Post 298

A Small and Neatly-Folded Flat World:
Reflections on Idolatry

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)

When ‘experts’ consider the art and objects left behind by those from prehistoric times, they make huge errors, because they begin with the notion that prehistoric people were quite a bit different from themselves. There is a snobbishness that prevents them from recognizing themselves in a prehistoric setting.

Most art historians concern themselves with the “who” and the “when” (by whom and when was this made?) and they feel pretty safe with the “how” question (what was used to create it, what techniques were used?), and outside of modern art, they also feel comfortable with the “what” questions (what is being depicted?).

However, the biggest question — the most interesting and important question — is “why”? Why did these people build this? Why did they draw this? Why did they bury people with this type of object? Yet it’s the most difficult one, and is so often answered with some vague guesses which show more about the academic trends within art history or within anthropology at that very moment.

Decades ago, I read about the cave paintings at Lascaux, France. (They were discovered in 1940 by some boys who were rescuing their dog from a hole, according to my textbook, which doesn’t tell me whether the boys were successful in rescuing their dog.)

Do you like cave paintings? I do. I dislike caves, of course, but I think it’s really interesting to see what has been preserved on the walls. I like, for instance, the stencil handprint art that appears in caves all over the world. Wikipedia says that “the oldest known cave painting is a red hand stencil in Maltravieso cave, Cáceres, Spain. It has been dated using the uranium-thorium method to older than 64,000 years and was made by a Neanderthal.” I remember seeing a picture of a child handprint adjacent to an adult handprint. So cute! And then, of course, there are animal pictures. People keep finding more, and as the technology for determining dates improves, the dates are revised, and get earlier and earlier. “The oldest date given to an animal cave painting is now a bull dated circa as over 40,000 years, at Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Before this discovery, the oldest known cave painting was a depiction of a pig with a minimum age of 35,400 years, at Timpuseng cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.” (also from Wikipedia’s “Cave Paintings.”)

With respect to the cave paintings at Lascaux, also made tens of thousands of years ago, experts cannot understand very much about them. It is only recently, for instance, that technology has revealed that the best drawings are often the oldest ones. And here art historians are in agreement that those with the highest level of realism are the most impressive.

I shake my head at the theories surrounding the creation of the art. H.W. Janson’s third edition of History of Art says this about the images:

Hidden away as they are in the bowels of the earth, to protect them from the casual intruder, these images must have served a purpose far more serious than mere decoration. There can be little doubt, in fact, that they were produced as part of a magic ritual, perhaps to secure a successful hunt. . . Apparently, people of the Old Stone Age made no clear distinction between image and reality; by making a picture of an animal they meant to bring the animal itself within their grasp, and in “killing” the image they thought they had killed the animal’s vital spirit. Hence a “dead” image lost its potency after the killing ritual had been performed, and could be disregarded when the spell had to be renewed. The magic worked, too, we may be sure; hunters whose courage was thus fortified were bound to be more successful when slaying these formidable beasts with their primitive weapons (27).

Notice how Mr. Janson adds “there can be little doubt,” “in fact,” and “we may be sure” to his theory, a theory that strikes me as really stupid. To say that a group of people “made no clear distinction between image and reality” is quite a stretch. The evidence for all of his theories is only the hidden location of the art! There are quite a few reasons a cave painter might choose a particular location. Some of these reasons would be based on practical considerations, and some would be a matter of personal preference. Did you hear about the artist who painted an entire ceiling instead of a wall?

It’s rather irresponsible to declare “Magic, magic!” with such little evidence. That edition was printed in 1986. The more modern editions of this book, headed by Penelope J.E. Davies, are similarly filled with a LOT of loose and wacky theories. It is absolutely exasperating to read. I threw the 2010 edition out because of the blasphemous bits, so I can’t give you the page number where she discusses the small markings which accompany many of the animal paintings at Lascaux. Her book says that these marks are probably drawings of traps or insects.

