The history of Israel also shows us the temptation of unbelief to which the people yielded more than once. Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry. While Moses is speaking to God on Sinai, the people cannot bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness, they cannot endure the time of waiting to see his face. Faith by its very nature demands renouncing the immediate possession which sight would appear to offer; it is an invitation to turn to the source of the light, while respecting the mystery of a countenance which will unveil itself personally in its own good time.
Martin Buber once cited a definition of idolatry proposed by the rabbi of Kock: idolatry is "when a face addresses a face which is not a face". In place of faith in God, it seems 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. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols "have mouths, but they cannot speak" (Ps 115:5). Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants.
Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: "Put your trust in me!" Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.
Lumen Fidei 13
Reflection – Well, this paragraph is a bit longer, and so my writing will be a bit shorter. It’s so good, though, that I can’t stand to excerpt it. Indeed this paragraph may well be the very heart of the encyclical. Faith is made most clear when it is contrasted to idolatry, to finding our security, illusively, in the works of our own hands, in the temporary God substitutes human beings throw up and then tear down.
Idolatry is a chasing after immediate satisfaction, something we can crunch down on, something obvious that delivers the goods either right away or on a set schedule. In our modern world, it seems to me that the idols many worship are either riches or sexual ecstasy, although the obesity epidemic suggests food as another common idol. Perhaps the Internet itself, or rather the endless flow of information it promises, is a sort of idol, a new one for sure, or at least the old idol of ‘vain curiosity’ now given new power and prominence.
But the whole business of idolatry is this matter of grabbing hold of something that we can hold, touch, see, and make yield a result for us, and putting our whole trust in that thing. Faith is putting our trust in the One we cannot see, cannot touch, and certainly cannot make yield for us anything, the One we are not in control of. It is always a question of conversion, of turning away, of renouncing idols: human beings are inveterate, committed idolators. We always need to identify the idols in our lives and turn from them to the Living God.
This Living God does not dissipate us in an chasing after one desire after another: today the idol Eros, tomorrow the idol Plutos (wealth), the next day the idol Gnosis. Faith in God draws us into a unity of being, where our whole life is oriented, by faith, towards hope and love and a surrender to his will.
Anyhow, that’s all I have to say about this wonderful passage. It is worth taking some extra time to read this passage and reflect on it – it is Pope Benedict for sure (I know the writing style better than I know my own!) – and it is him at his most profound and thoughtful. Have a good day smashing the idols in your life and turning to the Living God for everything!