Not with the convenient idol

The Dawn of Midnight/27 - Beyond the seduction of useful faith and mutual consumption

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire Avvenire on 22/10/2017

171022 Geremia 27 ridA nation that still believes in itself holds fast to its own god. (...) it projects its joy in itself, its feeling of power, into a being to whom one may offer thanks. He who is rich will give of his riches; a proud people need a god to whom they can make sacrifices... (...) Wherever the will to power begins to decline, in whatever form, there is always an accompanying decline physiologically, a decadence. The divinity of this decadence ... is converted perforce into a god of the physiologically degraded, of the weak.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (English translation by: H. L. Mencken)

In certain decisive moments, faith and hope become the same thing in fact. This happens when the question ‘Do you believe?’ seems too small and incapable of grasping the richness of the mystery of our heart. When we lose faith simply because we wanted to become adults and our first, child's faith failed to grow together with our love and with our own and others' pain, faith can still return home, taken by the hand by hope. Hope is more resilient than faith, because even under a sky that has become uninhabited we can always hope that the good words that they had told us about there being a greater love in the world were true - that some of them were true, or at least one of them was true. Even when we can no longer believe in God we can always continue to hope in him, we can hope that although on the day we stopped praying we made the greatest mistake, that day we could not know it. And this humble and gentle hope already becomes a true new prayer, and fills the utterly human and restless waiting for the not-yet.

“So Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers and all the people disobeyed the Lord’s command to stay in the land of Judah. (...) And they took Jeremiah the prophet and Baruch son of Neriah along with them. So they entered Egypt in disobedience to the Lord..."(Jeremiah 43:4-7). The survivors bring Jeremiah and his disciple Baruch to Egypt. They take him with them, like a new ark of the Covenant. They do not listen to his words, but the covenant with that different God, the tales of patriarchs and liberation through the sea were still alive in their moral and spiritual chromosomes, and in some way continued to determine their actions. As it happens to those who have forgotten the faith of their parents and all the prayers they have learned as a child, but feel real pain if an earthquake destroys the church in the village where they heard good words as a child. This faith may not only be nostalgia for childhood or culture. It acts on a deeper level of our psychology; it works without our knowledge and sometimes, in our spite, as an instinct or destiny. We may not listen to the prophets, we may kill them, but there is a ‘remnant’ of the soul that can be tuned to their voice. For this reason we want them with us, we do not listen to them but we would like them to be close to us, because of the need for life and truth that even the evil ones have. We remain human even when we are bad. We are Adam before being Cain, and we remain Adam even after Abel. We remain the image and resemblance of those who we cannot listen to with our ears but who we cannot help but listen to with the medulla - this is biblical anthropology.

Jeremiah, who arrived in Egypt with the caravan, simply continues to do his ‘job’, to fulfil his destiny. To prophesy in the name of YHWH, to speak with his mouth and gestures: “In Tahpanhes the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘While the Jews are watching, take some large stones with you and bury them in clay in the brick pavement at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes’” (43:8-9). The meaning of the gesture is clear at once: “I will send for my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and I will set his throne over these stones I have buried here; he will spread his royal canopy above them” (43:10). They have fled to Egypt, but they cannot escape their sad fate. Even in Egypt YHWH continues to speak to Jeremiah, giving him messages to the people. And Jeremiah obeys. He has done so throughout his life, and he continues to do so even in the exile, without his homeland, without the temple. This nomadic and wandering voice, which speaks without a temple, among deportees and in the midst of new gods, once again speaks the radical secularism of biblical humanism: to find the divine spirit on earth nothing else is needed than human persons, voices of men and women, hands, eyes, bodies. We are the only temple under the sun - so, perhaps, in our time when God speaks less and less in temples, we can hope to hear his voice again if we meet and recognize at least one prophet.