You see how the experts have no clue. A trap is a very different thing from an insect. And it doesn’t explain why the markings look nothing like traps nor insects.

And turning to the most up-to-date theories, the Wikipedia page about cave art demonstrates that the wild guessing continues, with a theory, for instance, about a shaman entering the cave in a “trance state” and painting alone in darkness (how impractical!), about obtaining power from the cave walls, about magic to increase the size of herds.

Why do these experts so quickly assume that these ancient civilizations were so weird? Entering into a trance and then doing art? Why such a theory?

That’s the thing with experts. They study a thing so long and their theories get more “deluxe” and improbable. They begin to believe that if they say something normal, their theory won’t sound educated enough.

But seriously, we should start with the basic reasons anyone would do anything. A child draws and paints without being asked. Why does the child do this? It’s a human desire, to depict what we see as accurately as we can with whatever equipment we have. An adult draws and paints. Why does the adult do this? Well, it’s for the same reason, but adults do it because they want to express themselves, and/or because they’re hoping or expecting to be paid. Let’s start there.

And I’ll tell you my theory about the little marks that are found near some of the animals.

One of the first steps in communicating with someone who does not speak your language is to settle on some basic nouns and verbs. For a child, you point to a picture of an elephant, and say “elephant,” even though the elephant is merely a foam cartoon version of an elephant. When you teach your language to those who don’t know it, you point to a picture of a bus, and say “bus.”

The cave at Lascaux served this purpose too. It would have been used by people to communicate about the animals that they have seen and hunted. After all, I can easily point to my arm if I want to express something basic to you about it, but I cannot easily point to an antelope to tell you that I saw a whole herd. How do you know that I am referring to this horned animal and not that horned animal? A picture comes in handy. A picture bridges the gap between people who are trying to communicate.

Pictures would have been drawn and painted on other surfaces before the cave drawings, and when the idea of making such a collection surfaced, the best artist(s) would have been chosen for the task. I doubt payment was involved; fame was probably enough.

About those little collections of lines and dots, I say it’s writing. I say it’s a depiction of the image in a written symbolic form.

A glorious dictionary.

Instead of redrawing the whole mammal again, those who understood this code would be able to use the shorthand version, and save themselves a whole lot of time.

When meeting a trustworthy new group of people who speak a different language, it would have been possible to bring them to this hidden place, the place of the dictionary.

I’ve never come across such a theory, mainly because the experts have all decided that there was no written language at that time, because nobody was intelligent enough for that.

Is that a racist theory? (Nowadays people like to accuse each other of racism.)

As for the evidence that these paintings were hit with spears, you can imagine all of the half-baked theories that exist. I disagree that it was some sort of religious preparatory ritual on the eve of a hunt. I think it was just goofing around, probably by later generations who didn’t know the artist. See if you can hit the animal with your spear from here. See if you can hit it with your eyes closed. Oh, let me do that again. No, it’s my turn.

The word “ritual” is used by art and anthropology experts too often. If they don’t understand why something is a certain way, they invent a religious ritual, adding in whatever details they want.

The end result is a strange combination. The makers of these ancient artifacts are presented as rather one-dimensional survival-based people who care only about hunting and fertility, yet they also supposedly have really complicated and abstract religious practices. When it comes to art, they make it and interact with it only as part of their religious rituals.

So there’s hunting and mating — everything else, including art, goes into the religion bucket. Handy!

The modern expert lacks the whole picture.

The truth is that those who lived long ago did pretty much everything we do. They laughed and danced, and joked around and teased each other. They wore jewellery (have you seen the bracelets from Mizyn, Ukraine, intricately carved from mammoth bone at least 20,000 years ago?) and decked themselves out when the occasion called for it. Of course, religion would have been part of society, because people are spiritual beings, but we don’t really know much about their belief systems, and the expert’s opinions are often just guesses (and cannot reflect on the individual moral state of anyone). It is safe to say, in any case, that people from long ago were able to cooperate and be kind, but they were often competitive and envious too. They loved each other and hated each other. They argued and fought and betrayed each other, but not always. Sometimes they were better than that. They had God’s grace too, after all. And they thought about small things and about big things. The thoughts about big things “does not happen with animals. Inner life means spiritual life. It revolves around truth and goodness. And it includes a whole multitude of problems, of which two seem central: what is the ultimate cause of everything and — how to be good and possess goodness at its fullest” (Karol Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility, 22-23).

