by Dr. Bruce Arnold
We are warned in the Ten Commandments about having false idols. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” How seriously do we take this? Sure, very few of us are worshippers of Baal or Ashtaroth or any of those other parochial Middle Eastern deities, which so often proved very attractive to the fickle Hebrews. Should we stop there, satisfied that we have met the requirements of the First Commandment?
The Second Commandment goes on to talk about not making carved or graven images, and to not bow down or serve them. If all the Commandments were talking about were idols such as the Golden Calf, then there would not be two commandments. The First Commandment is separate from the Second. The Second is not a continuation or explanation of what was meant by the first. It stands on its own. So what is the First Commandment talking about?
Well, there are a lot of things that we make into false gods. Let’s start with money, or material possessions in general. We may not think we worship that new vehicle we just brought home from the dealership, but if we spend more time thinking about it, washing it, driving it, talking about it, than we do tending to our spiritual lives, that’s a pretty good clue that we have lifted it up to a greater status than it deserves. No, we may not invest it with divine properties such as omnipotence. Nonetheless, if we think that new SUV is going to make us happy, we have invested it with a power it does not have.
Let’s consider fetishes and totems. By fetish I am not referring to the psycho-sexual neurosis first explained by Sigmund Freud, where a non-sexual object (such as a shoe) becomes necessary for a person to achieve sexual satisfaction. There is a larger sense in which the fetish is any object which is imbued with some form of power it is not usually recognized as having. So, if we think that a cross has the ability to keep vampires away, we have fetishized it. A totem may have the sort of powers attributed to a fetish, but their primary purpose is to identify a group. So, if you were in the Turtle clan of the Iroquois tribe, you would know not to marry another Turtle, and turtles (both real and artistic depictions) would be held in special reverence by your clan — but not by members of the Wolf clan.
So it is easy to understand how money can be a fetish for many, a false god. It does have some power — you can buy things with it — but many think that it has the power to make them happy or secure, and it does not. But a material idol doesn’t have to be expensive. A peace sign hung around my neck may have the power of a totem to unite me with other like-minded people — and this may not be a bad thing — unless I think that I therefore have the power to know God’s will in all circumstances, because I have the power of Peace.
If you have spent any time around the peace movement at all, you must have seen examples of this kind of arrogance. I’ve been pretty arrogant myself.
I’m not trying to pick on “peaceniks” here, so I will give another example. Take, for instance, the Constitution of the United States. Now, let me say up front that I have the greatest respect for this document. I think it is the greatest instrument of governance yet designed. I think that the men who wrote were, in some part, divinely inspired. But the document itself is man-made. I have respect for it, not reverence. There are many for whom it has the power of a talisman to ward off evil. This is a form of fetish.
Enough of materialistic things. Let’s turn to some other idols.
Watch as the presidential campaign ramps up over the next year. Fetishes,totems, graven images and idols of all sorts will emerge. Watch your own attitudes. Are you looking for the person who will create some kind of golden age? Do you invest politicians or the political process with power to make you happy, secure, or prosperous that they do not have?
What about doctors and medicine? Do we expect them to cure all our ills? Do we think that pills, so often called the Magic Bullet, actually have superpowers? Do we treat physicians like gods?
And then there are even more intangibles. Cannot love itself be an idol? When we sing “All You Need Is Love”, does that cast an enchantment that is, in fact, not true? As important as love is, and as important it is for our fulfillment as human beings, there are people who love each other who commit acts of disrespect, degradation, or outright violence against each other every day.
OR Power. We think that the more power we have over a situation, the more security we have within it. This is wrong. No human brains have the ability to collect and comprehend all the necessary information in any given situation, just for starters.
And then there is God. That sounds pretty funny doesn’t it? How could God be a false idol? Of course He isn’t. But our ideas about God sure can be. We may be so certain about who God is, what He wants, where He’s leading … all of these lead us away from the real relationship with Him which is what the First and Second Commandments are all about. Let’s face it — all those people who are so certain about God’s will can’t all be right. But they all think they are right. Somehow, they have made an idol of their certainties.
I don’t know what to tell you to do. I’m still working through my own idolizations. I want my faith where it belongs, not in magical thinking.