Our Idols and the Icon


An anniversary is an occasion for taking cognizance of what we normally take for granted: a young person’s life on an 18th birthday, a marriage after 25 years, an institution 50 years into its existence.  The anniversary that we are celebrating in this volume is the anniversary of a mission, that of venerating and making known the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.  There are many aspects of this mission which we tend to take for granted and which merit careful attention in this jubilee year.  Our purpose in this piece is limited to just one such aspect: the role of the Icon in saving us from our idols.  To understand this role, it will be necessary to try to grasp how pervasive and destructive idolatry is in our hearts and in our world.  Only against this sombre backdrop will it perhaps be possible to grasp the powerful, liberating force of God’s grace that contemplating the Icon can release. 

What makes an idol an idol?

                In order to understand idols, where should we begin?  The question is of vital importance.  One thing for sure is that the place to begin is not with idols themselves.  It makes absolutely no sense to start thinking about idols without first thinking about what needs to be the case in order for there to be an idol.  There never was an idol, for instance, without an idolater.  The way the idol is looked at, or more precisely looked to, by the idolater is constitutive of the idol.  But what exactly is an idolater?  In order to answer this question we have to push back our thinking and begin to talk about God and worship.  The negative nuance of the term “idol” (in the sense of a false god) completely depends on some conception of the true God, of a believer and the (extraordinary) possibility that the believer can relate to God in worship.  At this point we could, of course, ask “who is God?”, “what is a believer?”, “what does it mean to worship?”.  To push back the frontiers of our thought on these matters just is to do theology and would bring us well beyond our present scope.  For the moment it is enough to note that idolatry is not some odd, exotic, ancient practice but a real daily risk tied to the fact that we are capable of worship.  As the saying goes, “Tell me what/who you worship and I will tell you who you are…”

                But let us get back to our immediate question: “What makes an idol an idol?”  To attempt to grasp the essential characteristics of the idol we will consider the emblematic story of idolatry in the Bible, the story of the Golden Calf:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”  Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  This he took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf.  And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced:  “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!”  Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. (Exodus 32, 1-6)

The first thing we need to note about this text is that the episode it recounts is part of a longer story, the history of salvation, in which Yahweh liberates his people from Egypt.  Divinity and salvation (in the Bible these terms are closely correlated) are essential elements in understanding idolatry.  Salvation in the case of the people of Israel meant in the first instance salvation from slavery and hard labour.  It is in the desert, while waiting a long time for Moses, that the people feel anew this need for salvation, now in the form of someone to lead them through the desert.  There is an atmosphere of desperate need, distress and panic among the Israelites just before they ask Aaron to make the idol.  The idol is a way of coping with this emptiness.

                The second thing that the story teaches us about idols is that they are made by human hands, Man-made.  In Genesis Man, in the sense of humankind, is God-made.  God-made man is called by God to live in the world not passively but by interacting with all that is created in order to continue the act of creation, and in this sense live in the image of God.  This passage of Exodus reminds us that God-made Man has the terrible possibility of making Man-made gods.  The act of making an image out of gold is an act of betrayal within the relationship between Israel and God who saves.  In this act, the people usurp the place of God and invest an image with expectations which only God can meet.   

                A third, closely-related, characteristic of the idol in this story is that it is visible.  God cannot be seen because God is invisible; Moses cannot be seen because he is not there.  The people sharply feel the need of a God whose image they can see.  The act of looking at the Golden Calf is not idolatrous because the calf is made of gold, or because of any artistic or aesthetic merit it might have had.  Looking at, or looking to, the Golden Calf is idolatrous because in doing so the people attribute to the Calf what God alone can do: guide them through the desert.  Once again, we see that idolatry is inherently linked to salvation, it is in some sense a form of blasphemy, the denial of God.

                Another point that we can note about the idol in this story is that it becomes the centre of a cult and ultimately of a culture.  We are dealing here not with the idolatrous act of an individual but with a corporate act of idolatry which takes on cultic form in the feast proclaimed by Aaron.  Cultures are constructed around shared meaning and one element which can give meaning to a people is the cult through which it relates to God.  An idolatrous culture substitutes the relationship in faith with the God who cannot be seen with a cult to an image which can be seen.

