To the modern Western mind, the concept of idol worship seems primitive. “Who,” we ask, “could conceivably carve a wooden statue, cover it with a precious metal, and then pray to it for supernatural guidance?” But as unfathomable as the practice might appear, it might not actually be that unfamiliar to us.
There have been many tablets unearthed from the ancient Mesopotamia region (the “Cradle of Civilization,” as it is called) that explain complex rituals to enliven inanimate statues, turning them into embodiments of gods. Two particularly important rituals were the mīs pȋ (washing of the mouth) and the pit pȋ (opening of the mouth).
During these religious ceremonies, the statue-maker would solemnly swear that the statue was created by such-and-such a deity — he was merely a conduit for its construction — and a priest would use a wooden sword to symbolically cut off the hands of the craftsman. (Kugel, 2003, p. 85) In some rites, the craftsman and his work tools were themselves declared to be divine. (Berlejung, 1997, p. 54) In the end, it would be declared that the statue was not actually made by a human, but born in the heavens by the power of the gods.
Fast-forward to the present. Most of us probably do not worship religious symbols, but we may be no less idolatrous. If we define idolatry as treating symbolic objects as if they are absolute representations, then the concept of money itself is technically idolatrous. Like a golden calf, the only thing that gives money any power is the fact that everyone believes in it.
Consider what we worship — or to that which we ascribe worth — as a culture: rank, wealth, status, stardom, promotion, title, position, prestige… do these values actually exist anywhere in the universe except in our own minds? Are these not but symbolic labels that we impute with meaning?
In a society that no longer reveres invisible deities and spirits, have we not simply turned to worshiping symbolic traits in one another instead?
The British philosopher Owen Barfield (1898-1997) cleverly described present-day idolatry as the “sin of literalness.” We believe so strongly in our meaning-making idols that we are like stubborn fundamentalists who refuse to consider life apart from our ideologies of self-worth and achievement.
…the besetting sin to-day is the sin of literalness, or idolatry…there is a valid connection, at some level however deep, between what I have called ‘literalness’ and a certain hardness of heart. Listen attentively to the response of a dull or literal mind to what insistently presents itself as allegory or symbol, and you may detect a certain irritation, a faint, incipient aggressiveness in its refusal. (Barfield, 1988, p. 162-3)
This reflection raises the question of whether we humans can even live without idols. It seems impossible for us to not look to something that our own hands have created in order to acquire a compass for our lives. And yet, perhaps like a spiritual awakening, we might yet repent of our foolish literalness and see the world through new eyes, not marred by our idolatrous obsession with symbols and statues, which we assume represent final revelations of truth.