Friday, June 7, 2013


Several years ago, my wife gathered up various bits valuable metal around the house and we went to one of those gold-and-silver merchants that have sprung up like toadstools in the wake of the economic collapse.

We had a house and kids and I had recently retired, and so, although in the grand scheme of things we were not "poor," still there were financial pressures. Like a lot of other people, we dispensed with the beauty and craftsmanship and sentimental value of things as a means of floating our economic boat. The
merchants didn't much care about beauty or craftsmanship: They were interested in how much silver or gold the items contained and how much they might be worth when melted down.

In the Abrahamic religions and even in wider applications, the "golden calf" is a metaphor for idolatry -- for missing the essence and elevating the frills. In religious applications, golden calves tend to piss the Almighty off because they are false gods. More broadly among those who do not lay overt claim to celestial status, they are simply an indicator of the extent to which anyone might have missed some true message. It can be pretty satisfying, pointing out the overweaning, ritualistic, false-god direction that others follow ... what a bunch of idolators! Jesus turned over the money tables in the temple and the story is taken to suggest, perhaps, "what the hell does money have to do with spiritual life?!"

And there is a value to such observations. How many persuasions can anyone point to in which the appearances rise up like vines and choke out the essence? A lot I imagine. The blood-lettings and other palpable corruptions of idolatry are no small matter.

But I think also that idolatry might very well be the bedrock of spiritual life. Institutional golden calves may be easy to point out, but the idolatries of a personal life are more elusive ... not to mention discomforting. What golden calf do I place upon the altar of my heart? What "goodness" or "evil" guides my steps? What "delusion" or "clarity" glistens and winks in the sunlight? What choices do I choose to burnish? Leaving aside the pejorative meaning of "idolatry," isn't this every bit as much an idolatry as any literal golden calf? "Non-attachment," "compassion," "enlightenment," "delusion"   etc.

Of course it is easier to turn a gimlet eye on other people or institutions or situations when it comes to golden calves. And it may be discomforting to turn that gimlet eye inward and recognize the idolatries of my own life: "No! No! You don't understand! My way is true and glistening and does not wreak havoc! My choices are choices that focus on the essence, not the frills!"

I think there is another approach to this idolatry business. Instead of assuming that golden calves can somehow be evaded or brought crashing down, perhaps it would be better to concede that there are nothing BUT golden calves ... Golden Calves R Us.

And the great thing about golden calves is that they are golden -- pure gold -- and the proper function of spiritual effort is simply to melt them down. The gimlet eye of spiritual practice is hotter than a blast furnace and bit by bit the invaluable nature of idolatry is made apparent. Idolatry separates, but spiritual endeavor melts the crafty beauty away until even spiritual endeavor is returned to nothing but flowing luster.

I say this, of course, as one idolator to another.

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