Welcome to the seventh and final installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own.  If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.

Everybody worships … idolsLast time we reached this inevitable and undeniable conclusion, and in it hides the definition of greed.

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Everybody worships idols.  At first glance you may disagree, but recall that worship need not involve a supernatural being.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem <worship of the dollar>.”  Dictionary.com says it’s “to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing).”

What are these objects of esteem, these persons or things we adoringly revere?  They are, quite logically, idols.  Merriam-Webster defines idol as “an object of extreme devotion <a movie idol>” as well as “a false god, a false conception: fallacy.”  Idolatry is “the worship of a physical object as a god; immoderate attachment or devotion to something.”

And let’s not get caught up on the word “god.” As Uncle Noah makes clear, when capitalized, God refers to “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.”  But little-g god? “A person or thing of supreme value.”

Certainly we all have an immoderate attachment or devotion to a person or thing of supreme value.  We all feel an adoring reverence or regard for an object of extreme devotion.  We all worship idols.  It is, in essence, what makes us human.

Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at Cal State, says “the very need to find an idol and follow him is programmed into our DNA.”  We are hardwired to seek out, find and follow something we perceive as bigger than ourselves.  John Maltby, a psychologist at the University of Leicester, adds “it’s fine as long as it doesn’t take over your life.”

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But of course, that’s the thing about idols, about things or people of supreme value to which we are completely devoted: They do take over our lives.  In eons past the most common idol we revered was a God or Gods, the supernatural variety.  They took over the lives of their followers, inspired herculean efforts still with us today, from the Parthenon to the great pyramids to Chichén Itzá.

Those Gods, including the God of monotheists, have lost their influence over many of us today.  As we’ve examined in this series, we are a people of unprecedented narcissistic self-centeredness, with more religious “nones” than any time in recorded history. Today, material idols dominate our culture, little-g gods, and some suggest we are better off under the new regime.  Are we?  Nobel laureate and agnostic Mario Vargas Llosa comments:

Secularization has not replaced our gods with the ideas, knowledge, or convictions that might have their place.  It has left a spiritual void that human beings fill as best they can, sometimes with grotesque substitutes.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the atheist who famously declared “God is dead,” identified our secular society’s most common “grotesque substitute” in The Dawn of Day in 1881.  He wrote, “What was once done ‘for the love of God’ is now done for the love of money, for the love of that which at present affords us the highest feeling of power….”  Two years earlier, Mark Twain wrote, “Some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and over these ideals they dispute and cannot unite – but they all worship money.”

In our time and place, we do for the dollar, the object we adore and the pursuit of which we are devoted.  Money buys us a feeling of power.  Money is god.  Nietzsche asked:

What induces one man to use false weights, another to set his house on fire after having insured it for more than its value, a third to take part in counterfeiting, while three-fourths of our upper classes indulge in legalized fraud, and suffer from the pangs of conscience that follow speculation and dealings on the Stock Exchange?  What gives rise to all this?

The short answer to the great philosopher’s questions is idolatry, the false god of money, the idol which has filled the spiritual void brought about by the fall of the God(s).  Llosa wrote in 2012:

The great failure, and the crises that the capitalist system faces again and again – corruption, the spoils system, mercantile manoeuvres to gain wealth by infringing the law, the frenetic greed and fraudulent activities of bank and finance houses – are not due to inherent faults in the institutions of capitalism themselves but rather to the collapse of moral and religious values, which act as a curb that keeps capitalism within certain norms of honesty  respect for one’s neighbor, and respect for the law.

Last October, Pope Francis amplified Llosa’s argument, saying, “Capitalism and profit are not diabolical if we don’t turn them into idols … [but] if money and profit at any price become the idols that we adore … then our societies are heading towards ruin.”  (With only a cursory survey of recent history, and one quick glance at today’s news, I’d suggest the Pope is being optimistic with his verb choices.  The ship has sailed; Ruin is our next port of call.)

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Of course nothing is inherently wrong with appreciating and enjoying money, just as nothing is inherently wrong with appreciating and enjoying God.  So when and why do nominally fine or innocuous things become idols?  Exodus 20, perhaps humankind’s first recorded encounter with idolatry, gives us a clue:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

Note the verb, make.  Money is not an object of extreme devotion, an idol, until we make it so.  Until we allow it to “take over our lives,” as Dr. Maltby said, until money becomes our motivating force, our raison d’être, it is just … money.  But when we equate our self-worth with our net worth, as many of us do, including myself, money becomes “a thing of supreme value,” the very definition of god, an idol of gold we worship.  And this, patient readers, is the definition we’ve been seeking for over a year:  Greed is idolatry.  Putting it in dictionary terms, greed is an immoderate attachment or devotion to money; greed is making money a thing of supreme value; greed is the worship of money as a god; greed is idolatry.

Christopher Kaczor, a professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, writes “greed is the disordered love of riches.”  Disordered.  Elevated above where it should be, out of proportion, a false conception: fallacy, a false god, an idol.

