Lately I’ve felt like an outside observer to the melodrama that is our society. I am an audience of one, silently and emotionlessly watching a play taking place on stage and screen. I contemplate the action and reaction, dialogue and monologue, and try to understand. The thing that perplexes me most is not the plot or cast or even the issues that animate the action. It is the exaggerated emotion the actors express and the extreme action they undertake to defend and serve their causes. This is what needs an explanation.
I see displayed over relatively small matters the kind of passion usually associated with reactions to extreme blasphemy in traditional cultures or with modern nihilistic ideologies that demand absolute loyalty to the point of murder or suicide. Characters melt in despair or explode with rage over a word spoken against their political, moral, or religious opinions, which they seem to identify with the highest and holiest reality. They have staked their worth, well-being and happiness on the absoluteness of their cause. Now their cause has been blasphemed! And their first impulse is to pick up stones to silence the blasphemer.
What explains this phenomenon? There are, of course, social and psychological factors, but I wish to propose a theological explanation: idolatry. An idol is a finite thing that you treat as infinite, a relative value taken as absolute. When you vest your entire worth and happiness in an idol you are caught in a paradox. You have to defend, trust and cherish your idol as if it were the absolute and almighty God, but deep down you know that it is relative and vulnerable. Because the idol cannot bear the weight you give it, you cannot bear to hear its name blasphemed and its authority challenged. It is supposed to be your salvation, but you find yourself forced to rise to defend its honor and work for its victory.
But a savior that needs saving, a god that needs defending is a contradiction from which there is no escape. Perhaps this dilemma explains the despairing rage and the raging despair of those whose “divine” cause has been disparaged.
How can we escape the paradox of idolatry? Is there a way out of emotional slavery to the fortunes of our beloved causes? I have two suggestions. First, do not give your heart to an idol, no matter how impressive it is or what reward it offers, even if the whole world bows down before its image. Never trust in any temporal cause as if it were eternal. Do not mistake the relative for the absolute, the good for the perfect, or the powerful for the omnipotent. Second, give your heart, your whole heart, to God alone. God cannot fail. No blasphemy can diminish his honor. No idol can dim his glory. Unfailingly, he brings the true good in all good causes to perfection. No need to fear, no reason for anger, and no grounds for despair. In God, God alone, there is hope, peace and joy even in this turbulent world.