(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?