Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the great English philosopher of the Renaissance period, wrote about the four kinds of ‘idols’ that hinder understanding. 1. Idols of the tribe (idola tribus): these are errors inherent in human nature itself; the mind has a tendency to rest in received ideas that are pleasing to it, and to pass over instances that run counter to them. 2. Idols of the cave (idola specus): errors peculiar to each individual, arising from temperament, education, reading, and other special influences. 3. Idols of the market-place (idola fori): errors due to the influence of language. We are apt to think, for example, that there has to be some reality corresponding to every word we use; he gave the example of the word ‘chance’. 4. Idols of the theatre (idola theatri): these are thought-systems of the past, which he held to be nothing better than stage-plays representing unreal worlds of people’s own creation.
    This is a formidable list, and it leaves the poor mind naked before the truth. But people have often used the expression ‘naked truth’; so it may be a good thing to be reminded that what conceals the truth from us is not something covering the truth, but something (or many things) covering the mind.
    It’s rather easy to apply this to the contemporaries of Jesus: they liked him while he said things they liked to hear, but when he said things they didn’t like to hear they wanted to throw him over a cliff. As always, it is far more difficult (and urgent) to apply it to oneself.
    Everyone has a little pride, however muted, in their own ancestry. It’s probably a good thing when it’s not carried too far. A ‘Tidy Towns competition’ can do wonders for a country. Within that context of a basic fidelity to the local sanctities, we can even tolerate criticism: it’s all right if it’s from ‘one of our own’.
    John the Baptist said the most awful things to his own people: he called them “a brood of vipers,” and he said they deserved nothing but destruction. And the people flocked to hear him! He must have been playing by accepted rules. He was their theatre; he was the horror movie of his time. He was even dressed for the part. But he was one of their own.
    Jesus came from the desert too, but he was much friendlier. He sat down to table with all kinds of people that the locals would call scum. He spoke of mercy and forgiveness and hope. More than that: he embodied it for them. He said that prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of heaven ahead of the pious (Matthew 21:31); he praised the faith of people of other religions and none: Samaritans, Roman centurions, the Syro-Phoenician woman…. This was clearly breaking the rules. They wanted their theatre (as we all do) to be safely ‘out there’: they went “out” to John the Baptist (Luke 7:26). But Jesus came in; he saw them from the inside; he didn’t “play the prophet,” as he was challenged to do (Luke 22:64). He got into their minds; he saw what they were made of. He knew them too well; if their illusions were to live on, he had to die.
    Our faith isn't just belief. Belief could be a purely a theoretical matter. Our faith is also hope. St Peter exhorted his readers to be always ready to give an account of "the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Just as our faith strips away all illusory beliefs (Bacon's 'idols'), it also strips away all illusory hopes. Those 'idols' are not only false beliefs but also false hopes: hope in the idols of the tribe, the cave, the market-place, the theatre….

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.