Thursday, November 8, 2007

What Is Idolatry?: Images in Paganism & Christianity

I went to the Quickie Mart and noticed the smell of incense...not real incense, but that stuff hippies use that looks like fireworks punks and smells like them too. It wasn't so unusual to smell incense in convenience store. Sometimes those places smell a little funky.

But when you smell something burning--even if it smells good--instinct makes you look for fire. I glanced around and quickly found it. Across from the door there was a bookshelf butted up to a pillar and on the bottom shelf a few punks of incense burned in front of a statue of a little happy god. On a plate near the incense was a bunch of bananas. The owner wasn't a hippy after all. He wasn't trying to ward off the Quickie Mart Funk. He had a little idol down there.

In my most ecumenical spirit, I was pleased that this shop owner kept a public display of his devotion and religion--unusual in our society. It's good to see someone who is religious and not afraid to advertise the fact. Too often businessmen are afraid of alienating a potential customer with any sign of their religious sentiments. Never mind that his religion would be very unpopular around here. He had a display anyway.

But this man was clearly worshiping an idol. This happy little figure was being offered food, and incense was burning before him. What would happen if I accidentally knocked the bookcase and sent that happy little god flying? Would it be proper to say that I had just knocked over this business man's god? That his god was catapulted by a mere mortal like me? Or what did this business man do when the happy little god didn't eat the bananas? Did he eat them instead?

I faced these questions because few in western society worships images anymore (and few societies in the East as well). To be sure, idolatry in the general sense abounds; who hasn't noted the similarities between families gathered around the "entertainment center" and the family gathered around home altar? With an eye on Luther's definition of a god, "that which provides all good things," we know how many worship the idol Mammon, and how easy that temptation comes. But no one gives offerings to the television, nor do we bow down before a dollar bill. We don't actually bow down before anything or anyone; western Christian worship by and large is a gnostic affair, worship of the mind, and heart, of intention but not necessarily action.

But when good ol' Demos stood before a statue of Diana in 41 AD, bowing and touching his forehead to the floor, what was he doing to that statue, that idol? Did he believe that object carved from stone was Diana, the goddess of the hunt? Or did he believe that the image only represented Diana, a sort of means by which he could render adoration to the goddess who was unseen?

Scripture describes idolatry as the former. Daniel 5:23 says, "And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored" (ESV). Likewise, Psalm 135:15-18 says, "The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!" (ESV)

The gods of the nations are described in terms of their physical representations, following the lead of their worshipers, no doubt. The foolishness of calling something made by men, out of lifeless material "a god," is the criticism that the prophets lodge against the practice.

But the question remains: did the pagans really believe that those objects were the actual god? How would they then explain that a temple to Baal could be found in multiple places? How could the god be in Samaria and in Tyre, for instance? If this one was the god, then what was that one? For thoughtful pagans there must have been another understanding.

There was, and pagan writers utilized a more nuanced understanding of the images which sought to refute the claims of Jews and Christians. The problem is, many of those primary sources have been lost or destroyed. But Christian writers regularly addressed those works in their writings. St. Athanasius' work Against the Heathen pointedly addresses a nuanced understanding of idolatry. The value of what Athanasius writes lies in his chronology. He wrote these words probably before the Arian controversy erupted. Athanasius spared little opportunity to remark on Arianism, and probably would have, had the controversy arisen at that time. A likely date would be sometime after the conversion of Constantine, but before his first dispute with Athanasius in 319 A.D. Regardless of the exact date, Athanasius wrote during the time that idolatry was popular and practiced everywhere. He wrote as a Christian apologist who engaged the pagans whose worship he saw first-hand and who were actively opposed to the new-found legality of the Christian religion.

He wrote,

For ye carve the figures for the sake of the apprehension of God, as ye say, but invest the actual images with the honour and title of God, thus placing yourselves in a profane position. For while confessing that the power of God transcends the littleness of the images, and for that reason not venturing to invoke God through them, but only the lesser powers, ye yourselves leap over these latter, and have bestowed on stocks and stones the title of Him, whose presence ye feared, and call them gods instead of stones and men’s workmanship, and worship them. For even supposing them to serve you, as ye falsely say, as letters for the contemplation of God, it is not right to give the signs greater honour than that which they signify. For neither if a man were to write the emperor’s name would it be without risk to give to the writing more honour than to the emperor; on the contrary, such a man incurs the penalty of death; while the writing is fashioned by the skill of the writer. (NPNF II.4 Against the Heathen, ss.1-2)

So the pagans acknowledged that the gods were not really confined in stonework in temples. The statues and images then were ways that the worshipers could "apprehend" the god in doing homage, and aids of contemplation. Devotional aids, we would say. Furthermore, pagans in Athanasius' day were making the distinction between pure divinity and the mediated divinity of the daemons. The images were of the lesser power, the mediated powers of the divine, whereas the rarefied divinity, the pure essence of the godhead was not being depicted.

