What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 8: The Super Idols. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.
First things first. A definition:
“Super idolatry grows out of ideologies watered too well. A super idol is not one but two steps removed from God. If all ideologies contain elements of self-enthrallment, the enthronement of a collection of our ideologies ramps things up by endowing the ego with a heavy veneer of moral authority. Dress up tribal identifications that accompany one’s participation in a party or a movement, determine that the opposition is not merely wrong but evil, and suddenly mere ideas become glittering certainties.”
Two steps removed is pretty intense. I have seen it. I’ve seen it in Republican radio, I’ve seen it in pro-life activists, I’ve seen it in traditionalist Roman Catholics. It exists on the other “side” as well, but I haven’t seen it because we don’t tend to cross paths in conversation too often.
How does the super idol work?
“We begin to measure every headline, every news story, every sermon, every comment and tweet that comes our way by how it conforms to our worldview.”
Scalia adeptly uses the word “enthrallment” to describe this. One gets excited, one gets passionate, but one becomes so taken up they can no longer see clearly.
Some time after high school I experience something along these lines. I had always felt strongly about modesty, but as a way to fight the difficulty I felt upon hearing just how pornogrpahy or immodesty work on a man’s brain, I became very nearly obsessed with the whole concept. I couldn’t look at another person without judging his or her (usually her) modesty or lack thereof. I was distracted when speaking with someone who was immodestly dressed. I wasn’t sexually attracted to the person, but was preoccupied thinking, “could she be tempting someone?”
Charitably, Scalia identifies that very thing.
“Ironically, that spiritually deforming hatred is very often conceived in love. We love our country; we love our community; we love our church; we love our traditions; we love our perception of ourselves; we love life; and we love babies.”
In my case, I loved my brothers in Christ and did not want to be tempted. I wanted to protect those in my life who I cared for.
But if we become preoccupied with anything in this way, what happens?
“We lose the willingness to bear with the imperfect, flawed, and sinful humanity of another in light of our own broken propensity to sin.”
I stopped seeing the people. I saw only the exterior. I do not recall the path of realization that woke me up from this phase, but I think it had to do principally with realizing that I was so taken up in judgment of what people were wearing that I lost sight of who they are.
I once was so strict, so rigorous, so zealous that I probably missed many opportunities to learn something wonderful.
“We all do that from time to time; we get caught up in our cause, and we become careless with our words. Sometimes that’s about busyness and distraction, and not idolatry. But when we catch ourselves being thoughtless (or when someone points it out to us), we should consider the first commandment and ask ourselves if we have not elevated the object of our enthrallment to that position where it blocks God.
“A good way to tell if God is being blocked is if we have lost sight of the hope for mercy for the sake of another.”
And that’s the key isn’t it? When Christ says, judge not, he isn’t saying to excuse it, but to never put weaknesses or differences before God and the image of God in the people we encounter. I’m learning to put first things first. People are different, some people do not have the fullness of truth. Many who have the fullness of truth neglect to own it. We all have a long way to go and different journeys to get there. I thank God for that. I do indeed.
If you think someone you love has made a super idol of some cause or passion, pray for them. But have a little fun with them too. When they make comments about the people on the other “side” point out the humanity of that person, say something that any normal person would have sympathy for or could relate. Make excuses for how that person may have become that way. If someone comments on the aggressively pro-abortion activist, say, I wonder if she feels so strongly because she or someone she loved was raped. Or when the anti-Hilary bashing starts, “I wonder if she pursues things like this because her parents taught it the way to success was through power. It’s funny to think what messages we get from our parents on what will make us happy.” You’ll stop the conversation dead, and make it very awkward, but you know what, it’s kind of fun.
There’s more to read from Elizabeth Scalia, and I’d encourage anyone who has enjoyed these posts to get a copy of her book as soon as possible. My reflections will not be your reflections. There is a wealth of ideas in this little book, relevant to all walks of life.