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Premise: Christianity has developed and fostered new forms of idolatry to add to the old. The modern Christian idolatry is more subtle than the ancient forms and symbols made of wood and stone but nonetheless still widespread and spiritually paralyzing.
What is Idolatry?
The dictionary definitions generally go something like this: 1. the worship of idols, icons, images, rites, ceremonies, etc. 2. the excessive or immoderate respect, attachment or veneration for some person or thing.
Since the given definition is described in terms of worship, attachment, veneration, and adoration we need a clear understanding of what these terms imply. The first level of understanding is that these terms all primarily refer to a STATE OF MIND that imputes some level of sacredness to the idol, and only secondarily to some action or behavior. It is the state of mind that always distinguishes levels of worth and values. See definition of worship.
There IS such a thing as proper worship and adoration. We are supposed to naturally adore our family, friends and mates for what they are, to the extent that they truly support us and enhance our lives. What the dictionary definitions leave out for idolatry is the key implication of unworthiness for the entity being worshiped. Of course, worship of God, when it is done without fear, would be proper; but when symbols, icons, or ritualistic behaviors and even worship itself are thought of as being virtuous to the extent of becoming sacred in and of themselves, then such worship becomes idolatry.
Most importantly idolatry implies that these persons or objects of worship are superior in value to the human individual. Such false worship contributes to the debasement of the human person, implying general or ultimate inferiority of worth and value in one of the sons or daughters of God. This false deference would extend to unwarranted or unmerited voluntary submission to the authority of some entity, person, or organization, real or mentally constructed, to whom we feel inferior. We could also include the state of mind that simply wants these entities to be under our control to compensate for our feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
In the wide realm of religious sentiment there is an understood connotation in many individuals that worship is a virtuous endeavor when it is applied to one's own current or "true" concept of God, and "idolatrous" when applied towards any other concept of god that differs. In this case, before this judgmental feeling is allowed free reign, one better be certain that they have constructed the correct understanding of the "true" God, since by definition all others must be false. For the Christian this choice may seem much simpler than it actually is, and goes well beyond just proclaiming that the J-person is the one true Deity because he is the Son of God. There are many versions of Jesus out there, and in a lot of them he wouldn’t recognize himself. By the above understanding, self-proclaimed Christians have many idols and do engage in idolatry in various ways; some obvious, some subtle, and some scarcely recognizable.
It is hard to figure which form of idolatry is first and foremost for Christendom, but for Protestantism it is probably what is called Bibliolatry. Some "canonized" collection of ancient writings has now become the word of God, usurping the authority of the one person who was authentic. While only one of these books of the Bible is a trustworthy eyewitness account of what the Creator did and said while on earth, some of the rest of these writings are allegories, some are songs, hymns or war chants, some of these are letters, some are stylized and redacted Hebrew history, some are ancient mythological stories, and some are cherished cultural literature. We don't know who wrote most of them, or under what beliefs or circumstances, and yet Protestant Christianity allows them all pretty much equal weight and allows sentiments, statements and claims from them to override the message and instructions of the true revelation of God. How can this be?
The Disciples and Apostles
Right alongside Bibliolatry is the idolatry of the disciples and apostles. Christianity has put them in a special class of sainthood, and assumed that they were "sealed in the truth". Although it is certainly unwarranted, Christianity has authorized them to speak for God, going well beyond just being faithful witnesses to what God said and did. How can this be? The disciples never exhibited any real understanding of the message of the J-person, they continued to squabble, and for the most part they were ashamed or fearful to be associated with him during his crucifixion. Even though he told them about it beforehand they were devastated by his death, and wouldn't believe his resurrection until they saw with their own eyes. After the resurrection and the ascension, their behavior was still not in accord with the spirit of the J-person. Why then have they been idolized?
And then there is the apostle Paul:
"That the apostle to the Gentiles was a towering figure in primitive Christianity−indeed the real founder of the Church−is certain. But the view that his letters and the rest of the New Testament scriptures represent God's word is a crime against reason and humanity. Studying them today should make us recognize that such thinking offers no useful key to the future. Their image of God cannot claim the respect of nonbelievers..." Gerd Ludemann, Free Inquiry, April-May, 2007 p. 31
The Church Organizations
The third major form of Christian idolatry concerns the "church". Instead of seeing that an ecclesia is a group of people called out of their situation because of oppression and determined to be responsible and do something about it, Christianity has made the "church" into a sacred organization entity, one so sacred that individuals are encouraged to sacrifice the energy and productivity of their lives for it, along with forgoing even the finest aspects or fulfillments of it, such as romance and having children. Even those who do not go this far are expected to support the church organization with tithes and offerings of time and money. Ultimately, they are encouraged to offer their physical lives in exchange for it if need be. The direct implication is that God loves the church more than individuals, another sentiment that debases our worth. When the church program or policy goes astray, even to the point of where the clergy sexually violates little children of both genders and where the church covers up for and protects the culpable, we are not supposed to blame the church but just the individuals. And what has happened? The churches have inexorably blossomed into hierarchies of power and control, all justified by some level of doing good works and having been authorized by "the Lord". This cannot be what the J-person had in mind and was talking about!
The Divinely Appointed Leadership and Hierarchy
The fourth form of idolatry is the divinely appointed leadership and hierarchy. Of course, for Roman Catholics this would be the Pope and the Cardinals, all surrounded by pomp, ceremony, and lavish accoutrements in their little fiefdom of the Vatican. Historically, this enclave was the center of power and control that even included a much feared military capability. One that was used to subdue with the sword recalcitrant cultures, nations, and disagreeable sects and branches of Christianity. The Pope is even considered infallible when speaking "ex cathedra".
