Sunday, June 12, 2005

Just wondering...

If, as seems true, all human behavior (including religious behavior) is suffused by human poesis, then what are we to make of commandments against idolatry?

Such commandments are prominent in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and are normally considered fairly central. (Christians are given a hard time because we believe that Christ was God and man, which seems idolatrous to Muslims and Jews.)

Yet if everything -- our worship of God, our praise of God, our "religious experience" -- is shot through with human making, doing, thinking and perceiving, then we have no "unmediated" (i.e. free from humanity) access to God. So how then do we avoid idolatry and have anything to do with the real God (or should I say "God"?). The problem as I see it is not having our experience, etc., wrapped up in concepts -- how else could we have them? The problem as I see it is asking ourselves the question "how do we know that these experiences, etc., are not merely a projection, even a collective projection, of our best wishes or our worst fears? That is, how can we know that we are avoiding idolatry? Presumably appealing to our idols will not help us, they would not doubt hastily certify their authenticity.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this dilemma...


Blogger Caleb said...

That is a dilemma. Maybe the way out hinges on interpreting the injunctions against idolatry as more than simply injunctions against "representation." At least in the Hebrew Bible, it seems to me, the problem with idols is that they are representations of false gods, rather than YHWH. It is not that YHWH is opposed to representation in and of itself, since human beings themselves are described as representations of "our image."

Likewise, I don't think the religious ideal held out in Christian scripture is "unmediated access" to God. It's taken for granted that no one has seen God at any time, and that at best God is approached through the Mediator or the intercessions of the Spirit. Again, the fault of idolatry is not in mediation itself, but in the false object of idolatrous worship.

But that (amateurish) account of idolatry raises dilemmas of its own, and I don't think it really resolves the problem you're raising here.

Monday, June 13, 2005 12:20:00 AM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

I'm surprised at how difficult a time I'm having at answering this question. My initial impulses are two: if I examine my own theological language, I tend to use "idolatry" in the (completely modern) sense of rejecting claims of totalization: claims to absolute truth, absolute morality, reified orthodoxies, ideology, &c. Obviously far removed from the material (if not the formal) categories for bib'l idolatry - which may beg the question, I suppose. Second, I think perhaps the only real answer I can summon is that it is precisely the task of theology to interrogate (a hermeneutical interrogation) the thematizations of our proclamation - to inquire whether we are after all occupied in idolatry in what we do as church.

The Barthian element in me wants to turn to revelation as the overturning of the idol (there's a great and neglected section in CD 1.2 on "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion" to this effect); but this is just the beginning of the answer b/c revelation begins the hermeneutic process - it (rev'n) is always already appropriated in our theological categories. And again the question comes right back to the beginning.

I think perhaps the answer in part lies in this: the OT prohibition against idolatry is similar to the taboo of uttering the divinity's name (viz. "taking the name of YHWH your God in vain") - the ancient belief that invoking the name of the deity compels the epiphany and action of the deity. Idolatry similarly represents the attempt to concretize and objectify (commodify?) a God who is by definition beyond human control - it is an eschewal of a manipulatable God. Put like this, we are always running the risk of succumbing to Feurbach's critique that you allude to: the reification of our conception of God, which reification inevitably becomes the exploitation of the religious dimension for our power interests, represents the continual danger of the church and its proclamation.

Wow, sorry for the verbosity. Always happens like that when I'm thinking around a subject instead of about it (in other words, a very challenging question that I don't know how to answer!).

Monday, June 13, 2005 8:34:00 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Like the others, I'm finding this a very challenging question. I was going to say that is why we have such a breadth of Scriptures in the Bible, and why it's so important to have a grasp of the range of religious experience, and yet. . .as an anthropologist I have to say one could argue that any similarities in religious experience could simply be part of the human hard-wiring for spirituality, and not an example of revealed religion at all.

In the end, I think we have to judge what is idolatry v. what is not by the fruits of the labors. Is the experience leading you to a closer relationship with what you perceive as God, with your significant others, to a more compassionate stance towards humanity? Or is it all about you?

But trying to think about this at a meta-level also makes my head hurt.

(And, you've been tagged).

Monday, June 13, 2005 11:02:00 PM  

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