On Idolatry

As my friendships fan-out into more and varied religious and spiritual communities, I find myself running up against attitudes and beliefs which I had previously only known in the theory. In a conversation between two Jewish friends, I heard the most overt criticism of idolatry which I’ve ever encountered in person. In a later talk with one of them, I had described to me the experience of feeling “chilled” at seeing Buddhists bowing to statues of the Buddha. By the standards of my Jewish friends, then, I am an idolater.

Idolatry is of course condemned implicitly and explicitly throughout the rest of the Bible (Jewish and Christian inclusive), not to mention the Quran. I can even see where such a prohibition might come from: There is no doubt a great danger in reifying human ideas and ideals into absolutes to be worshiped apart from divine revelation. We bear witness today to the results of doing so in the most circular fashion: deifying human reason. But are all venerated images “idols” in this sense?

Assuming that the biblical law in question was genuinely revealed through prophecy, I think it vitally important to remember to whom a revelation is directed. In short, God knows His audience. If we look to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world of the day these laws were handed down, the situation was one of rampant idolatry not merely in the sense of using statues in religious worship, but one of deep ambiguity concerning humanity’s obligations to both man and divinity, the overvaluing of institutions, and the undervaluing of human life. It makes sense, under these conditions, to cut out as much gray area as possible. But this is bordering on attributing human motives to the Divinity, so I won’t travel any further in this direction.

But what of the more literal idolatry of religious images and statues? I find the accusation of idolatry to be contextual, and usually arbitrary. A Christian does not think that the sign of the cross hanging over the altar is an idol, nor will Catholic and Orthodox practitioners admit of the images of saints being called “idols”, when “icon” sounds so much nicer.

We can take this further. Is the Ka’ba an idol to which Muslims prostrate? It strikes me that a lump of meteoric rock inside a small cubic building is no less an idol than a Śivalingam in a cave, and may well be more so because its “idolatrous” nature goes ignored, unacknowledged, or denied, even by non-Muslims. The Ark of the Covenant is certainly an idol, for it was reverenced as having been inhered by the very Presence of Hashem.

I can predict the Abrahamic objection that the Ark cannot be an idol because, though built by human hands, it was built according to specifications revealed by God, so has divine imprimatur. But the images of Śiva, Ganeśa, and Vishnu — let alone Thoth, Hermes, Zeus, Odin, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Isis, and any number of other deities — are also revealed by those deities for the purpose of granting their worshipers some insight into their natures and how best to draw close to them. To claim that only my god’s revealed image, word, and aesthetic preference are valid religious expressions is merely to beg the questionn.

The monotheisms who condemn idolatry — while, as observed, practicing it themselves — usually claim the distinction of worshiping God directly, while idolaters worship the images. This is either ignorance, or deliberate obscurantism, depending upon the representative in the discussion. The uneducated individual has the defense of having read or heard the reality: that no worshiper of Vishnu, say, thinks himself to worship a mere image, but the Person who reveals himself through the image. Both the ignorant and the obscurantist may rejoin that the real difference, then, is the reality or supremacy of the god in question. But this is rhetoric, nothing more. Again, it begs the question it proposes to settle.

It is a truth unsettling to monotheists that monotheism is, strictly, not represented in the Abrahamic traditions as generally understood. All kinds of circumlocutions are invented to deal with the awkward facts of the angels, demons, hypostases, and mentions of other gods in their scriptures. These attempts not only tend to contradict the witness of the selfsame scriptures, they also unreasonably dismiss the experiences of worshipers in every other religious tradition in the world. I say “unreasonably” because the best they can ever do by way of justification is to cite their own claims in circular fashion; this is hardly satisfactory.

A separate but related truth is that religion can not exist without some form of idolatry — assuming, as we have this whole discussion through, that the biblical notion of idolatry can even be meaningfully applied. Moving forward, I propose some alternatives.

The word “monolatry” is already current; from here on, we may prefer it to “monotheism”, even if monolaters object. More, many of the religions condemned or dismissed as “idolatrous” do not actually worship idols. We might consider co-opting Christianity’s sanitized term “icon”, though we still don’t worship icons. Provisionally, I suggest “mesoeikonism” from the Greek words for “through” and “image”.

If the non-Abrahamic traditions, from Buddhism and Hinduism to Pagan revivals and First Nations/aboriginal traditions, are to be included in the global dialog, we must establish philosophical categories for the Abrahamic faiths just as their theologians (and the atheist philosophers who use their categories to this day) which adequately refocus the discussion, rather than confining ourselves to the categories handed to us by those who have spent centuries claiming a monopoly on philosophical adequacy. The beginning of this process has to be an aggressive correction of accidental misapprehensions and intentional misrepresentations.

