Paul L. Caron

Sunday, March 5, 2023

NY Times Op-Ed: The Wages Of Idolatry

New York Times Op-Ed:  The Wages of Idolatry, by Tish Harrison Warren (Priest, Anglican Church; Author, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (2021) (Christianity Today's 2022 Book of the Year)):

Warren 3Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period (not counting Sundays) in the Christian calendar that is focused on repentance and preparation for Easter. During Lent, Christians talk a lot about sin, an idea that for many bears the mothball scent of a religious relic long packed away and best left forgotten. For some, the terms “sin” and “sinner” seem self-hating or judgmental. For others, they sound silly, associated with things like lingerie and decadent chocolate cake, what the English writer Francis Spufford deemed “enjoyable naughtiness.” Even those of us comfortable with these terms often think of sin as individual bad choices, like stealing and committing adultery. All of these notions seem inadequate to describe the source of so much oppression, violence, chaos and heartbreak in our world and our lives.

Yet there is a specific though less discussed category for sin that sheds light on human fault and failure that is particularly helpful in understanding our society and ourselves: idolatry. ...

In his book “You Are What You Love,” the philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith points out that what most deeply drives us is often not what we articulate as our deepest love. In other words, he says, you may not love what you think you love. We may not worship what we say we do. Part of why idols can remain invisible to us is that they are often not individual in nature. Typically, communities, nations or subcultures have particular idols, which become so normative that they are no longer recognized as idols. They become the water we swim in.

The idea of idolatry explains why evil often feels like more than the sum of its parts, more pervasive than just individual actors and actions can account for. It’s why lots of seemingly nice individuals can end up living in a society full of oppression and dysfunction. In his book “Seek the Peace of the City,” theologian Eldin Villafañe notes how our actions are not merely transactions between one person and another but are more like threads in a “complex web” of social existence. The institutions and structures that form us “seem to have an objective reality independent of the individual, and thus can become oppressive, sinful and evil.” Individual actions ricochet within the larger whole in far darker ways than any person can orchestrate alone.

What does this look like on a societal level? Days after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, I tweeted, “If you want to know who or what a culture worships, look at what people are willing to let kids die for.” I was thinking about idolatry. The United States has a profound devotion to guns. ...

The example of guns, which is largely a politically partisan issue, implicates the ideological right, but idolatry occurs across the entire political spectrum. The left has its own idols as well, which, like those of the right, remain largely unconscious and invisible to its adherents but drive societal dysfunction. It has its own manifestations of disordered worship of power and individual rights. The challenge, for all of us, is that it is easy to spot the idols of our ideological opponents but far more difficult to see our own. It asks us to look at those things that we find our hope in, things we believe without questioning, things that promise to make us whole, safe or happy but don’t or, worse, that harm others in the process.

Understanding our hearts as idol factories invites us to the difficult work of honesty and humility. It tells us that people do harm, sometimes without knowing it or without meaning to, which means that we probably do as well. It tells us that we are not driven by pure rationality or unfettered love to the degree we suppose we are. And this humility allows for compassion and charity to others, even our enemies. It tells us that they are not uniquely evil. They are driven by disordered passions and loves just like us.

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Other New York Times op-eds by Tish Harrison Warren:

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