                The last and most important point about the idol is that it is powerless to save.  In the story we have read, and in what follows, the idol does absolutely nothing.  As mentioned above, idolatry is not about an object, but the way an object is looked at and looked to.  This constitutes the core of the scandal of idolatry: substituting a Calf, albeit in gold, for the Living God who has saved and can save.  There is something ridiculous, indeed perverse, in making such a substitution.  The reader, in empathy with the figures of Yahweh and Moses, is led to ask the important question: how could they do it?

                These brief comments must suffice as the key indications offered by this story as to what makes an idol an idol.  The background to idolatry is radical human need as it meets a saving initiative on the part of God.  In the act of idolatry the people refuse this initiative and make a visible idol for themselves which becomes the centre of their cult.  Since the object of their cult is powerless to save it cannot unite the people and lead them to salvation.

Our Idols

                The text we have just considered comes to us across the centuries, through narratives, translations and interpretations of all kinds.  We read this text in a world extremely different from that in which it was written.  The danger with all this is that we fail to see the connections between the idol in the story and the idols in our lives.  In an effort to overcome this problem, we may take the characteristics of the idol identified above and seek to recognize their equivalents in our time and in our culture. 

                Perhaps the best place to begin is with the desert.  In Exodus this is a real desert, for us the desert is a powerful metaphor for a key dimension of our experience as human beings.  The main dangers in the actual desert are twofold:  lack of orientation and want of nutrition.  If we want to find the equivalent to the desert in our contemporary lives then these are the two key questions:  how do I know where I am going? And how do I nourish myself while getting there?  It is not easy for us to recognise these chronic human needs because of the way our culture is organized.  We know where we are going and have plenty of nourishment.  Really?  It is worth repeating the obvious truth that if we know where we are going and if we have all we need to get there, then we do not need salvation.  The first step in receiving and remaining open to God’s salvation is an acknowledgement of our ultimate poverty and abject need.  In very different cultural circumstances, the drama of idolatry is played out today precisely in the way in which we cope with this needfulness:  by accepting salvation from God or by finding surrogate gods.

                Faced with this distressing poverty, are we in danger, like the Israelites, of worshipping Man-made gods?  There is presumably no danger of us falling down before a Golden Calf.  What would be the contemporary equivalents?  The popular answer is “money, sex and power” as popular idols in our world.  There is much truth in this idea, but it is perhaps necessary to insist on what makes these things into idols.  Money, sex and power are in themselves good and necessary elements in human existence.  They are God-made.  To understand idolatry, we need to look not at money, sex and power in themselves but at how these can be invested with a weight and a role that is not theirs.  It is only over against some conception of the true God who saves that we can grasp the futility and perversity of these elements when treated as gods.  What is more, if we are fortunate enough to have no unhealthy attachment to money, sex or power, it would nonetheless be rash to conclude that we are idol-free.  The criterion for identifying idols is worth remembering:  something made by Man which is attributed with the role of salvation that only God can play. 

                Is the invisibility of God a problem for us in contemporary culture?  Are we tempted, like the Israelites, to produce visible images of God at our disposal and under our control?  All depends here on what we mean by “God”.  If, in fact, God is a vague, nebulous, distant Presence with whom we have superficial and infrequent relations, then the visibility or invisibility of God does not make much difference.  If, on the other hand, we are convinced that God is our origin, our sustaining power and our destiny, then God’s invisibility can quickly become an issue.  A proof of this is what happens when we try to spend 30 minutes in the dark, with the invisible God, without images, ideas or words.  In this context, the invisibility of God is painfully endured and can often result in a panic-driven clutching after something visible or audible. 

                Does it make sense to think of contemporary, modern, liberal culture as idolatrous?  Here again we must be careful to distinguish between cult and culture as necessary and positive dimensions of corporate human life and the idolatrous forms of these realities.  The question is: what role do these forms of cult and culture play in our lives over against the cult of the Living God and the culture of salvation?  Maybe the best way to understand this problem in our times is in terms of meaning.  The problem of cultural idolatry can be expressed as follows:  where do I/we find meaning in life?  That we find some form of meaning in many human activities (speaking, working, relating to others etc.) is obvious and necessary, but do these specific forms of meaning constitute the ultimate meaning of my/our existence?  Another way of saying the same thing is to think of horizons.  To live in the world is to live within and move between horizons of all sorts (intrapersonal, interpersonal, social, political, cultural, global, cosmic etc.).  The question of cultural idolatry concerns where we set the outer, ultimate horizons of our lives.    

