Idolatry and indifference

The human heart is an idol factory.

An idol factory, yesterdayOur pastor quoted this line in his sermon yesterday, attributing it to Martin Luther. The internet usually attributes it to John Calvin, but there are some vaguely-sourced suggestions that Calvin got it from Luther. Whoever first said it, there is certainly a lot of truth in it.

This morning I was reading an essay by James Alison that discusses the topic of idolatry at more length: Monotheism and idolatry: Preface to a conversation. This was a presentation given to an inter-religious symposium on René Girard, and begins with an extended discussion on how Muslims, Jews and Christians can talk honestly together as friends. In the third section of his talk, though, Alison moves on to what René Girard can tell us about idolatry:

It is too easy to regard idolatry as a bad thing, and thus associate it with forms of behaviour which we call bad. The most upsetting of the insights which Girard has given us is that: given that violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred, what others may call idols, we call gods. It is in the things that we hold dear, and regard as a source of goodness, of identity, of strength, of unity, of wealth and of belonging, that we are especially likely to invest the force of our idolatry.

Related to this is the discussion that Girard calls on us to make between the sacred and the holy:

The sacred, whether we are referring to something in an archaic culture, or a contemporary culture, whether it is apparently religious or not, is something which is structured sacrificially: it tends to present itself as a form of power and goodness which demands attitudes of subservience and respect, and in the face of which some peoples and things are regarded as potential contaminants to be excluded.

By contrast, the holy is what we find as “penitent idolators … set free from being run by the sacred”:

The Holiness of God is only available to us as a still small voice amidst the noisy rubble of the sacred.

This then leads Alison to his definition of an idol:

an idol is that which demands sacrifice. It always presents itself to us under the appearance of the good, the necessary, the just. And it always diminishes our humanity, displacing it in favour of something that is not, that neither sees, nor hears nor feels.

God, on the other hand, “not only does not demand sacrifice”, but comes to set us free from “the illusions of sacrificially-achieved goodness” – and thus to make us truly human, rather than being driven by the need to define ourselves by the exclusion and sacrifice of a hated other.

Our idolatry operates at both a personal and a group level – because it derives from my desire, which (being, in Girard’s system, “mimetic”) originates in, and imitates, the desires of others. “There is always a continuity between any personal idolatry and the idolatry of the group in which I live,” Alison says.

He goes on to apply this to Pope Francis’ talk about the idolatry of money and the “globalisation of indifference” – in which “rich countries and rich people in poor countries are increasingly indifferent to the plight of the poor elsewhere.” Alison suggests that a Girardian understanding shows that this indifference is not an accidental byproduct of our economic system, but an inevitable consequence of it:

our modern economic pattern of desire has allowed us to have been weaned from ‘hot’ forms of solidarity with each other, forms which very easily spill into enacting vengeance; our weaning from them thus enables an ever freer flow of competitive imitation. But this has as an automatic, unintended, but absolutely regular consequence a systemic blindness to those too weak to thrive. Our idol teaches us to sacrifice to it with a good conscience, producing blindness and indifference on the way. Indifference is a modern victimary construct.

Not that we should fall into the trap of turning such insights themselves into another exclusionary mechanism, a way by which we can identify those bad people, over there, who are making the world such a horrid place. Rather, Alison wants us to train this analysis at ourselves first:

Anyone who can help me apply this insight to my life and to the life of my Church in such a way that I, or we, can hear from it and learn from it, is my friend.


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