June 1, 2015

In the previous article in this series on Pope Francis' encyclical The Light of Faith, I considered the role of mediation in faith. Faith always arises through a mediator - the Church, the wider society, one's family, a loved one. The problem is that when one's chief mediator loses faith or mistreats us, our faith is apt to crumble.

In this article, I will look at Pope Francis' reflection on idolatry. Mediation is something outside oneself, but idolatry is a failing on the part of the person who could have faith.

The pope quotes the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who describes idolatry as "when a face addresses a face which is not a face" (quoted in Lumen Fidei, 13). What does Buber mean by that odd description?

Faith is a relationship among persons, beings who have profound depth, who are capable of loving and being loved. The idol, however, has a face, but nothing behind the face. There is no depth.

The idol cannot love. It is in fact a work of one's own hands. "Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands."

Idol worship is the disintegration of one's self. Lacking the unifying bond of love for the one God, the self disintegrates into a worship of its own diverse and disconnected desires. Idol worship is inevitably the worship of many gods - polytheism.


One can see polytheism at work in the commercial breaks during TV shows. An ad for new cars is followed immediately by a commercial for laundry detergent which precedes an ad for a mobile phone company.

One can see idolatry in the 200 channel universe in which one is constantly pulled toward worshiping many false gods

The succession from one commercial to the next is a series of jolts without rhyme or reason other than the sponsors' willingness to buy air time. Taken as a whole, the commercials call us to worship many gods.

Idolatry, the pope writes, "does not offer a journey, but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth." When we base our lives, in contrast, on the merciful love of the one Lord, we walk on "a sure path." One's life becomes an integrated whole rather than a buzzing, banging confusion of desires.


Today in Christian living we can suffer from an idolatry of good works. Polytheistic idolatry need not consist in materialistic orgies of food, sex, travel and the heaping up of possessions. The idolater can be a faithful husband and churchgoer involved in the most laudable volunteer activities.

St. Paul was on to something when he wrote about married people having divided hearts because they are "anxious about the affairs of the world" due to their need to please their spouses

(1 Corinthians 7.32-34). Performing good works can involve at least some dissolution of the self.

The solution to this conflict is not to abandon one's spouse and children to live the contemplative life in the desert. Rather, it is to first see the problem and then commit oneself to integrating the diverse demands of life into a whole which is totally oriented toward God.


One will, of course, never achieve total integration. But a life centered around daily meditation on God's word is essential in moving in that direction. When we regularly meditate on the Word, our desires and idolatries are revealed for what they are. Meditation offers the possibility of conversion from multitudinous desires to a love of the One.

Faith is holistic. Its very nature is to integrate life through devotion to the one God. Moreover, that God has a face; God is not a being created by humans, but the Being who created us out of love. When we look into God's face, we see the mysterious, path on which God calls us to walk.