(Shorter – 4500 words – and easier to read than the transcript!)
Chapter three – idolatry
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6)
“Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 19)
Jesus repeats and amplifies this when he says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37)
If this is the first and greatest commandment – so that, if we fail to keep this commandment, we fail in our duty as Christians – what does it mean? How are we to keep it? Answering those questions is the burden of this chapter.
I would like to begin an explanation by talking about an obscure rail road foreman from the nineteenth century by the name of Phineas Gage1. Gage was working in the Vermont area clearing land for the building of a new rail road when he had a rather dramatic accident – a tamping rod (used in the controlled explosions) was propelled up through his head, entering at the eye and leaving through the top of his skull. Those who were with him thought that it must have been a fatal accident, but Gage survived. That is, the physical form of Gage survived, for following the accident his personality seemed to be completely different. Whereas previously he had been sober and responsible, now he could not hold down a job and was delinquent and uncouth. He ended up being part of PT Barnum’s travelling circus, where he was exhibited – with the tamping rod – as a modern miracle.
According to a modern neuroscientist’s reconstruction, what had happened to Gage was that his capacity to exercise judgement had been destroyed. Consider what happens in a game of chess. There are a vast number of moves that are possible at any one point in the game and a competent player will immediately discount some of those moves as being ones likely to cause a defeat. Unlike with a computer, this is very rarely done on the basis of a full analysis of all the permutations that might follow (our brains are not that efficient); rather it is done on the basis of a judgement about what constitutes good and bad moves.
In the same way, in order to function in our normal, daily human lives we have to exercise judgement regularly, from when we get up in the morning, through all our daily interactions and deciding when to go to bed. Without that capacity to judge and decide we relinquish something essential. Antonio Damasio describes dealing with one patient [suffering from anasognosia#] and trying to establish a time for a next appointment. The patient deliberated for over half an hour about the various different options and only concluded the analysis when Damasio himself expressed a clear preference for one date.
The particular area of the brain that was damaged in Gage, and with the patients suffering from anasognosia, related to the ability of the brain to process information from the body, especially the viscera – in other words, our emotional reactions. Damasio writes that ‘it makes no sense to exclude emotions from our conception of the mind’. What seems to be happening in some neuroscientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition – that our emotions are an essential part of the process, that our emotions are the means by which we evaluate information and make decisions. This truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible. (In contrast to this the great spiritual traditions have always been concerned with educating our emotions – a very different thing.)
What I am describing here can be easily shown. Compare these two statements:
a) your spouse is a teacher;
b) your spouse is an adulterer.
Most normal people would react differently to these two statements, simply because one is more ‘value laden’ than the other. In other words, we care about some things more than other things. In terms of deciding what is most important in life, our reasoning can’t give us answers on its own. We have to involve our whole bodies, our whole souls – and hence, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul”.
Now two analogies, to bring out what I am trying to describe. First, imagine a map, imagine that it represents our understanding of the world, with different areas of the map corresponding to different areas of our lives, and some areas are given more space than others – so our immediate families get more space than distant relatives and acquaintances. That might be a normal map. Now imagine that someone who is really, really interested in castles is forming their map, and on their map there is a tremendous area given over to castles. If we were able to compare maps, this map would stick out because it had so much space given over to this one element, emphasised well beyond a true proportion. In other words, their map is distorted – this person actually understands reality differently, as if they were wearing lenses that blurred their vision.
The second analogy is of a spider’s web, whereby the spider’s web is the map of an area. There was a series of experiments where spiders were fed certain substances and they saw what difference it made to the web they spun. A normal good spider’s web is fairly uniform, regular and it covers the area where the spider is trying to catch food. So that’s that’s a true spider’s web, it’s a sensible, realistic spider’s web. However, spiders that had been fed different substances all had things wrong with them. The spider fed LSD spun a disconcertingly perfect web; the one fed marijuana did not complete the web; the one fed caffeine had the worst web of all. This is a good symbol for what can go wrong when our judgement is impaired.
The point is this: we can think of our reasoning ability, our logical processing ability, as being like a blanket spread over our emotional understandings. If the emotional understandings change, then the reasons follow it, the shape of the reason will follow it. Our emotional life is the bedrock and our reason simply flows over the top. There is a wonderful book by Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, called “Upheavals of Thought,” where she goes through great classical literature describing how this happens. It is something which is very much a current interest of contemporary philosophy and neuroscience. But it’s not a new insight.
The philosopher David Hume once said that “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason is a tool; our logic, our reason is a tool, and it rests upon our emotional constitution – and our emotional constitution is concerned with values, with what is perceived as important. Some things are perceived as more important than others, and we react differently due to those emotional differences.
Now I can explain what idolatry is. Idolatry is making something more important than it really is. Simple as that. Contemporary theologians have a phrase about “making the penultimate, ultimate”. It comes from a mid twentieth century theologian called Paul Tillich, and this was the academic insight which I grasped when I was an atheist (I am sure it was one of the major reasons why I moved away from atheism because once you realise what idolatry is, then of course you don’t want to make things more important than they really are and logically, once you have accepted that you can’t get away from the reality of God). Making something which is penultimate, ultimate, making something which is important but not the most important, into the most important thing – this is what idolatry is. It is getting our priorities wrong.
For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place. This is not an insight restricted to Christianity, or even restricted to Judaism and Islam as well. The beginning of the Tao Te Ching says “The tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” If it can be named or described it is not the ultimate. Anything which we can specify in words, anything that we can point to is not the ultimate. We cannot capture God. God always eludes us. Our brains cannot capture Him.
One abstract rule for this is: “God is never the member of a class.” We can think of a class of objects, a class of things which are green, a class of things which are wonderful, a class of things which exist. God is never the member of a class. So in strict terms, God does not exist. We have got a very good idea of what it means to exist: we have myriad objects within the universe as examples. However, God is not an object within the universe. God’s existence underlies everything else, but to say strictly philosophically speaking that God exists is to go beyond what we can actually say. This is very important: God is always beyond us.
A different way of putting this is to say: only the holy can see truly, it is only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone then our vision of the world is more or less distorted. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
What are the ways in which this idolatry can form? Monolatry is when you worship one thing, that is, give highest value to it, and that one thing then becomes the most important thing in your world and everything else has to shift around it. You might be an absolutely dedicated football fan and you have to go to every match that your team plays. You might be obsessive about a television serial and insist on watching every episode no matter what else is happening. Once you have grasped what this is you can see it everywhere. The golden calf is a wonderful image for this. For most people, it’s not as clear and you have polytheism, many gods. It might be – oh, my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them. This is where most people actually live, navigating between different competing interests, muddling along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully, to be fully human. Another option is simply chaos. Which is the position that Phineas Gage ends up in. They are driven by the momentary impulse, it becomes a biological thing. Rather like the dogs in ‘Up’ whenever a squirrel is mentioned, the dog will just pursue whatever the impulse is. Again, there are many people who function like that.
Everyone has a hierarchy of values – the truth is that everyone worships something. It’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others, everyone builds their life around something. Now it could be that they build their life around various things, like polytheism, but everyone has a sense of what’s important. This is the sense in which it is true that everyone has a religion, and some religions are not as helpful, as holy as others. To quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”
Where the value system is severely distorted it is often described using the language of addiction – a clear example is an heroin addict – the process of being addicted to something where the life, the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. They gear their life around getting the money to get their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is. It doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be a mental addiction as well.
An important truth about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, does give a tremendous high – it gives what it promises – but it takes away life in exchange. That is what an idol is. Mammon, for example, the god of money or wealth (an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society) – if you worship Mammon, if you structure your life around Mammon, you will gain wealth. That is a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy. The kick is that you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away. For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?
Jeremiah: “Everyone is senseless and without knowledge, every goldsmith is shamed by his idols, his images are flawed they have no breath in them, they are worthless, the objects of mockery and when their judgement comes, they will perish. But he who is the portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the maker of all things including Israel the tribe of his inheritance, the Lord Almighty is His name.”
In other words, if you worship the living God you gain life, life in all its fullness. This is what Jesus came to grant us. To reveal the living God and to give us that life, life in abundance, which is His intention for us. However, if you worship any other God, you will get what those gods can provide, and they will take your life in exchange; they will destroy life. It is only the living God who grants life, that is why the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.”
How is it, then, that in a culture with such a long and profound Christian history, we have forgotten about idolatry? In a word: science. Science is the predominant idol of our age. There are two ways in which science can become a idol. One is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that’s called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else gets kicked out. Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says, “If we take take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That’s the attitude of positivism.
The other way of turning science into an idol is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation, this is more important that anything else. This is actually the idolatry of fundamentalism, and it has had a pernicious effect upon Christian faith. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens. The Bible is put through a meat grinder because what you want out from the end is a scientific sausage. Particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others – science is seen as the most valuable – and so, in order to preserve the value of the Bible it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, that is how it functions.
Wittgenstein again: “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, scientific knowledge and awareness, compared to the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, one form of knowing is considered vastly more important than the other. In fact narrative is the most important. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the Old Testament says to the people of Israel that they must tell their children this story about the Lord leading them out of Egypt, why Passover is important, “why is this night greater than any other night”, and they tell the story. This is why we have the Bible as it is, because the Bible is a story. It’s not because we can extract scientific facts from it, it is because this story governs our story. That is how and why the Bible is inspired by God. This is the story of God’s actions in the world, within which we fit and that is why the Bible is the supreme text.
Romans 12 v 32: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, His good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This idolatry of science is something that our culture has recognised repeatedly, but the criticism has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose academic credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Or the the legend of Frankenstein, or any of the myriad stories when you have got this white-coated mad scientist, “Aha, I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. They are all describing consequences of an idolatry, where science is given more value, more importance than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed in consequence.
