Idolatry and Fear

by Kim on September 11, 2008

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.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1

dh 09.11.08 at 8:44 pm

I always thought idols were things that are looked at as being equivilent or greater than God. Therefore something that we think highly about but not on the same level or higher level than God cannot be looked at as an idol perse.

My definition is the first one which clearly people have strong views but not place it as being equal or greater than God. I believe God wants us to have strong views on things as long as it is not placed as being equal or greater than God. So which of these 5 definitions does one mean when one calls someone in “idolatry”? To me the sin violating the firwst definition or having the 4th definition great or equal to God.

Main Entry: idol
Pronunciation: \??-d?l\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French idle, from Late Latin idolum, from Greek eid?lon image, idol; akin to Greek eidos form — more at idyll
Date: 13th century
1: a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly : a false god
2 a: a likeness of something bobsolete : pretender, impostor
3: a form or appearance visible but without substance
4: an object of extreme devotion ; also : ideal 2
5: a false conception : fallacy

2

dh 09.11.08 at 8:45 pm

I always thought idols were things that are looked at as being equivilent or greater than God. Therefore something that we think highly about but not on the same level or higher level than God cannot be looked at as an idol perse. My definition is the first one which clearly people have strong views but not place it as being equal or greater than God. I believe God wants us to have strong views on things as long as it is not placed as being equal or greater than God.

So which of these 5 definitions does one mean when one calls someone in “idolatry”? To me the sin violating the firwst definition or having the 4th definition great or equal to God. Main Entry: idol Pronunciation: \ Function: noun Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French idle, from Late Latin idolum, from Greek eidōlon image, idol; akin to Greek eidos form — more at idyll Date: 13th century 1: a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly : a false god 2 a: a likeness of something bobsolete : pretender, impostor 3: a form or appearance visible but without substance 4: an object of extreme devotion ; also : ideal 2 5: a false conception : fallacy\’

3

ee 09.11.08 at 10:40 pm

Very interesting Kim, thanks.

What if something is a minor, fairly passing concern? Is that still idolatory? Or just the block of wood from which an idol can be fashioned?

And what about fears which seem to spring from love - e.g. I’m concerned about so and so’s health, because I don’t want them to suffer?

You also have a clear need to repent of your baseball idolatory and embrace Cricket, a game so angelic it is even played in white.

4

Davey 09.12.08 at 7:33 am

dh, anything at all can be an idol. My fear is having anything before God, therefore my idol is idol-less-ness…. *head pops*

5

Tony Buglass 09.12.08 at 9:52 am

dh - The point is that whatever is the dominant force in someone’s life can in effect be their god, so the false one is idolatrous.

My favourite quote (I forget who said it) is that idolatry is about false mental images just as much as false metal images.

6

Kim 09.12.08 at 11:50 am

Hi e.e.,

Yes, it’s when our fears move from the passing to the ultimate that they suggest an underlying idolatry. And empathetic and compassionate concern is to be distinguished from obsessive anxiety.

As for cricket - yes, a great game, but it comes from the earth, while baseball is heaven-sent. I refer you to my “Ten Reasons Why Baseball Is God’s Game”, among my “Propositions” at Faith and Theology. As for whites, they are now a relic of the four/five-day match (which, sadly, itself is becoming marginalised by the limited over game and twenty-twenty swingfest, where the players are beginning to look like - baseball players!). Angels, by the way, go around naked; clothing them is an artistic convention.

7

PamBG 09.12.08 at 12:09 pm

Thinking about it. I used to be terrified of God.

Hmmmm…..

8

Kim 09.12.08 at 1:17 pm

Hi Pam,

And well you should be! As long as it is not the “fear [that] has to do with punishment” (I John 4:18) but Isaiah’s mysterium tremendum, his “Woe is me!” awe in the presence of the Holy One (Isaiah 6:5).

