Good Idols and Bad
John Cobb, Jr.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical
The word “idol” is rarely used in a positive sense. But if we define “idols” very carefully, in the way theologians typically do, then, I believe, we can hardly do without them. So, despite the risks, we may need good idols in our struggle against the bad.
The term commonly refers to a statue that is treated as if it were itself divine. In the Hebrew tradition and its offspring, there has been great fear that making physical objects around which prayer and worship are centered leads to worship of the object itself. On the other hand, many in these traditions find help in having something to look at that leads them to think of the spiritual reality it represents. This is an interesting issue, but not the meaning of “idol” in my title.
One way of defining “god” is as some person-like entity that, unlike us, is immortal. A god is supposed to have powers far greater than ours. If a number of such beings are held to exist, one speaks of “polytheism.” If one supposes that just one such being exists, we capitalize “god” and speak of “monotheism.” Those who deny that there are any entities of this kind are called “atheists.”
Another way of defining “god” is as that to which one is most committed, what actually gives shape to one’s life, or, in the extreme instance, what one will die for. If we approach matters in this way, atheists are rare, but we may still distinguish polytheists from monotheists. Many people organize their lives around more than one such god. They may at times subordinate everything to attain the sexual partner of their choice, at other times they may be chiefly concerned with their honor, and then, at still other times, they may be ready to give their lives to the defense of their nation. Some may experience deep conflict as a result of these diverse commitments. Others may clearly subordinate everything to one goal, such as honor or wealth.
If one organizes life around a unifying goal, it makes a large difference what this goal is. Through most of human habitation of the Earth, the most common “god” has been the tribe. In more recent centuries, the tribe has morphed into the “nation” and then the “nation-state.” In the modern world, the dominant religion has been nationalism. Tribalism and nationalism have played a large role even within the monotheistic religions that trace their origin to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But these have also been critical of giving supreme loyalty to a single tribe or nation. They have given us the idea of “idolatry” as treating some inferior reality, usually some real but limited good, as if it were the highest one, or treating a part as if it were the whole.
Note that tribalism and nationalism are, at one level, great goods. The human species would not have survived if each individual had sought only his or her individual good. Devotion to the well-being of the larger group develops self-sacrifice and heroism as well as ordinary virtues essential to the ongoing life of the community. Most of the time, idolizing the tribe or the nation works for the good. Still, they are not the “good idols” we seek.
The obvious problem with nationalism is that the interests of diverse nations can easily come into conflict. It is then the most committed nationalists of another nation who become the greatest threat to one’s own. They are the ones most willing to risk their lives to get for their own people what your nation also needs or desires. This kind of idolatry is encouraged in almost all nations, and those who reject it are typically called “unpatriotic” and often condemned and persecuted. Nevertheless, making a god of one’s nation leads to enormous death and destruction.
If devoting oneself to one part of the whole over against other parts of the whole leads to horribly destructive conflicts, then the answer seems to be to devote oneself to the whole. Sometimes that is called “pantheism.” Sometimes pantheists attribute to the whole a unity that is not apparent to others.
The problem with simply devoting ourselves to the whole is that the vast majority of the whole seems so utterly unaffected by us and indifferent to us. On the other hand, if we attribute to it a unity, especially a unified experience, it becomes possible to interact meaningfully with it. We may, for example, attribute to it a direction or goal that we can share. Nevertheless, most of what we know about stars and galaxies seems quite disconnected to us in any way that inspires devotion comparable in strength to the devotion inspired by nation states. This kind of pantheism avoids idolatry, and that is very much to its credit, but because the whole is so remote and unknowable and seems so indifferent to what we do, pantheists easily fall into polytheism.
That is, for practical purposes they are likely to order their lives around particular goods.
This is where the quest for good idols comes to the fore. Can we find something in the universe that inspires our devotion in such a way that serving it serves the whole? Can something so represent for us the whole, or the inclusive good of the whole, that singling it out as the object of our devotion or the organizing principle of our lives works for the inclusive well-being of all? This would be idolatry, but it would be good idolatry.
Something of this sort takes place in many forms of Buddhism. Buddhists know, of course, that the totality of things is very complex indeed. But they believe that in its ultimate depth all things have Buddhanature. Fully to realize this cuts against our ordinary perception and conceptuality. But they believe that this liberates from illusion and evil. The knowledge that others have achieved this liberation encourages and guides the quest. For most Buddhists, Gotama is the supreme embodiment of this enlightenment. Often a physical representation of Gotama or of one of the other enlightened ones helps to focus the mind.
The Buddha images can, of course, become idols in the common sense of having divine nature or power falsely associated with them. More often they lead the mind of the devotee to the one that they represent. In official Buddhist teaching the Enlightened Ones, the Buddhas, remain human beings. But in the popular imagination, and even in highly regarded Sutras, they often take on superhuman characteristics.
They function as gods. And this can lead to superstition and cultic behavior and other marks of bad idolatry.
Nevertheless, on the whole, deep reverence and emulation directed toward an enlightened one is what I am calling “good idolatry.” The limited object of devotion is transparent to the deepest reality of all things. Such devotion aids in freeing one from the bad idolatries to which we are so likely to succumb.
