idols with them.
Civilizations from the “Aztecs, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Sumerians, Norse, Celts and even American Indians all believed in their individual gods and deities and worshipped them, also by carving amulets and even statutes to honour them. They would make sacrifices in their god’s name in order to appease them in hopes of being blessed.”(from whatdoeshistorysay.blogspot.com)
The word idol comes from the Greek word eidolon meaning ‘appearance, reflection in water or in a mirror.’…Fashioning and then worshipping metal, stone, and wooden gods and trying desperately, unthinkingly to imbue feelings and sensory organs into the metal, stone and wood, pagans had/will become like the statues they created Christians were targeted and martyred by the Roman State because they pointed out the futility, folly and falsity of paganism with its mute, blind, deaf pieces of wood, stone and metal. ‘We become what we behold.’ (Willian Blake)” (Pagan Idols, by Sandra Sweeny Silver, in earlychurchhistory.org)
A twenty-first century perspective, however, need not and must not restrict idols to mere pieces of wood, stone or metal. And while for some, idols, images, and even saints were unacceptable and in some quarters purged in the Middle Ages, history/humanity has a way of re-cycling cultural icons, archetypes and representations for whatever is considered to be verging on the holy. Whether such exercises throughout history can be considered man’s method of assuaging shame and guilt, while worthy of much scholarship, is nevertheless less the focus of this moment. Whenever there has been a significant moment, like the printing press, or the industrial revolution, or more recently the digital age, humans, (including and perhaps even championed by the Americans) tend to elevate such “things” and/or processes to a status that has been and continues to rival a deity.
A twentieth century anthropologists, Lionel Tiger, in his fascinating work, The Manufacture of Evil, writes:
The old assertion about justice is that it not only be done but that it be seen to be done. This is the stuff of the great courtroom dramas. It fuels mystery stories and cowboy films with good guys and bad ones. The essence of the matter is that evil, once committed, has to be identified, its perpetrator uncovered, tried openly, judged and punished….(and) it is all highly satisfying emotionally. And why should it satisfy?...What we now regard as “emotional response” is not more nor less than an evolutionary memory. The reflection of countless similar events which have happened before and which have had impact on who we though was good, who bad, who desirable, who an outcast, who an outlaw, who an in-law. If, in the beginning (and really for the longest time), ethics and kinship were related, then all the emotionality associated with family courtships, reproductions, parenthood, and so on would also enter into calculations of a wider sort later on, even in those larger and more contemporary structures in which family and polity are separated. ….About the enemies of morality there is a deep emotional interest too, in the outlaw, either putatively provident such as Robin Hood, or gratuitously antisocial, such as the great murderous Jack the Rippers Sons of Sam, Boston Stranglers. It seems clear that their wide appeal taps an emotional system connected to those feeding all the love stories of the whole world…..Justice must not only be seen to be done but people will try to see it being done, even when they are not involved. With more information and a wiser eye, we can see it as in continuity with the past. Yet in how many law schools are courses given about the relationship between equity and emotion? Are lawyers trained to understand the phylogeny of probity? Are they provided any appropriate information about the possible role of justice in early formative hominid societies?...When the goddess holding the scales of justice sports her blindfold, is she suggesting more than that she seeks to be impartial? Like a child who covers his face and assumed he is not seen, is the goddess of justice (one of America’s prime idols, my insert) assuming that we can’s see her inner turmoil, her concern about death, her fear of favor, and even her passion for justice? If not this, what is the goddess of justice hiding or revealing wither blindfold? The obvious point is: she operates without fear or favor. But then to do this, does she feel that she must not feel? Compare her to the three monkeys who perform the charade of “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” who must abandon three sensory modalities to avoid what is bad. Why does the goddess of justice have to lose even one modality in order to confront what is good and fight what is bad? And are not the symbols of justice---the enormous steps and porticos of the Supreme Court Building in the United States, ….plainly meant to reveal the impersonality and size of the institution of justice, not its sense of intimacy, of connection and scale? Obviously government buildings are made to impress, and they are big particularly when they reflect the self-conscious pride of large communities. They are effective. That shiver of awe, that sense of one’s own almost unimportance in the presence of such a structure, clearly work through cognitive, almost visceral stimuli, which say, “ I am so small I am to see this as a system which operates without the confusions of private pettiness. I am as important as anybody else to this building and what it means—and as unimportant. When the judge sits up high and I stand down low and must say, ‘Yes your Honor.’ And “No your Honor,’ and look at the judge to affirm the honesty of my reply, this is how I felt when my parents said, ‘Now you look at me, you look me straight in the eye,’ when I had done something punishable.” There is perhaps deliberate confusion there between the almost hypnotic impersonality of buildings and rooms larger than all but mythical life, and the use of relatively primitive responses to authority. A confusion which may require a cadre of practitioners called lawyers who are themselves uninvolved in any but a finite and technical way. Perhaps lawyers should be able to remain physiologically, that is emotionally, unperturbed (other things being equal) by the processes of the court and the events of the law’s activity—surgeons of social pathology, with surgeons’ remove.(P. 45-46-47-48)
There are so many layers to Tiger’s incisive and cogent observation and questions. The size, shape and distance from the pathology of humans to the “edifice” (idol) of the justice system, and the rendering of the criminal to a ‘child’ or even an infant, is the one most prominent and relevant here. Infantilizing of mature, intelligent, self-respecting adults, whether in court, or in church, or in the academe, or as movie-goers, or as factory workers when looking at the CEO’s office, stipend, perks, and apparent untouchability, symbolizes an embedded structure, form and attitude of nothing short of colonization, within the nation. And while the public debates are all aimed at the specific minorities (blacks, browns, Asians, indigenous) whose rights, dignity, health care, education, and basic human respect have been trampelled for centuries, by primarily white men, the basic structure of the preservation of the idols worshipped by those originally in power is so insidious, and yet so imperceptible, that literally no formal or informal discussion takes place on that level.
