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On Dogmatism and Idolatry: Good Intentions Gone Wrong
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-07-04 09:02:19
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Lately I have read two interesting reflections on dogmatism and idolatry: one by Martin LeFevre in the pages of Ovi magazine titled “Standing on a Stump in the Universe,” to which I have reacted by supplying an initial comment, and one in a book aptly titled Saving God: Religion After Idolatry (2009) by Mark Johnston. The two together have provoked the following observations which I’d like to share with the Ovi readership.

As I often remind my students of Ethics at Barry University we are fallen creatures. Original sin comes with being human. We are curved in on ourselves, as Luther said and Kant agreed, by our self-love. It is very difficult to achieve a truly ethical life by one’s own efforts. Indeed, the only thing that can set us right is to be seized by "grace" as declared by Johnston in the above mentioned book (p. 81). And he goes on to affirm that if the various forms of grace have a common source in the Highest One, then "the Highest One is more than the monotheisms have allowed" (p. 82). So, how are we to understand the Highest One?

In the first place, the Highest One has all perfections (but we may not know what those perfections are). In the second place, the Highest One could not have created anything distinct from itself. If it had, then the perfections of the Highest One would be reflected in the separate creation. In that case, the "joint reality made up of the Highest One and the separate creation" would be a more appropriate object of worship than the Highest One alone. But only the Highest One deserves worship. So there is no separate creation. Creatures are only manifestations of the Highest One. Johnston explains that “what is called creation is some part or aspect or principle or mode of the Highest One. That is why a worshipful attitude to the whole of reality is not idolatrous" (p. 95). LeFevre seems to suggest as much in the above mentioned article.

According to Johnston, Aquinas took God to be Existence Itself -- something like a Platonic Form. God is the source of all reality and cannot be ontologically dependent on anything else. This view, coupled with Aquinas's idea that a composite thing is dependent on its components, leads to what Johnston calls 'the identity theory of God's nature.' God cannot have attributes like Goodness, Justice, etc.; God must be his properties. God is identical to his attributes, which are identical to each other. So, God is a single attribute -- not part of monotheism at all.

Now, the identity theory of God's nature is at odds with Aquinas's account of analogical predication. And if divine predication is equivocal, we get a paradox of the Highest One: Any differentiated knowledge of the Highest One's nature will imply that this nature is complex, so that the Highest One is not a se, and so not the First in the order of being, and so is not, in fact, the Highest One. The way out of this paradox is to note that "not every whole made up of distinct parts is ontologically subordinate to those parts. For the parts may themselves essentially depend on the whole they make up" (p. 110). So God, the First Being, can be complex. If complexity can enter into the nature of the Highest One, we can compare two alternative identifications, the Thomistic one and the panentheistic one: The Highest One = Existence Itself, and The Highest One = the outpouring of Existence Itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents.

On the Thomistic identification, according to which the Highest One is Being, "the analogical basis for describing Existence Itself as Love does not lie in the essential nature of the Highest One." But on the panentheistic identification, the Highest One is not Being (nor is it an ordinary existent); it is a kind of activity that could be analogically described as Loving. On this second identification, the Highest One is "Being's Self-Giving" (p. 113).

And this leads to the issue of idolatry, to the notion that the god of the philosophers may simply be an idea created by themselves which they then worship idolatrously. Indeed idolatry is a troubling often misunderstood biblical term. Some consider it merely an exaggerated symptom of primitive tribal exclusiveness. But this does not take into account the continual chastisement of Israel by her supposedly chauvinistic God: "You only have I known of all the peoples of the earth: therefore will I punish you for your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).

Of course the definition of idolatry as "the worship of a false god" presupposes an understanding of the word "god." The Bible uses it as a strictly functional term. It stands for that point of reference, external to himself, which serves the individual as both his criterion of truth and his standard of value. For a child, his parents usually function as his god. The Bible further contends, however, that having a god is by no means a phenomenon of childhood alone. On putting away the gods of his youth, the adult does not become godless; he merely substitutes one object of worship for another.

The Bible never charges a man with being irreligious. It conceives the human being as "worshipping animal" who necessarily has some object of primary allegiance which functions as his guide to truth and his norm of conduct. As Jung used to say, man is a religious animal; throw religion out the window and it will come back from the back door. In other words, though free to adopt the god of his choice, no man is free to avoid this decision. The gods of the twentieth century are simply more sophisticated than graven images of wood and stone. Baal and Moloch have learned to masquerade as the various "-isms" and "-ologies" which compete for modern man's allegiance.