"You know that the leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It should not be this way among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant."
But for Protestants there now is really very little difference. Some of the denominations are almost identical to the church in Rome, but just without a titular pope. All of the major ones have become corporations, and they all appoint official or formal leadership with ceremony and much prayer, expecting God to mysteriously control the process. Most all foster a culture of hierarchy and control from the top down, with some retaining the power to shut down local churches that allow too much heresy. And they all feature leadership that expects special deference and privileges.
For both Catholics and Protestants all of the above don't keep them from doing really stupid, banal, and sometimes really evil things, nor does it keep them from major divisions and denominational revolts and splits. The big and long view of all this is spectacularly underwhelming!
The Rites, Ceremonies and Sacraments
The fifth form of idolatry is a category. When it comes to the rites, ceremonies, sacraments, and penance most of Christendom actually believes that these have some efficacy in and of themselves.
Let us define a rite as being different from a ceremony. Thus a legitimate ceremony would be for the purpose of honoring and affirming someone for something important and meaningful such as a birthday, and a rite would be directed toward producing some kind of “magic” or superstitious (unreal) action or benefit. Most rites are intended to impress God and/or achieve something magical or unreal, such as transubstantiation and its supposed efficacy.
Despite what even Paul said, they don't seem to have a clue that
these were ever and only symbols and unless the reality behind the
symbols is grasped, they are worse than worthless. Imagine the glorious
sons and daughters of God mucking around with these trappings and
thinking that they are glorifying God. Not so good, is it?
Temple and Cathedral Structures, Statuary, Icons and Artwork
The sixth form of idolatry is also a category. Within the proper paradigm the physical iconography can all now be seen as pitiful, misguided, materialistic attempts to glorify God, but they serve to fasten and hold the attention of the religious acolytes on the mundane plane, the organizational church and the whole business-as-usual religious program. At their best however, they are at least a testimony to the creativity and artistic ability of human beings.
The Liturgy and the Music
Even these have generally taken on an undue sacredness, with categories of liturgy and music substituting for real intimacy, fellowship, sharing and commitment. However, sometimes the liturgy does include some spiritually uplifting lectures, and sometimes the music is able to transcend these strictures with valid inspiration.
A Few Words about Jewish Idolatry
According to the mytho-history of the Hebrew culture, they made several forays into idolatry with idols of wood and stone, groves, and attendant rites and ceremonies. By the time of the J-person they were dead set against such simplistic, blatant idolatry without realizing that their very temple and associated ceremonies were idols as well. The serious seeker of truth will understand that all ancient people were planet worshipers, and that the imposing, glorious configuration of the antediluvian Saturnian triune system of planets in the sky was considered to be the chief trio of Gods. The Jews had their vaunted monotheism where they clung to the idea that only Saturn−same celestial object as Moloch and Ra−was the real God.
Over time they somehow wrapped up the three planets into one entity called “Elohim” and deny to this day that the word means the plural of god or gods, saying instead that it means the plural of majesty. This hypocrisy flies in the very face of the word being used as the plural of god in their own Old Testament sacred literature when describing the multiple gods of other cultures! They thereby eschewed the other planets as gods and thus felt morally superior to those cultures that indulged in the worship of the polytheistic pantheon.
But even at their best, the Jews always considered “El Adonai”−Saturn the "Most High"−to be the visible presence or "sign" of God. Despite all the real, valid evidence − the miracles, his love mercy, compassion and forgiveness−that he gave them when he showed up, they wanted the J-person to give them this "sign" of God in the sky. This, of course, he refused, and remonstrated with them over their idolatry. See the testimony in the New Testament of Stephen the martyr as to the Jews worshipping the objects "in the sky". This testimony validates the idea that the Jews were asking the J-person for the Saturnian "sign" in the heavens. How can we not see that the real "sign" of God is his character with its real life, public demonstration of love, forgiveness and healing, and a truly compelling Good News?
Additional examples of Jewish idolatry would be their claim to be God's chosen people due to Abraham being their "father", and also their "law" ostensibly given directly by God to Moses, allowing them to think Moses was their direct connection to the Supreme Being through the priesthood of Aaron. Also circumcision continued to be idolized (this really is hard to believe). At least Paul denounced that one as being null and void and worthless.
The primary idolatry of Israel and ancient Judaism
We will just quote from the first chapter of Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds by DONALD HARMAN AKENSON
...we must break through the subsequent belief (one that has been normative for at least the last 1,500 years) that the Chosen People had no idols. They did, but they did not denominate them as such. While denouncing the iconic idols of their neighbours, the Chosen People produced an aniconic idol whose dimensions exceeded those of almost any religious artifact in ancient history: the Temple of Solomon.
It is clear that the Christian martyr Stephen considered the Tabernacle, the tent of the presence, to be dedicated to Molech, the planet Saturn.
Some Bible fundamentalist Protestant denominations, including Seventh-Day Adventists, consider themselves as God's special people by being "spiritual Israelites". These very Israelites called themselves the "children of Saturn" and were never God's special people except in their own mind and their mythology. When they had the great opportunity to actually qualify, they spurned and even demanded crucifixion of the creator. How utterly appropriate and how ironic for modern day idolatrous Christians to identify with them!