Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On the Nature of Idolatry and Whether it Resides Primarily in the Heart




This paper is a response to two comments I received back with regard to my earlier paper: Why the Catholic Mass Can't Possibly be Idolatrous: Quick Proof. The first is from a Protestant (originally in the combox for the earlier piece), who wished to draw certain logical distinctions and highlight important and relevant gradations. . His words will be in green. The second is from a Catholic who was concerned with my methodology and how I stated the Catholic case, and how it might be perceived by a Protestant who makes these charges. Her words will be in blue.

* * * * *
ME: "[idolatry is] a matter of the heart and interior disposition."
Are you saying that intent is a necessary precondition for all sin?

No.

Or just explicit idolatry (not in the sense of all sin being a form of idolatry but actual deity worship)?

Idolatry seems to me to be a conscious act by nature or definition, yes. We're being accused of substituting bread and wine as idols for the living God.

If the former, are you then saying there is no such thing as involuntary sin or sin done in ignorance?

No. But I already stated that I think virtually no Catholic who knows anything at all about his faith would be stupid enough to consciously worship what he believes is still just a piece of bread.

It seems you are saying that even if transubstantiation was false (that is what step 5a should have been in the anti-catholic logic), and RCs really were (unknowingly) adoring the elements, that there would still be no sin being committed at all there and no culpability.

It would not be idolatry, per my argument. It may be a mistaken worship, but it is still quite pious and non-idolatrous, just as we Catholics would say that Lutheran or Anglican worship is pious and well-intentioned, but in fact lacks the Real Presence (due to ordination and apostolic succession issues). It's not idolatrous: only mistaken as to the metaphysics.

You could say no mortal sin, as there was not full knowledge/consent, but to say no sin at all seems odd.

Where is the sin in worshiping Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and Redeemer: God the Son?
We think He is truly present in the consecrated elements. So did Luther. If we are idolaters, so is he. Luther was even known to bow in adoration. Lutherans think Jesus Christ is truly, substantially present after consecration, too, so why are they not habitually accused of idolatry?

Calvin used to accuse Luther and Lutherans on occasion, of idolatry, so why don't today's Calvinists make the same charge towards Lutherans and read them out of the Body of Christ, as too many of them do to us? And also Anglo-Catholics: folks like C.S. Lewis? It's always Catholics who receive the brunt of charges that apply also to some fellow Protestants (we're not Christians, we're idolaters, we're half-pagan, we're semi-Pelagian, etc.). I think I know why that is (on a purely emotional, "gut" level), but it doesn't explain the internally inconsistent nature of the criticisms and the manifest double standards.

* * *

I thought you brought up an interesting point but I kind of disagree.
. . . which is an utterly wrongheaded criticism, as I have often argued, since idolatry, by definition, is a matter of the heart and interior disposition.
Maybe ... it's a disputed point as to whether idolatry is simply a matter of the heart and interior disposition.

In the case of idolatry as in many other cases we often use words like "heart" disingenuously.

Not "simply" (as if nothing else is involved at all) but primarily. It is of the essence of it to be from one's heart and soul and will. If one is replacing God with something else, that is an interior decision. It has to be; otherwise, the whole thing would be reduced to robotic actions of an agent with no free will. This sort of thing is presupposed also in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus shows how all sins begin in our hearts: hatred is the seed of murder, lust the kernel or adultery, etc. Al sin is like that (at least the sin we are responsible for).

To be an idolater is to follow a false god. That is not happening at Mass at all, because it is understood by all (who have an IQ above a pencil eraser) that Jesus is being worshiped eucharistically: not bread and wine. The very word transubstantiation proves this, as I showed.
As for it being a matter of the heart and soul: the Bible establishes that, I think (I use RSV):
Ezekiel 14:2-8

[2] And the word of the LORD came to me:
[3] "Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces; should I let myself be inquired of at all by them?
[4] Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Any man of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself because of the multitude of his idols,
[5] that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.
[6] "Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.
[7] For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to inquire for himself of me, I the LORD will answer him myself;
[8] and I will set my face against that man, I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people; and you shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 20:13-21

[13] But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness; they did not walk in my statutes but rejected my ordinances, by whose observance man shall live; and my sabbaths they greatly profaned. "Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them.
[14] But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.
[15] Moreover I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands,
[16] because they rejected my ordinances and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols.
[17] Nevertheless my eye spared them, and I did not destroy them or make a full end of them in the wilderness.
[18] "And I said to their children in the wilderness, Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor observe their ordinances, nor defile yourselves with their idols.
[19] I the LORD am your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to observe my ordinances,
[20] and hallow my sabbaths that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I the LORD am your God.
[21] But the children rebelled against me; they did not walk in my statutes, and were not careful to observe my ordinances, by whose observance man shall live; they profaned my sabbaths. "Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the wilderness.

