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.

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The Aquarian Age & the Planetary Gods

Mercury and Venus are, of course, at home in any age. But what is often optimistically called the Age of Aquarius is ruled by Saturn. Once thought of as a “malefic”, at least in Western astrology, Saturn is unknowingly worshiped by those looking toward a “global consciousness shift” as the God of the Age, with our old friend and protector Jupiter left behind.

While Saturn, it is true, has traditionally been given a bad reputation which he has not fairly earned, it is fair that we should be wary of him. His ways are not ours; on the downward arc, Saturn enveloped us in the metaphysical crystal prison of matter, while on the upward arc, he looks like a fearful void or Nothingness. In the first case, we resent him, and in the second we are existentially terrified of him. But, either way, he holds the necessary position of determining when we take on form and when we are divested of it; when embodied, we are so afraid of a formlessness which we no longer recognize that we have trouble imagining it being anything but oblivion, yet it is an important and unavoidable transition. Saturn thus deserves to be honored.

We do indeed live in an age in which Saturn is ascendant, albeit in an unrecognized fashion. Decay runs rampant. This is not doom-saying; decay is not a bad thing, inherently, though intelligent creatures that we are ought to be able to find healthier ways of relating to it than we do at present.

This brings us to the New Age. There are people in this world who, in the name of rather ill-defined “metaphysics” worship the crystalizations of Saturn without understanding what they are doing. The ego itself has become the god enthroned in the Holy of Holies, with “laws of manifestation” and “self-actualization” being the highest ideals which many can imagine. With the loss or neglect of genuine Tradition at the impetus of a few centuries of  hardcore materialism (another unrecognized saturnine influence), the merciful focusing of Saturn’s ray through Jupiter’s kingship have all but disappeared.

Christianity today, instead of relying upon the genuine Tradition uncovered and passed down by the Apostles, Desert Fathers, and others of a jovial bent — including apophatic and mystical theologies, theurgic prayer, and the Sacraments — tries to defy the force of decay by interpreting Saturn’s Law through martial aggression, thus transforming it into harsh condemnation. Islam has chosen a similar course. On the other hand, those in the purview of New Age and New Thought ideologies have their eyes so covered by the false sun of ego and the ersatz moon of desire that they can only see in the process of decay a “liberating iconoclasm” opening the doors for more personally enjoyable manifestations.

The Law resides in Saturn, but it issues from Jupiter. Jupiter is the ruler who genuinely cares about us and our progress, but because he expresses the Law to us more or less directly, we target him with our immature and petulant need to be “free individuals” in every meaningless way, not understanding that the liberty which matters comes through comprehending the Reality behind the Law rather than trying in vain to defy it, turn it to selfish purpose, or merely pretend it isn’t there.

“Melchizedek” is the Great Jupiter, the High Priest who interprets and presides over the Law, but the Law is one of mercy. We are given a living metaphor in the physical planets themselves. Saturn is much further out from Earth’s orbit than Jupiter, so Saturn’s demesne looks like an icy chaos from which could come all manner of unknown and unimaginable threats; though “gravity” is a metaphysical property of Saturn, the physical planet of Jupiter is such a massive body that astronomers say his gravitational field sling-shots uncountable potentially dangerous objects back out of the solar system before they can even get within planetary shouting range. In Vedic astrology, Jupiter is Guru, the Preceptor and Initiator — literally “the one with gravity”.

Those of us who are serious about our spirituality in this Age of Aquarius must place especial focus on a healthy relationship with Jupiter. Taking seriously such  important factors as Tradition, Guru, High Priest, initiation, and so forth, is interpreted today as rank dogmatism. It is true that overemphasis on them to the exclusion of personal work and study is also unhealthy (being a solar rather than jovial neglect), but overbalancing to one extreme in order to avoid another is not a wise strategy.

Aum Drām Dattatreyāya Namaḥ

Fresh

Fog hangs amaranthine
over the green meadow
sunlight peaking through
and, slowly, overtaking
the earthbound cloud.
Woods surround on all
sides and the grass
reaches over the boy’s
head.
What could here
be hidden, in this old
fairyworld hidden from
the cold gaze of adult
society?
Is a magic
treasure buried here?
A crystaline cavern,
entrance just beyond
sight behind those big
old trees, there?
Or
the headstones of a
long-forgotten graveyard?
He finds a patch of
tall goldenrods pointing
with humble pride up
to their god the Sun
and absorbs himself in
wondering over each slight
detail.
The ghosts and
sylphs silently smile
as they watch the boy
discover the world in
its eternal freshness.

The Metaphysics of Polytheology

In his important 1922 study on Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt, Egyptologist Patrick Boylan states that

Egyptian theology does not show, in general, any clear tendency towards system. The great mass of religious texts in Egypt is marked by vagueness and even inconsistency. Individual gods are very rarely clear and well-defined personalities. Indeed, it is a feature of Egyptian theology that nearly every one of its gods is capable, in one way or another, of being fused with others. (Oxford University Press, pg 107)

This could just as easily have been said about the theology of any number of so-called “polytheistic” religions, from Hinduism to Shinto Japan to regional Amerind cultures. Gods and spirits merge into one another, separate as “emanations” or “aspects”, serve as the organs of more primitive deities, and so forth, in a constant process of reevaluation. Throughout his book Boylan complains of the muddling of Egyptian theology and insists — against all evidence — that it is not a sign of metaphysical speculation as much as it is a consequence of cultic politics and sloppy thinking. In point of fact, though, there is as much sophistication to Egyptian theology as there is to Indian or Tibetan Buddhist theologies (or “boddhisatvologies”, if one likes), and it happens to manifest as this very sort of unsystematic and flexible approach to divinity.

