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The creation of an idol, Gregory of Nyssa tells us, originates with the inception of an idea —one that we nurture and polish and rationalize until it takes possession of our judgment and guides our actions. Since Eden, and our earliest stories, this has been such a predictable characteristic of our fallen human nature that Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and all political machines depend upon our tendency to accept an idea, make a glittering, self-reflective golden calf of it, raise it aloft, love it and then endow it with power over our lives.
We think of pop stars as “idols” but an idol, more correctly, is the thing or person best capable of delivering an affirmation of ourselves to ourselves. “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” claimed Barack Obama in 2008 and the fainting, adoring crowds could not get enough of the man who once described himself as a “blank screen on which people project their own views,” because they could not get enough of themselves.
It has only been six months since Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to the world with a new name, but already MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, channeling his inner tween, has gushed, “is it too early to say Francis is the best pope ever?”
His effusion prompts a different question: Are we, like the ancient Jews at Mount Sinai, and Americans in 2008, molding Francis into an image and polishing him to a high gloss, that we might better see ourselves reflected in him? Are we treating him as we would a god?
If our nature is to create idols, it almost cannot be helped. As with Obama, the crowds adore Pope Francis, whose message is not so much “yes, we can,” but “yes, God does” — love us, forgive us, seek our trust; we are the ones God is waiting for, as the father awaits the prodigal.
Francis repeatedly returns to themes of compassion, mercy, tenderness and his words drop like healing dew upon people feeling increasingly isolated from each other, and distanced from God. Whether from a Jeep trundling around Saint Peter’s Square or from an open-sided vehicle on the Argentine streets, Francis reaches out to the people in complete freedom and fearlessness, and the crowd reaches back. The crowd wants to be like him —able to love and trust God, and the world, and finally themselves.
What saves this from becoming simple idolatry is Francis’s continual exhortation that we fix our attention, and our intentions, upon having an authentic and lifelong encounter with Jesus. He says, in essence, you want to be like me? I want to be like Jesus; look at him!
The Bishop of Rome is already like Jesus in one way: As we edit his statements into all that is comforting and self-affirming, we are giving him the pal-Jesus treatment.
Few Gospel stories speak to us as powerfully as the moment Jesus rescued an adulterous woman from a crowd preparing to stone her. “Let who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said, and one-by-one the crowd dispersed.
“Is there no one left to condemn you?” Jesus asks the woman, who replies, “no, sir.”
“Then neither do I condemn you.”
We love this story because its take-away message seems to affirm our modern belief that God knows we are good people, and so the judgment of others is evil. But the episode closes with one more short, often-neglected but important qualifier: “Go,” says Jesus, “and now sin no more.” (John 8:11)
With that tidy line, Jesus reminds us that his slowness to condemn has less to do with our goodness than with his instinct to mercy, an instinct he wishes us to mirror as we go forward and try to better-conform our love to his. Without the qualifier, the story breaks down to a simple, “don’t judge,” a sentiment that suits our relativistic age, but completely shortchanges Jesus’s lesson, and encourages defensiveness rather than compassion.
Idolatry is self-worship at its core, and the inclination to always seek our own reflection in the object of our love is what leads to our “missing” Jesus’ message.
If Jesus lost “go, and now sin no more,” to the more enthralling “does no one condemn you?” Francis is being denuded of his qualifiers, too. Hence, “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will,” has been reduced to a blithe-sounding, “who am I to judge?” To a query asking if non-believers are barred from heaven, the pontiff’s long, thoughtful answer — which contained reminders that truth is not “variable and subjective” and that “God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart” — was whittled down to “obey your conscience.”
Just as the Gospel narrative loses depth of meaning when Jesus’ words are cut, the chopping of Francis’ words to self-actualizing soundbites serve only to haul his more complex and profound messages into the shallow water a place suitable for wading but not for deep submersion.
But that may be all to the good. As a society, we’ve been urged to swim any old way for forty years or more; most of us are so spiritually untrained at this point that we perhaps must learn to float again, before we can dive into the depths of faith.
“Ideas lead to idols,” wrote Gregory of Nyssa, “only wonder leads to knowing.” If culling Francis’s words gets our immediate attention by seeming to affirm the idols we’ve made of our own ideas, then perhaps — as we float in the safety of the shallows — we will dare to wonder again about sin and redemption, sacrifice and suffering and the wideness of God’s mercy. And then, our attempts to mold Francis in our own image will have finally led us to a place of truth.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of ”Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life,” and Managing Editor of the Catholic Channel at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress.