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In praise of idols

Posted by Erik on January 4, 2008

(NOTE: The part of this post below the quotes is an experiment in a form of writing that is new to me, the panegyric.)

Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?” – Jewish midrash, also recounted in the Qur’an (quoted from Jewfaq.org)

I have seen this story quoted approvingly many times over the years, generally either in a spirit of spiritual one-upmanship or in apologetics/conversion literature, by people who apparently feel that it proves something, which it actually doesn’t (unless ancient Near Eastern pagan religions were radically different from those that I am familiar with). Unfortunately, the message I always take away is that the person quoting this believes that pagans are idiots who can’t tell the difference between symbol and referent. To them, I can make no better reply than those given by Celsus and Ioanna Salajan:

For who, unless he be utterly childish in his simplicity, can take these for gods, and not for offerings consecrated to the service of the gods, or images representing them? – Celsus (as quoted in Origen, Contra Celsum 7.62)

Tourist (to Old Monk, who is bowing to statues of Buddha) : I thought Zen freed you from all that bowing?! Why, *I’m* freer than that – I could spit on all these statues!
Old Monk : OK. You spit, I bow.
– Ioanna Salajan, Zen Comics (or possibly Zen Comics II)

Idols (icons, God-images, whatever term you prefer) and “idolatry” have a long and honorable history in many of the world’s religions. Statues and paintings serve as focal points for worship, as spiritual aids, as teaching and mnemonic devices, and as constant reminders of the Ones to whom we give our devotion. They beautify our homes and enrich our lives in countless ways, and our religions would be much poorer without them. Pagan religions may be many things, but generally speaking they are not aniconic.

When I stand to pray before a shrine adorned with carefully selected images of the Gods I am instantly brought into a more reverent frame of mind, and am readier to enter into that conversation that is the lifeblood of a living faith. When I pass, and sometimes pause to touch or acknowledge, an icon as I go about my day, I am reminded in the midst of my daily life that I am not alone, that the Gods are always here. In remembering the care and piety (and, occasionally, financial sacrifice) that we invested in selecting them, I am encouraged in continued piety. Their physical beauty tells me more clearly than words of the spiritual beauty that inspired the artist.

The near-infinite variety of images also teaches important lessons – first and foremost, that the Gods are separate, individual beings; and that They have many aspects, only some of which may be known to us. Hermes Eriounios (luck-bringer) is not generally represented in the same manner as Hermes Psychopompos (soul-guide) or Hermes Angelos (messenger), for instance, but all these are merely aspects or roles and are still Hermes.

Even if (as many philosophers believe) divine reality is ultimately One, the collected wisdom of humanity clearly shows that it has chosen to manifest itself to us in many distinct forms; and who are we to ignore them?

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11 Responses to “In praise of idols”

  1. I love the quote about the Buddhist monk.

    What I find interesting about people who disparage about shrines and deity images is that they lovingly display and care for photographs of their loved ones. Many will have photos in their wallet, on their desk at work and on the walls at home.

    Do they mistake the photo for the person photographed? Do they believe that if the photo is damaged or destroyed, it will hurt the person depicted?

    No? Then why do they think that our iconic images act any differently than their beloved family photos?

  2. Thank you for this. I’m often appalled at Pagans who work hard to distinguish between what we do and “idolatry.” It has always seemed to me that to do so is to do the work of monotheist demagogues for them. Why do we say “idol” as if it’s a bad thing, anyway? I’m a human–I think symbolically and in metaphors. Taking away the icons, the “idols” destroys a bridge between my subconscious, imaginative (and, I think deep spiritual) self and the gods, and accomplishes nothing except to make me more dependent on linear, linguistic symbols for them anyway. It doesn’t make the gods any more explicable to humanity to dress them up in language alone, but since language is the tool of formal logic among humans, I think it sometimes creates a false sense that the gods are explicable in language, and that human logic can master them.

    As if! We’re far better off, in my opinion, with symbols that appeal more obviously to our deep minds than with language that can seem to tell a purely historical or logical story, and convince us we’ve reduced the gods to “facts.”

    Hm. Is anybody out there selling “Proud Idolater” bumper stickers yet? If so, sign me up!

  3. executivepagan said

    Morninghawk,
    Because they have been taught all their lives that pagans worship statues.

    Cat,
    I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it, but it makes perfect sense! The point about the seductive absolutism of language rings a very big bell for me, and is making me think about some of my own tendencies in that direction that I think have been tripping me up. Thanks!

    bumper sticker
    I’d be happy to make one and put it on the Cafepress store for you! Let me know… (oh, and I do plan to put up an English version of the Poseidon fish, I just haven’t got around to it yet.)

  4. Kullervo said

    The Hindu approach to idol-worship is very different from what you have presented. There’s a pretty wide pantheistic/panentheistic streak in Hinduism, and all things (including the gods) are reflections of Brahman. Including idols. Since divinity is present everywhere, it is also present in an idol, which makes an idol perfectly appropriate to worship in and of itself. There’s a divinity in it that is worthy of worship.