9

Beth 09.12.08 at 1:18 pm

Pam, I think you’re making a good point! God can become an idol. Theological thought that asks us to be terrified of God’s judgement and prescribe an absolutist way to placate him turn him into an idol: a false conception which misses out God’s boundless love and the subtlety of his nature; a form of “godness” without the true substance of God; an impostor who takes the place of the God revealed in the Bible. This God peddled by fearful Christians is not really the Christian God, he’s Zeus.

Kim - naked angels? You’re such a perv!

10

PamBG 09.12.08 at 2:08 pm

And well you should be! As long as it is not the “fear [that] has to do with punishment” (I John 4:18) but Isaiah’s mysterium tremendum, his “Woe is me!” awe in the presence of the Holy One (Isaiah 6:5).

Um, well it wasn’t mysterium tremendum. Churches that are concerned with threatening adults and children with the wrath of God aren’t - I don’t think - trying to instill a sense of mystery in people. They are either terrified themselves and want you as frightened as they are. Or they are narcissists (God’s wrath doesn’t apply to them) and understand at some level that instilling fear in you gives them control over you. (I don’t think the ‘understanding’ is conscious for the most part.)

I think you’re making a good point! God can become an idol.

Or our conceptions of God. And we must all be guilty of this one?

11

Kim 09.12.08 at 4:15 pm

Hi Beth,

I’m not a perv. Well, I am, but not because I claim that angels wear only their birthday suits. In fact, I am quite orthodox: angels are spiritual beings - what ’s the use of threads? Of course, modest folk that they are, when seraphs visit the Holy Throne they cover their privates with their wings (see Isaiah 6:2 - “feet” is a Hebraic euphemism for genitals). But the text only goes to prove my point.

12

dh 09.12.08 at 7:24 pm

I don’t believe God can be an idol. I also believe it isn’t people threatening people with punishment but an understanding that: “The wages of sin is death but that Salvation is a gift of God…”I believe on can relay in a loving way that without Faith in God we are nothing. Kim, you make a wonderful point to Pam in reference to the “Fear of God”. There is a Godly fear. I believe anything can be an idol but we need to be careful when stating what we observe to be idols in other people. We need to be correct in our observation. If it is placed equal or greater than God it is an idol. If we place something that goes against God as being okay that can be as well. However, I see nothing wrong with thinking well of country, free market, etc. as long as those things don’t go against God or are placed equal or greater than God.

God’s love is boundless but it never is one where sin is condoned, accepted, etc. Also God’s love is boundless toward all people but that doesn’t mean that the wages of sin is done away with toward those who reject Christ. “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in Heaven.”

13

Beth 09.12.08 at 7:32 pm

Wait, now. Angels have genitalia? What’s the point of that, if they’re all male? Unless…

…oh dear.

14

dh 09.12.08 at 7:57 pm

Angels do not have genitalia they neither marry not give into marriage which implies they are neither male not female. I also don’t buy that “feet” refers to genitalia in the text. The wings literally cover the feet. The feet the we understand that we stand on.

15

dh 09.12.08 at 7:58 pm

So Beth no need to think oh dear on something when no genitalia is being referenced within the text in Scripture.

16

Tony Buglass 09.12.08 at 7:58 pm

Kim - feet a Hebraic euphemism for genitals? Angelic genitals at that? To refer to Freud (”sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”) sometimes feet are just feet…

17

PamBG 09.12.08 at 8:15 pm

I’ve actually been taught the same thing about ‘feet’ being a euphemism.

18

dh 09.12.08 at 8:32 pm

Well Pam, maybe what you were taught is wrong?

19

Richard 09.12.08 at 8:57 pm

I can see why you think it is unlikely, DH. Feet don’t put me in mind of genitals either. But I believe it to be true that the Hebrews did indeed use ‘feet’ in the way Kim says.

20

dh 09.12.08 at 9:44 pm

Well Richard, thanks for the generosity in the conversation. I will say that while this might have been commonplace in the culture for feet=genitals that doesn’t mean that within the particular text in Scripture that that is necessarily the case. Kind of reminds me within the English language where multiple definitions of the same word occur. I kind of see this that way with “feet” not meaning “genitals” within the Scriptural text even though Hebrews might (I repeat might) have used the same term with a different meaning.

