The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1634
Oil on canvas
The precise understanding of what constitutes an idol has been a matter of intense discussion for a long time. For some, an idol is any image that represents or stands on the behalf of God or gods. For others, for instance most modern evangelicals, an idol is any thing (broadly considered) that replaces or supplants the Lord God in a hierarchy of values, beliefs, or desires. Still others hold more nuanced views, such that the Eastern Orthodox do not hold icons of Christ to be either idols or transgressions of the Second Commandment, while most Presbyterians, on the other hand, would hold that images of Christ are transgressions of that commandment and, thus, also idols.
Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud — to add two secular thinkers to the mix — both discuss idols as objects that exemplify some (mysterious, numinous, Unheimliche) level of subjectivity. For Marx, the exemplary idol is the fetishized commodity, an object that is imbued with subject-like sociality in its role of relating capital to itself. For Freud, the focus is instead upon totems and their roles of manifesting the unconscious. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ discussions of totems and social relations in The Savage Mind is also worth noting here.
I should confess that I find the typical evangelical description of idols and idolatry to be unconvincing. Nowhere in the Scriptures do I find anything close to a description of Yahweh being “Number One” on a hierarchy of values. Rather, one finds texts where Yahweh demands total fealty:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:3-6)
“Before me,” in the Hebrew, holds none of the English connotation of hierarchy: instead, it speaks to Yahweh’s sole position as God and Lord. It reads literally “in My presence.” Yahweh underscores this claim with His self-description: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”
The resounding confession of the Old Testament with regards to idolatry is not that the idols ought to be worshiped in proper order, with Yahweh first and then Baal and Ashtoreth and all the rest later. Rather, it is that their presence is an offense to Yahweh’s person; that they represent in their ontology a kind of thing that ought not to even be. It is from Yahweh’s hands that all the goods of the earth have been made, but it is from man’s hands that any idol enters existence.
As such, the typical evangelical description of idols and hierarchies of values simply does not make sense. It does not effectively account for the way the Old Testament deals with idolatry. And the typical evangelical description, more notoriously, makes space for incredible theological abuses: husbands who say to their wives “You’re becoming my idol, so I need to spend more time in prayer and less time with you,” and the like.
What is an idol, then? Scripturally speaking, we must observe that, in some fashion or another, it is a thing worshipped. And that thing worshipped often represents (signifier) a god of some king (signified). Freud’s observations are particularly salient here, as he describes idols as external representations of internally-repressed desires. But I think that Freud, in his materialism, neglects the possibility of idols also being external representations of external supernatural powers / entities. Likewise, Marx (and Louis Althusser, following him) allows us access to thinking of our socio-economic relations with one another in terms of idols and idolatry, but misses out on the possibility of those idolatrous commodities being inhabited by external powers.
My sense is that an idol is some nexus of all these things: It is a thing worshiped, it is a representation of a god, and that god or gods can be (in reality) human and/or demonic. Attempting to draw the line between the purely human and the purely demonic relies information that I do not have access to, of course. But either way, the worship of an idol brings the human being into a direct refutation of his holy status as the Image of God, for it is as the Image of God that mankind stands as the special worshipers of Yahweh. By entering into idol-worship, mankind rejects their most fundamental telos.
Identifying idols in the modern context, however, proves difficult. I wonder if Paul could sense this level of difficulty when he writes to the Romans regarding eating food sacrificed to idols. An idol is nothing, says Paul, so eat away, but don’t do so in such a manner that will destroy your brother. Paul’s wisdom is the ability to identify idolatry as primarily related to “the god behind the idol,” rather than to the thing itself. The meat, the gold, the altar, none of these are tainted; but there is something that the pagans are worshiping that is evil and real. The former cannot hurt the Christian, but the latter can, so much so that John writes (with fervency!) “little children, keep yourselves from idols” (I John 5:21).