QUESTION: While I participated in a retreat the preacher warned us on worshipping idols. He has asserted that making ‘Atthappookalam’ during
the celebration of Onam or lighting the ‘Nilavila-kku’ are against the first commandment. How does it become idol worship? What is the difference between authentic religion and idolatry? – Thomas Akkara
ANSWER: Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST
This question reminds me of the incident of ‘Pachamama,’ a very controversial gesture during the Amazon Synod. Pachamama, the name traditionally given to an Amazonian fertility goddess is translated as ‘mother earth.’ During the Synod, Pope Francis received a statue, decorated it, placed it in the Vatican Garden at the prayer service, and allowed the statue to be placed on the altar during the closing Mass for the synod. The critics accused the Pope of idol worship and urged him to ask pardon for such an ‘evil’ act.
Someone has stolen the statue, vandalised it, and thrown it into the Tiber, for which Pope Francis asked pardon for the Synod members. It was cleared by the Vatican that Pope never envisaged it as goddess or deity, rather the statue is visualised as the representation of the ‘mother earth,’ as well as the symbol of life. The presence of the Pachamama, which was so dear to the indigenous communities of Amazon, was a powerful tool to communicate the entire message of the synod. Later on, while commenting on the issues Pope Francis remarked that “some groups in the Church and their media reported the presence of indigenous people through a continuously distort-ed lens. What was beautiful in that synod—the deep respect for indigenous culture and the presence of the native people in the prayer services—was twisted by hysterical accusations of paganism and syncretism. …The indignation of the isolated conscience begins in unreality, passes through Manichaean fantasies that divide the world into good and bad (with themselves always on the good side), and ends in different kinds of violence: verbal, physical, and so on” (Let us Dream).
The Church has a long tradition of incorporating and adapting different forms of customs and practices from around the world. If we go back to the history of many of its present practices, we can see the incorporation of many cultures and traditions. There is no doubt for its indebtedness to the philosophical schools of ancient Greek and Rome. Many of its feasts like, Christmas, Easter, Sunday celebration etc have historical and cultural roots in the existing celebrations of those days. Similarly, the various liturgical traditions are developed based on the socio-cultural context. Even when we trace to the history of Judaism, many of its practises, including Sabbath, the identical mark and a unique celebration of Israelites, are indebted to then-existing Ancient Near Eastern elements. Yves Congar, quoting Von Balthasar asserts; “in order to remain faithful to herself and her mission, the Church must continually make an effort at creative invention. Paul had to be inventive in order to cope with the problem of the Gentiles who were obliged to enter into a Church that was heir to the Synagogue. The same applies to the Greek Fathers in the face of Hellenistic culture, and also to Saint Thomas in the face of Arabic philosophy and knowledge. We, indeed, for our part, must do the same in the face of the problems of our day.” (Tradition and Traditions, 95) The Second Vatican Council opened its door to ‘cultivate and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations’ and to ‘adapt traditions and cultures of individual people prudently’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 37, 40). In a nutshell, no religious symbol gets its significance apart from cultural, historical and social context. Adapting certain symbols or tradition from the cultural context enriches the symbolic articulation of reality. However, the first commandment demands us the true and authentic worship of God without any compromise.
First Commandment and Idolatry
The First Commandment, the introductory word of the Decalogue, is about worshipping the one true God who makes a covenantal relationship with his people. Apart from revealing his name, Yahweh also reveals his identity in the context of the liberation from Egypt. As Pope Francis observes, the Decalogue begins from God’s generosity because he liberates the people from slavery first, and then gives them the commandment as sign of his relationship with them (General Audience, 2018 June 13). As this commandment is given in a polytheistic culture, it undoubtedly underlines the fact that the true object of worship is God himself. Worshipping other gods or any kind of idol places Yahweh on the same level with other deities or material things of the earth and is therefore denial of the basic nature of God.
The overall meaning of the commandment is ‘true worship of Yahweh.’ It involves the obligation to refuse subjection to all other social and human concerns and their symbolization in art forms to give them a position of parity or superiority to Yahweh and his commands. All in any form of the veneration of idols is condemned by this Commandment.
The term ‘idol’ originates from the old French word ‘idole’ with the literal meaning of graven image or form, and in ancient Greek, it is used to denote a physical or mental image or some material image or statue. It is something visible, that one can see. In an idol, there is always a kind of fixation, an obsession. The revelation of God in the Old Testament is an openness to the transcendence, to the ultimate which lies beyond human sensual experiences.
‘The One’ revealed cannot be limited to any kind of material objects or images. The concept of idolatry in the Old Testament is to be understood in this context.