And when they slept, they dreamed.

In short, they were just like us. Never mind about homo habilis and homo floresiensis. Never mind the latest theories, to be challenged in the very near future. People are people, and you’ll be further off the mark by beginning with an assumption of ignorance and difference than with an assumption of intelligence and similarity.

Fewer people believed the earth was flat than is commonly believed. Many civilizations knew the earth was round, but we overlook this, almost as if we prefer to believe those who have gone before us weren’t as ‘advanced’ as we are. (We routinely dismiss people as inferior if they are from an era with different technology or different scientific theories.) Yet we advanced sorts have a tendency to flatten everything. We have a tendency to imagine ancient people as less than human, and we do the same thing to saints and to Jesus, by which I mean that we imagine them as static characters lacking the full range of emotions and behaviours that we have. We have in our minds a caricature of the saint, just as we have a caricature of Homo neanderthalensis. The saint never raises his voice. The saint never swears. The saint never shows anger. The saint never feels lust. The saint never overeats or oversleeps. The saint never gets bored at Mass. Of course, and of course. Such views are problematic because they make sainthood seem absolutely out of reach. The Church says we are all supposed to be saints, but such a declaration seems absurd if every saint has always been so static, so perfect.

So we have to be careful. We can’t make the saints or Jesus or Mary into flat cardboard cut-outs. Their experience of life as a human on earth was just as complicated, difficult, and unpredictable as ours. Although they may have been shown the broad outlines of some future events, they rarely knew what was around the next corner; each of their days were filled with the strange but typical mixture of happiness and sadness. They had countless interactions with all types of people, and these people were that strange but typical mixture of good and bad. They lived in a big round messy world where things were always changing, and where people were being born and dying. Sometimes we picture the Holy Family as wearing halos as they moved through their earthly lives, surrounded by gentle adorers the way that a church statue is surrounded by pilgrims, but it wasn’t like that at all. Jesus got his toes stepped on, both by accident and on purpose. Mary got jostled in crowds. St. Joseph would be shortchanged by customers and have a hard day at work. Just like us, they were routinely thwarted in what they wanted. Just like us, they wanted various things and suffered when things went sideways. To imagine Jesus as untouchable and free from all the bumps and bruises of daily life is to deny his human experience and possibly his humanity as well.

I used to be quite surprised at all of the references to idol worship in the bible. It struck me as quite strange that people would make or obtain some figure, and then proceed to worship it, or believe that it had any power of any kind. I said to myself that this was so nonsensical, and yet I would read how time after time, the Israelites would be tempted to imitate nearby cultures in this way. While Moses was gone from the people, they wasted no time in collecting gold jewellery, melting it and worshipping the resulting mound of gold, shaped like a calf. This is the sight that confronted Moses as he descended from Mount Sinai, holding the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. “And Moses turned, and went down from the mountain with the two tables of the testimony in his hands, tables that were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (Exodus 32:15-16).

I like the vividness of the details, describing the realization of Moses and Joshua as they reach the camp: “When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear” (Exod. 32:17-18).

To say that Moses was rather displeased would make him sound like an English gentleman. He was furious! And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod.32:19).

Moses was astonished, mortified, and extremely hurt that the people had done exactly what would displease God the most. He was especially dismayed by Aaron, asking him about his terrible leadership: “What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?” (Exod.32:21)

What was the first Commandment written onto the tablets which Moses had just received?

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.

— Exod. 20:2-4

It is not that all images are prohibited, but that the context or intention matters. Sometimes images are appropriate: “Already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2130).

