Grace Beyond the Golden Calf Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Last week’s discussion of the Decalogue included the prohibition against idolatry. And we see the problem of idolatry played out in dramatic fashion in the story of the golden calf. The outrage of the golden calf isn’t that God said “don’t make pretty things” and people […]
Grace Beyond the Golden Calf
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Last week’s discussion of the Decalogue included the prohibition against idolatry. And we see the problem of idolatry played out in dramatic fashion in the story of the golden calf.
The outrage of the golden calf isn’t that God said “don’t make pretty things” and people chose to make a pretty thing anyway. That would make religion seem fairly useless and God beyond petty. The outrage of the golden calf is the on-going human problem of wanting to have God “in a box.”
Our god-talk, especially if we take it too literally, tries to reduce the Divine to a thing (or a person). But if God is a thing (or a person), no matter how grand or mighty, then God is not “god-enough” and our understanding of God is little better than having a big, beautiful, impressive, but in the end not terribly useful golden calf.
Dictionary definitions of the word “idol” include:
#1~An idol is any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion.
#2~An idol is an image or semblance of something, visible but without substance
#3~An idol is a false conception or fallacy.
By each definition, let’s look at some of the idols that draw us into limitation, idols that we will want to discard or destroy so that we can experience more of the All, that which can’t be named or known or limited by any tradition, text, story or symbol.
#1~An idol is something regarded with blind adoration or devotion.
When we paint God as a homophobe, a misogynist, a racist, a xenophobe, a war-monger, a child abuser, or the enemy of any religion or people, we are offering blind devotion to bigotry and elevating it the status of divinity. We are taking the gold of our hatreds and melting it into an idol to adore rather than summon the courage to explore the Mystery beyond naming or knowing.
And maybe those idols have been used as weapons against us; but even that provides opportunities for us. We can determine to not idolize our own prejudices, since we know how appallingly unjust such idolatry can be for those against whom such bigotry is waged. Moreover, we learn how resilient we are. People said we were unworthy, not good enough, they misjudged us, misrepresented us, even slandered us, but from the difficult experience we learned how strong we really are, we learned that we could forgive them even, though it might take some time, and we learned that their opinion of us doesn’t determine our destiny nearly as much our opinion of us does. Let us not worship our prejudices and let us not remain victimized by those who in worshiping their prejudices tried to hurt us.
#2~An idol is an image of something, visible but without substance.
When we worship youth, success, beauty, male privilege, convenience, comfort, or notoriety, we have an image before us which we find laudable and praise worthy, but which lacks substance or lasting meaning.
Another image that lacks substance is the image of the past that we hold before us to keep us from moving forward. Remember, the golden calf represented Apis, the Egyptian bull-god. It not only tried to put a face on God, which was bad enough, but it was the face of the past which hindered moving forward into a blessed future.
The bad school experience, the hurtful work situation, the scary diagnosis, the betrayal of a friend, the devastating loss from long ago, the accident that caused so much damage, the injustice that left us feeling utterly broken…those things were real, they happened, and they hurt terribly. But all that is left of them is the memory of them, a phantom we too often enshrine, worshiping our pain rather than moving through it.
Grief is meant to be a healing process. When there is loss or disappointment or failure, it is natural, normal, and necessary to grieve; but the grief is meant to eventually give way to renewed hope and appreciation for the possibilities that are always present to us. Thank God we survived the past pain and thank God there are new opportunities for us today; the attitude of gratitude unleashes the power of healing into our lives.
There was, frankly, a lot of pain in my childhood; a lot of fear from being a queer child in an environment that was decidedly not queer-friendly. Additionally, there were family issues, abuse. The years stretched on like a prison sentence. I spent a lot of time hiding in my room, avoiding people, and imagining alternate realities.
Naturally, I had a lot of resentment about not feeling safe as a child. It interfered with my studies for a while in college, and kept me from building healthy relationships as a young adult. I found that I felt unsafe in almost any situation…surely friends would prove false, lovers would betray, employers would turn on me, strangers would threaten harm, even natural disasters might seek me out. The pain of the past was always with me, and I just kept building new images to represent it.
