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.