The thirst for God’s presence in daily living inclines people to fashion idols which they can see, touch, and manipulate as they wish. The author of the Acts of the Apostles ridicules this attitude in the first reading of today. Acts 17:15,22-18:1 reaffirms God’s abiding presence in creation and His nearness to all creatures. This is the core of the speech attributed to Paul at the Areopagus. He dialogued with the Athenian scholars, particularly the Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers of the city.
Athens was a center of culture and breeding ground for new ideas. People enjoyed staying in the agora (marketplace) and listening to and discussing new ideas. When Paul went about like Socrates proposing his teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, some thought he was making political propaganda for foreign gods. Here, Paul came face to face with Athenian idolatrous religion. He was fascinated by the preponderance of altars and religious idols all over the city. He was most attracted to an altar designated as altar To an Unknown God.
God’s Presence and the Problem of Idolatry
Secondly, Idolatry is a feature of many religious societies. It is based on the belief that God is invisible and can only be approached through visible images. Positively, it reveals the human need for divine presence and the fear of living without that presence. The fabrication of the idolatrous Golden Calf in the desert is based on this syndrome. The people felt the absence of Moses and his Deity and wanted to feel the divine presence.
The fact is that God’s presence is usually perceived as a source of security and strength. But the problem is that people imagine that God cannot function unless He is visible or tangible. Paul addresses the issue in the Areopagus speech. He argues that God, as Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, does not need shrines and carved idols made by human hands. God does not need these material symbols to manifest his presence. While these material symbols are visible signs of religious piety, they are also signs of ignorance of the nature of the Divine Being. They are part of a materialistic mindset in human religiosity.
The Areopagus speech highlights God’s presence in creation and the power of the human mind to encounter him. He is not far to find since he is always present in created beings. And it is in him that we live and move and exist. Meaning, that the life we live comes from him. The liturgical psalm of this day, Psalm 148, is clear on this when it says, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” This glory is beclouded by idolatry since one beholds the beauty of the image rather than the contemplation of God’s true beauty. This is really the problem of idolatry.
Forms of Idolatry in the Contemporary Society
Idolatry happens whenever we exchange God’s glory with excessive attachment to created or material things. This can be wealth, money, food, success, fame, power, attachment to ideas, persons and things, and other materialistic attachments. So, one does not need to limit the idea of idol to a piece of wood or metal. Idolatry expresses itself in diverse forms, in social structures, in ideological orientations. And in cultic practices in which one finds a misplacement of values.
The idolatrous orientation brings about a three-fold alienation in human relations: it causes alienation from the true God; alienation from the self, leading to inner disharmony, and alienation in the social order, leading to distortion of social relationships.
Finally, Idolatrous attachment to creatures and material things makes it difficult to listen to the Holy Spirit. Jesus urges his disciples to listen in today’s Gospel from John 16:12-15. It is the Spirit that helps us to understand and feel the presence of God. He is called the Spirit of truth. Without the action of the Spirit, the human mind easily gets distracted with material pursuits. This only ends up destroying human relationships as it enthrones greed, selfishness, and falsehood.