The Idolatry of Disbelief

There are many profound and beautiful things to mark the reader’s passage through Lumen Fidei, the long awaited encyclical on faith by Pope Francis, issued on June 29, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.  Beginning, of course, with the recognition that the lion’s share of the work derives from his learned and holy predecessor, Benedict XVI, the unmistakable imprint of whose acute theological intelligence is all over the document.  Francis may have put his name to the text, but the real and decisive shaping force belongs to Benedict.  Which is only fitting inasmuch as Lumen Fidei represents the very last of the three great encyclicals on the virtues defining the Christian life, beginning with Deus Caritas Est (2005), followed by Spe Salvi (2007), culminating finally in Lumen Fidei (2013).

There is one section that especially stands out, indeed, it is given an almost prophetic prominence, and that is Article 13, which, in its sounding of the awful depths of our post-modern malaise, reminds us all of the urgency of the need for the light of faith.  For it is precisely here that we see the real and permanent difference between faith and that idolatry which has become the special province of post-modern man.  It is an idolatry which having once encircled us in darkness will, if unchecked, inexorably lead to despair and death.

So what exactly is idolatry?  And how does it characterize the age in which we live?  The text is wonderfully clear and emphatic in telling us that idolatry stands always in opposition to faith.  That when we lose the way of faith, the result is not a sudden fall into nothingness, which, admittedly, is no easy matter to sustain (outside, that is, the precincts of network television, where shows about nothing abound).  But rather a tendency towards that sheer disordered dissipation of desire, which, all too often, becomes a belief in anything.  So in saying no to the one living God, who is the only God—the God of Cosmos and Covenant, the God of Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ—we fall prey to a corrupt and corrupting array of false gods, to powers and principalities that tyrannize over the human heart, reducing everything to the anarchy of an appetite grown limitless and depraved.

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“Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence,” the pope warns, “he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires … his life story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants.”  Not a single one of which can ever add up to anything remotely approaching that sense of end or purpose on which our lives depend for direction and ballast.  Such is the fleeting and insubstantial gossamer of human desire when left untethered to truth, to the truth about God of which faith holds the deposit box.

The fall into idolatry, then, becomes simply another name for polytheism, which the text describes as “an aimless passing from one lord to another,” offering its victims, “not a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.”  And those who elect to go down that road, refusing to entrust their lives to God, are fated only to hear the loud incessant screech of the idols as they cry out: “Here, put your trust in me!”

In the world of pagan antiquity, which is the time before Christ suffered to enter and redeem that world, those who fashioned idols did so largely because they could not bear the seeming absence of God, whose presence they required immediate and palpable evidence of in order to shore up the structures of belief and piety.  “If all things were within our grasp,” writes Gregory of Nyssa, “the higher power would not be beyond us.”  Well, paganism could not abide that beyond, preferring the higher power to be in a place at once accessible to those who worship at its shrines.  It was the Otherness of God that they minded most, the hiddenness of One whom they could not bear to remain absent (“alone with the Alone,” as Cardinal Newman once put it, was never enough).  And so they felt themselves driven to the extremity of creating their own gods, so many bogus and pathetic versions of the one true God.  They did not know, or did not want to believe, that faith, “by its very nature,” as the text reminds us,  “demands renouncing the immediate possession which sight would appear to offer,” opting instead to repose confidence upon the unseen God, who is the source of that light by which we are able to see at all.

Here the encyclical quotes the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who, citing a rabbinic definition, writes of idolatry as what happens “when a face addresses a face which is not a face.”  What that means as a practical matter is this:  “better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly, and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands.”  God having first created man in his own image, as Voltaire would say, there will always be those who long to return the favor.

How very tempting it must be to fall into such a trap.  At any time, to be sure, but especially in the period before Christ’s coming.  The terrible sadness and desperation endemic to that world must have made the temptation all but irresistible to creatures of flesh and blood.  Were not their lives already steeped in the senses, amid a universe replete with sight and smell, taste and touch, hearing too?  How easy, then, to cry out for gods formed in the likeness of themselves, amenable therefore to every sensible appeal.  On the other hand, if the really important datum about God is that he is not his creation, then the failure to acknowledge that fact introduces a profound and terrible distortion into the human equation.  Here is where we locate the pure essence of idolatry, the fall into which begins the moment when faith in the unseen God is suspended in favor of one whom we identify with the things we already see and know, i.e., the forces of nature and the artifacts of man.  Never mind, of course, the utter emptiness of what they offer to a world thirsting for salvation.

Can the Buddha save?  Can Confucius?  Or Shiva?  What about Zoroaster?  There is no capacity for salvation here, certainly not among these creatures, each a figure or projection of human need and desire.  As the prophet Isaiah would say of them, indeed, of all expressions of idolatry:  ”Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their molten images are empty wind” (41:29).  And those who worship such things, as God himself reminds Moses (see the Book of Exodus: 32:7-10), are a faithless and fallen lot, having turned aside from the only way that leads to unending life.

We cannot go back to that pagan place.  The great god Pan is dead and the disguise of divinity he wore has been stripped away forever.  All the household gods are gone, the coming of Christ having put them definitively to flight.  Which is why these post-modern folk who perversely persist in returning to that pre-Christian world, who aim to persuade the rest of us to turn back the clock as well, must not be allowed to highjack the discussion.   It will take much wisdom, and not a little courage, to face them down. Thank heaven for Lumen Fidei to help light the way.

Editor’s note: In the picture above, Cardinal Marc Ouellet holds a copy of Lumen Fidei at a Vatican press conference on July 5, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo / Riccardo De Luca)


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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