Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s 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 are like them; so are all who trust in them. Ps 115 vv4-7
How stupid those ancient people must have been! To imagine that little figurines of wood and metal should regarded as powerful entities in their own right, and should therefore be worshipped and have human sacrifices made to them – how could they not see that this was crazy? Whatever you may say about other aspects of ancient Jewish religion, at least the Psalmist was right to pour scorn on the idols of neighbouring peoples. For they were worshipping – and the root of that word is ‘attributing worth to’ – things that did not have the kind of worth or value that was attributed to them. True, they might have artistic value, or value as precious materials, or value as a symbol of tribal identity, or value as concrete representations of important but intangible aspects of life; but value in themselves, as gods? The Psalmist was right about that: the idea is nonsensical. For most idolaters, though they could not see it, idolatry was merely a surrender to a foolish illusion, and maybe additionally for a few priests or kings a useful tool for bolstering their social position. What was surely needed was a bit more hard-headed realism that recognised real value where it was really to be found instead of mis-attributing it to artefacts.
This, obviously, is a mistake we’d like to avoid. Consequently it’s comforting to think of idolatry as a phase of human social behaviour that has largely been left behind. Here in the west, the Abrahamic religions have been careful to avoid idolatry, sometimes taking the destruction of ‘idols’ to extraordinary lengths; one thinks most recently of the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, but down the centuries Christians too have destroyed as idols some wonderful artworks. Such iconoclasm may be taking things a bit far, but at least it’s surely a sign that we have got over the illusions that underlie idolatry. Or perhaps it isn’t. There is at least a case for saying that just as we have modernised genuine spirituality in ways that can obscure its connection with ancient religion so we have modernised idolatry in ways that make it easy for us to think that we’ve really abandoned ancient idolatry. I tend to think that spirituality and idolatry are both pretty permanent potentials in the human psyche, and if that’s right we can’t be complacent; we need to look actively for the idols that have replaced those ancient figurines. And among them I suspect that money will be near the top of the list.
Idols and money have their uses and even their value, but idols are not gods, and money is not a resource. And just as idols can distract worshippers from what is of real value, so money can, and does, distract modern society from seeing that the only genuine resources we have are human resources and natural resources. In a global sense therefore, money cannot really be ‘wasted’; only human resources and natural resources can be wasted. Of course money is useful as ‘a means of exchange and a store of value’, but as money-idolaters we go much further than this. For instance, as a society, we find it hard to quite grasp that things that can’t be given a monetary value have any value at all; we say we understand this but judging by how we behave I’m not sure we do. Or notice how we find it difficult as a society to put resources into schemes that we’re quite certain will in the long term be of benefit and make better use of resources, because our money-based methods of accounting can’t identify and attribute the future savings and efficiencies. Or again notice how we describe as ‘efficient’ a situation in which money is saved by making people permanently unemployed, thus wasting human resources, or by throwing away slightly damaged things, thus wasting natural resources. Or, finally, notice how we do not count unpaid work as part of our
GDP figures; the more we rely on volunteers, the ‘poorer’ we say we are. There are undesirable social and environmental consequences of all these examples of money idolatry, but that’s not the main problem, any more than the main problem with ancient idolatry was that the non-gods didn’t and couldn’t help their worshippers. The main problem is that idolatry of any kind takes our attention away from what is truly of value, what is truly to be ‘worshipped’.
And to be honest, we quite like to be so distracted by our idols. For one thing, it simplifies decision-making. You insulted my idol; I will kill you: simple. Or: We’ll carry out this scheme if it makes (or saves) money; if it doesn’t, we won’t: simple. No messy questions about balancing out how proposed actions affect the various aspects of life that are truly valuable, and indeed no questions about what those aspects are or what their relative values might be. For another, it’s a useful cover under which we can do what we’d like to do for our own private reasons. Just as ancient priests and kings used their people’s gullible idolatry to give themselves disproportionate power and wealth, so our money-idolatrous wealth-disposers can publicly regret that they have to pay each other ever-higher salaries on the grounds that, unfortunately, that’s what the market requires. They find it very convenient to base remuneration packages on the monetary value of what they do, rather than on its human significance.
The snag of course is still the one the Psalmist identified: those who make and trust in idols become like them. To the extent that they put their trust in their idols, they – we – stop being vital, interacting human beings who can revel in the true richness of life as discovered through recognising awe and love and truth as our supreme values. We become instead figurines that look like real people but lack something that vital ‘something’. How you characterise that ‘something’, and what you think you might do to find it, are questions for another day. For now, it’s enough to be clear that they are questions that need to be asked and answered if we are to fulfil our human potential.