Thursday, March 12, 2009

Scripture and Idolatry

In a fit of grumbling dudgeon about the Intelligent Design movement, I once said: "Literal creationism requires that the universe not be as old as it seems to be. It must reject science completely in order to defend its carefully constructed--and ultimately idolatrous--approach to interpreting scripture."

I'm going to have to 'splain my position a bit more.

First, what is an idol? We get the word--as we get so many words--from the ancient Greek word eidolon, meaning a visible image, symbol, or object. Of course, that describes everything in the world around us, even the symbolic representations that direct us towards an awareness of the divine. The practice of idolatry comes when you direct your worship towards an object or symbol, and not the God to which that symbol points. The symbol, instead of directing you to an awareness of the divine, becomes a magical token. It becomes a fetish--no, not THAT kind of fetish, sinner--but fetish in the classical sense of an inanimate object that is worshipped. Idolatry is a Queequeg faith, a belief in the thing you can carry around in your pocket, utterly comprehensible and manipulable, stripped of all of the mystery and glory of our real and living God. The insanity of that type of "faith" is expressed with delicious poetry and satire by the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 14:9-20.

The doctrine of literal inerrancy, I would contend, does precisely that to Holy Scripture. That isn't to say that there aren't large portions of the Bible that can be read literally. Nor is that to say that much of the moral teaching and spiritual guidance that can be found in Scripture won't convey to those who read the Bible literally.

But the words that we read in our New International Versions or our King James Versions are just that...words. As words in a human language, they are a form of symbolic representation that is intended to point us deeper, to the Word that rises up through those symbols. When we say that they are perfect in and of themselves, that they are literally inerrant, we turn our worship to the symbol itself. It is the symbol that is perfect. It is the symbol that becomes the object of faith, instead of the Holy Spirit that gives it true authority.

As a system for approaching Holy Scripture, that is inherently idolatrous.