I’m reading through Daniel McClellan’s “Decoupling YHWH and El,” and as a side effect of thinking about cultural polytheism, I began to think about Exodus 20:3//Dt 5:7 [//34:12-14]: “you shall have no other gods before me.” Surely most casual readers in the monotheistically-dominated West construe this as, “Don’t even consider the [non-existent] so-called deities of other denominated ‘religions’” — right? Whereas in the polytheistic environment of antiquity, it will have conveyed the sense that in the rivalry of gods, the people of the covenant were obliged to honor their Tetragrammatical Lord as Number One.
Now, one hears preachers often enough charge congregations with dalliances with idolatry — but it seems to me that they pick unfairly unreal alternate deities like “money” or “fame” or “success,” which are hardly ever hypostasized and ascribed effectual agency. Even the apparent exceptions to that claim, such as “It was beauty killed the beast,” don’t invoke a power so much as an abstract quality.
On the other hand, commonplace discourse does invoke some hypostasized entities that are regarded as affecting lives and the world directly. Several of them involve macroeconomics: “the market” or its synecdoche, “the invisible hand,” seems to provide the purest form, since it can’t be localized to the operations of a coterie of individuals. “The media” or “mainstream media”; Wall Street; Hollywood, perhaps?; these are less precise an example, since they can be mapped closely to human actors. I’m sure there must be other examples of hypostasized non-human (or “all-human,” not specific-humans) agents whose existence and effects seem so self-evident to acculturated observers that it seems absurd to call their reality into question. What am I missing?

2 thoughts on “Pondering

  1. A very intriguing thought. You might add “death,” which is often personified in popular culture (and also relegated to a mere “angel of death” by the Judeo-Christian worldview).

  2. I agree that thinking of “The Market” as an effectual, irresistible force is best thought of in theological terms as idolatry. A related form I’ve thought about quite a bit lately is the idea that “stuff,” such as consumer products, homes, or automobiles, possesses divine qualities. Often these things are marketed to us as having the power to change our lives, and sometimes they are even marketed using explicitly religous terms. The most recent example I noticed was an ad for a steakhouse that plays on the LCD TVs in NYC taxi cabs, and states “If Steak were a religion, this would be its cathedral.”

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