Posted by: HAT | October 30, 2008

Fragment – On Idolatry

I met with my advisor yesterday, and delivered the latest 15 pages, mostly about the relevance of “The Actuality of Philosophy” and “The Essay as Form” to Adorno’s utopian discourse, but I’m starting to dig into the material in Negative Dialectics.  I’m still hoping — and it seems to me this is not totally ridiculous — to have this chapter finished (well, at least a draft of it) by the end of November. 

So, in our conversation, in which we mainly talked about things that didn’t have anything to do with my dissertation or these authors, we did come around to something that suddenly struck me as relevant.  We were talking about the process of building utopia, that I had earlier in the week referred to as something like working with cantilevers — if, indeed, cantilevers are, as I think they are, a kind of technology or design innovation that permit people to build out into thin air, from some more solid footing, and then use the end of the cantilever as a new starting point.  This was in the context of the recently re-opened racial dialogue at the Seminary.  And Mary Ann said that in a recent class discussion that she’d moderated, also in talking about the issue of race in the context of contemporary Christian thought, one of the students had said something to the effect of “the constant is that you have to take risks.”

You have to take risks. 

You may not know what you can say, what well-meaning questions you can ask, but you have to take risks.  You may not know what your community will look like if it becomes “a multi-cultural, anti-racist community,” but if you know that the goal needs to be multi-cultural and anti-racist, then you have to take risks.  You know things will change profoundly, and there will be some things you’ve enjoyed that will be lost, and there will be some things you didn’t imagine that will be gained, you don’t know what those things will be, you know a lot of the consequences will be surprising and unforeseeable, and you have to take risks.

Suddenly, then, I realized:  one of the problems with idolatry — the practice of idolatry, this is — is that it conveys the idea that there are no risks to take.  It conveys the idea that all the risks lie on the side of turning away from the idol (which, in the situation of the practice of idolatry, is identified as the site of righteousness, value, safety and security, etc.).  The practice of idolatry is all about clinging to something — an image, something concrete and present — as the ultimate.  And when a person or a culture is clinging to something concrete and present as the ultimate, there are no perceived risks of uncertainty, we don’t know what we’re getting in to.  It seems we know exactly what we’re getting in to — it’s right here with us, it’s concrete, it’s present, it is the very opposite of risky business.  It is emphatically not the unknown, it’s the known.  That is, really, the point of idolatry.

Which is, also, one of the things that makes it so wrong.  Where the God who prohibits idols calls people to change, to travel to the unknown land that God “will show you” (we could think Abraham) on the strength of a promise, to leave the miserable security of slavery, to become the kind of people who practice justice — that is, not the kind of people we are now, but the kind of people we know we could be and should be — that call is a call to assume risk and embark on an adventurous, hopeful journey into the unknown.  The God who is an idol underwrites setting goals the consequences of which can all (or so it seems) be foreseen, anticipated, known.  The God who is an idol operates entirely in the realm of the known.  This is why this God can seem so — comparatively — safe:  no mysterium tremendum et fascinans here, no freaky wrestling in the dark.  Maybe the the idol-God gives rise to the terror of giant size or power, maybe to fear of punishment or abandonment, but not that other kind of fear, the fear that accompanies a kind of radical not-knowing-what-we’re-talking-about, not-knowing-what-this-will-mean, what-this-will-look-like, the risk of heading into something that is not and cannot be anticipated, only “known” in the abstract (“multi-cultural,” “anti-racist,” “flowing with milk and honey”).

I think when the Bible says “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (which it does, in a number of places), it is talking about this kind of fear, this really radical fear that accompanies the recognition that one has no idea at all of what one has gotten in to.

This doesn’t make “being afraid” a mark of being on the right track, of course.  But it may make being fearless, where that fearlessness stems from a particular kind of certainty, a fairly reliable mark of being on the wrong track.


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