When Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, he encountered a most dismaying sight. The people were dancing around and worshiping a golden calf which they believed had led them out of Egypt (Exodus 32). The first commandment was being violated in grand style.
We may wonder why the Israelites were attracted to a golden calf. Idols today have perhaps a more obvious appeal. In our society, we are prone to idolize money, sex, power and celebrity. Even those whose lives have not been severely distorted by desires for those things can see why one might be attracted to them. But worshiping a golden calf!?
The first commandment -- the command to love God above all else -- is the most basic commandment. Live it out with integrity and all the others should fall into place. One's life will not be distorted by greed, obsessive sexuality or untruthfulness because one will worship God and hold other human goods in harmony.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, interprets the first commandment more narrowly. For the most part, it sees it not as prohibiting all forms of idolatry, but more particularly violations of the virtue of religion. This virtue can be distorted in the excess by too much religion, that is, by superstition; it can also be distorted by too little religion, that is, by irreligion, agnosticism and atheism.
The idolatry of the Israelites in the desert was that of superstition. Perhaps they were too close to nature to fathom the possibility that God might not exist. In earlier times than ours, the definition of a fool was someone who believed there is no God. The greater temptation in such societies was the attraction to superstition and magic.
To fall into superstition is to believe that the external performance of an action or prayer, not the internal disposition they demand, is what makes our religious deeds effective (no. 2111). Lots of this has certainly taken place in the history of Catholicism and even today it has not vanished from Western society.
But today the more common temptation is to a lack of religion. Perhaps this is because we have tended to be cut off from nature and are in awe of the power of technology. We may fail to see our need to constantly rely on God. Indeed, when he convoked the Second Vatican Council to respond to a growing crisis in society, Pope John XXIII cited atheism as one of the most salient features of that crisis.
The human soul, however, is not meant to live without God. Instinctively, especially in times of tribulation, it turns to God for comfort, for insight and for help. Atheism and agnosticism then are the sins of prosperity and good times. When times get tough one can expect to see a heightened interest in the exercise of religion.
But the mature person will be focused on God in both good times and bad. Such a person will praise and adore God not because he wants God to remove life's burdens but because he sees God at the heart of all that is, both pleasant and unpleasant. Such was the faith of Job who declared, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
To have the faith of Job, one needs to develop a detachment from the changing fortunes of human existence. That doesn't mean one should be unmoved by suffering and tragedy, but that one should be constantly aware that God's ways are not our ways. Everything is a gift, a blessing.
Individuals and societies, the Catechism says, have a duty not just to nurture a vague sense of a transcendent force or creator, but to become part of the true religion and participate in the true Church (no. 2105). The Church lays out certain "precepts" as the absolute minimum level of such participation (no. 2041-43). But Jesus calls us to go beyond the minimum and to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
The road to perfection is one of liberating ourselves from false gods so that we may freely and fully worship the one true God. This process of detachment can only be accomplished with frequent examination of conscience, constant effort to control one's desires and renunciation of the life of sin. The sacrament of Confession is a great aid in enlisting God's help in the battle against sin.
Such a life may seem austere. And if it is driven by human motivations, it will be lacking in joy. But if one has a vivid awareness of the glory of God and appreciates the beauty of the life lived in cooperation with God, it will be one of great peace and happiness.
Disobedience to the first commandment is the source of all moral deviations. But obedience to it is much more than a minimal belief in God and the decision not to bow down to golden calves. It is a decision to adore God in all things, to seek religious truth and to make God's presence manifest to others. It is ultimately the work of a lifetime.
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