Nor do they always require the incognito. A surprising number of moderns openly acknowledge that they have in fact exchanged the biblical God for another god. Science, of course, is by no means the only deity to which modern man has looked for deliverance. Today's pantheon is as liberally populated as those of Greece and Rome. Its patrons provide case studies in the effect of idolatry upon the individual. If a man's character is the reflection of his values, and if his values are derived from his god, then the kind of person he becomes depends directly upon the object of his worship. As the psalmist well puts it: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not . . . They that make them are like unto them; so is everyone that trusteth in them” (Psalm 115). If a man is made in the image of God, then the key to personality is religion. It would consequently never occur to a biblical author to write either the biography of a man or the history of a nation apart from a thorough account of their respective gods. Indeed, the gods return from the back door.

The religion of science, for example, leaves its trademark upon its devotee in the form of that humorless, fact-centered literal-mindedness which so readily lends itself to caricature. The same inner logic is at work in another modern cult, that of deified democracy. Explicitly embraced as their religion by numerous intellectuals, it casts its followers in the mold of an undistinguished mediocrity, without style or manners. This is the kind of democracy critiqued by the prince of Salina in the novel Il Gattopardo. Carrying "democratic equality" beyond the political sphere, where it properly belongs, into the whole of life, they tolerate no distinction between the superior and the inferior; everything is reduced to its common denominator. Under the dominion of this god, the cultivation of a fine sense of discrimination and taste, once recognized as the very spice of life, threatens to become an un-American or un-European activity. Multiculturalism has misguidedly been critiqued on those grounds, but that’s another issue. In any case, it remains the world characterized by the prince of Salina in the Gattopardo as the world of the hyenas and the jackals.

Of course, a person need not confine himself to a single god. But he who tries to divide his ultimate loyalty also splits himself. No longer integrated about a single center, his personality becomes equivocal and ambivalent. In its extreme form, this phenomenon is known clinically as schizophrenia. Its diagnosis, in biblical terms, is polytheism. This biblical analysis provides an easy explanation of the frustration most people have experienced in arguments over moral questions. If a man's moral values are the consequence of the god he worships, he will never change them without first changing gods. Until he does, all criticism of his standards will appear to him as treason. Some have substituted a pet dogmatic philosophy as their god whom they worship and any deviation is considered a deviation from the true orthodox view.

That a man's god is the keeper of his conscience is beautifully illustrated by examining any of the modern “isms.” Take Communism, for example. A book by six former Communists demonstrates how this movement, point for point, fits the biblical definition of religion. Bearing the significant title The God That Failed (1949), it gives a vivid, first-hand account of the way in which this idol washes not only the brain but also the conscience. Lenin spoke for all its victims when he declared that had he not purged his own closest comrades he would have been guilty of treason to his ideals. He thereby revealed that the cleavages which divide the world are too deep to be resolved by moral indignation. Now, as in ancient times, they represent a battle of the gods. Take Nazism as another example, that other god that failed: the worship of the German nation. This fearsome deity not only molded the Nazi character, not only hypnotized the conscience of the world's most scientific nation, but, with its mystique of war, exhibited the same appetite for human sacrifice as the pagan gods of Babylon.

The destructive consequences of idolatry provide the touchstone by which the Bible distinguishes the true God from impostors. At this suggestion that one religion is true and the others false, the modem reader recoils in horror. Like Professor Toynbee, he has been conditioned to respond to any such claim with cries of "intolerance" and "bigotry." But this is hardly the kind of reaction which befits a scientific age. When the prophet invokes the distinction true and false, he is merely applying the same principle with which science has so successfully fought dogmatism. The scientist's basic premise is that, under specified conditions, a given question may have millions of false answers, but only a single true one. Far from encouraging dogmatism, this distinction between true and false enables men to resist claims of infallibility, whether advanced by church, political ideology, or intellectual doctrine. Yet, by a curious inversion of logic, the very principle which prevents authoritarianism in science is thought to promote it in religion. To maintain that there is but one true God among a host of pretenders raises in people's minds the specter of inquisitions and witch hunts.  

Some contemporary theologians have been so frightened by this misguided charge of bigotry that, in their zeal to avoid it, they take a position which ironically enough can lead straight to it. For, in their haste to agree that it is impossible for one religion to be truer than another, they deny that Christianity finds corroboration in either reason or experience. Christian loyalty is a leap in the dark, closed to tests of any sort. It is completely gratuitous and, therefore, in the last analysis, arbitrary, superstition and sorcery. Such theology is consequently more open to bigotry than that which acknowledges an objective criterion by which it can be refuted. And it is the open acknowledgment of just such a criterion which the God of biblical theology demands.

