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

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Penn State & Idolatry Revisited

Israel worships the golden calf (Exodus 32)
It turns out that the football scandal at Penn State involving Sandusky's repeated abuse of young boys over many years has sparked serious and healthy reflection on the nature of idolatry and how best to deal with it—and this among sports writers!  A previous RPK posting (here), noted the emergence of what amounts to the theological analysis of how Joe Paterno in particular and the Penn State football program more generally became false gods.  What seems to be happening is that the sports application of the idea of idolatry and theological-like reflections on it have become increasingly widespread.  Witness an op-ed piece by sports writer Tim Keown entitled, "NCAA offers losing solution," which criticizes the way in which the NCAA imposed sanctions on Penn State that only serve to perpetuate obeisance to the false idol of winning & losing.  In the posting, Keown refers to Joe Paterno as a "false god" and Penn State's football program as an idol.  He argues that the sanctions are an act of retribution that punish Penn State merely by turning its winning program into a losing one.  The emphasis is still on winning and losing.  The idolatrous culture that enabled Sandusky remains in place.  Keown feels that it would have been better to shut down the program for a year and let it deal with its deeper problems out of the glare of the public eye—and away from the necessities of winning & losing.  Suspending the football program for a year would have sent the message that more is at stake than winning or losing.

Keown may be correct in his analysis—or maybe not.  The matter is debatable.  The point here, however, is that as a sports writer he is looking for a way to deal with idolatry, that is to bring it to an end.  He writes, "You can't tell us the problem is with the idolatry that comes from winning and then make decisions that are based solely on the importance of wins and losses."  He is taking the concept of idolatry seriously and using it to deal with a real-world issue that has important social implications.

In the church, we make one additional critical observation that does not appear in the sports analysis of idolatry.  That is, idolatry is essentially a spiritual issue.  It happens whenever we elevate the mundane to the status of God.  And, ultimately, the only effective antidote is faith in God, Creator & Lord of the universe.  The worship of anything else—Joe Pa, for example—will one sooner or later collapse in on itself, sometimes with devastating repercussions.

(For another thoughtful piece on the Sandusky scandal see the Christian Science Monitor editorial, "NCAA sanctions on Penn State football: Why only penalties?" Although it doesn't use the theological language of idolatry, it is similar to Keown's analysis in calling for fundamental cultural changes in college football.)