I am not saying that all Buddhists are free from bad idolatry or that Gotama cannot function as a bad idol. I am saying that Buddhism has found a way of checking these bad idolatrous tendencies. Much of its teaching attends to individual Buddhas and their wondrous attainments in such a way as to draw others into the quest for existential realization of what is truly real universally and detachment from the bad idols that lead to so much destruction.
Buddhism shows us that deep feelings, even idolatrous feelings, toward concrete particulars can, in carefully formed instances, play a positive, rather than a negative, role in human life and history. There are good idols.
We could examine each of the great religious traditions to see that all have in fact offered us idols that can function in beneficial ways. Many judge that Buddhism has been the most successful. The remainder of this essay will examine the Christian case.
For mainstream Christianity, the deepest truth about the world is that its existence is given originally and continuously by God. This God is immediately present to every creature, and the aims and purposes of each creature are derived from God. In the human case, the creature is challenged to conform its purposes to God but is also capable of serious distortion, even rebellion.
Past rebellion has distorted the situation for all. God forgives and loves and seeks to renew the human capacity for forgiveness and love. God affirms and loves every creature. We are called to receive that love and, in turn, to love others. Thus the reality works against affirming any part over against other parts. It opposes idolatry.
Nevertheless, Christians attribute to Jesus a unique place in this reality. The word “revelation” is central for many Christians: Jesus “reveals” God. In itself that affirmation does not make an idol of Jesus. But it can easily lead to heaping on Jesus characteristics that belong only to the God Jesus reveals and calling for directing toward Jesus the feelings and attitudes that Jesus showed to be appropriate toward God.
There is no doubt that Jesus functions for many Christians as an idol. And even a cursory reading of history shows that this has often led to a very destructive idolatry. People have been tortured and slaughtered in the service of this idolatry. All too often, instead of evoking devotion to the one who loves everyone and everything, devotion to Jesus has often led to enmity to those who do not share this devotion. This has been a much more serious problem with Jesus than with Gotama or other Buddhas.
Nevertheless, there is much in Christian teaching that checks the bad idolatry that is so near at hand. This begins with Jesus’ own teaching. Many students of Christian history hold that Christian teaching quickly shifted from the teaching of Jesus to teaching about Jesus, and its glorification of Jesus led directly to bad idolatry.
Paul is often singled out as responsible for this shift. But in fact Paul’s teaching is not really, or at least not necessarily, idolatrous. Paul calls for people to participate in Jesus’ faithfulness to God, a faithfulness that led Jesus to the cross, dying for the sake even of sinners and enemies. The God to whom believers are then faithful is the God who loves everyone and everything. This centering on Jesus and his faithfulness may be idolatrous, but it is, or can be, a good idolatry.
Bad Christian idolatry has been closely related to the idea of “incarnation.” The idea is that God revealed Godself in Jesus by actually being in him. God is said to be enfleshed in Jesus. Many Christians have come to believe that the heart of their faith is expressed as “Jesus is God.” Their God then becomes this particular being. They often suppose that what is required for salvation is to acknowledge the deity of Jesus. Too often, the affirmation that Jesus is God leads to attributing to Jesus preexisting ideas of God.
Instead of clarifying and revising the understanding of God by the life and teaching of Jesus, the understanding of Jesus is reshaped by ideas of God that have developed in other contexts. An important example is the understanding of divine power. If we understand God in light of Jesus, we will understand that God’s power is persuasive, healing, and enlivening. Divine power works in the service of love. If, on the other hand, we bring to our understanding of Jesus, notions of God’s power developed in other contexts, we will suppose that Jesus was in fact always in control of whatever happened. The appearance that he was the victim of the religious and political powers of the time is only that–an appearance.
Issues of this sort have been central to the development of Christian theology. Christians agreed that they found God in Jesus. For some this meant that Jesus was God in human form. He was not really a human being like the rest of us. For others the incarnation meant that Jesus was a real and full human being in whom God dwelt in a unique fullness. For them Jesus showed that God is present in creation and in us all.
Given the piety of the time, it is somewhat surprising that in council after council, Jesus’ full humanity was reaffirmed. This is a profound check on the forms of idolatry that emerge so easily from Christian teaching. All agreed, of course, that God was present in Jesus. But if the presence of God in Jesus enhanced rather than diminished his humanity, then Christians can affirm that God is in all people and indeed in all things without displacing their creaturely integrity. The understanding of God can be enriched in this way without the destructive effects of bad idolatry. Jesus functions as an idol, but he can function as a good idol that breaks the hold of bad idols in those who focus their devotion on him. Many people today suppose that they have outgrown the need for idols of any form. Perhaps some have. But idolatry has never before had so thorough a control over the Earth. And never before has the enormously destructive effect of a victorious idolatry been so manifest. The habitability of the planet Earth is now at stake.
The principle idol is what the King James translators of the Bible called “Mammon.” Jesus is quoted there as saying that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. Recent translators have replaced “Mammon” with “wealth.” This makes clear the real, and immensely urgent, issue of our time. Should we continue to organize our national life and the global system as a whole in the service of wealth? Or should our “god” be more inclusive? Serious Buddhists and serious Christians (as well as serious humanists and those who make the Earth itself their idol) necessarily call for a more inclusive object of devotion. For some, that may be the universe as a whole, Buddha-nature, or God as such. But for most, this shift away from the god, wealth, will be aided by such good idols as Buddha (Gotama) and Christ ( Jesus).
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