‘Our fundamental act of idolatry is to divide things for our own benefit.’

Thought for the week: Paul Hodgkin has an idol thought

Coronavirus Globe | Photo: nito100 / iStock.com

Idolatry is the worship of false gods. It is about being committed to a mistaken understanding of reality – to believe fervently that the world is one way when in reality it is quite another.

Covid-19 reveals our idolatry. All my life as a comfortable middle-class person in the global north I have swum in a sea of genteel and anaesthetic consumption. I knew this was what I was doing. I knew it was not sustainable but it felt inconceivable that I could do anything else.

Along the way I partook of the theology of Mammon: I believed in the hidden hand of the market rather more than I believed in the hidden hand of God. I prayed that Holy Growth would descend on us so I could continue to have more. I consumed the sacraments of mortgage and debt. I believed in the communal delusions that are required to magic money out of bits of paper. I listened to the high priests of finance and economics propound why there was no alternative, and why yet another human domain had to be monetised on the altar of the market – why values had to be sacrificed to value. 

Covid-19 reveals that this theology of capitalism is false. Right now the curtain of the temple has been twitched aside and we can see the feet of clay on which the colossus of capitalism stands. No planes, no demand, no growth, no market, no pollution – everything we had thought impossible has happened and the sun still rises. So we are in a quite exceptional state: we are alienated from the past, which looks suddenly surreal – the crowds, the hugging. We are alienated from the present because we know these calm moments of peace and worried apprehension will not last. And we are alienated from a future that is so uncertain that it can no longer carry our dreams. 

Of course, the old world has been withdrawn, not transformed. Although the sea has receded, leaving capitalism stranded, you can sense the waters roaring back. Business as usual will be declared and we will be flourishing our credit cards and worshipping again.

Perhaps what comes crashing back will be quite different. But in this instant, lying stranded on the beach, we can see our idolatry for what it is: something that required us to believe that we are separate and superior to the world, that we had dominion over it. This theology enabled us to have holidays and books and iPads, and to banish smallpox. But to get these things we must split the web of life into ‘us’ and ‘them’. So we have dammed the river and cut the forest, exploited the weak and the poor. Our fundamental act of idolatry is to take the unity of all things and divide it into endless fragments for our own benefit. This is idolatry because the truth is that we are not separate. We are part of a single web of life that always and everywhere comes together. 

The opposite of dividing things is merging them. And the name for the merging of two into one is love. Love is literally the opposite of separation. To worship the true God is to bring the fractured world together and end our separation from it, from each other, and from all things. The true name of God is, as it always has been, Love.

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