  5. executivepagan said

    Setting aside the fact that I’m not Hindu… ;)

    You’re perfectly right, of course – in fact, IIRC there was an article about that in a recent issue of Hinduism Today… don’t remember which issue, though. Anyway, this is just a reflection of my personal experience with idols, no doubt somewhat colored by my Christian upbringing. It may be that if I had an experiential background in Hindu worship, I would perceive them differently (or perhaps they would actually *be* different, if Jeff’s latest post is correct!).

    If we’re going to talk about Eastern influences, in this case I’d say I’m more likely to be persuaded by the Shinto attitude to their shrines: that they are “god-houses”, a special place provided for the kami to reside while being worshiped. This makes some sense to me – although I can’t say that I’ve experienced it directly, which is why I didn’t include it in the post.

    Since divinity is present everywhere, it is also present in an idol
    I also have a panentheistic streak, and in theory I agree with this; my question would be whether the idol is any *more* divine than, say, a tree. My immediate response is that it may actually be less divine, being at a further remove from the natural state of the materials used to make it… by which logic, of course, a shivalingam would be more holy than a more anthropomorphic idol of Shiva, and I’m not sure what to think about that. So many questions… all I can really do is trust my experience until I see something to make me think otherwise.

  6. Kallistos said

    Check out one essay of mine
    http://kallistos.livejournal.com/513385.html
    I wrote it in June.

    “I plan on including a passage along these lines:

    Say you have a picture of your wife. If someone ask about your wife, you may point at her picture, and say; “That’s my wife.” No one would be so feeble minded as to confuse the picture of your wife with your wife herself. This would be true even if you look lovingly on the picture, or place flowers by the picture, and small gestures of affection like that.

    I knew an old Italian widower. He had, in a prominent place in his apartment a large (8×11) picture of his wife, nicely framed, surrounded by flowers, and with novena candles burning all the time around it. Obviously the flowers and candles were burning in memory of his wife, and/or to her spirit as well as her memory. They were not burning for the photograph, and the photograph is not his wife.

    Why then do people think that pagans are so stupid as to think that the statues they make with their own hands, or purchase from artisans are their Gods? The Bible certainly thinks they are this stupid, which may explain their haughty attitude towards Pagans. After all, we’re a bunch of maroons (as Bugs Bunny would say).

    The Bible refers to other Gods as being made by human hands, Gods being of various materials, Gods that neither see, hear, breathe or speak, and which are vanities and dead. These are all obviously referring to the idols as if they are Gods.

    (Insert here the long string of Bible Quotations on this matter)

    Or perhaps, instead of being smarter than us, they’re really stupider, and actually believe that the idols are Gods? I’ll simply give them enough credit to say that they think we’re so dumb. This is also assuming that they take the Bible literally. I’m aware that many Biblical scholars realize that the Pagans of the time did not literally think of their Gods in this way.”

  7. executivepagan said

    Cal,
    Very nice! Not sure how I missed that when you first posted it… :(

    Sannion wants to add my post to the NA website – would you consider letting him put this up there with it? The “pictures of loved ones” analogy that you and Morninghawk both used is valuable.

  8. Feral Boy said

    My perspective is that idols are necessary. It is hard, if not impossible, to conceive of an inclusive All. Gnostic writers speak of the futility of talking about the pleroma, which is everything, and nothing, neither one, and both. We perceive the world through discrimination of pairs of opposites. If you are in complete darkness, your are blind and helpless — if you are surrounded by pure light, you are also blind and helpless. Perception requires both figure and ground — lacking either, you perceive nothing at all.

    An idol or image is chosen in order for us to concentrate on the aspect of divinity that we wish, out of the Totality. They allow us to define our connections with Spirit, so that we may find finite meaning in the Infinite. And They are as varied as we are ourselves. Your mother Mary is not my mother Cerridwen (!)

    The miracle is that we have enough unconscious commonality to recognize all of these aspects, from cultures separated from us by both miles and millenia. This common symbolic heritage is beyond language or dogma. It is this multitude of expressions of the All that we should honor and cherish.

  9. executivepagan said

    An idol or image is chosen in order for us to concentrate on the aspect of divinity that we wish, out of the Totality.

    That’s a very good point. It actually ties in quite nicely with the point I made to Kullervo in a different thread, about religions being filters for our experience of the Divine – they privilege certain aspects while blocking others.

  10. […] ties in with something I said about idols a while back – “Their physical beauty tells me more clearly than words of the spiritual […]

  11. rbarenblat said

    Erik, thanks for pointing me back to this post; it’s too easy for me to forget that people can be hurt by this story. Thank you for the gentle reminder.

    I have more to say — will respond on my own blog because I want to draw in the comments of others who’ve spoken up, too…

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