Last evening I had the great pleasure of attending a reception at the Catholic Information Center here in DC featuring author Elizabeth Scalia, editor of the Catholic portal on Patheos.com. Mrs. Scalia talked about her new book, “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life”, from how she came up with the concept, to how the lessons she learned from it continue to affect her. For those unable to attend last evening’s event, she recently appeared on an episode of the Catholic Weekend show to discuss her book with us, which you can listen to online or download in iTunes. It was terrific to finally meet her, and realize she is just as smart, funny, and perceptive in person.
Mrs. Scalia pointed out that one of the issues in contemporary life which can become an idol is what she calls instrumentality. There are gadgets, devices, apps, etc., which can give us a sense of instant gratification, providing balm for our bruised souls in a way which causes us to look to them, rather than to God, for affirmation and consolation. They can also become a substitute for real life engagement, whether it is playing online games into the wee hours, or not being able to stop tweeting, and so on.
From my own perspective as a man, the idea of instrumentality as being particularly attractive for meeting immediate desires is particularly apt with respect to considering how men and women can approach meeting such a need differently. Men, for example, often prefer to be narrowly focused on solving a particular problem in the shortest amount of time possible, whereas women often like to have a wide variety of thoughts and options to consider before making a selection. Admittedly this is an over-generalization, but there is something about that concentration on getting a single task completed as quickly as possible among men, whereas women often will be able to perform several tasks at once at a more measured pace. And technology when idolized can allow us to lose ourselves in both.
As Mrs. Scalia pointed out during her talk, by placing barriers between ourselves and God, we make it difficult for Him to get to us by worshiping a false idol who consumes our time. Most of us are not actually going to make a golden calf to recall the goddess Hathor and then flail around it like rejects from the Martha Graham Dance Company. However we can often find ourselves making bright and shiny idols of other kinds, which reflect back to us what we want to see about ourselves, rather than what God sees about us, and therein is where the idolatry lies: in coming to believe that we need that externality we have created in order to be fulfilled. As she observed, once you realize that these things exist, these idols in the form of behaviors and attitudes rather than little clay or metal figures, you begin to realize that many of us have little idols we have set up for ourselves everywhere in our lives.
It occurs to me that this kind of behavior is more akin to narcissism and selfishness than to what used to be considered worship in the primitive sense, i.e. obsequies paid to anything external like a moon god or a spirit living in a tree. The effect of self-worship is deadly, far more so than mere paganism, as we have seen in case after case with fallen politicians. entertainers, and so on. Yet one does not have to be famous to be a narcissist, for we all know people who are wrapped up in their own successes or failures, and who never left a finger to aid someone else. That level of idolatrous worship not only kills the individual, it poisons the culture, and we have been seeing the long-term effects of this slow drip, drip of poison into our culture ever since it was decided that “I”, “me”, and “my” were the three most important pronouns.
As a final take-away point from her presentation, and an encouragement for you to purchase her book, I will leave you with a couple of ideas from Mrs. Scalia which I found particularly striking. The figure of the dangerous “super idol” – and no, by this she does not me in one of my kryptonian suits – is an important part of her book which comes from the relentless pursuit of the Zeitgeist, the times in which one lives, and it is something which leads to all sorts of unpleasant behavior. As she noted, one cannot go deep when constantly having to hit the shallows, particularly if your primary concern is to be considered cool and up-to-date.
The danger of going along to get along is that it creates an idol with the proverbial feet of clay. Take a hammer to its feet and the whole thing collapses, and unfortunately it often does so on top of us. It also leads to the threat of dehumanization, for example where online participants cannot see past their particular issue to the human being on the other side of the issue from them, or where policy decisions are made on the basis of political expediency rather than keeping in mind the fundamental dignity of the human person. When one is incapable of stepping away from the relentless pursuit of being considered hip and popular, one has made a very worthless idol indeed, and one which is not only harmful to the self, but to others as well.
In other words, gentle reader, do purchase Elizabeth Scalia’s book, and take its messages to heart. For if you are reading this, you are already part of an online world, and one that is very much given to the practice of idolatry. The question for you to decide is whether you are able to see it for what it is, and have the courage to be able to step away from it when and as needed, or whether you are going to let it dominate your personal, intellectual, and spiritual life.
Attic-Greek terracotta foot (5th Century B.C.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York