But as Athanasius writes, it mattered little, for despite the nuanced argument, despite that the pagans acknowledged a greater reality beyond the confines of the arms of Aphrodite, they still called these objects "gods." So his argument was essentially that they were inconsistent and illogical. Notice that Athanasius does not actually criticize the argument that the images are "letters for the contemplation of God." He allows this argument, with the caveat that their god is false, but denies them the option of calling the image a representation or figure as well as the god itself.

That he conceded this point is no small thing, for Christianity likewise made use of divine images and literal "letters for the contemplation of the [true] God." This is practiced most clearly in the Eastern Orthodox use of icons, though we in the West likewise make use of "materials" for the apprehension of God. Our pastors vest, we reverence the altar, we treat the vessels with utmost sanctity, and the image of the cross, while not often kissed in Western Christianity, is treated with reverence (could you image spitting on one? walking on one?). Bibles are treated with reverence and afforded prominent places in homes and, when necessary, disposed of with reverence. John of Damascus, writing 400 years after Athanasius described the relationship of Christians and images this way:

Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord’s passion in mind and see the image of Christ’s crucifixion, His saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify.... (NPNF, II.9 An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Ch. XVI)

Perhaps my friend at the Quickie Mart holds a similar view to his happy god. Perhaps that figurine was only an aid to his worship, a means to apprehend and contemplate the god for which that statue stood…or sat. Perhaps his offering of bananas was symbolic, indicating his spiritual sacrifice he made in devotion. All of this could find expression, or translation into the devotion and reverence Christians place on our means of contemplation.

Yet suppose I had begun dialog with this idolater and he had become a Christian. Would he be tempted to replace his happy idol with a statue of Jesus, perhaps a figurine depicting Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders? Would he be tempted to place incense before it and bananas as symbolic of his devotion to his new god? Even if were to confess sincerely that this hypothetical statue to Jesus was only a symbol, a “means of apprehension,” would it be appropriate to place offerings before it?

I will never know, for I bought my gas and pack of gum and headed out the door.

"Have a good day please come again!"


  1. Mike Baker said...

    Pastor Hall,

    What do you think of the very common practice in our churches of elevating the our offerings and either placing our bananas on the alter or near the foot of the cross? Is that different? And if so, how?

  2. Doorman-Priest said...

    Is burning an incense stick in front of a stutue different to lighting a candle in front of an icon?

    Representations of god may be idols themselves, but if we use them are we worshipping the idol or the God it represents?

  3. Emily H. said...

    It always seems a little odd to me that someone would make something and proceed to worship it. Odd, until I think of a lucky rabbit's foot, manufactured by men, and the accompanying thought that if you rub it Lady Luck will smile on you. The mentality is that if you *do* something (banana-wise or not), you can force the god to do something for you, turn the favor in your direction. That's quite the opposite of lighting a candle in front of an icon or elevating our offerings. Those are offered in humilty for what God has done for us and are not offered in the hopes that we can forcefully turn God's hand by our earthly actions.

  4. Mike Baker said...

    Very good point, Emily. As I read the part about the mentality is that if you *do* can force the god to do something for you , it sounded very familiar.

    You hear that very thing in the practices of Christians who buy into the "Theology of Glory" and especially in the teachings of the "Prosperity Gospel". Both seem deeply rooted in this false mindset of appeasement and the forceful control of God.

  5. Christopher D. Hall said...

    That "oddness" factor was just what I was wondering about. It doesn't make sense to call such an object "a god." But obviously, idolatry was more than that, and involved the idea of representation, and some sort of sacramental aspect as well.

    What's interesting is that it was Jews and Christians who invented the world idolatry. To everyone else it was simply "worship" or "latria."