It struck me as I was reading about powers and principalities today that the opposite of idolatry is instrumentality. When we create something, it is almost always as an instrument – it has a purpose, and it is not an end in itself. With the exception of art and having babies, this is the case for human creation. But when an instrument loses its instrumentality, when it takes on a meaning or purpose beyond its created function, and most especially when it becomes an end in itself, it is idolatry.
Take money (or mammon) for example: it has no inherent value; its value is derived from what it represents, which is the ability to purchase actual products that do have inherent value. Jesus warned against trying to serve both God and mammon (money), noting that it’s impossible. But when we begin to seek money for its own sake, that’s precisely what we do: money stops serving us, and we begin serving money. The created (money) demands the service of the creator (human beings, and ultimately, God), in an inversion of the dominion over created things that God gave us in Genesis. This is why idolatry is so abominable to God: it reverses the created order entirely.
The same thing happens with institutions. Whether they were created by God, or are created by human beings, or some combination of the two, the point is that they were created, and they were created to serve the world by ordering and structuring human society. We all recognize that politicians spend more time trying to get re-elected than they do actually governing, but we fail to see this as idolatry. It is. The political system is more concerned with self-preservation than it is with performing its actual function, which is why social progress takes so long and why citizens are almost always unhappy with their government. The politicians no longer use the political system for the sake of the people; now they use the people for the sake of the system. Idolatry.
As you can see, not only does the instrument (the means) become the purpose (the end), but the true end (humanity) becomes the means. We are instrumentalised by our own instruments. So is God. The religious sense of idolatry, that of bowing down to created things, is the most simple and concrete sense. It’s no wonder that the prophets attacked religious idolatry; it served as a symbol of every other type of idolatry in Israel’s society.
I think it’s all becoming clearer 🙂