21

PamBG 09.12.08 at 9:57 pm

Well Pam, maybe what you were taught is wrong?

Yes, it could be wrong, but what is your basis for challenging it?

22

dh 09.12.08 at 10:10 pm

Well Pam, the passage that angels neither marry nor give into marriage and other passages that refer to angels not able to procreat seem to show that “feet” actually is what it says literal feet. I still question the understanding that Hebrews used feet as being referred to as genitals.

23

PamBG 09.12.08 at 10:31 pm

DH,

So, your argument is ‘Because angels don’t have genitals, the ancient Hebrew language could not have used “feet” as a euphemism for “genitals”‘?

24

PamBG 09.12.08 at 10:32 pm

And isn’t it odd that angels don’t have genitals but God does?

25

Lee 09.12.08 at 11:45 pm

Terrific post! I’d be really interested to see a follow-up post on how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in particular can work to free us from idolatry and fear. (The bit about love at the end is suggestive, but I’d love to see it “fleshed out” a bit more (pun intended)).

26

Tony Buglass 09.13.08 at 9:36 am

My point was not that ‘feet’ couldn’t be a euphemism, but that it isn’t necessarily a euphemism. Hence the quote from Freud: he famously saw lots of things (like cigars) as phallic symbols, but sometimes they simply function as what they are.

In fact, the Hebrew regel is used euphemistically and idiomatically for the genitals: so in Isa.7:20, the “sa’ar reglim” which NIV translates as “hair of your legs” actually refers to pubic hair (according to Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Hebrew Lexicon). The most famous occurence which is probably euphemistic is Ruth.3:8, 14 (especially in the light of v.9).

That notwithstanding, the conclusion that Isa.6:2 refers to angelic genitalia is not only unnecessary, but a bit bizarre. As is the discussion as to whether they could or could not have had them - isn’t this a bit like speculating about them dancing on the head of pin?

Perhaps anthropomorphism is the new idol…

27

Beth 09.13.08 at 11:13 am

Personally, I shall take the definitive proof as coming from the film “Dogma”, where the angel Metatron describes himself as being “as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll”. Genius!

28

Richard 09.13.08 at 11:42 am

I’m just wondering what this conversation will do to Kim’s next Maundy Thursday service.

His congregation should be afraid. Be very afraid.

29

Kim 09.13.08 at 12:03 pm

Hi Tony,

You forgot Exodux 4:25.

“Bizarre” has got nothing to do with it. It’s a question of scholarship. I’m only following the two commentaries I’ve got on I Isaiah: John Bright and Otto Kaiser both say that “feet” is a euphemism for genitals. And I am quite sure that, in the guild of Old Testament theologians, their exegesis is not considered eccentric. Kaiser suggests that the seraphim’s “covering of their private parts expresses the immensely ancient experience of a connection between sex and feelings of guilt.” (And, by the way, I suspect Freud himself would agree.)

Anyway, thanks for your input. At least it is informed and intelligent. But with DH I hear an axe grinding (no change there then). According to Matthew 22:30 (cf. Mark 12:25, Luke 20:36), heaven is marriageless, but the texts say nothing against sexual differentiation, and indeed assume that there will be men and women in heaven. In I Enoch 15:6-7 the maleness of angels is also assumed, as God tells them that “I have not appointed wives for you.” So what’s your hang-up, DH?

30

dh 09.13.08 at 4:21 pm

Well Kim, 1 Enoch is not part of the canon of Scripture and thus is not the Word of God. I never said God had genitals and Pam to your first question, yes that is my argument and it is consistent and logical.

I’m totally with Tony on this whole discussion about sex of angels when in fact they are asexual.

