Idolatry and Ideology
Ideology tends to have a bad press, blamed for many of the evils we face in the world today. But surely an ideology like Marxism or Monetarism have some valid points? Bob Goudzwaard, in his book Idols of our Time , says:
"An ideology arises when idolatry takes root in the pursuit of a legitimate end."
(his emphasis). So, what is idolatry? What are idols?
Aren't idols those ancient statues that people used in religious rituals? How is it relevant to us? Those idols were visible expressions of something rather deeper; idolatry refers to the deeper thing, not just to the expression. That is why it's relevant to us.
A useful definition of idolatry is:
"Idolatry is finding our our security, our safety, our meaning in something or someone other than God." (Andrew Rudd.
As nations and peoples we try to find security in military or economic strength. We grow suspicious of all others and start to keep them at arm's length; "France has no friends," said de Gaulle, "only interests." As individuals we try to find security in our income, in our insurance policies, in our families, in our clubs and groups. As businesses we try to find our security and safety in risk analysis and avoidance, in information gathering and research, and in 'keeping ahead of the competition'.
We try to find meaning .. well, think about it: where do nations, peoples, individuals and businesses try to find their ultimate meaning?
But it all goes wrong. The security we crave seems further away than ever. Life seems meaningless. Paradoxes characterize our lives.
Ultimate security, safety and meaning are only to be found in God.
God created us for active life in loving dependence on himself. (Note: not 'dependency' but 'loving dependence'.) When we start to depend on something else, including ourselves, in this deep way, then this is idolatry. But it's not just a matter of substituting one 'god' for another; when we turn away from the Living God, the source of our being and meaning and doing, things start to go wrong.
So idolatry is not just a theological matter. It has devastating effects in us, in our families and friends, in our communities, in society and for the planet God put us on. That is why God hates it. He loves his creation and want all our relationships right and healthy.
Goudzwaard discusses four "idols of our time", linking them to ideology:
He shows how each has some validity but how we have made each into an idol and so it became an ideology. He then shows how these four have come together in a 'monstrous alliance' in our time, leading to a life dominated by scientism, technicism and economism. Those are our idols.
- The ideology of revolution,
- the ideology of nation,
- the ideology of material prosperity,
- the ideology of guaranteed security.
It is characteristic of idols that:
- They are often something in creation that is OK in itself.
- Science, technology and economics are useful, in their place.
- We accord them with a worth far in excess of their real validity.
- We make money the measure of all things. We make science the only valid way to knowledge. We make technology and the work of our hands the only way to achieve results. 'Capital' is thought better than 'labour'. And, as a more trivial example of similar tendencies in family life, paid-for leisure is often assumed to be superior to leisure that we create for ourselves.
- We sacrifice for (or to) them other things of life, and thus become impoverished in those areas.
- People are sacrificed for nations. Family life is sacrificed for business life; the best hours of a (western) person's day are devoted to business, and the worn-out dog-ends or the day are left for family. No wonder our family life is deteriorating!
- The idols make promises, but deliver the opposite.
- Think of the phone: Compared with writing a letter, it promises us instant communication - less time wasted in communicating and immediate access to the other person. Now think of the reality. I try to phone on Monday afternoon - he's left the office early. I try early Tuesday morning - he's not arrived yet - but I then have to leave for meetings which last the whole day. I try to phone Wednesday morning - he's engaged. I intend to phone later, but get waylaid into other things. I eventually get through on Thursday afternoon, and spend half an hour discussing some of the finer points in a conversation that goes round about five circles before it gets anywhere. Compare that with writing a letter: I spend ten minutes thinking about it and writing it on Monday, post it, and he gets it Tuesday, and I receive the reply Wednesday. The small idol of the phone has delivered the very opposite of what it promised.
- Road building has become an idol. Think of the M25 round London, built to reduce congestion!!
- Now extend the idea to some of the other idols we have.
'Loving dependence' is different from 'Dependency'. Dependency is when we grow lazy and inactive in some area of our lives that should be creative and active. It is when we assume that someone else (e.g. the State) will supply all our needs in that area, and have a right to it. We become weak and flabby in spirit. We find that what we depend on lets us down, and we become bitter and angry.
Loving dependence is when we joyously recognise our incompleteness and that only in God can we be complete. We find God is more than sufficient to our trust, and love him for it. Dependence on God does not make us lazy or constrained, but rather nerves us for action that is creative, fulfilling and rightly directed to the sustaining and stewarding of his wonderful creation.
In the BSE (mad cow disease) in the 1990s, four billion UK pounds is what it has cost the UK to date to deal with it [this text was written shortly after the outbreak, which was still current]. And many farmers face ruin because of it.
Why? What were the roots of this crisis? In the 1980s the agricultural feed industry started including animal protein in what they sold as feed for cattle. (Cattle are herbivores; it is an offence against their Creator - if nothing else - to force them to eat animal remains.)
Why has this happened? Not because the farmers and the feed industry executives were wicked people who brought this on themselves in the way criminals do. But because of idolatry, and idolatry throughout society and so deeply rooted that few recognised it and even fewer even attempted to resist it. It was an idolatry that had become one of society's assumed norms.
And so adverse effects did occur - to the tune of 4 billion pounds so far and the destruction of many farming enterprises.
- The deep-rooted reason for putting animal remains into herbivore feed was because of the idolatry of Business (or, deeper, Economics). These (large) businesses wanted to increase their profits compared with whom they saw as their competitors.
- What allowed them to do so was an impoverished (and semi-idolatrous) view of cattle and other farm animals, namely as merely food products who needed a certain ('scientifically estimated') amount of protein. They refused to see cattle as biological entities to whose Creator we are responsible for their care and development.
- The foolishness that stemmed from the idolatry made them think that all proteins are the same; it mattered not what type of protein. There would, they assumed, be no adverse effects from going against the natural order of things as the Creator had designed it.
- And, as often happens when idolatry has taken hold, they sought to hide their activity. Whilst in the UK all food products must clearly display their ingredients, the animal feed industry strenuously resisted this. All you find, even recently, on feed packets is "Protein X %". So the idolatry continued undetected.
- Also, as is common in idolatry, once problems emerge, the solutions attempted are not to repent of and reverse the idolatry, but to make drastic changes elsewhere. Cattle were slaughtered wholesale, the U.K. was prevented from exporting its beef, within the U.K. beef can no longer be sold on the bone. The idolatry of Business must remain unscathed, so stupid rules are made (beef on the bone cannot be sold), stupid laws are passed (the U.K. cannot export any of its beef, even its clean beef), and stupid actions are taken (wholesale slaughter of cattle). The cost, 4 billion UK pounds. But the culprits, the feed industry, is not made to pay. Because they are not seen as culprits; we all accept the idolatry of Business.
And then in 2001, because we closed down many smaller abattoirs and maintained an idolatry of road use, foot and mouth disease spread rapidly throughout Britain, leading to millions of sheep and cattle being killed, many farmers losing their whole reason for living, and the UK tourist sector losing billions of pounds.
Goudzwaard B, (1984), Idols of our Time, Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, U.S.A.
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Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2009. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: .
Last updated: 28 October 1998 BSE. 13 May 2001 link to Andrew Rudd, to food; added about foot and mouth. 5 August 2007 Link to paradoxes; .nav, .end. 5 January 2009 otg, .nav.