Another aspect of the idols of colonization is that proverbial “ladder” of tenure, seniority, proving one’s self, demonstrating to those at the top that they, all 'newcomers' are both willing and able to accept, tolerate, withstand, undergo, stomach whatever nefarious, despicable, insulting, demeaning and deplorable conditions that the institution/organization/power structure imposes by absolute right. The idol of a structure, thereby, is reinforced, embedded and sustained by those who consider themselves charged with the responsibility of "tradition" and "normality and convention, and, of course, the public 'good'. Of course, athletes and the occasional ‘star’ actor will emerge like an underground spring to the top of the public adulation ladder, only, in far too many cases, to slip into oblivion too soon. Nevertheless, the culture of an imprinted, anthropologically discernible, indelible and unchallenged image of the “idol” of success continues to pervade the culture. Like all magnets with polarities, there are also filings (ordinary people) whose magnetic poles are contrary to the polarity designed to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ who will never comply with that magnetic force, and, to a large extent, those will be the ones deemed “undesireable”.
Idols, and the supporting casts of centuries of hierarchically motivated, compliant, ‘clones’ that perpetuate their near sacred status and value, threaten the civic health and well-being as much or more than the current pandemic. And in some cases, the sacred and the secular have become fused in the public vernacular. One such example is the American persistent habit of calling the “vote” sacred. Of course, the phrase is meant metaphorically, in that the vote is not directly applicable to worship of any deity. However, even to call it sacred, especially when the right to its access, and the doubt and scepticism that has been cast by the former president on the voting system, comes relatively easily, if not even glibly, as a way to counter his betrayal of the democratic process. However, the public ideal of the complete separation of church and state, falls into the trash heap when the advocates of the “right to life” demand that government intervene to render abortion criminal, illegal and inaccessible. And the pursuit of that ideal, to those fanatically opposed to abortion, is analogous to the pursuit of an idol. There is a quality of worship there, presumably carried over from the religious mandate of their agenda. The ‘sacred’ halls of Congress,* too, is another example of idolatry, evoked superfluously, immediately following an insurrection on its buildings and the political class. There may even have been prayers of consecration said inside the buildings, by some ordained clergy, at one time. Nevertheless, the dogma of strict separation of church and state echoes as hollow, in such a moment. And the argument of grief, shock and discombobulation, normal at a time of extreme loss, especially perpetrated by ‘insiders’ (Americans on their own government) permits a degree of grace to those attempting to capture the nation’s anger, sadness, tragedy and hopelessness.
Ironically, however, there is legitimacy to the notion that the very linguistic, historic, cultural and even anthropological foundations of the nation, in which the escape from the idolatry of escaping the rule by the ‘divine right of kings’ (another obvious idolatry) has led, tragically to an assumption of a depth and degree of idolatry far less contained, far less visible, far less overt and conscious, and thereby far more insidious.
In fact, when any state has subsumed the secular and the sacred, as idols and idolatry inevitable do, the secular effectively replaces the sacred. After all, the rewards of the secular are far more immediate than the ‘rewards of the sacred; they are also far more visible and visceral, and they are far more easily and readily symbolized when the image-makers for the advertising agencies and the clients they represent are furiously engaged 24-7-365 in the pursuit of even more seductive messages that reinforce the fundamental idols and the idolatry in which every school boy and girl has been inculcated. Even the idol of the perfect female body, a construction and a design of a sub-set of white men colonizers, based both on the guaranteed pursuit of attracting others in its deployment and the guaranteed profits from such design and propagation, can and should be considered another prominent American idol, in the cultural archives.
There will never be a culture devoid of idols, so long as humanity survives. There can be, however, a far more healthy version of a culture, far less infatuated and perhaps even seduced by the notion of its unconscious dependence on idols and the erosion in both national values and in human respectability that inevitably flows from such dependence. Those charged with the goal of sustaining the relevance of the sacred, in all ecclesial bodies, can be painted, legitimately, with a brush that, on one hand depicts their having overplayed their hand in making most sexual relationships evil, and on the other hand in having pandered to the stylistic demands of an obsessive-compulsive secular culture for immediate entertainment as a surrogate for worship. The latter pandering comes as a direct consequence of the inevitable influence of wealth to fund better cathedrals (another form of social and cultural idol elevating their clergy to the top of another ladder), and more religious idols.
And the windmills of our minds go round and round and round….
*Those insurrectionists, on January 6, 2021, paradoxically, uttered prayers to their God, as if to express a misguided belief that their deity was endorsing their evil. Has God not perhaps become an idol, for those terrorists?