P.S. to the head of a pin answer it can be answered definitively. Scripture says 1/3 of the angels fell and went with Satan at the fall. This implies that there is a finite number of angels. Since a pin is finite and there are a finite number of angels, then the answer to how many angels God can fit onto a pin is all of them. However, be advised that God is a Holy God and if chose to not do this or do this would not change the fact that He is God. Just like when Jesus was tempted to fall down from the temple and be caught with angels. He didn’t “fall for that’ and didn’t give into the demands of this request. so it is with angels on a pin. :)

31

Davey 09.13.08 at 7:08 pm

Okay, so I’m definitely with you that “regel” has a euphemistic sense to it, as opposed to the reference to Ruth where they use “marglah” which apparently is only used in the sense of an actual, true foot.

And it sort of makes sense that genitals are the order of the day for all of God’s creations, since I’ve heard said in certain places that part of the fall of the angels might have had to do with them “taking wives” where none were appointed.

But why do the angels cover themselves in Isaiah 6:2? (indeed why would they cover their actual feet anyway? - as I understand it, long as they were barefoot, they are observing the holiness of the place)

In Genesis it was only *after* sin that Adam and Eve became self conscious of their nakedness, and even then, *they* were the ones that cared, not God…. so…. Were the angels somehow affected by the fall in this regard? Did God not mind human genitals, but angel genitals were outright? :: furrows brow ::

32

Davey 09.13.08 at 7:12 pm

Oh I went back and looked at Exodus 4:25… and yes it’s “regel” but… at what point do we step back and say, “not *every* use of this word is euphemistic?”

33

Tony Buglass 09.14.08 at 1:07 pm

Davey, marglah is derived from regel. Hebrew words build upon the 3-consonant stem (in this case rgl). Adding m- to the front means “place of” - so the root gdl gives the verb gadal = to grow up or become great, the adjectival noun gadol = great, strong, mighty, and the noun migdal = tower (Ge.11:5). mrglh (or marglah with the vowels) means the “place of the feet” or euphemistically the place of the genitals. It doesn’t actually affect the issue of this conversation - whether reglim means feet or genitalia.

I come back to the question whether it needs to mean genitalia (so Freud and cigars). I did ponder the question of what the angels in Isa.6 might have been covering - I had a mental image of symmetrical shapes, wings upwards over the face, downwards over the feet, outwards providing lift. I take Kaiser’s point about sex and guilt - which would be especially an issue in Hebrew thought, given the taboos against exposing nakedness (Gen.9:21f). I am also exercised by the question of what lies behind the text: what did isaiah actually see, as opposed to how he interpreted what he saw? Visionary experiences can be notoriously dificult to describe objectively - we describe the indescribable in terms of what we understand, so there is always a degree of interpretation involved.

The short answer is we don’t know. As I suggested earlier, perhaps anthropomorphism is a potential idol. We really cannot be too dogmatic about this - especially about dancing on pinheads. Love the casuistry, dh, but either angels are very small, heavenly pins very big, or this was an angelic inversion of the motorcyle riders in a pyramid. For formation aerobatics, with or without pins, I’d rather have the Red Arrows… ;)

34

dh 09.14.08 at 4:42 pm

I’m with tony but feel we can be definitive to know that feet is not genitals. I agree with Tony and Davey in there agreement of being personally against it being genitals. For feet to be genitals one has to projecvt something outside of the text and do some “finagaling” : “Hebrew words build upon the 3-consonant stem (in this case rgl). Adding m- to the front means “place of” - so the root gdl gives the verb gadal = to grow up or become great, the adjectival noun gadol = great, strong, mighty, and the noun migdal = tower (Ge.11:5). mrglh (or marglah with the vowels) means the “place of the feet” or euphemistically the place of the genitals.”

Seems strange to me just take the word for what it says rather than go this gobblty gook.

35

Richard 09.14.08 at 6:59 pm

Quite right, DH. Let’s have no more of this dang book-learning. ;)

36

Davey 09.15.08 at 6:02 am

Four things:

First of all the good news is nobody’s salvation hinges on whether angels have genitals.

