He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it.
16Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ 17The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it, and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god.” (Isaiah 44)
Christianity is often accused of peddling abstractions. This can range from the famous atheist bus adverts declaring “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” to the endless jibes on Comment Is Free about “sky fairies” and “imaginary friends”. In both cases the charge is clear: Christianity invents things which aren’t there. More to the point, it invents things which aren’t necessary to either explain or survive the world. The whole religious system offends against Occam’s Razor, multiplying entities beyond what is required to cover the available facts. It directs people’s attention away from the realities that matter to some vague, airy promises about another world and another life.
They have a point. Religious belief is too often used in this way, and Christianity has done more than its share of this sort of misdirection. But I was recently reminded of the passage above, from the Book of Isaiah, when reading an account by Rowan Williams of the nature of idolatry. We often think of idolatry as the worship of other gods, or serving a powerfully attractive force – such as money or power – instead of God. But in Williams’ description, idolatry is the error of treating something which we have made as if it were God.
Isaiah’s satirical anecdote focuses on exactly this aspect of idolatrous behaviour: its sheer foolishness. He ridicules those who actually build an idol from the same wood they have used to build a fire, carefully carve it, and then bow down and invest it with divine power, despite knowing that they themselves made it. From one point of view this is simply a piece of sneering against the fetishes and totems of other religious groups. You worship a block of wood, which cannot save you because you carved it yourself. Will it save you from peril? Well, the rest of the wood couldn’t save itself from the fire, so I’m guessing not. Because it’s made of wood. Lol, prophet banter, etc.
But beyond this one-up-prophet-ship, the details of the passage insist on the idol as having been created by the very person who then worships it. The ridicule isn’t just a way of discrediting traditions which use statues or totems in worship (or indeed Israelites who did so in contravention of religious norms about representing the divine). It captures something of the horrible foolishness of idolatry in the real world.
When people are plunged into misery and despair in order to appease “the markets”, we see something of what the Book of Isaiah denounced. The Reverend Mark Hewerdine is fond of remarking how easily “soothsayer” could replace “market analyst” in the morning news broadcasts, as experts are consulted on what the markets will do next. It’s not simply that predicting the market is a chancy business, as any economist will tell you, but that the whole panoply of anthropomorphism is invoked. Markets have emotions: they’re upset, or fickle, or panicking, or stern, or unimpressed. We’re invited to make sacrifices to them, to give up things in the hopes that maybe they’ll improve their mood and spare us this time round. Those in power make sacrifices on our behalf, though its not their safety or health which are burnt in front of the idol.
This is not to suggest that financial markets are inherently evil, or that economists and investment bankers are fraudulent or worthless. Isaiah’s anecdote doesn’t assert that wood is rubbish, and that cooking food or even carving statues is totally against all reason. But he warns against the serious consequences of investing something we have ourselves made with divine power. Not only because it looks a bit stupid, but because it is morally corrosive. It can lead to immolating the real in service of an abstraction. Real people, real lives, real food and warmth. They can become at risk because we allow our language to treat a mesh of probabilities and speculations as if they were alive and sentient. And angry with us.
Whilst I was thinking about this, David Allen Green declared he was working on a piece about the stupidity of declaring that something was to be “enshrined in law”. Green is one of the most famous commentators in the British legal system, and like many lawyers he is often critical of the tendency to discuss law as if it were magic. With every call for “a law against X” (as if that would abolish the problem), he is prone to point out that murder is illegal, but people still do it. His learned irritation with “enshrining” things caught my ear, because once again we see the edge of idolatry, of religious language directed towards something we made ourselves. Under threat, under pressure, people (and politicians) call for a law to be made, in order that they can bow to it and demand it save them. It seems telling that those who know most about law seem to be most careful to warn against legal idolatry.
So Christianity has a profound critique to make of exactly what it is often accused of doing: peddling abstractions. Isaiah’s rebuke to irresponsible speculation, or reckless legislation, is to challenge their unreality. The prophetic witness against idolatry is not just the jealousy of a religious system which thinks it is losing power over people, but a furious denunciation of treating abstract systems as if they were divine. It is a critique of looking away from reality in favour of mystification, whilst others pay the price.