Your donations enable us to create and share theologically progressive resources that nurture our faith journeys and are used in church communities around the world. If everyone reading this right now gives just $10 we would be able to continue offering these for free.

How Idolatry Affects Us Today


Question and Answer


Kay from St. Louis, writes:

What do you mean when you speak about idolatry among Christians?

 Answer: By Matthew Fox

Thank you for your question, Kay. This is a very important question for our time.

The late and great Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, had some blunt things to say about idolatry when he wrote that today many “half-religious people are engaged in “the greatest orgy of idolatry the world has ever known.” He goes on to warn that “it is not generally thought by believers that idolatry is the greatest and fundamental sin.”(1)

When hypocritical so-called Christian politicians use the name “Christianity” to further their agendas to kill safety nets for the aged and the poor and who oppose defending Mother Earth and sacred creation from onslaughts by multi-national corporations and Wall Street whose gods are the bottom line these very gods are idols. Such worship substitutes for honoring the real God—a God of justice, compassion and creativity.

When the president of CBS was questioned about why the media gave billions of dollars of free air time to the Trump campaign but no such support to the Bernie Sanders or even Clinton campaigns he replied that “Trump may be bad for America but he is good for the bottom line.” That is idolatry. (It is also in my opinion treason, a selling out of one’s country for the bottom line.)

Indeed, idolatry by its very nature, reduces God to an object—an object to be manipulated and used for our own interests (including getting elected, re-elected, or getting big money from big donors—somehow the Koch brothers come to mind—to further our selfish aims). Meister Eckhart talks about people who worship God like they do a cow—for the milk and cheese they can get from it.

Again, Merton comments on this form of idolatry when he says, “When God becomes object, he sooner or later ‘dies,’ because God as object is ultimately unthinkable. God as object…is hardened into an idol that is maintained in existence by a sheer act of will.”(2) Sheer acts of will but also, I would add, of projection. Projecting onto our own man-made God is an act of idolatry. Our making God over into our own image instead of striving to be shining with the Divine image in us and in our actions—this is idolatry. Study is important to resist idolatry. We need to learn on a daily basis who/what the real God is and is not.

Merton elaborates on the idols of our time when he comments on “the dangerous and potent idols” in the world today:

Signs of cosmic and technological power, political and scientific idols, idols of the nation, the party, the race….The fact that they are evident in themselves does not mean that people do not submit more and more blindly, more and more despairingly, to their complete power. The idol of national military strength was never more powerful than today, even though men claim to desire peace.(3)

I would add that idols of consumerism—a fetish for things we buy and feel we need to buy or have bought—is part and parcel of today’s idolatrous scene as well. Indeed, our very economic system, to the extent that it creates and whips up consumer fetishes, is running on idolatry: That somehow the acquisition of more goodies will satisfy the deep hunger and longing of the human heart—even if such idolatrous buying results in other people going hungry or the earth itself being exploited, species rendered extinct, and climate change raising the seas, destroying cities and homes and the future for our great, great grandchildren. Such idol-worship fails to satisfy the heart. Idols are that kind of worship—unsatisfying. But dissatisfaction is at the heart of economic idolatry—it feeds the machines of advertising to keep us buying. And buying. And buying. The addiction of shopping is a special form of idolatry born of consumer capitalism.

Fundamentalism is a form of idolatry because it focuses on the literal as Bishop Spong reminds us in his solid study on Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. This turning the literal into a god invites projection and with projection comes the worship of idols, i.e. man-made gods. Literalism also feeds the idols of fascism and empire-building because it focuses on external forces including “law and order” and military might at the expense of our inner wellbeing, the grace that community, celebration, joy, sharing, forgiveness, creativity, are all about. Such idolatry becomes a substitute for true religion. And there is plenty of that going around. Inner work is required to resist it.

We can also make an idol of rationality itself. Einstein warned about that when he declared that we should not overvalue the intellect for the intellect, he said, does not give us values; it only gives us methods. Values come from intuition he insisted and rationality should serve intuition. Yet we live in a society, he commented, that honors rationality and ignores intuition. This is one reason I elevate Rationality to being today one of the capital sins. Education has crashed on the rocks of rationality—rocks of idolatry. It needs a complete new start. Including for sure our seminary training which rarely includes training in how to be a mystic and teach others to be mystics, i.e. persons at home and accomplished with their intuitive (mystical) brains. This effort to create a balanced educational pedagogy where our left brain (intellect and analysis) and our right brain (mysticism and intuition) are both exercised and respected has been at the heart of my work as an educator for 45 years.

I am happy to say that a new school is being launched in Boulder, Colorado this year to carry on this pedagogy. Started by graduates of our University of Creation Spirituality, it is being called Fox Institute for Creation Spirituality and it will offer master’s degrees and doctor of ministry and work degrees and a doctor of spirituality degree along with certificate programs in creation spirituality. It is an effort to combat idolatry in our culture, our souls, and of course in our education. You might want to check it out.

~ Matthew Fox

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 32 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 60 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship. His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the FleshTransforming Evil in Soul and Society, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved and Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest

(1) Cited in Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2016), 204.
(2) Ibid., 237.
(3) Ibid.

Review & Commentary