Secondly, especially to DH, I never said I was against angels having genitals, in fact I non-specifically pointed to some evidence that they might.

Thirdly, after I thought about it, if the Seraphim DO have “bits,” I answered my main question, which was not do they or why would they, but why did they cover themselves… the angels not being ashamed or guilty. My dad provided the basis for the thought: modesty. They were probably being deferential to ISAIAH!

Fourthly, thanks Tony for pointing out the relationships in the words!

37

Tony Buglass 09.15.08 at 1:08 pm

dh - “For feet to be genitals one has to projecvt something outside of the text and do some “finagaling” … Seems strange to me just take the word for what it says rather than go this gobblty gook.”

Well, sorry, but that’s all part of the art of translation. Words do not necessarily simply equate across the languages, especially when (as in this case) they come from quite different language-families. Every language has a range of idiomatic imagery, and it is often necessary to be aware of “something outside the text” in order to translate it properly.

38

dh 09.15.08 at 3:07 pm

I don’t believe it IS necessary to be award of something outside of the text to translate it properly. For me I take it for what it says.

I personally believe they were covering themselves as a reprensentation to us humans to show how powerful the Glory of God is when in the physical presence of.

Richard, “book-learning” or like one person projecting something from outside of text. If it was true booklearning then no outside of the text thing would need to be used.

39

Kim 09.15.08 at 6:11 pm

Well, the comments have gone quite off topic - and right off the rails. So I’ll conclude by responding to Richard’s concern about how this conversation will affect next year’s Maundy Thursday service at my church. I think I’ll link the foot-washing with a Good Friday sermon on “penal” substitution. ;)

40

Tony Buglass 09.16.08 at 2:55 pm

dh - “I don’t believe it IS necessary to be award of something outside of the text to translate it properly. For me I take it for what it says.”

Which might not be what it meant to the hearers/readers in te priginal context, thus not what was intended by the original speaker/writer - which means in adhering strictly to the text, you have missed the message.

Translation, I repeat, is only partly about words. It is about language, which includes a wider frame of reference than the text alone.

41

dh 09.16.08 at 4:00 pm

Well I just don’t buy the the logic that just because things are similar that they are the same. That is basically the logic people on this thread are doing this Hebrew word is similar to this Hebrew word and therefore they are the same. I still stand by what I have said. I also don’t believe that in ancient times that language was that complex as those on this thread make it. I believe it was much more simpler and thus the way text states is thus the way it is.

42

Richard 09.16.08 at 5:04 pm

I reckon we’ve gone with this as far as we can.

Let me sum up. Kim reminds us that in Hebrew texts, ‘feet’ are sometimes used as a euphemism for ‘genitals’. DH doesn’t believe that’s possible. Davey introduced 2 different looking words for feet. Tony demonstrated how the 2 apparently different words are in fact related.

And I’ve some smiles along the way.

43

PamBG 09.16.08 at 7:56 pm

When I asked my tutor in theology college why I had to learn biblical Greek for a year because I couldn’t learn enough biblical Greek to be useful, he said ‘So that you learn that there is no such thing as a direct translation and a real meaning of the text.’ No one bothered to find out that I spoke German, French, Italian and Spanish and that I already knew that.

But there you have it, apparently I was wrong all along. Es ist mir egal.

44

Davey 09.16.08 at 11:00 pm

I’m with you Richard… actually it was a good excuse to call my dad the other day. “Hey, dad, stupid question…” (I also introduced a sound reasoning why they might be covering their “feet” too. : )

45

Harry Coverston 02.03.13 at 7:06 pm

Ironically, I can think of few more effective fearmongers than John Calvin. His theology has given rise to one of the most anal retentive ways of being human known to humanity. Calvin’s idol was his obsession with sin which results in an incredibly distorted anthropology and a culture based on control. Worst of all, this is a tyrannical deity demanding sacrifice of many aspects of our humanity. Calvinism tends to fetishize the Bible and raises fear of self and others to an art form.

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