Perhaps it was because I was a teenage boy, but I remember studying in an archeology class the Venus of Willendorf. This is the oldest known idol. While our modern minds want to put these idols into glass cases in museums in order to point at the primitive nature of these people, we fail to consider what it says about human nature and our own hearts. Why does every culture have its own mode of idol making?
John Calvin famously said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols….men are forging gods at will. What Calvin is saying is that humanity is constantly wanting to form miniature gods that embody what we think is important. And it is not until we can touch, hold, direct and manipulate these mini-gods do feel satisfied. We make idols because we want to our god’s to do and be what we desire.
So, while it may be easy to look at the miniature idols of of the past and mock their simplicity, we fail to understand that their heart’s desires and longings are just as insatiable as our own. We tend to laugh at the idea that a doll would bring hope to families struggling through fertility issues.
We look at the food bowls that Egyptian priests would offer their gods each day in order to make them happy, wondering how they could get around the cognitive dissonance that the previous days food was still rotting in the bowl. Yet we daily go through the repetitive motions at work hoping our bosses would be happy with our actions.
Alan Hirsch writes in the Forgotten Ways: “If you were a practicing polytheist living in that time and place and wanted to draw water down at the river, the trip would take you past the fields on which you depended, past the first, and down to the river. The religious dilemma you would face in such a seemingly simple activity is that because there were different divinities ruling each of these aspects of life, this was no easy thing–it was fraught with spiritual danger. In order not to offend the Baal of the field that you would pass along the way, you would need to take a sacrificial offering and perform a religious ritual at the shrine of the field. Then you would have to pass that old foreboding tree. Imposing trees were often thought to contain nasty spirits called dryads, so you would have to be sure not to stir the dryad, and once again you would need to follow a prescribed ritual requiredment to appear that particular dryad. Once again, your belief system would inform you that if the river goddess was offended, the river might dry up or flood, either way causing catastrophe and suffering. So once your reached the river, the goddess of the river, a particularly unpreditacble deity, would also have to be placated with a sacrifice. Thus, the simple action of going to the river was actually quite a religiously complex process…”
This is what sets Christianity apart in its radical monotheistic belief that Jesus is Lord. Though we still practically live like polytheists, while we trust Jesus for our eternal salvation, we continue to forge idols for our marriages, our children, our jobs and the other aspects of our lives. We may shake our heads at the complexity and superstitions of other religions, yet we bow before gods of youthfulness, money, success, power, comfort, achievement, education and many other idols.
We may not sacrifice animals on the altar of Mercury–the god of commerce–but we do often sacrifice our family, our children, our ethics, our health at the idols of our jobs.
If archeologists were to discover your house 2,000 years from now what trinkets would they put behind glasses cases as the examples of your idols? Family photos? Medicine bottles? Exercise equipment? The food in the pantry? Bank statements? xBox 360? A diploma?