The Golden Calf
Theologian Paul Tillich once noted that a person’s god is whatever they look to for ultimate fulfillment and security. Tillich believed that everyone, including the atheist has faith in some god, or ultimate concern, around which they build their lives. It can be wealth and materialism, politics and the success of the Party, it can be health and well-being, and it can be popularity and influence. Our gods promise us true happiness, but ask for great sacrifice in return.
The story of the Golden Calf is both humorous and tragic. Moses is on the mountaintop, receiving God’s wisdom and guidance for the welfare of the people. When he stays longer than the people anticipate, they grow anxious and demand a physical representation of the God with whom Moses is speaking. They donate their jewelry to form in the image of a Golden Calf, representative of their gods. A festival day is announced and they party!
As the story goes, both Yahweh, the God of Voice and Vision, and Moses become angry at their idolatry. Moses breaks the tablets of law and demands at God’s bidding the murder of 3,000 people to restore God’s honor. The people have committed a grievous sin: they have worshipped visible objects and not their Creator and Liberator. They must pay for their infidelity!
This story has many problems for seekers and persons of faith: some are factual, others moral and theological. Where did the Israelite find gold to melt for a statue, given their impoverished status in Egypt? What kind of God demands murder as punishment? Did the people worship God from then on out of love or fear? Do visions of divine violence provoke human violence?
While this story is not representative of the God I follow, it may still have truths embedded within it. First, we often create our own finite sources of security and fulfillment. At the end of the day, this quest always ends up in failure. The people want to control God. They want a god of their own making, a god who reflects their own values and self-interest. Although God is intimate and loving and responds to our deepest desires, God also has a vision and will that may differ from our own. But, God can be counted on to support and inspire us in all of life’s changes.
Second, we are prone to elevate finite things to God-like status and sacrifice our lives and energy for purposes that are unworthy. This has always been a religious challenge and, rightly employed, a source of fulfillment and growth . In theology, this approach is identified with the kataphatic way, that is, God known through images and finite realities – scriptures, persons, political agendas, religious practices and artifacts. All things are words of God, as a mystic once said. Every moment can be a holy moment, revealing God’s vision for our lives. God created all things good and thus, in principle, helpful to us. The danger is that we will see one object or behavior as fully representative of God and deny God’s presence in other pathways. We will see our way as perfect and unchanging, and the only pathway to human fulfillment.
As a balance, religious teachers have described the apophatic way, that is, God without images. There is a Buddhist saying: do not confuse the moon with a figure pointing to the moon. God is always more than we can imagine. No human creation can fully contain or describe the Holy One. Positively spoken, this means that we can affirm: we have found God in this place and through these words and rituals, while being open to other visions of God. Religion becomes dangerous and idolatrous when we locate God in one and only one particular place and turn our backs on other visions of God or assume our vision is complete and unchanging. This is the mistake – and often tragic one – of all kinds of “fundamentalism,” whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu. It is also the mistake of consumerism and the elevation of political leaders to god-like status.
The story of the Golden Calf counsels us to be humble and critical in relationship to our visions of God, politics, and economics. While our deeply-held beliefs and values point to something important, we must always be ready to question them and change and expand them in relationship to other important values and truths. An infinite God can only be known through our finite experiences, rituals, and institutions. Still, God is always more than we can conceive, contain, or imagine. This is good news because it challenges us to keep growing, to learn from others, and to live in openness to God’s ever-emerging truths.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.