In the film “The Matrix”, the heroes are kept within a machine world. They have electrodes implanted in their brain which give them the illusion of living in a real world and our hero, Neo, breaks out from this. In order to break out from it (because he realises that something is wrong) he goes to see Morpheus who is the terrorist, who the authorities are trying to correct and suppress. Neo has this conversation with Morpheus, and Morpheus says: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You have felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
We know that there is something profoundly wrong with our world, but we have not been able to put our finger on it. What’s wrong with our world is that it is profoundly idolatrous, it is not built upon the love of the living God. Our society, the things which our society values and esteems and rewards, these are all idols. None of them in themselves are intrinsically wrong, Mammon, for example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with material wealth, God promises the Israelites the Promised Land which is a land flowing with milk and honey – this is a vision of material wealth. But our society has elevated material wealth above God; it has been given too much importance. Now because our society has forgotten God, has turned it’s back on God, we are living in a profoundly distorted and dehumanising system, and in so far as we live and share in this society, we are sharing in that distorted life, and deep down we know that it’s wrong. Do you know what I’m talking about?
I am talking about the idolatry of science – that scientific knowledge is seen as either the only valid knowledge, or the most important knowledge. Both of those attitudes are idolatrous and destroy life. However, what we need to remember about idols is that they begin life as something good, they have simply been elevated beyond their proper importance. So what is the original goodness and holiness in science? I would say that the holiness in science rests upon setting the emotional desires of the investigator to one side. There is a Greek word apatheia – think of the word apathy, which is what that word has now come down to us as. It means being uncommitted or uninvolved emotionally – an emotional distancing. This happens in science because the scientist is pursuing the truth about the world. What they are after, what they are trying to attend to, is what the world is actually like – not what they want the world to be like. So a true scientist will put their own desires to one side, they will submit to the process of scientific method, in order to pursue the truth. This requires a discipline, a training. You have to be trained in the attitudes of science, you have to learn what I call the apathistic stance. In order to become a scientist you have to be trained in how to investigate. I remember my ‘O’ Level Physics and Chemistry, where the scientific method was spelt out: this is what you do in order to ensure that your own biases, your own emotional desires, are put to one side. There was a particular method, a process in order to investigate things.
Now this is a spiritual discipline, it is a form of holiness. It is one of the core spiritual disciplines about keeping our own emotions and desires in check. I talked earlier about ‘only the holy can see truly’, and that is the Christian expression of this spiritual truth, but there are parallels in other faiths. In Buddhism, for example, this teaching is much clearer than it is in most forms of Christianity – in Buddhism it is described as the elimination of desire, for they see desire as the root of all suffering. The Buddhist’s aim is ‘a perfect state of non-attachment’, to become completely unattached to the world and when you gain this state of being unattached to the world, you see the world clearly. (By way of a side track, Christianity is about the formation of desire, it is not about the elimination of desire.)
Let us return to the apathistic stance. Remember: emotions are cognitive. In other words we learn things about the world through our emotional reactions, and our emotional reactions can teach us. This process of apatheia, the apathistic stance, is a way of learning more about the world, of learning in particular more about the physical and natural world, because the physical and natural world doesn’t really depend upon our emotional reaction to it. Our emotional reactions do not govern the truth. As with all tools, however, we need to learn how to use them properly – and this has not happened with regard to science. This process of emotionally disengaging from what we are trying to discover in order to discern more truth, learning how to put our own desires to one side, this discipline is a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool, how to put it into a broader framework, a broader vision. We are not here to worship the tool. That is what the idolatry of science is. When Positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, this is worshipping the tool: it is the intellectual equivalent of walking around with a hammer chanting “this hammer’s going to save me, this hammer’s going to save me.” Once you understand it, it is obviously ridiculous behaviour. The use of a tool requires power over a tool and the ancient language which talks about how to gain power over a tool is the language of virtue (virtue simply means power). We need to change our desires, our will, and become virtuous again. We need to will towards the highest virtue: the love of God.
What the prophets teach is that God doesn’t allow idolatry to continue forever, that he will bring to an end such idolatry in wrath and fury. Our present way of life cannot continue, exponential growth within a finite environment cannot continue. This is good, for our present way of life is a terrible, terrible pestilence on creation. Our way of living – the western way of life, with its excess consumerism, all the things which it holds up to be of value – this way of life destroys life. The vision of Christian life, of full humanity, is that there is a way of life shown to us by Christ which allows us to be all that God wants us to be. However, in order to get to that Promised Land, we need to see and perceive the truth about the present way of the world, in order to reject it, in order to say this is false, this is idolatrous, this destroys life – and I choose life.
“I have set before you this day a choice, choose life that you and your descendants may live.” That is what God says through Moses to the Israelites in the desert. I think we have to hear those words today. The crisis which will break our civilisation down has begun.