Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Problem with idols

(An excerpt from my book on John's Spirituality)

When John ended his letter with the admonition, “Little children, protect yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21), it seems to come out of nowhere.  Up to this point, John hasn’t mentioned the threat of idolatry at all.  Other enemies have been named:  the devil/the evil one, the world, false prophets, antichrists, liars, and haters.  But in all of John’s warnings about needing to “overcome” their enemies, the problem of idolatry was never mentioned—until the end.  Why?  Was it an after thought?  “Oh, yes.  One more thing. I’d better warn them about idols before I sign off.  After all, that’s the lesson we Jews finally learned after hundreds of years of worshipping false gods.  Don’t mess with idols.  Idolatry only leads to immorality.”[1]  And yet, John doesn’t warn them about the perils of idolatry (eidololatria).  It’s the idol itself that poses a threat to his community.[2]  So, what does John mean by the term eidolon? 

Eidolon derives from the root eido, meaning “what is seen.”[3]  Since Jesus Christ is the true God—the “what-can-be-seen” of the invisible God—then all idols stand in opposition to the claims of that one-of-a-kind divine revelation.  That’s why John pits the Icon of the invisible God against all other pretenders, eidolon that pose as icons of invisible deity.  John sees things from a very Jewish perspective, a binary world of worshippers of the one true God and the idolaters.  Similarly, Wisdom of Solomon 14:13 comes in the midst of several warnings the sage has been giving to his people about the folly of idols (13:1-14:31).  After citing the Jewish claim that idols lead to immorality (13:12), he says an idol “neither was from the beginning nor shall it be to the age.  For through human vainglory it came into the world” (vv. 13-14).  Since subjects in distant lands couldn’t honor their king, they made a “visible image [eikon]” of the one who was “absent though present” (v. 17).  The same was true in John’s day; busts of Caesar were set up all over the Roman Empire to remind citizens to celebrate and subjects to fear his imperial rule—what the sage considered a precursor to making idols of “the unmentionable name” (God).  Idols, therefore, became “a trap in life” (v. 21), leading devotees to false worship.  And so, according to the sage, idols were man’s feeble attempt to make present the invisible God.[4]

But John had been making the case throughout his writings that when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it was the only revelation of God that we would ever need.  Furthermore, when the Church obeys the commandment of Christ to love one another as he has loved us, then the visible presence of the invisible God—his love—“abides” among us (1 John 4:16).  But what happens when we don’t love one another, when the love of Christ isn’t present, when the absence of God is evident?  Then lonely men and women will go “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  In the vacuum of the absence of God’s love, John knew we would turn to idols—vacuous promises of divine presence.  That’s why, I think, John kept reminding his community about the love of God, the command to love one another like Christ, the danger of claiming to love God but hating our brother, and the importance of abiding in the word they heard from John’s Gospel.  “This vision of place, friendship, mutuality, and service that is embodied in residential communities all over the world is rooted in the belief that Jesus’s gift of friendship and love creates new and surprising forms of friendship between those who would otherwise be alienated from one another.”[5]  Indeed, if people don’t find the love of Christ in the Church (incarnation!), they’ll look to idols—any visible hope of deity—that alienate them from God and from us.

If John were to write his letter to the Church today, one wonders what the last line would be:  “Little children, protect yourselves from ______________.”  Since idols that were once ubiquitous in his world no longer populate our world, I wonder what John would see as the major threat to Christ-believers today.  Just like idols of his day, everywhere we look we would see them—a visible display of an invisible power.  These “idols” would stand in opposition to our claim that Jesus is one-of-a-kind.  Christians might be susceptible to them, needing the warning to “protect yourselves.”  People disillusioned with the Church would turn to them when they didn’t see the love of Christ in us.  Promoters would hold them up as paragons of divine favor.  The masses would worship them.  Christians would be attracted to them.  And the ways of the world would be empowered by them.  So, what are the present-day “American idols” that John would be compelled to warn us about?  I think he would write, “Little children protect yourselves from heroes.”  Our culture is obsessed with heroes:  courageous men and women who risk their lives to save us from peril, mighty soldiers who protect us from hostility, brilliant geniuses who create a better world for us, and gifted artists who entertain us.  We cry out for heroes.  We hope for heroes.  We venerate heroes.  These larger than life super heroes are our gods.  Lovers desire them.  Fans adore them.  Our children want to be them.  Mythologies promote them—in politics, in sports, in music, and in film.  The images of our heroes are everywhere, demanding our attention.  We spend a lot of time and money in our devotion to them.  We build shrines to their popularity.  We offer praise to their superiority.  Is it any wonder, then, that hero worship is our new religion?  Just listen to the masses praise them.

[1]A common theme in Jewish polemics against idolatry:  “For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (Wis. Sol. 14:12, NRSV); see also Rom. 1:21-25.
[2]“The choice of the term eidolon, rather than the conceptual term eidololatr(e)ia, is significant.  The rejection of idols, according to John, is the obverse of knowing the true God,” Terry Griffith, Keep Yourselves from Idols:  A New Look at 1 John, JSNT Supp 233 (Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p. 57.
[3]For an excellent survey of the meaning and background of eidolon, see Griffith, Keep Yourselves from Idols, pp. 28-57.
[4]“We may conclude that the image functioned in the cult as a mediator of the divine presence.  It was the means by which humans gained access to the presence of the deity.  As such it represented the mystical unity of transcendence and immanence, at theophany transubstantiated,” John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament:  Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 117-18.
[5]Jipp, Hospitality, p. 94 (emphasis mine).  Here Jipp is referring to residential communities like L’Arche.  But, I wonder whether his description of their ministry shouldn’t also be the reality of the Church.  In other words, perhaps “residential communities” have something to teach us about what it means to be the “embodied” love of Christ.