[cf. Ezek 36:25]

Sirach 46:11 The judges also, with their respective names, those whose hearts did not fall into idolatry and who did not turn away from the Lord --
may their memory be blessed!

Isaiah 66:3 "He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog's neck; he who presents a cereal offering, like him who offers swine's blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like him who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations;
Another biblical motif is God's disgust over men "serving" idols (which is from the heart and the will as well: 2 Kings 17:12; 2 Kings 21:21; 2 Chr 24:18; Ps 106:36; Ezek 20:39; 1 Thess 1:9; see also 137 biblical references to "idols" and how people acted towards them; and seven others about "idolatry"). St. Paul locates idolatry firmly in the interior disposition:
Romans 1:18-25

[18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
[19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
[20] Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;
[21] for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
[22] Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
[23] and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
[24] Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
[25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
The word for "minds" in Romans 1:21 is kardia ("heart": the basis of "cardiac"), and is often translated "heart" or "hearts" in other translations. The same word appears in 1:24, where it is rendered "hearts" in RSV. In the KJV it is translated "heart" all 158 times that it appears (according to Young's Concordance).

The Catholic Encyclopedia ("Idolatry") backs me up also:
Considered in itself, idolatry is the greatest of mortal sins. For it is, by definition, an inroad on God's sovereignty over the world, an attempt on His Divine majesty, a rebellious setting up of a creature on the throne that belongs to Him alone. Even the simulation of idolatry, in order to escape death during persecution, is a mortal sin, because of the pernicious falsehood it involves and the scandal it causes. . . . The guilt of idolatry, however, is not to be estimated by its abstract nature alone; the concrete form it assumes in the conscience of the sinner is the all-important element. No sin is mortal — i.e. debars man from attaining the end for which he was created — that is not committed with clear knowledge and free determination. But how many, or how few, of the countless millions of idolaters are, or have been, able to distinguish between the one Creator of all things and His creatures? and, having made the distinction, how many have been perverse enough to worship the creature in preference to the Creator?
An insightful article by Protestant writer Steven Lambert ("The True Nature of Spiritual Idolatry") supports my point about the heart and idolatry, as well:
Moreover, the ilk of idolatry which bona fide believers are most guilty of committing even routinely, though unwittingly, is the idolatry of holding to false and contrived ideas about God that in fact are wholly incongruous with what He Himself has revealed in His Word concerning His Divine Nature, Will, and Ways. When it is all distilled down, idolatry is the ultimate form of arrogance and self-righteousness, for it supplants God and His Word, Will, and Way, and puts in His place a false, humanly formed and fashioned god, one made in our own image and after our own likeness, to affirm and hallow our own humanly contrived ideas and concepts. Thus, idolatry, in my view, is the ultimate offense that the human heart can commit against a Holy and Sovereign God.
He cites the great spiritual writer A.W. Tozer (from his famous book, The Knowledge of the Holy) to the same effect:
Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is — in itself a monstrous sin — and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness.

A god begotten in the shadows of a fallen heart will quite naturally be no true likeness of the true God.
And therefore (among other confused issues as a result of the fact that People Lie) people will take a long, hard look at what specifically it is you are saying is NOT an idol to determine whether you are truly worshipping God through whatever. Also we are asserting something above and beyond the usual.

I think the real root of the false accusations leveled against Catholic worship is the hidden premise of antipathy to sacramentalism. Those who make the charge do not fully comprehend how much God uses matter to convey grace. It is also a noncomprehension that the Incarnation of Jesus glorified matter. After all, God Himself became man. If He can take on human flesh, what trouble is it to transform bread and wine? Which is more difficult or would have been more unexpected before it happened?

It matters whether or not Jesus really is present in the host and in the precious blood.

Of course it does. It's the difference between God and mere ordinary food.

If it is not true, we may be earnestly deceived and therefore not be doing anything wrong (assuming we have done all within our power to find out the truth) internally but still be wrong, as in incorrect, with poorly formed consciences - so to speak.

We would be incorrect but not idolatrous (which was my precise point). The same is true of the Lutheran or Anglican who believes he has the spiritual benefit of the Real Presence in his service, whereas in fact in all likelihood this is not the case.

And even then the subject of when someone is truly committing a willful sin (I'm sure you guys have words for all this) is so delicate that I'm not sure I'd call someone stupid because they think we are committing idolatry because (from their point of view) we are incorrect.

