In recently reading a book by noted Inkling Owen Barfield, I was struck by how his clarity of thinking must have influenced his fellow Inklings into a greater respect for the thinking of the Middle Ages, although it must be admitted that I was more impressed with his thoughtful discussion of the anti-idolatry position of the Hebrew scriptures myself. In writing about idolatry, Barfield made it clear that to view something as an object and to seek merely technical knowledge about how one can gain power from it is precisely an idolatrous view, and moreover that it is a sort of idolatry that is particularly common in our own age. I happen to agree with this statement, and the disconnect between our common view of idolatry as involving images and our lack of recognition of the idolatry that comes from having a merely transactional view of people and institutions that substitutes an I-it relationship for the I-thou relationship that recognizes something that requires our respect is something that is consistently problematic in our contemporary world. If we cannot turn the clock back to the past when it comes to having a more full understanding of such matters that allowed the often-maligned medieval world to hold to multiple simultaneous senses of words simultaneously that is lacking in so much of our contemporary and impoverished understanding, we can at least imaginatively and intentionally seek to recover what we have lost the ability to appreciate automatically.
What is it that the ancient world sought from its idols? By and large, what the ancient world sought through its debased and corrupt religious practices was power. It was thought that by gaining merit through one’s deeds, or knowing the precise right word to call upon the deity or by performing the precisely correct religious ritual that one could induce God or a god to act on one’s behalf. Similarly, the claim of various leaders to be deities or the children of deities was similarly undertaken in order to increase the power of those leaders and gain power, in turn, over the ordinary people who were expected to view the flawed and fallible ruler as being somehow imbued with ineffable divine power and regard. And it is precisely power that contemporary man desires from science and desires from institutions. The reason why people seek to control the judiciary and to seek power in religious institutions or businesses or governments is because it is through the acquisition of offices that one gains power and can enforce one’s will on others. In this we are no more advanced than the corrupt late Roman Republic, which was filled with the same sort of ambitious people who sought to gain power in order to exploit others in the absence of widely accepted moral restrictions or robust local republics whose limited power made it less attractive to devote one’s life to acquiring offices that could not be used to dominate much of anything.
What is it that makes people see others as objects rather than as other beings. By and large, as human beings, our contemporary age is rather insistent that we should ourselves be viewed as people of respect who demand to be heard. Yet somehow the increasingly shrill demands for people to themselves be heard by others has not translated into a recognition of the implications of this for our requirement to respect and regard others. People demand tolerance and acceptance for their own deviance but do not respect or regard those who defend godly standards of behavior. People demand that their own identity groups be given privileges while simultaneously attacking what they view as the unjust privileges that others have. Double standards and hypocrisy are the order of the day, and few people who vociferously demand that their own rights be respected and their own prickly dignity be regarded are not very conscientious about treating others with the respect which they demand for themselves. This is idolatry to be sure, in that we value people for what they can do for us and view everything else as naive sentimentalism, and that we view ourselves as our own objects of worship because we enshrine our own subjective views in the place of ultimate truth and then fail to recognize the implications of this anarchical hostility to objective external standards that apply fairly to everyone because we can neither bear to be treated fairly or to treat others fairly in turn.
The Bible consistently views idols as dumb and lacking in life and betraying the faith that others put in them. Yet the sort of contempt that we have for others seeks to turn them into mute objects whose existence is tolerated only if it serves of some benefit to us. When we hold others with contempt and seek to speak for them without understanding, we turn others into mere objects and demonstrate ourselves to be faithless and unjust idolaters. To be sure, it is idolatry in a different fashion than we are used to looking at the world with. But the sexual immorality and promiscuity that was a part of ancient fertility cults is present in contemporary ages given our own worship of our longings and desires and their fulfillment regardless of its cost to others. If the people of the ancient world slaughtered their children to the worship of dark and evil spirits, so to the people of our world do the same to convenience or ambition or a desire to depopulate the world and so escape divine judgment or relying upon divine favor to reward the obedience to His command to be fruitful and multiply. Those who hate God love death, and those who will not listen to God create mute idols out of their vain and futile imagination. The fact that we cannot see ourselves for the idolmakers that we are is a testament to our own moral blindness and lack of self-knowledge. But those who cannot kneel before God in repentance will try to stand on their own understanding. Such it has ever been.