Idol Worship

God, n. -- Supreme Being in whose image we are made; often worshipped as if He were made in ours.

-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Among the apostles, Thomas is mainly remembered as the one who refused to believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he had seen him with his own eyes and touched his wounds. Thomas’ namesake in Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light is a small-town pastor in Sweden who suffers a crisis of faith after his wife’s death. He now barely goes through the motions of ministering to his dwindling flock. A suicidal fisherman comes to him for solace, and the pastor can manage only to utter banalities. “We must live,” he says, without conviction. To which the fisherman counters, “Why must we live?” Pastor Tomas has no answer, even for himself, and soon afterward the fisherman takes his own life. In the pastor’s experience, human suffering is met only by God’s silence. Dominating Tomas’ church is a ghastly crucifix showing an anguished Jesus, bleeding and emaciated, abandoned to his fate on a cross. “Absurd image,” the pastor cries, no less anguished.

Accustomed as we are to Christian iconography, there is still no denying the strangeness of this image as an object of worship. St. Paul acknowledged as much when he said “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” The chief stumbling block for Jews is the worship of a man -- or the representation of a man. This is regarded as idolatry, pure and simple. Christians might argue that the veneration of icons should not be confused with idol-worship – a distinction that would probably be lost on any cultural anthropologist observing the genuflecting that goes on in many churches.

The 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach would take it a step further and argue that all religion is worship of a man or at least of mankind’s inner nature. We intuit certain qualities within ourselves and then project them onto external deities. “The consciousness of the infinite is nothing else than the consciousness of the infinity of consciousness,” Feuerbach wrote. Like the hapless Narcissus pining away by the reflecting pool, we do not realize that the image shimmering before us is really our own. The proper study of religion is not theology but anthropology, Feuerbach would argue. He wrote, “God is man writ large.”

Feuerbach, who was an atheist, may have been on to something, although I think he stopped short of truly understanding the implications of his own ideas. We are conscious of the infinite, he says, and we wrongly assume it originates outside ourselves. But why should we be surprised that our inner nature encompasses the infinite if we are indeed created in God’s image? Our mistake is in seeking elsewhere for something that can be found only within ourselves. Thus, Pastor Thomas’ search for some answer to human suffering was met with silence because he had been led astray by a dumb idol.

1 Corinthians 1:23
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
I Corinithians 12:2

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