Sense and Nonsense: Idolatry

The Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh, seems off-base in denying some proper place for other gods in the first three of the ten commandments. All religions and philosophies are said to be created equal. Yahweh, however, is not ecumenical. What is this aberration about our God that He demands exclusiveness? Why can we not worship multiple gods?

We take the latter seven commandments of the Decalogue more seriously because they refer to ourselves—no murder, no adultery, no lying, no stealing, no coveting. We suspect that these commandments may be right even if we violate them. But the first three commandments about our direct relation to God are much harder to accept. Why is it necessary to think rightly about God? Surely, idolatry is not a contemporary problem. No one is erecting idols in the marketplace.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas brings up the question of idolatry. He wants to know whether it is a sin, even whether it is the most grave sin. He wonders about the cause of idolatry. Such questioning is what I like about Aquinas. He was there long before we ever thought of asking the relevant questions. If we read him, he will ask questions we never thought of, and we will realize subsequently that we should have thought of them.

Aquinas—whose ancient feast day was March 7, the day of his death at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova stands for light. He is not afraid to ask a question. What is more remarkable is that he is not afraid to answer it. Unlike Socrates, though not necessarily in opposition to Socrates, he does not say that what he knows is what he does not know. He says that what he knows is what he knows, the truth of what is.

Some people, Aquinas tells us, think that sacrifices and other signs of devotion to God can also be offered to any kind of superior being, even a superior man. But as Aquinas bluntly puts it, this line of thinking is irrational. While we should properly respect our superiors, a unique reverence is due to God, who excels all other beings.

Christianity is not just concerned with external signs. It requires proper thought and action. Words are audible signs. When we say we worship God, we in fact worship Him. We deliberately distinguish our acts of worship from other acts.

Many will suppose, Aquinas continues, that our sacrifices and prayers are little more than customary actions that are performed simply because our ancestors have followed them. In a time of persecution, it may be legitimate to worship idols exteriorly while interiorly withholding our assent. This argument, Aquinas maintains, is manifestly false. Why? Our exterior cult is a sign of our interior position. We are lying before God if we acknowledge other gods before Him under any circumstance.

In itself, Aquinas says, idolatry is the most grave of sins. Why? Because our highest act is to return to God the praise due to Him. The worst of the objective sins committed against God is that which attributes to a creature what properly belongs to God. In itself, idolatry makes another god in the world. It thus minimizes divine rule. God intends for us to acknowledge all reality, including His reality.

Do we have other gods nowadays? Is this one of the signs of our time, which is so absorbed in itself? One of the marks of God is that He is self-sufficient. When God created the cosmos, He did not need it. He does not require our worship for His good. The essence of idolatry, then, would seem to be, as Aquinas indicated, the elevating of some being, especially ourselves, to the rank of God. Do we do this?

We do it every day, of course. God is hated in the modern world because He has a plan for our order of life, for our salvation, other than the one we would concoct for ourselves. We are asked to obey the commandments, including the commandment to have no strange gods before Him. In this obedience is the ultimate light by which we see what we are: not gods.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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