by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 04/06/2017
How then could I unite with this wild idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Prophecy is a radical critique of religions and cultures. Of every religion and every cult that has an intrinsic tendency to turn into idolatrous practices. Also, and above all, it offers a criticism of biblical revelation, a systematic and tremendous criticism, to prevent the biblical word from becoming a simple religion - a faith that becomes only religion is already idolatrous worship. The Bible is much more than a sacred book of a religion, also because it has welcomed and kept safe in its bosom the books of prophets, which, together with Job and Qoheleth, prevented it from becoming an idolatrous object. The prophets, therefore, by ridding the religious world of idols, try to liberate our landscape from our religious artefacts to create an environment in which we can - perhaps - only hear a bare voice. They are the great liberators from the gods that fill the earth and our souls.
Therefore the first necessary step for those who begin a journey of faith is a-theism, the liberation from the many totems and fetishes that fill our existence. The prophets know that the natural condition of man is not atheism, but idolatry, the systematic and increasingly sophisticated production of material artefacts and ideals to worship, to which they then turn in search of false and easy salvation. Because if the biblical God becomes simply another idol to be added to our pantheon, our slavery will only increase. The biblical God can be different from the idols only in an empty temple - because at some point it has been emptied.
And so, in order to make us understand the difference between idolatry and his faith, the prophet has to carry out a work of spiritual cleansing and bring us back to the slopes of the Horeb where "there was only a voice". Until we engage in playing with the religious toys that our relatives handed down to us or that we have learned to create with our hands, we cannot start a genuinely spiritual life - youth is the propitious moment to begin a true walk of faith also because we are freer from the wrong gods then. That’s where almost all the necessity of prophecy in every age and everywhere lies, because without being held firm by its force which can unmask and devour the "wood" that surrounds us, we are in dialogue with artefacts for all our lives, even when we call them God or Jesus.
Hence, paradoxically (the Bible is a great and unique vital paradox, and can be opened only within this paradox), the honest atheist’s existential condition is more appropriate than the one in which the religious person is, when it comes to starting an authentic experience of biblical faith, because it is easier to hear a subtle voice of silence in a desolate and empty land. But, unfortunately, many of those who look and believe to be atheists are faithful devotees of some ideology, or perpetual worshippers of the greatest idol: their own ego.
It is at this level that the universal reach of the prophetic word that speaks to and loves all inside and outside religions is to be grasped, because the idolatrous universe is much wider than the explicitly religious one. To all, the true prophets repeat, here and now, with their strong tenderness: “Fear not”. "Learn not the way of the nations, / nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens / because the nations are dismayed at them, / for the customs of the peoples are vanity. / A tree from the forest is cut down / and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.” (Jeremiah 10:2-3). Nothing more than idolatrous struggle can reveal the liberating nature of prophets to us. Liberation from the idols, and liberation from the fear because of the idols we have created. The idols are vanity (that is, nothing - the tr.), Jeremiah repeats, but if we attribute some existence and consistency to them, they become something, and that something frightens us. Yesterday and today, the idolatrous man is always a man full of fears. Above all he fears death, because he realizes that those fabricated objects are not alive, they cannot defeat death; and we are reminded of that every moment, and death becomes scarier every moment because it gets closer and closer.
In chapter 10 - a complex text as the long editorial shows, but fundamental for the economy of the entire Book of Jeremiah - the prophet gives us an actual theory of nature and the development of idolatry, within the community and among the people who had a non-idolatrous faith. At the beginning of the conversion to the idols we find the charm of "conduct", the "way" of other nations, their lifestyles. Day after day the cults of other peoples become more interesting, attractive and seductive than our own. It is an interest, an attraction-seduction that is never just a religious thing because it acts at a more general and profound level. The processions of the great, tall and splendid Babylonian, Assyrian or Egyptian gods fascinated the Jews because they were the expressions of a "winner" culture, the emblems of those great political and cultural powers. Political and military powers become empires when their culture and religion begins to be desired and imitated by the defeated peoples. They become perfect and invincible empires when their symbols and values are internalized by their new subjects. It is precisely in this seduction of the soul that a profound reason for the ruthless critique pronounced by the prophets on the deities of other peoples can be found. They know by vocation that no political occupation, no deportation totally reduces us to slavery until we begin to worship the new gods, until their symbols mark our soul.
