Wednesday, January 18, 2012


A kinky Episcopalian acquaintance once commented in an interview that the BDSM community's biggest problem isn't lust, contrary to what right-wing religionists would say. No, the bulk of us seem to have a good handle on that. The biggest problem, in her view, is idolatry. Too many kinksters seem ready to exalt one thing or another as the "one true way," even to the point of ignoring the harm such an attitude might cause. I've addressed that before regarding a BDSM organization here in Boston, whose members seem to extol the group as the center of all things, regardless of its many shortcomings. And I've mentioned idolatry in other posts as well, from Tiger Woods to iPhone apps.

Thing is, my understanding of this concept differs from "traditional" definitions of the term. How exactly does a Unitarian Universalist define idolatry? And, just as important, how do we deal with it?

From the traditionalist perspective, the best nutshell definition of idolatry is worshipping something unworthy of worship. This, of course, becomes utterly subjective, as it depends entirely on one's own particular religious allegiance. And what do you do when you consider yourself a religious humanist, given your devotion to critical thinking, not to mention how (or whether) you're willing to incorporate traditional religious terminology?

Many Christians use an alternate definition: putting the created above the Creator. But what happens when you don't believe in an anthropomorphic creator (which applies not only to nontheistic humanists, but many process theologians and pantheists as well)? Perhaps another way to word this would be to put:
-- the part above the whole
-- the immediate above the Ultimate
-- the hypothetical above the categorical
-- the means above the ends
This last wording, in my mind, not only touches upon the act of idolatry, but the very mindset behind it. When we extalt an object, person, group, idea or procedure above its proper place, we are in effect making it an end in itself rather than a means. Kantians would argue that persons ought to be ends in themselves, but I'm sure they would also agree that this excludes ranking particular persons above others.

Idolatry is not merely making a means into an end, however; it is transposing means and ends. When Jesus condemned the legalism of religious leaders, he wasn't just talking about how they imposed numerous rules upon people -- he was pointing out how they were exalting the "letter of the law" (the means of maintaining right relationship) above the spirit which was its foundation (the desired end of a just and compassionate society).

We can see such examples of idolatry all around us. Holding a grudge places one's anger and sense of self-righteousness above the need for reconciliation. Restricting where all "sex offenders" can live and work, even for the sake of public safety, can harm individuals who pose little risk to society. Embracing a political or social case, to the point of neglecting one's personal life, in the end serves neither the cause nor oneself. Seeing a given organization as virtually infallible, and mindlessly denouncing anyone who would question or critique it, can undermine the very purpose for which the organization was created.

We can even make idols of selected aspects of our religious and spiritual communities. Legalism can place rules of conduct and discipline above compassion and discernment. Ritualism can elevate selected expressions of outward worship above the inner spiritual life. Proselytism can overemphasize qualitative growth and retention of membership above quantitative growth in relationships. Devotion to a specific form of polity can stifle attempts to improve how a movement can resolve issues in ever-changing circumstances.

And while hypocrisy can be one consequence or expression of idolatry, dogmatic adherence to codified beliefs can likewise lead some to ignore the harm such hidebound attitudes can bring to others. A hard-core libertarian's devotion to the "free market" can blind them to the darker aspects of capitalist excess, while staunch leftists are oft unaware of Clarence Darrow's admonition that "even the rich have rights." Perhaps these are the "foolish consistencies" of which Ralph Waldo Emerson cautioned us to avoid.

It is indeed a difficult thing to remain mindful of our core values, especially our need to promote right relationship. To reach that ideal, we create institutions to guide us along the path. Sometimes those institutions work, sometimes they don't, and sometimes they are only partial or temporary solutions. Yet institutions often have a habit of taking on a life of its own, thus making it harder to question whether we continue to need them, and how best to craft new means to better reach our desired ends. This is especially true when people become intensely passionate about something they helped to create -- or something they feel the need to destroy.

Avoiding idolatry is indeed a hard thing, not least of which because our culture and politics are so thoroughly enmeshed in the confusion of means and ends. At the very least, we must always ask ourselves: "What good will this do -- and at what cost?"

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