Authentic or traditional polytheism — over against what modern Neopagans and Neoheathens call “hard polytheism” — resists all attempts at rigid systematization by virtue of its inherent understanding that the Divine is itself beyond the defining concepts of number and name. This transnumerality manifests in some revelations as monotheism, in others as transpersonal nontheism, and in others as henopolytheism. (See Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom for more on this.) It is only the monotheistic traditions, however, in which strict systems are required. Judaism and Islam have the Names of God, while Christianity has its hypostases. Hierarchies of angels and saints serve a similar, though subordinate, purpose in these theologies. These lists and hierarchies serve to preserve the monotheism and emphasize the Supreme Godhead, all the while acknowledging the metaphysically necessary powers, influences, and theophanies. It is thus that each form of the Revelation places emphasis on one or more faces of Truth, while still acknowledging other necessary fundamentals.

The so-called polytheisms have symbolic names and forms for the various divine functionary powers, acknowledging them as individual entities with at least as much reality as those who worship them. It has been said of the Hindu murtis (statues and other images of gods found in temples and shrines) that they do not constitute idolatry because, while they may be literally constructed by human craftsmen, they are based in divine prototypes; Ganeśa has the head of an elephant, for instance, to indicate His connection to intelligence, memory, and compassion, while His belly is large to point to His being the field in which the created universe has its existence. One could go on with each feature, from the number of His arms, to what He holds in His hands, and so on, down to small details. Similarly, the Egyptian Thoth is usually depicted with the head of an ibis to demonstrate dignity, concentration, and a calm soaring over the “ocean of heaven”, while the beak of the ibis is reminiscent of the scribe’s stylus (much as the broken tusk Ganeśa often holds). Again, one could expand endlessly upon such an analysis. These images, then, constitute a form of divine writing, just like the hieroglyphs and other writing systems themselves gifted by Thoth-Ganeśa.

Though symbolic, these entities are not “merely” symbolic; speaking in terms of the Perennial Philosophy, symbols are living things and, being closer to the Center of the Mind of God, these Great Symbols whom we call Gods and devas, Archangels and angels are more real and more sentient than we are ourselves — at least from the perspective of contingency, where this sort of differentiation of degree is meaningful and necessary. Thus, in Saivism, we pray to Ganeśa and to Karttikeya, and make offerings to the host of devas and ganas, without in any way conflicting with our understanding of Śiva as Godhead. Ganeśa, Karttikeya, et al, are simultaneously emanations from, aspects of, and children to God. More familiar to most Westerners, this is a very similar scheme to that of the Christian Savior, Who is the man Jesus, the cosmic Messiah, and the primitive-creative Logos at one and the same time, without any conflict or contradiction. The “unsophisticated” Egyptian theologies are largely the same.

Western and Western-influenced academics and scholars have tried to systematize polytheologies for centuries. Whether the purely hypothetical categories of comparative religion courses, or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s take on the kabbalistic Tree of Life as “filing cabinet of symbolism” (a dubious interpretation, to be sure), all of these attempts end up cutting out the sophistication which does exist in these philosophies by shoehorning vast metaphysics into conceptual cubicles having little or no relation to the original ideas involved. In books on archaeology, religious history, or Western occultism, we often read references to “solar” and “lunar” deities, as if this were an absolute trait recognized universally by worshipers across the globe. This does little justice to those deities, however. Apollo is not god of the sun; instead, he is a god of poetry, music, scientific inquiry, beauty, and athletics — he is “solar” in the sense of being a “luminary” and patron to human luminaries. He is not, then, identical with Rê, even if they share some traits and symbolic associations. Apollo was sometimes equated by Greeks with their “other” sun god, Helios, and this is accurate insofar as Apollo is the “subtle sun”, while Helios is the body of the sun. Helios is the luminous body which we see each day, while Apollo is the reality behind it. Similarly, Rê, Ptah, and Horus are all Egyptian “sun gods”, but with different significance. Rê is the materially creative power of the sun, the sun as life-giver, but his “mind” is Thoth — a “lunar” god. Ptah is also a creator god, but more in the vein of an artist; the ancient Egyptian word for “sculpture” is, in fact, equal to the phrase “Ptah-formed”. So, Ptah has more in common with Apollo than with Helios or even Rê. Horus is a warrior, the transcendent Light who defeats darkness; he has more in common with the Saivite Karttikeya, even with the warrior aspect of Hermes and the Archangel Michael, than with any of his fellow Egyptian sun-gods. The most ancient descriptions of Horus have the sun and moon as his eyes rather than identifying him exclusively with either body. To the Western academic, this all looks rather sloppy, but that is only because it is at least as meaningless to try to categorize deities as strictly “solar” or “jovial” — or even the popular “mother goddess” — in nature (maintaining the possibility of meaningful associations) as it is to categorize individual men and women as rigidly “hungry” or “asleep”. (Please note, here, that it is a different thing to call a deity “hermetic”, as this term — far from pointing only to a planetary association — points more to that entity’s status as representative and communicator of the Perennial Wisdom and is, thus, a much broader and deeper label.)

Metaphysics is very flexible as to its expression, as long as it is truly expressed rather than glossed. The “hard polytheism” of popular approaches to, say, Germanic and Celtic reconstructionism misses the esoteric significance of the death of Baldur or the sacrificial runic mission of Odin just as much as Protestantism fails to read the inner process signified by the Book of Revelation; they drop metaphysics in exchange for artificial “system”. A fear of Chaos — misinterpreted as “disorder” — leads not to Cosmos, but to mere legalism. The authentic theologies of Revelation, whether monotheisms with their heirarchies of angels or heno- and polytheisms of Luminous Beings flowing from the Ontological Core, have nothing to fear from Chaos and cannot conceive of a Law separate from its Spirit. The very purpose of the true polytheism is to grant access to Infinity.