Book Review: “Cave of the Numinous” by Craig Williams

Tantric Physics I: Cave of the Numinous”
Craig Williams, a.k.a. Yogacharya Dharma Rakshaka
Theion Publishing, 2014
159 pages, hardbound (540 copies), leatherbound (60 copies)

First of all, let me say a little something about the artifact itself. As a small press limited run, this book is a beautiful little gem upon my shelves. The hard cover is done in a “wine-red” cloth, with a gold-leafed impressed yantra on the front, and the spine is impressed with a gold-leafed author name, title, and publisher logo. There is no dust jacket. It is simple and elegant. I was not fortunate enough to have gotten one of the 60 leatherbound copies of the “Auric Edition”, which was done in dark-vine goat leather, hand-lettered, with a special page sigilized and signed by the author, though photos of it are gorgeous.

The author is a friend of mine and, if I may be so bold as to say, something of an informal teacher, as well. I say this for full disclosure, but also because it has something to do with the book itself. You see, the depth, compassion, and honesty of Cave of the Numinous go a long way toward explaining exactly why I have come to consider Craig to be a friend and colleague in a relatively short period of time.

The Foreward, by Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, does an excellent job of introduction. Acharya-ji points out a lot of the social obstacles to genuine spirituality, and expresses plainly why Craig’s book is a good antidote. Like any antidote, of course, there must first be a diagnosis, then the antidote must be properly administered and duly taken, which Acharya-ji emphasizes.

Prior even to Craig’s introduction, we have David Beth’s short essay, “Supreme Katabasis: Kaivalya and the Kosmic Gnosis”. I admit to having been rather puzzled by this essay, at first. It seemed, on the surface, to contradict much of what I know Craig to say, practice, and teach. By the end of the essay, though, I came to see that the problem is semantic. Beth spends much of the essay demonizing “spirit” and “logos”, which threw me for a bit of a loop. After all, Logos is the sun Who emanates all Gnosis, and Spirit is the individual core! What spirituality is possible without them? But Beth hints at his true intent right from the start: He is using the Aristotelian interpretations of “body, soul, and spirit” to accord more with the mistakes of modern ideologies which place reason in a position of priority, with the deeper and more exalted Intellect (budh) with its capacity for intuitive discrimination (viveka) being ignored or outright denied. In this case, “logos” is not the same as “Logos”; rather than being the enlivening Word, Beth refers to the tendency to dissect and measure — the letter which kills the spirit. This twist of language makes a greater point than initially appears: By pointing out the artificial opposition between the Transcendent and the Immanent, Beth turns our expectations in on themselves to reveal that there can be no real opposition between noumena and phenomena, essence and substance, but that the first inheres in the second, as the second expresses the first. It is the duty of the jivas (souls) to embody this dynamic Unity (spirit) through purified powers of observation (body), but that is only possible once we are able to understand the true nature of our task, as opposed to the flawed picture of it given over to us by faulty or incomplete educations. It is, in that sense, a restatement of the difficulty which René Guénon called the overtaking of Quality by Quantity.

From here, we get into Cave of the Numinous proper. I could go chapter by chapter, but that would not give the book proper due. It is not a book of analysis, of mere facts, but of digestion and synthesis. This is a book of yogic alchemy, as much talismanic as it is textual. More than a manual of technique, Cave of the Numinous is a long, breathy love-song to the Guru and an ode to Sakti, the Dark Goddess.

This is not to say that Craig never gets into practical particulars. In fact, the entire book is instructive. It teaches the reader how to fall in love. Craig gives strong advice in self-knowledge, accessing the slow-burning Alkahest which gradually, but mercilessly and finally, dissolves the bundles and blockages within our body-mind systems. He gives a handful of simple but potent rituals which bring us to deeper communion with the more difficult facets of our own psyches. Above all, this book reminds those of us with genuine Masters how those Masters serve us, and teaches those of us without Masters how we can draw ourselves to our true Master in this very life.

Craig’s approach is deeply traditional, in the best sense. His own life is an example of properly combining the complementary sciences of Jyotish (astrological psychology), Ayurveda (alchemical medicine), Yoga (internal alchemy), and Kriya Yoga (theurgy) into the integratively coherent whole they are intended to be. Cave of the Numinous is, if nothing else, a charged reminder of how we can find our own way there. I feel deeply blessed for having read it, and look forward avidly to the release of future volumes of the Tantric Physics series.