I am going to make a strong call that I am make little hesitation: we need a moratorium on using the word “idolatry.” At the core of my criticism is this: we don’t use typically use idolatry to refer to specific practices directed towards some ‘figure’ of power, but we use it to refer to what we deem to be the cause of injustice. While I support many of the motivations that people have when addressing “idols,” such language smells of sloppy ethical critique cloaked in Biblical language to give its legitimacy. Instead, I would propose that we find alternative terms that are more descriptive of the causes of injustice, such as ideology, sins, ignorance, etc., than use such a sloppy form of thinking where the referents of “idolatry” only resemble the historical practice of idolatry in terms of being “wrong.”
The reason for this criticism is two-fold. Firstly, in the Biblical world, to speak of idolatry immediately conveyed the solution to the problem: stop doing the things that venerate the idol. Today, however, the reference of “idolatry” have shift away from action in the world to a cognitive-affective internalism that is used to describe values, worldviews, cultural beliefs, ratonality, etc. When we use idolatry to refer to the way people think, rather than what people do, we unwittingly engage the internalist way of thinking ushered in by Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment, although Francis Bacon was one of the first philosophers to refer to mental processes as idols. The damage of this is that this is, essentially, a veiled form of mind-control in which one tries to control the content of persons thinking through, essentially treated them as equivalent of ‘infidels’ for getting it wrong. While most people do not actually use it to such language to its worst effects, the more people give in wholeheartedly to such a sloppy use of “idolatry” to refer to internal realities rather than specific classes of well-demarcated behaviors, the more potentially abusive it can become.
This is not said from a note of superiority on this matter, but it is something that I have felt a strong conviction about myself as I have used “idolatry” to refer to various sorts of thoughts and feelings. However, in the end, I realize such language was partly due to my inability to describe what it was I was observed and that it is language that does not provide a clear solution towards those “guilty” of idolatry. Rather, the fear of such language is that those who wield such language will determine what does or does not constitute, without clear, reasonable guidance as to how to avoid “idolatry.” It is convenient appeal to people’s moral pathos to try to persuade, but it isn’t really effective at bring long term comprehension and understanding towards transformation if the specific actions to take to remedy it are not clear.
Building off of that, secondly, by putting a “moratorium” on usage of the language of “idolatry,” we will be forced to dedicate our thinking to clear descriptions of what the concerns and causes of sin are and, with that, the potential for developing a clearer plan for action. We can’t just point to the Biblical texts as some authority without making sure that what we are describing is strongly analogous to idolatry as describing in the Scriptures, but we are called to engage in a social form of thinking and analysis that calls us to understand the people who are committing the errors. Furthermore, by not flippantly referring to something as “idolatry,” which puts the burden on the “idolater” to get it right, we are more open to recognize our own role in bringing the redemptive message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to redirect people’s lives away from the sins and injustices that have bound us, both in the doing of them and being the recipient of them.
Certainly, there are still some things that can be deservingly called idolatry that have come clear prescriptions, such as the idol of money which calls for a distinct distancing of oneself from the purposeful activities of needlessly acquiring and increasing one’s wealth. But this is the sort of things where a prescription for the problem can be given, even if the prescription is not an easy one for people to grasp (as Jesus said, it is easier for a camel….). But much of what we criticize as idolatries are very different things than idolatry in the Biblical sense.
Undergirding the spirit of calling things “idolatry” is an iconoclastic spirit that seeks to tear down and dismantle the “errors” of those we oppose. While their are times to do such, such as Barth’s bomb in the playground of theologians, iconoclastic action do not build peace and shalom, but they simply take power away. To that end, lets unveil what is really happening under much of the “idolatry” rhetoric: post-modern deconstructionism. I don’t use this as an evil phrase, but rather to point out that people are more focused on deconstructing the worldviews and values of other people, cultures, etc. Maybe they are willing to reconstruct a new worldview, which they may use Christ to justify, but how many are truly willing to allow the freedom and the space to allow people to grow to reconstruct a new worldview by their worship of God in Christ through the Spirit? Deconstructionism is not the Gospel, even as sometimes our worldviews must be deconstructing to come to and grow in Christ, and deconstructionism does not bring God’s shalom.
The way that Paul worked in his evangelistic ministry, at least in Corinth, was through Gospel narrative and demonstration of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit was the witnessed breaking down of the worldviews and ideologies that influenced Paul’s audience that also simultaneously testified to the power of God in the cross of Christ told in the Gospel narrative. As such, Paul’s evangelism became an invitation to a community gathered together in a Triune worship, which when faithfully lived out would lead believers away from the idolatries, ideologies, and worldviews taught and propagated by the various exalted figures of wisdom, power, and honor n that day.
To that end, rather than focusing on “idolatries,” it may be more pertinent for Christians to focus on the right and wholesome worship of the Triune God and to bring to light how our values, ideologies, and worldviews may be cutting off and limited this worship. However, the purpose here is not to direct control the worldviews, values, and ideologies that people should then hold to, but rather to bring people to live more faithfully before the One who gives His wisdom to those who have grown to love Him. If there is some clear and abiding action, such as the overvaluation of money, that works against the redemption had in Christ. then we can provide a clear account of this with a clear prescription. But if there isn’t a clear prescription to address the problem, using “idolatry” is not helpful, even if it may feel very emotionally satisfying to explain social and political problems as “idolatry” and create a feeling of “rightness” in one’s argument.