                The most important question concerning idolatry in our lives and in our culture is the question of the idol’s inability to save.  The episode we have examined is followed in Exodus by worse distress, collapse, annihilation, all depicted precisely as the consequences of idolatry.  As individual persons, and as cultures, we are on the move.  We are moving towards the fullness of life offered by God or some lesser form of life to be found in the worship of idols.  In this sense, our situation personally and collectively is not less dramatic than the people of Israel:  our salvation, like theirs, depends upon where we put our ultimate trust.

Putting these thoughts together we arrive at a rather alarming conclusion:  idolatry is not just one problem among other problems, one sin among other sins, but the problem and the sin which threatened Israel and which threatens us today.  As human beings we are involved in a perennial struggle between the true God and the many idols which present themselves as seductive alternatives. 

The Icon

                What is the role of the Icon in overcoming our idols?  Like the idol, the Icon appears in a context of radical human need, as a material image it is Man-made, it is visible, it can be the centre of a Marian cult and is not itself the source of salvation.  So there are certain factors which idols and icons share – this in part explains the power of idols.  We saw earlier that it is the way the idol is looked at or looked to that makes it an idol.  In a similar way, it is the way the icon is looked at and looked to that make it an icon.  How can we look at and look to the Icon in order to be freed from our idols?

                One interesting way of answering this question is to think of the Icon as Gospel.  We are familiar with the written Gospels, such as the Gospel of MarkThe Gospel of Mark is Gospel because it tells in words and narratives the story of our salvation in Christ.  It is not a newspaper account but a proclamation in faith of salvation already experienced and salvation still possible in Jesus Christ.  If the Gospel of Mark does this in words, the Icon does precisely the same thing in colours, shapes, body-language and facial expressions.  What makes the Icon an icon and not an idol is the relationship of all these factors to God-who-saves.  To break down this idea it is helpful to think of some distinct moments in this history of salvation.

                Let us begin with the moment in which the Icon was made.  We know next to nothing about the historical details, but we do know that at some point, someone, somewhere took up the necessary materials and tools to produce the image.  To what end?  Certainly not, as in the case of idols, to serve as a surrogate for the absence of God.  The image was produced in order to express the faith of the producer in the invisible God.  We know from other sources that producing an icon is not like producing a painting or a portrait.  To produce an icon is an act of faith, an act of prayer and an act of worship.  To contemplate the Icon, in the first instance, is to join in this act of faith, prayer and worship.  Just as we pray with the psalmist in identifying with what he expresses through his words, so too we worship with the producer of the icon by identifying what he expresses in colour, shape, body language and facial expression:  sorrow, fear, horror, but also faith, hope, love, glory and praise.  The vivid colours and dramatic attitudes of the Icon concentrate in one visual image what is told in words in the Gospel.  In this sense, the Icon is the Gospel made visible, the Gospel in colour.

                The salutary power of sharing in the worship of the Christian believer who produced the Icon completely depends on prior moments in history.  The two moments most graphically expressed in the icon are the moment of the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus.  Once again, the Incarnation and the Passion are known to us through the narratives of the written Gospels.  Both the Gospels and the Icon derive their power and authenticity from the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus in history.  The original event is not written or painted but lived out in the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Whereas the written Gospel presents these truths through words, the Icon explodes the horizons of time and space and depicts salvation in a single image.  The image is timeless in that it invokes simultaneously the birth and crucifixion of Jesus, as well as suggesting less directly the presence of God beyond time through the presence of the Angels.  The horror and the glory of what is being depicted is brought out very strongly in the body-language and the facial expression of Mary.  By empathizing with her feelings as Jesus clutches her hand we are drawn into the relationship between Mary and Jesus as it was lived out in history.

                But Mary’s look is not directed to Jesus but to me.  To whom?  This is precisely the question that the Icon poses.  To me a worshipper of idols, wandering idly in a wilderness, consoling myself with futile distractions?  Or to me a believer who recognizes his poverty and opens himself to the extraordinary, saving initiative of God?  Most of us, most of the time, are some kind of mixture of these two ways of being human.  By contemplating the Gospel proclaimed in the Icon, as a visible expression of the Gospel proclaimed in the Word, we can be helped to renounce our idols and entrust ourselves totally to God-who-saves.                                                                                                                                                 Martin McKeever C.Ss.R.