In both the Jewish and Christian worldviews, idolatry is the overarching “meta-sin” (to use Simon Gathercole’s expression) underneath all other secondary acts and expressions of human evil. The 2nd temple Jewish text Wisdom of Solomon puts it like this:
“In return for their [i.e. the Gentiles’] foolish and wicked thoughts, which led them astray to worship irrational serpents and worthless animals, you sent upon them a multitude of irrational creatures to punish them, that they might learn that one is punished by the very things by which he sins.” (11:15-16)
“For the intention to make idols is the beginning of sexual immorality, and their invention is the corruption of life.” (14:12)
“For the worship of idols not to be named is the source and cause and end of every evil.” (14:27)
As most New Testament scholars affirm, this Jewish text is most likely a source behind Paul’s diatribe against human wickedness in Romans 1:18-32. The main difference for Paul in Romans is that Jews—as much as Gentiles—are equally guilty of this “exchange” of God’s glory for the things He has made (see Romans 2:1ff). But both traditions agree that idolatry—the turning away from God to take deepest delight in, and ascribe ultimate significance to, the things He has created rather than Him—is the root of all other sins. Our subsequent “sins” are always the symptoms, not the core disease inflicting us. Medicate accordingly. Idolatry necessarily and unceasingly leads to rampant immorality—just as true, God-centered worship leads to the progressive restoration of God’s image in our fragile, broken existence (II Corinthians 3:18, Romans 12:1-2).
As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “When man ceases to worship God, he does not worship nothing—he worships anything.” An almost endless diversity obtains among human beings in their religious orientations and philosophical preferences—theists, deists and atheists; Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists; capitalists, communists and anarchists, etc. But all are worshippers. All seek joy and meaning and security in something, for nature abhors a vacuum. The fallen human heart, as Calvin famously put it, is an endless, continual factory of idols. We churn out new gods every day, proceeding to faithfully bow down and serve them, in order that they might deliver and redeem us.
This spiritual dynamic has fantastically relevant application for the pursuit of genuine human flourishing. As Greg Beale has written, “We resemble what we revere, either for our ruin or our restoration.” The Psalmist puts it this way: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:4-8).
We are destined to become like what we worship. This mimicking pattern is a spiritual fact woven indelibly into the moral fabric of God’s good creation. None can escape it. Given that all humanity has gone astray from the incorruptible God and become supremely fascinated with corrupt, shadowy images and faint echoes of His infinite beauty and splendor, emptiness and death are our inevitable lot east of Eden. Our lives reflect this tragedy. Augustine posited that the punishment for sin in God’s economy is…sin itself (De peccat. merit, 2.22). We are “given over” to what we desire more than God, and these good gifts masquerading as saviors become a wasting disease among us (Psalm 106, also a prominent part of the background of Romans 1).
In reading through Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial of Death, I have been struck by his extraordinary insights into one particularly modern outworking of the ancient dilemma of human idolatry. Becker calls it the “apocalyptic romance.” Though apparently not a believer himself, Becker recognized that the death of God and religious hope had left an enormous void in society. Perhaps the chief way Western civilization has “exchanged” God’s glory is to trade it off for “the romantic solution.”
Listen to our songs. Read our popular novels. Glance at what our magazines and news cycles obsess about. The language employed to describe the ecstasy of erotic love could come straight out of the book of Revelation. Stars fall out of the sky when lovers meet; the earth quakes when their lips meet. Angels are sent on quests by God to bring together restless, lonely soul mates. These romances will last forever and ever (amen), until the waters dry up and the sun refuses to shine. You think Revelation is bizarre? Listen to the typical country music radio station for an hour. Truly frightening.
And just as in the apocalyptic genre of literature, these images are not literal but serve to signify what we ascribe ultimate value and significance and relevance to. For so many in our culture, the narrative center has now drifted toward sex and relationships and “true love.” Yet, as Becker also confesses with brutal honesty, we are bound to be profoundly disappointed and disillusioned by this false god’s lack of response to our desperate prayers, costly sacrifices and loyal, unquestioning service. We are abandoned, finally, and handed over to futility and despair. We forfeit both God (first things) and love itself (second things) when we set romance above our Creator:
“…modern man [by rejecting the religious solution] edged himself into an impossible situation. He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things; he still had to be specially ‘good’ for something truly special. Also, he still had to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and in gratitude…If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him was the ‘romantic solution’: he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object…All spiritual and moral needs now become focused in one individual. Spirituality, which once referred to another dimension of things, is now brought down to this earth and given form in another individual human being…Man reached for a ‘thou’ when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. Modern man’s dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies…Sexuality, which Freud thought was at the heart of the Oedipus complex, is now understood for what it really is: another twisting and turning, a groping for the meaning of one’s life. If you don’t have a God in heaven, an invisible dimension that justifies the visible one, then you take what is nearest at hand and work out your problems on that…[But] sex is a ‘disappointing answer to life’s riddle,’ and if we pretend that it is an adequate one, we are lying both to ourselves and to our children… When you confuse personal love and cosmic heroism you are bound to fail in both spheres, and this double failure is what produces the sense of utter despair that we see in modern man…No wonder. How can a human being be a god-like ‘everything’ to another? No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood, and the attempt has to take its toll in some way on both parties…If your partner is your ‘All’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you…This is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily family lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettinesses of the world expressed through the human beings in it. For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size. We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves, to deflate the unreal over-investment that we have made in them…After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. We turn to the love partner for the experience of the heroic, for perfect validation; we expect them to ‘make us good’ through love. Needless to say, human partners can’t do this. The lover does not dispense cosmic heroism; he cannot give absolution in his own name…Redemption can only come from outside the individual.” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pp. 160-70)
But worship God in Christ, and you will never be put to shame.