It is in the discussion of the first commandment that the Catholic Church warns against idolatry:

2112 The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of “idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” These empty idols make their worshippers empty: “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” God, however, is the “living God” who gives life and intervenes in history.

2113 Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.

2114 Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who “transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God.”

These words talk about the idols of false pagan worship, but they go beyond the worship of objects. There’s a mention of idolizing a race, and idolizing the state. There’s a mention of idolizing ancestors.

And it has always seemed appropriate to me that we would hear of cautions against idolatry in these more abstract forms, because as I looked around, I did not see anybody actually worshipping objects. I didn’t hear of people talking to objects as if they had feelings, or, worse yet, powers.

But nowadays, people are tapping on their books to wake them up, and they are holding object after object in order to observe the reaction in themselves. Sometimes they make a point of holding the object very close to themselves, to feel something. They are talking to their objects, saying “Thank you for your service.” They are putting love into their objects while smoothing them with the palms of their hands.

This is just not okay.

Yet it seems that we are not allowed to say that this type of behaviour is “woo-woo, nonsense,” which it is. Indeed, those who criticize such practices are viewed as being woefully ignorant of the big picture, as if a big picture reason could justify such behaviour. Don’t you realize these ideas are rooted in Shintoism? they scold, as if old belief systems can’t be wrong, as if one cannot criticize a belief system if one didn’t practice it. They scold: you haven’t taken the time to understand this method and its religious underpinnings. If you weren’t so stubborn, you’d profit from “interreligious learning.” Many rush to the defence of this type of animism, and hope, in the process, to appear cultured and open-minded. But look: it doesn’t matter whether your excuse for talking to your broken vacuum is rooted in ancient paganism or something you made up yesterday. If an idea is wrong, it’s wrong. Tapping a book to wake it up is weird at best, and idolatrous at worst: “Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise!” (Hab. 2:19)

Saying that inanimate objects deserve any level of reverence, love and honour is leading people directly into idolatry.

Do not pretend that there is anything divine, magical, or powerful contained within the objects in your home. They are just objects, meant to be used.

I watched Marie Kondo’s visit to the home of Katie Couric. I didn’t see her enter the home, but you may already know her entrance ritual. Sometimes when she enters a home, she carries a large armful of huge boxes (to avoid an ecstatic hug from a hyper fan?) and she invariably bows, in order to pay homage to all of the kami (gods) within the objects in the house. Ms. Kondo worked for 5 years at a Shinto temple as a miko (priestess or temple maiden).

These are some of the things she said:

“It’s really important when we’re going through these items to really hold them in your hands and then put them against your body and feel for yourself whether you’re going to feel as if all of the cells in your body are raising. And a feeling of joy.”

“So one important thing to do before you let go of an item is to say ‘thank you’ to the item.”

“One very important thing about folding is that you use the palms of your hands to pour love into your clothes. Thank you for keeping me warm.”

”I love folding. Folding to me feels like I am having a conversation with my clothes. I see it as an important opportunity to show my gratitude towards the clothes.”

“And as you do it [folding], you really start to understand these sensations within you.”

A sympathetic therapist should feel sorry for a person who confides, “Folding to me feels like I am having a conversation with my clothes.”

I don’t have a problem with her folding and organizing techniques. Use them if you want, but if you do her first step, which is to visualize the kind of life that you want, please answer the question without reference to your objects or even your current home. That, after all, is the problem with this question. Those who answer it are thinking about decluttering and getting organized, so their answers are about being able to find things, and about not feeling weighed down by things. They want to entertain guests in a clean space; they want to be able to walk through a clean room. They are thinking along those lines.

Think more broadly. Make your world bigger and rounder than that.

