On Idolatry

But the monotheist and atheist do of course differ on one point, for the monotheist argues that all gods apart from one’s own are unreal delusions, while the atheist points out that the monotheist’s claim falls under the same logic. So the atheist observes that the monotheist must be consistent: if you are going to break the signifying link of all others, then you must carry that logic through to your own religion.

By Roland Boer
 University of Sydney, McGill University, the University of New England, the United Theological College, Sydney and the University of Western Sydney.
December 2009

How might we understand the biblical injunctions against idolatry? On the surface it all seems rather simple: we shouldn’t, the text says, worship animals, stars, found objects or things made with our hands in the sweat of our brows. Or as Isaiah puts it in one of the best polemics against idolatry still to be found:

9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. 10Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? 11Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

12 The blacksmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. 13The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. 14He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. 16Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ 17The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it, and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’

18 They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. 19No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ 20He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?’1

That critique gives the impression, on the surface at least, that idol-worshippers are simply deluded, for they worship an oddly shaped block of wood, a chiselled piece of stone or perhaps a polished metal icon that can never be more than the material out of which it is made. The worshipper may claim that it is a god, or that it bestows blessings and curses, but it is nothing of the sort. The passage from Isaiah plays up the sheer ordinariness of the idol with a good dose of satire. Indeed, it stresses the everyday materiality of the idol, one that punctures the exorbitant claims made for it. But this text also points to the need for an analysis of the material object in question and not the vapid claims made on its behalf.

However, such an analysis also needs to go behind the text a little in order to uncover its deeper workings. To begin with, we need to shift perspective from the polemicist to the so-called worshipper of the idol. Then the idol itself becomes a mere symbol or pointer to the deity, a tangible, earthly marker of the god’s connection to this world. The idol worshipper does not think of this stature or that icon as the god itself; no, it is a finger pointing to the deity. Consider the first and second commandments together, for they reveal this precondition of the critique of idolatry. The second commandment forbids the making of any graven images, while the first commands one not to have any other god before Yahweh. These two commandments are not discrete items, for they flow into one another: one should have neither other gods nor idols, for they are intimately connected. In other words, there is a signifying link between god and idol, deity and representation, and the one who shows reverence for the idol does so in order to honor his or her god the whom the idol directs one’s attention.

The polemicist steps and breaks the signifying link between object and god. He or she is not so much a conqueror of the neighboring tribe, scoffing at the god of the vanquished who was little use in the battlefield or success in seduction, but is more likely to be either a monotheist or atheist (the two share more ground than they care to admit).2 Both may say: that the piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no god to whom it refers. Ergo, all you are worshipping is that block of wood, which – I would like to remind you – comes from a tree, half of which you used to make that shelf and half that silly object you worship. Can’t you see how stupid it is to worship a clump of wood or stone; it does nothing, says nothing, thinks nothing. It just sits there, and you worship it.

Both monotheist and atheist come after the fact, responding to an existing polytheism that must – they feel – be negated. Atheism in the way we understand it is of course the latest religious position, but even monotheism is a late development, the perspective of which is imposed on the texts on the Bible.3 The critique of – indeed, the very identification of idolatry as the worship of an animate or inanimate object – can happen only after the belated arrival of monotheism, which then generates its own critique of the earlier gods who make a rapid exit from the cosmos, without even a whiff of rocket smoke to mark their passing. And what happens to all those symbols and signs of the gods? They become idols.

But the monotheist and atheist do of course differ on one point, for the monotheist argues that all gods apart from one’s own are unreal delusions, while the atheist points out that the monotheist’s claim falls under the same logic. So the atheist observes that the monotheist must be consistent: if you are going to break the signifying link of all others, then you must carry that logic through to your own religion. Those images in your church, the crucifix on the altar, the Bible you read, or indeed that Christ is God’s presence on earth, are all forms of idolatry. You set up a signifying line between them and your God, whether Bible or Christ as revelation, icon or crucifix as symbols of your God, or even the word “God” or “Yahweh” itself. But your God does not exist, cannot be experienced or verified, heard or encountered in any real sense, so you too are an idolater, worshipping a text, human being or nicely polished object. You are, the atheist goes on, no better than the teenager who lovingly polishes his first car and spends all his money on it, or those who look up to flawed leaders to bring them victory and the promised land.

The fallback position for the monotheist, especially in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, is iconoclasm – or rather (since iconoclasm assumes an existing image to be smashed) a ban on images in the first place. For this reason the mythical second commandment (for it comes from a political myth) is so powerful: one is not permitted to make any image whatsoever, not of anything on the earth, in the seas, or in the heavens. It is, if you like, a manifestation of a fear that the process will continue inexorably. Once you have denied the existence of all the other gods bar one, then it is but one step further to deny the existence of the last one standing.4 So, what you do is close down the mechanism by which this might happen: without such a representation, there is no hook-up for the signifying line, no possibility to set up a connection between earthly object and super-human being. Instead, one must direct one’s attention to God alone. And without a signifying link, it becomes impossible to break such a link. One can hardly pull out the chain-cutters to sever a chain that does not exist. So, responds the monotheist, your argument has no bite; I am not an idolater.

Of course, the monotheist would have to admit that there have been more than a few slip-ups in the ban of images. Witness the synagogue with its symbols – menorah or star of David – or the church with its crucifixes, stained-glass windows and iconography. And one cannot escape the reliance on holy scriptures which are felt to varying degrees to be the revelation of God or – at a minimal level – the written experiences of those human beings who have experienced God. The histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are overflowing with moments when people became enamoured with an earthly representation of God, but the monotheist could respond in a way that is consistent with the critique of idolatry: these are examples of disobeying the command against graven images, which is an exceedingly difficult command to follow consistently.

End Notes

1 Isaiah 44: 9-20. See also the explicitly political polemic in Isaiah 40: 19–20; 41: 6–7; 42: 17; 45: 16–17 and 46: 1–2, 5–7. Not to be outdone, Paul in the New Testament puts the same point in its own way. Thus, Paul argues that due to darkened minds (Romans 1:21) the dead, created thing comes to life and gains the power to rule and dominate human lives instead of God (Romans 1:23, 25).

2 It is of course quite possible for a polytheist to make this argument as well, selecting one or two gods out of a larger collection for the argument that follows. But it is a more difficult position to hold, for the polytheist by definition recognises a multiplicity of gods, and the polytheist could also take up the ban on images for all the gods.

3 There is more than enough evidence to suggest that an earlier polytheism was gradually overlaid in the texts of the Hebrew Bible by monotheism. Thus, the various references to the veneration and worship of multiple gods become in light of this late overlay myriad examples of waywardness and apostasy.

4 Hence the perpetual assertion, such as: ‘Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it, let him declare it and set it forth before me”’ (Isaiah 44: 6-7a).

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