I was bowing before a specter of the past, that in my mind seemed omnipotent, and by focusing on it constantly I was keeping it primary in my consciousness and experience. But it wasn’t real; it was only a memory of something that had been real long ago, and I was using that memory to attract, discover, or create new difficulties; but the driving engine of the dysfunction was only a vision of past events that no longer had any substance at all.
Once I forgave the past, forgave my on-going mistakes, forgave those who had hurt me in my formative years, understood that they were hurting also, doing their best even though their best wasn’t what any of us deserved, once I released the past to the past I was able to heal from it and start to experience more joy, more love, more success, more fulfillment in my life.
I stopped idolizing the past; stopped dragging around images of former oppression which mostly served to feed current depression, and once I was able to release the past and move forward, life became unimaginably better. Some of those early relationships were healed, others were released, but in both cases, the pain no longer held an exalted place on the high altar of my heart and the promises of joy and peace were at last made real in my experience of life.
We can drag around an Egyptian symbol if we want to, but that means we aren’t really free from Egypt, and can’t be, no matter how far in the past our first experience of Egypt may be (we use Egypt as a metaphor from the story, not in any way to insult the actual nation of Egypt or its people).
#3~And an idol is a false conception or fallacy.
When we choose to worship ignorance, when we cling to the idea that we ought to control women’s bodies or that prejudice against same-gender loving people is somehow noble or even holy, when we attack gender non-conforming people without bothering to listen to their stories or experiences, when we dismiss evolution because it contradicts naïve understandings of pre-scientific myths, when we care more about protecting privilege than we do about making life more just and generous and joyous for more people, we have bowed in reverence before the deities of deception, the false gods of fallacy.
We can make our bibles, our traditions, our sacraments, our décor into idols, of course, by ascribing magical qualities to them rather than allowing them to point beyond themselves to an on-going journey into the Mystery beyond our naming. But our idols don’t stop there. Whenever we worship the good old days, the glorious past, our own comfort or privilege, the myth of certainty or the myth of exceptionalism, or when we worship our hatred which we have wrapped in the language of values, or even when we have worshiped our own pain by dragging it around with us like a sacred talisman rather than breaking from it to experience better days, we have actually built our own golden calf, saying that it is our salvation, our hope, our way forward when in reality, the idol to the past is only holding us back.
There is good news in the golden calf story. The story is more than just admonition. It in the end is a testimony to grace. The author thinks God should be angry, but at the end of the reading, God responds only with compassion and grace. Idolatry didn’t hurt God; it hurt the idolaters by keeping their experience of God too small. God doesn’t need to punish them for idolatry; God needs to help them heal from the fear that caused them to make gods of their pain, anxiety, and regret.
In the end we see, even when the people abandon the exploration and experience of Life’s mysteries in favor for the easier and far less satisfying worship of things, symbols and easy answers, the Omnipresence of God is not capable of abandoning them. No matter how many times we miss the mark, get it wrong, fail to move forward, or stay stuck in dysfunction, divine Love will not let us go and the moment is always a new one full of new possibilities and opportunity.
Now, if God is always with and within us, then the infinite possibilities represented by God are always available to us. We don’t have to cling to the past.
Past glories did not exhaust all the good that is possible for us and past pain doesn’t have to define us for the rest of time. We don’t need to cling to images of the past that weigh us down and keep us from moving forward into our own land of promise.
It was a mistake for the people to create their golden calf; but mistakes are good teachers, and the people continued to move forward after that experience and eventually made it to the land of promise. Our idols weigh us down and keep us trapped in the past; but it’s never too late to be free of them. It’s never too late to start moving forward again. It’s never too late to experience some healing, some hope, and the promise of a new day. That’s the promise of the golden calf story, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
I am strong, wise, and filled with hope.
The past is past and the future has infinite possibilities.
Thank you, God!