At the end of the day, life is not actually about how you organized your stuff, and how you treated your stuff. It’s about how you treated those around you. To focus on objects, going so far as to imagine (or heaven forbid, believe) them to have life, is to live a flattened life. It is a sad distortion of both earthly and spiritual reality, one which reduces what is important and dynamic (the human person, community and God), while elevating and expanding what is merely man-made. Psalm 135 says, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” This quote says that you will make yourself like the thing that you idolize: you’re making yourself more similar to that neatly folded bed sheet than you should. Putting excessive amounts of attention on objects (the designated idols are apparently already in our homes — no need to purchase them or melt down any gold), a person reduces his life experience to a cardboard version of the real thing. Sadly, a person overly concerned with objects begins to view people negatively. People aren’t as fun: they’re less controllable and predictable and they aren’t tidy. Even worse, those who idolize objects begin to use the same standards on people that they use on objects. It is both disturbing and telling that in her introduction (visible via Amazon’s preview function) Ms. Kondo writes:

A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming. I mean it. Here are just a few of the testimonies I receive on a daily basis from former clients: . . . ‘Your course taught me what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce. Now I feel much happier.’

Yikes and double-yikes.

A person must not be evaluated based on his or her usefulness. This quotation celebrates a flippant attitude towards matrimony, and suggests that “feeling better” justifies the decision. Divorce is almost always painful, and it is often tragic.

But let’s talk about this issue of results. Those who criticize Marie Kondo’s methods are always met with a response something like this: “Well, I used her methods, and now my place is tidy, so you’re wrong.” The unspoken (and probably unconscious) and illogical argument here is that Ms. Kondo’s methods are effective, and therefore she is right about everything. But the truth is that Ms. Kondo is right about all the little things (how to fold garments, for instance), and wrong about all the big things (why to fold garments, for instance).

As it was with the cave paintings, the most interesting and the most important question is “why.” Why do you fold these towels? Why do you fold these socks? Why do you arrange your shirts in rainbow order?

Please have a reason that’s bigger and broader than the object itself. You can think, for example, in the style of St. Josemaria Escriva, who said take care of your tools. That’s part of your work, and your work is your offering to God. Or you can consider home organization and storage as part of your life of service to those around you. We are all called to a life of service, and those who are married and those who are in families are called to serve them. Keeping a tidy home is one aspect of this (but not as important as some things, such as keeping everyone fed). And if you live alone, you can still have many sensible motives for doing what you’re doing. Perhaps you want to organize your things so that you can find what you have more quickly. That’s enough of a reason. Perhaps you think the shirts look prettier when arranged in rainbow order. That’s fine. That’s enough. You can stop there. You truly don’t need to whisper gratitude to your garments and kitchen utensils when putting them away or discarding them. Don’t add layers of idolatry into the mix. Come back to reality. Give thanks to God, not objects.

I could not have predicted, years ago, that one day I would, in all seriousness, ask people to stop treating objects as if they contained a live spirit. I thought that this type of strange behaviour was confined to the past, but you see, we are no better than those of long ago, and the Catechism is so right in saying that idolatry “remains a constant temptation to faith” (para 2113).

We may not believe that the world is flat, but we’re ready to take large steps towards odd practices of idolatry because it’s popular, and because we’ve heard of or experienced “the life-changing magic.” In so doing, we run the risk of making our lives one-dimensional.

And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods!’”

Exod.32:7-8

To summarize, Marie Kondo’s empire is based on telling people to improve their relationship with their objects.

I say that’s not good enough.

That’s too small and too flat.

You’re bigger than that.

Improve your relationship with your spouse. Improve your relationship with your children. Time is short. Life is precious. One day, you may not have these people in your life, so use your time well. Do things with them and for them. You will never regret acts done in love.

Improve your relationship with God. He loves you, and wants everything for you. Open yourself to him, love this invisible yet mighty God, and your life will begin to change in all the right ways. Some things will change quickly, and other things will change more slowly. He will give you the grace to overcome problems, and he will help you achieve what does not seem possible now. He is a living God, and loving him will make you more alive. Moreover, he knows what you want even better than you know, and he has the power to make these dreams come true, if you would put your trust in him.

Be open! Expand your horizons!