Why can’t we collectively define greed?  Why can’t we agree on what greed is and who is greedy?  Because idolatry is invisible.  It is not a behavior like anger or lust or laziness or gluttony.  It is not a psychotic episode or a cirrhotic liver.  It cannot be diagnosed and treated with modern medicine, a 12-step program or court-ordered therapy.  As we discussed long ago, when a boss berates a subordinate or a spouse loses control, anger management classes are on the agenda.  When gluttony is our vice, we can join Overeaters Anonymous, try out any one of a zillion diets, or even undergo gastric bypass surgery.  We know anger and gluttony when we see them.  But greed?  Greed is idolatry, buried deep in our hearts.  It is hidden from view.

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As recorded for posterity in Luke 12:15, Jesus said something extraordinary to his followers: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  In Counterfeit Gods, best-selling author and theologian Tim Keller comments on this unique warning.

That is a remarkable statement.  Think of another traditional sin that the Bible warns against – adultery.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Be careful you aren’t committing adultery!”  He doesn’t have to.  When you are in bed with someone else’s spouse – you know it.  Halfway through you don’t say, “Oh, wait a minute!    I think this is adultery!”

In 1997, when Norman Mailer published his 30th book, The Gospel According to the Son, Bruce Weber interviewed the literary legend for The New York Times, noting “[Mailer’s] Jesus is fiercely disturbed by greed, by the elevation of worldly goods above spiritual concerns.” Mailer told  Weber, “Jesus saw the horror of money … the animosity he felt toward money, the sense that Mammon was scourging the world, is so applicable today … all our values are being leeched out by the immense appetite for money.”

Mailer was, of course, referencing Matthew 6:24, which reads, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  Jesus then implores his followers not to worry about material things, an enigmatic follow-on which actually makes perfect sense.

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What happens when we choose to serve money, when we make it our idol?  In 1944’s The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis tells us:

It is the magician’s bargain: give up your soul, get power in return.  But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us.  We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.

Are we slaves and puppets to money?  Do I even have to ask that question?  What dominates our worries?  What occupies our thoughts?  Do we long for, even pray for, a raise at work, a bigger house, a nicer car, a pricier private school, an envy-inducing, Instagram-worthy abundance of stuff?  Do we daydream about how we’d spend money we do not have?  Are we ever anxious about money?  Honestly I can say I’m very rarely not anxious about money.  It absolutely is No. 1 on my list of daily worries.  Even though I rationally know I have more safety, security, comfort and stuff than 98% of my fellow humans, I absolutely desire more.  Do you?

As we discovered at the start of our quest, we readily find greed in our neighbors, our political opponents, our bosses, our employees, the other guy, anybody but us. We believe greed is pandemic, but we’re not greedy. We propose cures – political, moral, existential – for everyone but ourselves.

Psychologists tell us idolatry is programmed into our DNA, and the runaway 21st century idol is money.  As religion infused the daily lives of ancient people, its impact unbeknownst, so greed does today.

Is there a solution, a way through, a cure?

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We enlightened Americans like to believe we can realign our disordered priorities, reprogram our DNA, with committed mindfulness, the term du jour for willpower.  Good luck.  Replacing materialism with minimalism, for example, simply swaps out one idol for another.  As young people many of us idolize pleasure, then we grow up, and, often kicking and screaming, we make a new idol, career.  Money quickly follows, the most demanding idol of all.  If devotion to money loses its power over us in our later years, the deceptive idol of youth beckons, sponsored by eager plastic surgeons and endorsed by photoshopped celebrities.

Clearly, “religion” is not a magic answer.  We see almost daily, tragically, that devotion to certain deities delivers death and despair.  “Religion” can brainwash adherents to sacrifice others, and themselves, in the name of devotion.  We need not stop with today’s headlines; over the millennia, many capital-G gods have demanded death to infidels, burned sinners at the stake, condemned all those who dared defy their laws.  The dark heart of “religion” – of idolatry – is sacrifice.

But let’s not kid ourselves; let’s not fall into the post-modern trap of progressive secularism.  “Religion” is not the only idol that demands sacrifices.  Do we modern humans not sacrifice ourselves (and others) for money?  Do careers sabotage our time with children, or elderly parents, or helping our neighbors in need?  As I sit in an air-conditioned apartment with running water and a refrigerator full of food, is there nobody left on earth sleeping on hot dry dirt, starving to death and drinking raw sewage?  Set aside apathy.  Have humans ever been known to kill for money?

Every cell in my body wants to deny the reality that every idol is a religion, demanding devotion and adoration.  I fancy myself an erudite New Yorker, an artist, above and beyond such unenlightened thinking.  You might, too.

Surely there’s an idol we can worship that does not require a down payment, does not exist to incite envy, does not enslave us and render us anxious, hopeless puppets.  Surely there’s an idol that only asks for our honest belief in its merit to be worshipped.  Greed demands sacrifice, blood money. Each day I pay its heavy toll.  Slowly I’m beginning to recognize that every idol, god and religion demands our sacrifice, individually and collectively, wholly unable or unwilling to sacrifice itself for us.

Except one.