The prophets of the Old Testament were not afraid of being refuted by either experience or reason. The Bible is not a collection of dogmatic fulminations and unverifiable pronouncements, but a book of evidence. Far from exhorting men to believe what they cannot see, it taunts them for their veritable genius for not believing what they do see: "Ye have eyes to see but do not perceive; ye have ears to hear but do not understand" (Is. 6:9). The prophets challenge false gods and their worshippers to a trial of strength, and invite them to choose their own weapons. The victor will be determined on the basis of performance. The true God is He who actually accomplishes what His rivals only claim to do. All gods provide the individual with a standard of truth, reality, and goodness, upon which to base the day-to-day decisions of ordinary life. He who entrusts himself to a false standard therefore flies in the face of reality. His behavior will resemble the drunkard's in its incongruity with the facts of life. Hence the prophet's derision: Every man is brutish in his knowledge, every founder is confounded by the graven image. For his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are vanity, and the work of errors. In the time of their visitation they shall perish (Jeremiah 10:14, 15). The idolater has been duped by a promise which only the true God could fulfill. Having bet on illusion instead of reality, he is sure to be confounded. In the end his idol will visit him with the exact opposite of what he had expected.

Two phenomena provide dramatic illustration of this thesis as it applies to two of modern Western civilization’s favorite idolatries, the cult of individualism and the cult of sex. Individualism or self-reliance sometimes known and libertarianism has been invoked as an infallible guide to economic, political, and even moral decisions. One would therefore expect therefore that modernity is the incubator of strong, independent personalities. Yet studies by Erich Fromm and David Reisman have indicated for a while now that we are fostering instead a mass-produced citizenry whose greatest desire is to emulate, whose greatest fear is to deviate, and whose greatest skill is to be all things to all men. There is one such man now running for the US presidency in the Republican party. He has never opposed anything his base (mostly tea party fanatics) has espoused.  In fact he comes from a culture that worships the rubber-stamp mentality in that bastion of free enterprise and private industry, the corporations of private industry. He’d like to transform the whole of the US into a giant corporation run by bankers and financial planners. While consciously doing obeisance to the god of rugged individualism, the industrial corporation often dictates to its executives their taste in dress and automobile, their choice of friends and clubs, and even their ethical and political views. Exactly as the prophet would have predicted, the more desperately individualism is pursued as a good in itself, the more it is belied by the facts.

A similar fate can be observed in the worshipper of sex. It is exploited at every opportunity, from art to advertising. The prodigies recorded in the Kinsey Reports do not suggest fulfillment, but rather a frantic groping for the right combination. A theologian, Robert E. Fitch has even diagnosed this ironic phenomenon in his The Decline and Fall of Sex. Analyzing the treatment of sex in so-called "daring" books, he finds not vitality but tedium, not joy but cynicism, not exaltation but degradation. The hero is the person who goes through with it as an act of fidelity, even of sacrifice, to Aphrodite. Promising its followers salvation through sex, this god destroys their capacity to enjoy it.  As a man repeatedly barks his shins upon these recalcitrant facts, he may see through the duplicity of his idol, and recognize that he has been the victim of a "god that failed." Like any intoxicant, however, idolatry has an element of the vicious circle about it. Since he cannot recant without loss of face, the idolater resolutely fortifies himself against the rude awakening. This inability to come to terms with reality, of course, is one of the surest symptoms of neurosis. It reaches an extreme in philosophers like Nietzsche and his followers, who pride themselves on the "courage" to believe in illusion, who scorn success and who court catastrophe. This willful blindness underlies the prophet's description of idolatry as the "primordial stupidity." In addition to this self-deception, however, there is also a touch of pathos about idolatry. Its victim has also been duped. In St. Paul's words, "When ye knew not God, ye were in bondage unto them which by nature are no gods" (Galatians 4:8).

It must also be said that more often than not, these gods are able to deceive a man by appealing not to his baser instincts but to his sense of goodness and even ideals. Science, democracy, patriotism, and the rest are all creative in the service of God. Only when permitted to usurp His place do they run amuck. Most idolatry is thus not simply the fruit of sheer perversity, but of good intentions gone wrong. The idolater may even set an example of sincere and courageous devotion. The biblical analysis enables one to sympathize with his bewilderment when his self-sacrificing exertions boomerang. But ultimately the final arbiter between gods is pragmatic: the true God is He who keeps His word; the others are idols. But it is also objective: the true God can fulfill His promises only because He is the Lord of all reality. The biblical writers tell of a God whose promises to men far exceed those of the most extravagant idols. They also invite men to behold the mighty acts by which He fulfills them. The biblical prophet summons every idol to a trial of strength, secure in the confidence that "God is not mocked" and that the Lord of all reality keeps his word. Food for thought!



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Gerard C. Farley2012-07-05 21:53:26
"On this second identification, the Highest One is "Being's Self-Giving" (p. 113)." An metaphor for God's creative activity is the human phenomenon of a teacher imparting or at least awakening knowledge in a student. In teaching the student, the teacher does not lose the knowledge he is imparting. Good instruction is a "giving that is not a losing." God's substance, according to St. Thomas, is in no way diminished by the act of creation.

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