Jeremiah continues to prophesy, and his people continue not to listen to him: ‘Now this is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: (...) Why arouse my anger with what your hands have made, burning incense to other gods in Egypt, where you have come to live?” (44:7-8) At the end of his mission and life, Jeremiah finds himself in the same battles of the early days in Anathoth. Above all, we can rediscover his eternal and continuous struggle against idolatry, the great illness of Israel and all religions, of which the prophets would be the only cure if they were listened to: “Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present – a large assembly – and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, ‘We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! We will certainly do everything we said we would: we will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem’” (44:15-17). They seem consistent and sincere to the end in their rejection.

Finding the (futile) fight against idolatry even at the end of Jeremiah's book and prophecy, him being deported, tired and old, is something of extreme importance. On the day when Jeremiah received his vocation, YHWH told him that kings, priests and all the people “will fight against you but will not overcome you” (1:19). Why did his enemies not “overcome” him? Actually, if we browse through his entire book again, we realize that Jeremiah knew by vocation that the people were too comfortable to convert, and he always announced the end to them. Where is Jeremiah' s ‘victory’ then? First of all prophets do not want to win, they only want to respond to their vocation, resist to the end in failure and frustration, not to have their voice extinguished which continues to shout out in the desert of listening. In this sense Jeremiah ‘won’.

The prophets know that they cannot win their battles against idolatry. Idolatry is invincible, because we humans love to construct idols too much. And to its very end Jeremiah's book explains and reflects the nature of idolatry, and hence its inescapable nature: “...ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine” (44:17-18).

The root of idolatry is our radical tendency to transform the relationship with the divinity into a commercial exchange. We believe in a god if and until it is convenient for us, if and until that particular divinity best satisfies our needs; and we change gods as soon as we think that a new ‘god’ serves our interests better. And when we change a god for another, cheaper one we are clearly saying that both the old and the new god were simply idols, i.e. experiences of consumption to seek our profit. The relationship of idolatry is a mutual consumption, a consuming of each other: the idol consumes its believer, and the idolater consumes the idol, up to the pint of total reciprocal holocaust.

Idolatry comes back every time the dimension of consumption of spiritual goods, the search for strong emotions, or the satisfaction of one's own interests and pleasure prevails in a religious or ideal experience. Men and women have always done so, and continue to do so, inside and outside religions, inside and outside the church, movements and religious communities. It is natural, it is human to seek a relationship of convenience with God as well. But it is not the experience of God that the prophets give us and defend. The relationship with the biblical God is best suited to man, but it is a convenience that must be found on a different level from the economic, consumer and pleasure level - this is the great teaching of Job, the Gospels and the prophets. It is not the convenience of power and wealth. The convenience of the biblical God is Job's powerlessness, the defeat of the prophets, the ‘power’ of the Sermon on the Mount, the ‘weakness’ of an all-powerful God who cannot convert even his people. Every time, and many times, that we measure the convenience of faith with the measure of our consumption and our pleasure, we are already within an idolatrous relationship, even if we give our convenient idol the name of God. It should never be forgotten that on the slopes of Sinai the name given to the golden calf, the paradigm of every idol, was “YHWH”: “Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord’” (Exodus 32:4-5). Perhaps the main reason that makes idolatry invincible is the very name: today's idol often has the same name as yesterday's God, and we celebrate it under the same mountain, on the same altars, with the same prayers.

The prophets' tenacious struggle against idolatry, which the Bible has always preserved and still does, helps us to become aware of our idolatry (however, we are usually better at seeing that of others), and then gives us hope that one day we will hear a different voice beyond the many idols that fill our house. Biblical faith, every faith, is authentic until it helps us become aware of our natural and inevitable idolatrous condition, and therefore makes the desire for something truer be born in our soul. And because it repeats it to us a hundred, a thousand times in the course of life. Until the end, when, if we have not stopped attending and listening to it, it will help us to distinguish the good angel of death from the last idol we still don’t know. And it will be our last thanks to the Bible, to the prophets, to life.

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