Idolatry and injustice seem to be at the top of the list of violations of covenant faith.
The prophets and historians of ancient Israel identified the tendency to claim “godness” for one’s own thinking and behavior as the primary “flaw” in human experience. This manifested itself at both the personal and national level.
The foundational Eden story of Genesis 3 identifies the “desire to know as God knows” as life’s basic temptation.
The temptation narratives in Matthew and Luke suggest that the presumption of godly powers was seen as a “test” at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry.
The claim of God’s sanction for extremist perspectives and behavior could be a modern expression of this presumption. “God loves what we love and hates what we hate” seems to be the perspective of many a misdirected religious passion.
This conceptual idolatry is not exactly the “graven image” of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4), but it still reflects the tendency to claim ultimacy for thoughts and beliefs of human making.
At the same time, there is a clear affirmation of the special uniqueness of human life in the biblical testimony from the “imago dei” of Genesis 1:26 through the “Immanuel” of the covenant promise (Isaiah 7:14), as well as the incarnation (John 1:14) and the immanence of the Kingdom of God (Luke 17:21) in the Gospels.
This dual admonition against claiming “godness” for human products, whether they be statues or ideas, and the affirmation of the godness (image of God) in all humanity creates a bit of a dilemma for a faith perspective.
How do we avoid the idolatry so clearly identified and warned against while at the same time affirming the presence of the sacred in human life?
The question may encourage us to think about idolatry as a double-edged problem, with a silent, yet powerful, partner whose effective work we can see easily in our current polarized context.
How often do we hear powerful voices claiming to speak for God and identifying a particular perspective or platform as “God’s will” while at the same time denouncing, explicitly or implicitly, opposing points of view or beliefs as “godless”?
“If God is on our side, then God must not be on yours” is the logic that often accompanies such claims.
If humanity by nature bears the “image of God,” as our theology affirms, then a failure to see and respect the “godness” of others would seem to be a parallel expression of faithlessness alongside the presumption to claim a superior godness for oneself or one’s community.
The judgment scene in Matthew 25 seems to underscore the importance of seeing the divine in the “least of these.”
The presumption of divine prerogative may be the more obvious expression of idolatry, but its by-product – the failure to see the divine presence in the life of the “other” – seems to be a subtle partner that is just as damaging to both the individual and communal life of faith.
The alienation that has become dominant in our public life is being fueled not only by claims of “rightness” for experience and perspectives on various sides, but also by a lack of ability or willingness to see and understand the integrity of the experience and perspectives of the other.
On the positive side, the humility that can avoid more obvious idolatry by recognizing and embracing the partiality of all human understanding seems to have a faith partner in the hospitality that recognizes and embraces the godness in other parts of the human family.
In a time when the arrogance of presumed superiority and the hostility of alienation seem to have an upper hand, maybe the biblical admonition to avoid idolatry’s tag-team assault on our human character offers a better way.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.