Then, once seduced, the new worshippers become the makers of their own new idols. The biblical God is unique and therefore not reproducible. Idols aren’t so: they can and should be reproduced, multiplied, serially built and become mass-produced consumer products. Adorers, after having cut the trees in the woods, after having killed the living tree to make a dead object (at the origin of the totem there is this violence that the ancient man felt and understood much more than us), "They decorate it with silver and gold; / they fasten it with hammer and nails / so that it cannot move." (10:4). And businesses are proliferating, because, yesterday and today, there is no commodity that men love more than the idols.
Jeremiah has experienced a real voice; he has been called by name by something alive. So the contrast between his different God and those carved, painted and decorated pieces of wood spreading in his country must have appeared immense. “There is none like you, O Lord” (10:6). The idols “cannot speak; / they have to be carried, 6 for they cannot walk. / Do not be afraid of them, / for they cannot do evil, / neither is it in them to do good.” (10:5) They are simply harmless, empty, just a breath, nothing, hevel: “They are both stupid and foolish; / the instruction of idols is but wood! ... They are worthless, a work of delusion” (10: 8,15). In this context, his famous and ingenious definition of the idol resounds: "Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field" (10:5).
But it is here that we have to start a new discourse. Jeremiah says, sings and keeps repeating the different nature of YHWH also because the encounter that Israel was having with new and ancient peoples and their many gods of wood would have perhaps, even in the prophet, raised the question: and what if our God, too, were, in fact, just a breath of air and empty like all these other idols? The unmasking of the vanity of idolatry puts those with an unpolluted faith in crisis, too, because the disgust they feel for the worshippers worshipping nothingness also makes their beliefs different.
When, by vocation or gift, on a blessed day we can understand that most of the cults we see around us are more or less sophisticated forms of idolatry and illusion, a banal, consolatory nothing covered and decorated in various forms, our first experience is the birth of a persistent internal question: but why should my faith be different from other illusions? Will it be true that "But the Lord is the true God; / he is the living God and the everlasting King"(10:10)? Or was the voice that I heard just a sound of dead wood, too? It is an honest question that grows and becomes inevitable. And so, many people lose their faith upon discovering the deception of the idolatry of others, to which their own is also attracted, appearing too much like the wrong and deceitful one. This question becomes very acute in the prophets, and to exorcise it they end up saying harsh words about the gods of others, denying that even those cults worshipping wood or the stars could contain something authentic, some breath of that true spirit blowing where it wants. Prophets also fear the idols differently.
Today we must not, therefore, read the radical critique that Jeremiah and the prophets address to the idols as a denial of all truths of all faiths other than the biblical one. If we did, we would not understand either the nature of the religious phenomenon or the profound spirituality of Jeremiah's words. Two and a half millennia of history of religions and Christianity have strengthened and confirmed the spiritual and human value of Jeremiah's anti-idolatry argument: our capitalist cities of consumption are increasingly similar to Babylon and Nineveh, and the idolatrous transmutation of the ancient faiths is more and more evident every day. At the same time, we have learned that not all gods that are different from ours are idols and scarecrows, and that perhaps in those coloured wood logs there may be less nothingness and stupidity than in our ever-more idolatrous hyper-technological goods. And perhaps, the spirit of God that lives mysteriously but truly in the heart of every man and woman can recognize its own breath even in a tree trunk. The prophets and the Bible grow with our lives and learn new things thanks to our honest and generous reading of their ancient, splendid words.
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