I don't think this is a fair criticism, because I never used the word "stupid" in the post at all (I just double-checked). I mentioned "dumb" but it was directed towards those very very few Catholics who would venerate plaster and not a saint:
No minimally informed Catholic has ever worshiped mere bread and wine (just as none have been dumb and absurd enough to actually venerate plaster in the form of a statue of a saint).
I did use the following strong words:
. . . it is ludicrous -- utterly illogical and emptyheaded -- to accuse us of idolatry in the Mass.
Even here it was directed towards the false accusation, not towards people (I'm always very careful to make that distinction: whereas my vociferous anti-Catholic critics in the past usually have not), but "emptyheaded" is very strong and borderline, so I will remove it from the original post. "Ludicrous" and "absurd" and "illogical" are purely logical terms, referring to lousy arguments. That's what I meant by "emptyheaded" (i.e., not -- in this instance -- properly using one's head or mind: not thinking logically), but it is a pungent, charged term so it is best to edit it out.

It is stupid as a criticism, though (as well as the height of uncharity, which is another issue) because it is utterly wrongheaded (more logical terms) and based on demonstrably false premises. The idolatry doesn't depend or hinge on the fact of whether God is truly, substantially present, but rather, on what the person consciously believes to be the case: Whom he or she is worshiping or serving. That's why I emphasized the aspect of the heart.

These criticisms (the arguments made, not the persons making them!) are as spiritually obtuse and ill-conceived as those of the Pharisees. It's all legalism and surface analysis without getting to the crux and heart of the issue (pun half-intended). This was the basis, you know, of much of historic anti-Catholicism: whether from Calvin or Zwingli or many subsequent critics. We must speak out against it, Belief in untruths does no one any good.

My analysis is a straightforward application of Sermon on the Mount ethics and Jesus' teaching, such as the following:
Matthew 15:1-20

[1] Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,
[2] "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat."
[3] He answered them, "And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
[4] For God commanded, `Honor your father and your mother,' and, `He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.'
[5] But you say, `If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.'
[6] So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. [7] You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
[8] `This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
[9] in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'"
[10] And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand:
[11] not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man."
[12] Then the disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?"
[13] He answered, "Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.
[14] Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."
[15] But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us."
[16] And he said, "Are you also still without understanding?
[17] Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on?
[18] But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man.
[19] For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.
[20] These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."
I'm a bit reluctant to even talk as if it were purely my belief (as opposed to the actual external fact) that makes worshiping Him as present in the transfigured elements NOT idolatry.

It has to be your belief because idolatry is an internal disposition: one is consciously worshiping something other than God and replacing God with a creature or inanimate object. That's why I keep bringing it back to that. My purpose is to defend Catholics against the charge of idolatry at Mass. I'm not defending transubstantiation or the Real Presence itself at the moment. I do that elsewhere. I can't do all things at once. I'm strictly discussing idolatry in the original post and this defense of it.

And I'm understanding of anyone who does not believe them to be and says that I am committing idolatry. That would be me though. I tend to have a bit of an attitude that way.

Well, as a practicing Catholic, your responsibility (if the issue were to come up) is to show them that they are incorrect, and my post was one way you can do that. To do so isn't to be contentious, but to be charitable: it doesn't help anyone to believe a falsehood or a lie. These people are accusing us of gross idolatry, but it simply isn't true. It's charitable to them to correct them by making points such as these.

But in my experience, the anti-Catholic is rarely persuaded of anything when it comes to the Catholic Church (sadly enough). That's why I've stopped directly dealing with them in my apologetics. The lack of charity comes in falsely accusing brothers and sisters in Christ of idolatry when it is untrue. That is bearing false witness, which is contrary to the Ten Commandments as well as the Sermon on the Mount.

But I know, anytime we enter into this realm of apologetics we get a bit split personality like. So I can sort of see where you're coming from, but for me it's more a subtle logical point than a manifest logical reality that anyone can see.

I agree that there is subtlety here. In fact, my object was to simplify a complex topic as much as I could (and I'm always being urged to make shorter answers!) in order to defeat a common criticism of Catholicism. I'm trying to help people see the error in their thinking. But if I shorten my replies too much then folks think I am missing basic and necessary distinctions (that I am usually fully aware of, because I've written about all this stuff elsewhere: ten papers related to this topic of idolatry and the Mass alone). So it is always a balancing act between content and brevity.

Especially some people who are a bit more gung ho than they are precise in their understanding of sin. I dunno though. What do you think?

The above will show you that!

Anyway, hope you have a wonderific day.

And you (cool word!). Thanks very much for your feedback.

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