Frederick Buechner’s novel Son of Laughter has a passage I think about often, a beautiful passage about idols and idolatry. Before you read it you should be aware that the novel, which is about Jacob the Patriarch, refers to God not as God, or the Lord, or YHWH, or even HaShem, but as the Fear. That said, here goes — and read it slowly, preferably aloud:
The unclean blood no longer clung to our hands, but the small gods clung still to our hearts. They clung with silver fingers, with fingerless hands of wood and baked clay. Like rats, the gods gibbered in our hearts about the rich gifts they have for giving to us. The gods give rain. The swelling udder they give and the sweet fig, the plump ear of grain, the ooze of oil. They give sons. To Laban they gave cunning. They give their names as the Fear, at the Jabbok, refused me his when I asked it, and a god named is a god summoned. The Fear comes when he comes. It is the Fear who summons. The gods give in return for your gifts to them: the strangled dove, the burnt ox, the first fruit. There are those who give them their firstborn even, the child bound to the altar for knifing as Abraham bound Isaac till the Fear of his mercy bade the urine-soaked old man unbind him. The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted, as to me from the stone stair he gave promise and blessing, and gave them also to Isaac before me, to Abraham before Isaac, all of us wanderers only, herdsmen and planters moving with the seasons as gales of dry sand move with the wind. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless.
These were the days of workshop-idolatry, idol-making on a human scale, idols at retail rather than wholesale. The idols, once made, stayed with us; indeed, this very passage is a kind of midrash on Rachel’s decision, when she and her husband Jacob flee her father Laban, to take the household gods with her. They are too precious, too comforting, too well-known to be left behind. We know every line in the carved hands, which the caressing of our hands has worn smooth.
But when we have access to what I have called “the universal idol-fabricating device,” then each particular idol becomes temporary, dispensable — it is the fabrica itself, the forge or workshop, that becomes the true object of our veneration. The idol-maker has become the idol. Thus my comment on that previous post: “I do think, though, that it’s interesting to consider the difference between idols made by hand (as it were arithmetically) and those made by an endlessly iterated algorithmic process. The former we may be more attached to, but we can’t exchange them easily for others; the latter can’t earn our complete adoration, but they don’t have to because there are always new ones being extruded from the pipeline. We are serial idolaters.” And yet consistently faithful to the devices that generate and transmit the temporary idols.
This is not a religious argument in the sense that my categories are relevant only to people who believe in a true God the proper worship of whom is co-opted by idolatry. People who don’t believe in any god at all may be equally concerned when human beings worship what other human beings have made. That digital technologies can produce convincing, or at least adequate, simulacra of the transcendent should be a source of concern to the religious and nonreligious alike, though not always for the same reasons.