Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Matter of Idolatry

     Those of you who have read the Bible may recall that in ancient times idolatry was a hot topic. One gets the impression that to lie or steal is certainly not good, but for one of God's people to eat food previously offered to a graven image is even worse. One of the great, classic cases of idolatry-bashing may be found in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 44, verses 9-20:

     All those who make idols are worthless, and the gods they prize so highly are useless. Those who worship these gods are blind and ignorant---and they will be disgraced. It does no good to make a metal image to worship as a god! Everyone who worships it will be humiliated. The people who make idols are human beings and nothing more. Let them come and stand trial---they will be terrified and will suffer disgrace.
     The metalworker takes a piece of metal and works with it over a fire. His strong arm swings a hammer to pound the metal into shape. As he works, he gets hungry, thirsty, and tired.
     The carpenter measures the wood. He outlines a figure with chalk, carves it out with his tools, and makes it in the form of a man, a handsome human figure to be placed in his house. He might cut down cedars to use, or choose oak or cypress wood from the forest. Or he might plant a laurel tree and wait for the rain to make it grow. A man uses part of a tree for fuel and part of it for making an idol. With one part he builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread; with the other part he makes a god and worships it. With some of the wood he makes a fire; he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He warms himself and says, "How nice and warm! What a beautiful fire!" The rest of the wood he makes into an idol, and then he bows down and worships it. He prays to it and says, "You are my god---save me!"
     Some people are too stupid to know what they are doing. They close their eyes and their minds to the truth. The maker of idols hasn't the wit or the sense to say, "Some of the wood I burned up. I baked some bread on the coals, and I roasted meat and ate it. And the rest of the wood I made into an idol. Here I am bowing down to a block of wood!"
     It makes as much sense as eating ashes. His foolish ideas have so misled him that he is beyond help. He won't admit to himself that the idol he holds in his hand is not a god at all. 
     (---from Today's English Version, evidently published by a Roman Catholic organization)

     I would guess that most readers of the Bible nowadays skim over this kind of stuff without it making much of an impression on them. After all, idolatry is obviously not nearly as big of a deal, or as much of an inflamer of controversy, as it was 2000 years ago. In fact, for just about everyone except Hindus, plus quite a few Buddhists (plus maybe some Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians), idolatry appears to be extinct, pretty much of a dead issue. In Western civilization the Jews, Christians, and Muslims won the Good Fight, and the idolaters were defeated…supposedly.
     But I think idolatry is alive and well, not only in Asia but here in the West. And I'm not referring to some people here and there worshipping statues. (I suppose most people in the West who bow down to statues or pictures, or even offer gifts, food, and water to them, do not consider themselves to be practicing idolatry; many claim that the statue is only a symbol with no real sanctity. This attitude has kept icons going in some schools of Christianity, and allows Western Buddhists to bow before images of the Buddha. But if one says, "All right, if it's not really sacred let's put it to the test," and then walks over and raps the statue on the head with one's knuckles, the emotional instinct of paganistic adoration may quickly rise to the surface of the ostensible respecter only of what the symbol represents. I rarely bow before images, but confess I am a little squeamish about seeing them treated disrespectfully.)
     Before going any further with this I suppose it would be convenient to determine what idolatry actually is. It involves much more than simply worshipping statues. In the New Testament Paul of Tarsus declares that even greed is a form of idolatry. But the alive-and-well modern idolatry I've referred to isn't just worship of money either. For the sake of this discussion I will define "idolatry" as attributing superhuman or divine qualities to what is merely man-made, or artificial. I suppose most people would accept this as a fair and reasonable definition of the term.
     Consequently, I consider the Old Testament's statements, or at least insinuations, that worship of the sun, moon, and stars is idolatrous, to be debatable. On the other hand, if we assume that books are man-made, then all sacred scriptures would serve as grounds for idolatry. If a religious text is considered to be only a record of beliefs or speculations of wise people, then idolatry is not in question; but if it is considered to represent the words of a Deity, or even to represent Divine Truth, then, so long as we do not follow this belief, it would qualify as a clear case of idolatry, in accordance with our definition. One may claim that those who revere sacred scriptures are not idolatrous because they sincerely believe those scriptures to be divinely inspired; but by the very same token the classical worshippers of pagan statues considered those statues to be equally divinely inspired. Devout Hindus consider an image really to contain the god it represents; and the Mahamuni image of the Buddha in Mandalay is believed by many Burmese to have been fashioned by Sakka, King of Gods himself, and thus to be not merely a man-made symbol. Sincere belief does not necessarily absolve one of idolatry. If it did, there would never have been very many idolaters, if any at all, and the term would be virtually meaningless.
     The implications run even deeper: We could hardly deny that our concepts are merely man-made, or woman-made---human-made. Thus any religion, and any religious idea, if it is considered to be divine or superhuman, would qualify as idolatrous. So it logically follows that all religions, and all spiritual beliefs, unless we acknowledge them to be symbolic systems merely attempting indirectly to suggest the Divine, are idolatrous! The ancients believed our thoughts to be divinely implanted into our minds by the gods, but nowadays we consider them to be the artifacts of a quite human brain. Thus all thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of Divinity would be idolatrous.
     So now the question arises, how are we to avoid the delusion of idolatry, which delusion, as the prophet says, makes as much sense as eating ashes? In other words, how can we avoid attributing superhuman qualities to our own quite human fabrications? There would seem to be two possible answers.
     First, we may dismiss spirituality altogether. This is seen as an ideal for many who see religion as superstitious nonsense anyway. At best we could adopt a humanistic, utilitarian ethic and amuse ourselves with philosophical speculations, or try to turn physics into a way of understanding the Ultimate. At worst we could wallow in hedonistic consumerism. Either way, to a wise, sensitive person with a modicum of integrity, this is no more of a viable option than becoming an animal or a social robot. For such people, and I hope there are many, it would be a world without light, without any genuine reason to get out of bed in the morning.
     The second alternative is to experience the Divine or Ultimate without the intermediary of perceptual symbols, and to acknowledge that the Highest cannot be known with the head or the heart, but is indeterminate---in Buddhism, avyākata. This is pure mysticism, and it may be achieved through mindfulness, contemplation, and deep insight. If this is our approach, then spiritual practice would not be religious per se, but would be a practical means of eventually knowing true spirituality. I think Buddhism originally began like this, but was eventually transformed into a religion by unenlightened followers, with Buddha worship, teacher worship, statue worship, the Abhidhamma philosophers claiming to explain Ultimate Reality in words, and so on.
     If we assume that true Divinity is whatever is ultimately Real, then we may say that everything as we perceive it is profane, and idolatrous at best, as it only attempts to signify Divinity; but that the Universe as it really is, is Divine. Perhaps a little idolatry in the beginning isn't so bad, so long as we acknowledge that we are mere idolaters feeding upon ashes, and do not stop with that.    

Hera, alias Juno,
the Mother of the Gods
(with her divine peacock)


  1. My favourite Tillich quote is "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith." If we are to do away with the idolatry of both objects and views, we have to first doubt them. Once we're tired of doubt, we can rest peacefully with the acceptance of indeterminacy. (or something)

  2. Said a jolly fat man upon his dying bed, "Be a light unto yourself." At least that's what I've read.

    1. Oh, I finally get it, months later. You mean a serene skinny man who said on his dying bed, "Be an island unto yourselves." The word for "island" and the word for "lamp" are the same word, dīpa, in Pali.