Idolatry is the fundamental, original sin. We are all, by nature, idolaters. As Calvin famously - and accurately - put it in the Institutes, the human “is a perpetual factory of idols” (I.XI.8). Everybody’s got an idol. Christians too. As simul iustus et peccator (Luther), even the rectified believer remains sinful, and therefore idolatrous. As long as we live the dark satanic mills of our souls will be turning out faulty goods. Indeed a good deal of the spiritual life is smoke detection. Exposing god-impostures is a perennial element in discipleship.
But what are idols? Needless to say, they are not statues made of stone or wood! Rather idols are that to which we give our absolute allegiance; they are, in Paul Tillich’s idiom, our “ultimate concern”.
But what turns us into idol factories? Calvin makes another acute, if less well known, observation in the Institutes, paraphrasing the first century pagan Roman poet Statius: “Timorem primum, fecisse in orbe deos: fear first made gods in the world” (I.IV.4). If idolatry is the primal sin, fear is the primal negative emotion that fires it.
If this reasoning is correct, then perhaps the best way of unmasking our idols is to discover what we’re afraid of. So over the past few weeks - in casual conversations, in watching the telly, in reading the papers - I’ve been taking a little survey to see what frightens people - and then drawing some conclusions about some of the chief idols of our times.
Some folk are afraid of getting fat or wrinkled. Their idol is beauty.
Some folk are afraid of anonymity. Their idol is celebrity.
Some folk are afraid of becoming a burden to others. Their idol is autonomy.
Some folk are afraid of being “swamped” by foreigners. Their idol is the nation.
Some folk are afraid of losing their partner or children. Their idol is the family.
Some folk are afraid of losing their savings. Their idol is money.
Some folk are afraid of Muslims or theological liberals. Their idol is Christianity.
And - it’s 9/11 - some folk are afraid of terrorists. Their idol is (inland) security.
And for the demagogues who exploit their fears, they are afraid of being thought weak, and their idol is power.
A final thought. According to I John 4:18, the opposite of fear is love, which makes love the ultimate antidote to idolatry. Moreover, on this theo-logic it is fear that is the source of the hatred we usually take to be the opposite of love, and therefore fear that is also the source of the violence which is the inevitable issue of hatred - and therefore the ultimate manifestation of idolatry.
By the way, I’m really afraid that the Mets are going to blow their lead in the National League East again this year. My idol is baseball. But then at least baseball is God’s game.