Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapters 2 & 3, the idols of I and the idol of the idea

What follows are the fragments that stood out to me and my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapter 2: God after Us: the Idol of I and Chapter 3: the Idol of the Idea. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book.

Chapter 2: God after Us: The Idol of I

“And the most painful trust is that the first and most difficult idol to dislodge is the idol of oneself.”

This makes sense, doesn’t it? If Adam and Eve wanted to be like gods, want to determine or themselves what is good, then we will be no better. It will start with us. I have always been distant from this concept. Never thought idolatry would be possible in my life.

The great evil of murder, then, is the fruit of the idolatry that is first an idea, and the idea is almost always about the self.

Objectifying another (whether we do so in lust or in anger) is a key component to idolatry, but that object is most often not the idol.

Those objectified become sacrifices to the idea. Elizabeth Scalia, in her book, Strange gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Chapter 2, walks us through the concept and how the breaking of this first of the Ten Commandments explains first what is so wrong with breaking all the others. To put anything before God is to give it primacy of place, to worship it. This happens to us all at one time or another.

How do we prevent those thoughts of rage or lust from become idolatry?

“[God] wants us to deprive [our wayward thoughts] of power. Saint Benedict of Nursia tells his monks that when evil thoughts arise, they are to ‘dash them against Christ immediately.'”

“…doing so begins with awareness and a willingness to admit our imperfections.”

Following the Commandments will lead us to perfect joy, because it leads us to freedom. To worship another god enslaves us to it. The author points to the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate what God has in store for those who love him.

“Those beatitudes are the promise of what is ours, in all of those aspects of ourselves, once we have cast off the attachments to ideas, the idols Jesus illustrated throughout the Sermon, that keep us so self-involved and forever fragmented. If we are attentive to Christ call for detachment—not so much from our limbs and eyes but from our furies and fancies—we remain more closely aligned with God, more direct in our focus, and more mindful of keeping God alone before us.”

Detachment from the things of this world. Detachment in order to keep right order. How difficult this seems. I wonder if I am detached. I buy new clothes as I outgrow my old. From before bearing children to four years after my first was born, my style has changed. My size continues to change, though I thought it had finally settled. Time to buy new clothes. Again and again and again. I wonder if I am a slave to the new.

I will return to this question. I return to it again and again. I continue on the path of Scalia’s thoughts.

“This finally explains the paradoxical coda with which Jesus ties up his list: to be happy to be abused, persecuted and lied about because you are no longer ensnared and enslaved by the idols of your mind or the idols of anyone else. You have been freed from the shackles of conformity; you’ve come detached from the ever-whirling collective.”

The collective. There is something in this chapter that sparks remembrance of a painful episode at a parish. “Why wouldn’t they want Latin?” a woman asks. We can name two parishes where we are not wanted. We try to never be pushy, arrogant, know-it-all, but to share what the Church teaches, to aim for something higher, to say, “we can do more!” But my husband and his organ playing, Latin-chanting, are not wanted. We were pushed out. Our new parish has welcomed us and wanted us and appreciated the gifts and skills we desire to offer to the parish. What happened before was a mystery.

Then I come to these words. “persecuted and lied about because you are no longer ensnared and enslaved by the idols of your mind or the idols of anyone else.”

We are not being cast out from out homes. We are not being cursed at, told we are going to hell. We are not being spit upon, legislated against, sued. Never once did it occur to us that being excluded in this way was a form of persecution. But could it have been?

I continue to the next chapter.

Chapter 3: The Idol of the Idea

…this community had embraced their idea so wholeheartedly they’d stopped wonderful whether there might be other perspectives out there. Because they’d stopped wondering, they couldn’t know that, as Sister admitted that night, another perspective could have validity.

When I finished Chapter 2 I was left with a thought that what we experienced at a parish may have been a form of persecution, although, even now it feels strange to use the word, since whatever we experienced pales in comparison to what others have suffered.

“In every parish,” [the priest] sighed, “the first thing they want a priest to do is bow down to the god of ‘but we’ve always done it this way.’”

“We’ve always done it this way” yes, this is what we encountered. My husband and I feel free. We love the Church and her Traditions. We take from it. We are not at all opposed to that which is new, but it ought to respect the Tradition. The parish he worked at wanted to do the same music, something “traditional” was unwelcome, even if it had been new, if it sounded too “old” I imagine it would not have been welcome. Whatever my husband could have done better to navigate the emotions and politics, he wasn’t given a Christian chance. He challenged the group-think and for that, was pushed out.

“When we over-identify with our thoughts, the result is always inhibition, narrowness, and constraint, instead of the freedom that resides in a trusting and true relationship with God.”

“To say yes to God is to say yes to the very essence of what is positive, expansive, and co-creative—and for anything creative to happen, there must first be space.”

We feel energetic to begin something new, to help it to grow. This is not always welcome. Yet we have made a home in a parish new to us where the priest desires this very much. He is eager to engage us, eager to begin new things. The people of the parish are tired and wounded. Others are dismissive. I pray for this priest that his creative, expansive energy will not be drained.

I fell into this thinking before. Trying to make sense of certain teachings of the truth, the idea itself because the god and my view was narrowed, unmerciful. God can make us free. A true understanding of God, looking at God for who he is, not in our own terms, leads us to freedom. Having no gods before him.

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