Idol Worship, Idle Worship (1): The Trauma of Idolatry

This is the first in a series of four posts.

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“Whoever does not worship God worships an idol, and whoever does not worship an idol worships God.”


To borrow a way of speaking from the later Wittgenstein, that sentence addresses the “logic and grammar” of its three key words (God, idol, and worship), and how the three work in relation to one another—at least in one crucially important way of their working. So does the following citation from my own essay “The Power in God’s Hand: (Dis)ability and the Essence of Philosophy,” a chapter from my book, God, Prayer, Suicide, and Philosophy—although it only uses two of the three words in question (God and idol) and does not explicitly mention the third (worship):

"To say that God’s strength lies coiled in our weakness cannot, short of conversion into idolatry, mean that God bails us out when we can no longer do the bailing out ourselves.  If that were what is at issue, God would be no more than the 'stop-gap' God that Dietrich Bonhöffer critiques.  We might also call such a God a 'foxhole' God, in line with the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes—which is a very atheistic remark, by the way, if God is not to be an idol." 

Indeed, as the term God is used in, say, the various Biblical texts condemning all forms of idolatry, the worship of idols, we might say that “God” is precisely the anti-idol: what calls out loudly against all worship of idols and claims all worship for itself. The God of such injunctions as the Biblical ones against idolatry would not be just one among many antagonists to idols and idolatry. That God would be “the” anti-idol, as it were: God would be that, the worship of which or whom would be strictly incompatible with the worship of any idol.

As for the third key term, worship: Since around 1300 C.E., worship has been used as a verb to mean paying reverence to something taken as divine. Instead of worship in my opening sentence, we could also use appropriate phrases involving the terms belief or faith. Thus, in the first case my sentence would become, “Whoever does not believe in God believes in an idol, and whoever does not belief in an idol believes in God”; and in the second case, “Whoever does not have faith in God has faith in an idol, and whoever does not have faith in an idol has faith in God.”

  The word worship itself comes from the same root as the word worth; and worship originally meant the very condition itself of being worth-y of or meriting being “worshiped” in the modern sense. It meant the underlying condition of being worthy to receive respect, honor, and glory, by virtue of its own underlying worth, glory, merit, dignity, or honor. 

Accordingly, God, the first term of my three, means what is to be worshipped, what elicits worship solely because of its own underlying glory, merit, dignity, or honor. God means what alone is truly worthy of worship—what of itself truly evokes worship: truly calls it forth and therein truly calls for it.

In contrast, idol comes from eidolon, the Greek word for “image, apparition, or phantom,” which itself comes from the Greek eidos, meaning simply the ”form, shape, or appearance” of something, the “look” or “view” of itself that it offers.

It follows that “idolatry” would be the worship of what is at best no more than a mere image or appearance or manifestation of the divine—one view or appearance of itself that it offers—as though it were the divine itself.* It would be a confusion of the divine with what is not itself divine, but is taken, or rather mis-taken, for the divine. Idolatry thus would be a case of mis-taking what is at best an image or aspect of something for that of which it is an image or aspect, the mis-taking of what is at best a mere representation for that which it represents. To commit the “sin” (literally the “missing of the mark”) that is idolatry would be to confuse what is at best an aspect or image or representation of the divine with the divine itself—like confusing a picture of one’s mother with one’s mother herself.

Showing the reverence, awe, and respect due God alone to such an idol degrades worship itself to no more than magic and superstition—an attempt to serve oneself rather than God, by placating and manipulating the powers that be. It does not matter whether that is done from fear or from greed or from some other self-centered motive. Regardless of the form of the self-serving at issue, it is a confusion of the divine with what has power in a solely coercive sense, and an attempt to cajole what one thinks has such power into granting one what one thinks one wants.

“God” is the name of what breaks through all such idolatry, and wrecks havoc upon all such self-serving enterprises: God is the trauma of idolatry

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To be continued.


* I have said that idolatry would be the worship of what is “at best” an image, view, or appearance of the divine as though it were the divine itself, because of the history of conflicts over the interpretation of such sources as the Biblical injunction in Exodus 20:4-5 (the Second of the Ten Commandments or the second half of the First Commandment, depending on which of the standard numbering systems one uses): The verses at issue are as follows (New International Version of the Bible): 4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God [. . .].” Does that enjoin all “representations” of the divine, or only three-dimensional ones (statues)? Can there even be such a thing as an image of God, or is God beyond all images?  Is it only images of the divine that are enjoined, or images of anything at all? Those and similar questions have long caused deep and bitter divisions between religions, and within one and same religion. I leave such issues aside here.