We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, July 23, 2012

Idolatry in the "Real World"

Penn State campus statue of Joe Paterno
(AP photo)
By and large, the "secular" world is not much interested in theology  and looks on it as largely specious speculation about things we only think we know about.  It is not a field of knowledge most academics and scientists would consider a candidate for critical thinking.  They are wrong. Theology, in practice, engages in critical reflection at least as much as supposedly more empirical fields, and one of the most powerful tools for critical theological reflection is one we've highlighted before here: the concept of idolatry.  Idolatry is false worship, the worship of the created as if it were the Creator.

Once-in-awhile, however, the world "out there" unwittingly discovers the value of this critical theological concept and appropriates it for its own analysis of contemporary events.  Sports analyst Evan Barnes in a posting entitled, "Penn State Scandal: What We Can Learn from Joe Paterno, Penn State's Failings," thus repeatedly charges Penn State football fans with practicing idolatry in their (false) worship of the late Nittany Lion football coach, Joe Paterno.

Commenting on Paterno's complicity in the tragic and reprehensible Sandusky child abuse case, Barnes opens with this theological observation, "College football has long created gods who tower over the sport."  He then analyzes the consequences of turning sports into a religion and sports heroes into idols.  He speaks of the danger of turning "ordinary men into gods," which leads to a fall from grace that is a consequence of the worship given them by their fans.  He observes that Paterno was elevated to the status of a deity and writes, "The danger in creating an idol isn’t in adoring it. It’s how far we go to protect it." (Theologically, Barnes is not correct here. You can't separate the adoration from the desire to protect the idol, hence the adoration is part of the danger.)  The worship of these false sports gods involves people's feelings, passions, and identity, which morph into a lust for victory and a moral failure to hold to what is right.  In places like "Happy Valley," Centre County, PA, a culture arose that mixed hero worship with an unwillingness to hear fair-minded criticism of the hero.  (I lived in Happy Valley for three years in the 1970s, and even forty years ago local folks laughingly referred to Joe Paterno as a member of the Trinity.  It was a joke, but pointed even then to a growing feeling that Joe could do no evil.)

At the heart of our dark side as human beings lies our deeply ingrained inclination to worship things that are not worthy of worship.  Almost anything can become an idol, including our heroes and our sports.  Were that not the case, Jerry Sandusky could not have continued to abuse young boys year after year protected by an idolatrous system that put the vaunted Penn State football program above child abuse.  That, friends, is how powerful idolatry can be and why it is roundly condemned time and again in scripture.  One wishes that "the world" would take the reality of idolatry more seriously and that bibliolatrous Christians would see it as a danger especially to the Christian faith itself.  That's a prayer.  Amen.

By the way, in case you missed it, Joe's statue has been taken down.

(While the author doesn't use language that is all but theology as Barnes did, interested RPK readers would do well to look at the posting entitled, "Let's Talk a Bit About the Penn State-Paterno Debacle," at the Daily Gopher blog.)