Faith and Fabrication
In the encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis explained idolatry with the help of the arguments of Martin Buber. Buber, quoting the rabbi of Kock states that idolatry is “when a face addresses a face which is not a face.” When someone worships an idol instead of God, he can look directly into its face, but whose origin we know, “because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols ‘have mouths, but they cannot speak’ (Ps 115:5) (Lumen Fidei, 13). Idols and images are unable to establish any relationship with the people (Jer 10:4-5). Later on, while giving his catechism on the commandments in the General Audience on 8 August 2018, Pope Francis further expanded the concept of idolatry within the context of the golden calf incident in the desert (Ex 32: 1-8). Desert is a place where uncertainty and insecurity reign. It is a symbol of ‘nothingness’ and disillusionment of the human heart, for one see or experience ‘nothing’ in a desert. People in the desert is an image of the human being whose condition is uncertain and has no inviolable guarantees. This insecurity creates anxiety in mankind and they may enter into a world of apprehensions, fears and worries that may lead them to ‘nothingness.’
Moses was in the mountain for forty days and he “delayed to come down from the mountain” (Ex 32:1). Within time, people grew impatient. As they could not see their leader, they lost hope. In their anxiety, they did not have the patience to wait for Moses to come back; they had no patience to wait for the ‘time of God.’ Instead, they wanted something, something tangible, spectacle or liturgical, something that satisfies them at that particular moment.
“Moses, the leader, the one in charge, the reassuring guide; and this became unbearable.
Thus, the people called for a visible god” (Lumen Fidei, 13). Idolatry is thus connected with the frustration of the people, with the impatience of people to look after their interest and desires than the will of God. It exemplifies human arrogance and impatience. While losing the leader or direction of life, or while confronting some unexpected events, there is a tendency for the human to be impatient and to depend on something tangible, visible and consoling. The idol thus is a projection of self against objects or projects. Instead of one and true God, idolatry may lead us to many temporal and tangible things, a kind of false assumptions, thinking that those things may satisfy us. Apart from worshipping some false objects, idolatry is an attitude of the heart. When one prefers to do something just because that is comfortable for him, he forgets the Lord and places the material benefits instead of the Lord. “Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth” (Lumen Fidei, 13).
Idols of Today
When we speak of idolatry and idols, it seems to be things from another age, or some other cultures other than Christians! But in reality, they are of all ages, it can be in Christianity as well. Even though one grows up with a Christian name and in a Christian family, if his referential point is not Christ or gospel, there is the possibility to fall into the pit of idolatry.
Our point of reference is deeply related to our convictions about God on the existential plane. It is the question concerning what takes at the centre of our life and on whom our actions and thoughts depend. In a very simple term, idolatry consists of divinizing what is not God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells, “human being commits idolatry whenever they honour and revere a creature in place of God” (CCC, 2113). Idolatry thus became selective.
“It makes you think about the good things it gives you but doesn’t allow you to see the bad things,” says Pope Francis. Whenever one deviate from true God and place his trust in material things, it becomes idolatry. Pope Francis points out many substitutes for God today, like wealth and power, economic and socio-political system, science and technology and so on. When Christians focus solely on the external manifestations of God, some temporal satisfaction for our self-imagined projections, it becomes idolatry. Idolatry thus leads to wrong religiosity.
When religion turns away from its essence and concentrate only on the externalities or rituals and fails to be authentic, its articulations become mere mimic with ‘religious idols.’ When people are overwhelmed by their problems, bewilderment, anxiety, and depression, it is easy to manipulate them by narrating some fake stories, stimulating their natural urges and giving hallucinated interpretations of the scriptures. Religious idolatry can indeed placate the emptiness for short period and people may have some relaxations, but it neither deepens their faith nor leads to real convictions and conversion. Mostly, it may offer some psychological satisfaction to certain frustrated feelings and experiences. In such a movement, the folk either anthropomorphize God or conceptualize God in mundane, earthly terms. God is conceived as a special ‘Big Person,’ one who accomplish our dreams and blesses us with material well-being and prosperity. When our religious beliefs and strategies are successful in the short run, we derive some surrogate life by believing we do all the right things, embrace all the right interpretations of Scripture, hold to all the right doctrines, engage all the right rituals, and display the right spirituality. Pascal Boyer terms it in terms of ‘tragedy of the theologian.’ It means when religious cognition tends to revert to ordinary, more intuitive modes of reasoning, persistently in a direction away from the sophisticated concepts that theologians develop. In such an ideology, people promote exclusivity, racism and hate deliberately, both implicitly and explicitly. It not only subverts the idea of authenticity of religion but also widens intolerance and fanaticism. This practice of religious idolatry gets even more surrogate life by looking down on those who do not do and believe ‘all the right things’ that they do. They may express ‘holy anger’ toward those who do not conform to their way of thinking and behaving.
To overcome the pitfalls of idolatry, we have to choose God above all and be alert about the temptation of ‘false gods’ in everyday life. We have to commit wholeheartedly to God without reservation. Instead of deceiving ourselves and making a god after our image, let us accept what God says of Himself in the Bible and worship and serve the true God. Authentic means not false or copied. It is something genuine, real, trustworthy, reliable, being accurate in the representation of the facts. To be authentic Christians, we must stop living and acting like the world, but honour Jesus Christ in every facet of our lives; both in and out of the church. When people forget the fundamental message of the gospel and use ‘methods of the world’ in an attempt to accomplish God’s work, they are pursuing the world instead of pursuing God. The question we should ask ourselves should be – what are the idols that we keep in our heart, that hidden place where we feel good, that distances us from the living God.