Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, April 24, 2017

idolatry revisited

Frederick Buechner’s novel Son of Laughter has a passage I think about often, a beautiful passage about idols and idolatry. Before you read it you should be aware that the novel, which is about Jacob the Patriarch, refers to God not as God, or the Lord, or YHWH, or even HaShem, but as the Fear. That said, here goes — and read it slowly, preferably aloud:

The unclean blood no longer clung to our hands, but the small gods clung still to our hearts. They clung with silver fingers, with fingerless hands of wood and baked clay. Like rats, the gods gibbered in our hearts about the rich gifts they have for giving to us. The gods give rain. The swelling udder they give and the sweet fig, the plump ear of grain, the ooze of oil. They give sons. To Laban they gave cunning. They give their names as the Fear, at the Jabbok, refused me his when I asked it, and a god named is a god summoned. The Fear comes when he comes. It is the Fear who summons. The gods give in return for your gifts to them: the strangled dove, the burnt ox, the first fruit. There are those who give them their firstborn even, the child bound to the altar for knifing as Abraham bound Isaac till the Fear of his mercy bade the urine-soaked old man unbind him. The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted, as to me from the stone stair he gave promise and blessing, and gave them also to Isaac before me, to Abraham before Isaac, all of us wanderers only, herdsmen and planters moving with the seasons as gales of dry sand move with the wind. In return it is only the heart's trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless.

These were the days of workshop-idolatry, idol-making on a human scale, idols at retail rather than wholesale. The idols, once made, stayed with us; indeed, this very passage is a kind of midrash on Rachel’s decision, when she and her husband Jacob flee her father Laban, to take the household gods with her. They are too precious, too comforting, too well-known to be left behind. We know every line in the carved hands, which the caressing of our hands has worn smooth.

But when we have access to what I have called “the universal idol-fabricating device,” then each particular idol becomes temporary, dispensable — it is the fabrica itself, the forge or workshop, that becomes the true object of our veneration. The idol-maker has become the idol. Thus my comment on that previous post: “I do think, though, that it's interesting to consider the difference between idols made by hand (as it were arithmetically) and those made by an endlessly iterated algorithmic process. The former we may be more attached to, but we can't exchange them easily for others; the latter can't earn our complete adoration, but they don't have to because there are always new ones being extruded from the pipeline. We are serial idolaters.” And yet consistently faithful to the devices that generate and transmit the temporary idols.

This is not a religious argument in the sense that my categories are relevant only to people who believe in a true God the proper worship of whom is co-opted by idolatry. People who don't believe in any god at all may be equally concerned when human beings worship what other human beings have made. That digital technologies can produce convincing, or at least adequate, simulacra of the transcendent should be a source of concern to the religious and nonreligious alike, though not always for the same reasons.

5 comments:

  • I'm commenting mostly to think through this post, so apologies if I miss the point.

    "The idol-maker has become the idol." To which I wondered, so what? If we really do venerate the devices that supply us, then isn't that veneration simply equivalent to that of the old idols? And, alternatively, if our device-worship is somehow lacking, then it what sense are we worshiping?

    (And, if truly we worship the productive devices, in what sense does the device produce idols?)

    Following Buechner, let's say that worship of gods versus Gods really comes down to our orientation to divine gifts: whether transcendent gifts result from summoning gods, or are unreliably bestowed upon God's instigation.

    To worship a device as an idol, then, is to provide gifts to it instrumentally. Perhaps we gift the devices our privacy and our attention (more radically: our happiness). In return we get the ephemeral (the transcendent?): online community, staying-in-touch, connecting-to-the-past.

    But I remain confused as to what sense this is worship of the forge. The analogy gives me trouble. Aren't the gods themselves supposed to be reliable purveyors of transcendent gifts? And the devices themselves aren't what we worship (they are trash, more or less) but the abstract "gods" they represent: social media, organizations, tech.

    Which is to say that it seems to me the actual gods of our age, in this analogy, are not digital forges but the abstract entities that they funnel into our lives. Is this so different from workshop-idolatry?


    Or maybe you're saying that the modern forge is the industry that lets us put idols(/devices) in our hands. Is this what we worship?

    [Is there a distinction at all between the idol and the god? I should reread Kugel's God Of Old.]

    It seems to me that a move from worship of gods to God can involve an expansion of human responsibility. After all, if God provides boons spontaneously then those gifts are unreliable. What can we do? We have to seek them out using mundane methods.

    This seems relevant in the digital case as well. If we really do worship our technology, then this could be a reduction of our responsibility to cultivate our own community and connectedness.

  • Michael, most of the questions you're asking are ones I would only be prepared to answer at the end of this project, not here at the very beginning. I'm noting certain correspondences and developments now, but what they all mean, what they all add up to, what they teach us about ourselves, I don't expect to know for a very long time.

  • Thanks for sharing the ideas process -- it's very thought-provoking.

    If I had to mush my comment up into one line, it's worry about what precisely the perpetual forge is, and what it would mean to worship it. I'm looking forward to thinking more about that.

  • Long time read, first time commenter.

    I wonder if the idol-factory (over the workshop) perhaps engages us on a more abstract level. It does not offer any particular idol or illusory power-relationship between us and the divine, but the brute possibility of production. The idol-factory of the computer (the smartphone) is a tool that appears to be unconnected to any particular result. You can do anything with it. So our worship (in the broad sense) does not have to be directed towards any particular end. It can be mutable, merely an abstract possibility expressed in endlessly variable ways.

    This mirrors a great deal of the approach to life I see around me in Australia. People believe in abstract principles - God, spirituality, a crude version of karma. But as soon as you push them on concrete things like the person of Jesus, they relativise Jesus as one expression of something bigger.

    Because all our technology is multifaceted and can be turned many different ways, perhaps we begin to believe the same about us and about our contact with the divine. The idea of inherent telos is eliminated. And without telos, there can be no fulfilment.

  • B.G., this:

    "The idol-factory of the computer (the smartphone) is a tool that appears to be unconnected to any particular result. You can do anything with it. So our worship (in the broad sense) does not have to be directed towards any particular end. It can be mutable, merely an abstract possibility expressed in endlessly variable ways."

    seems exactly right to me at this point in my journey.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]