Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.

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Conscientious Ghosts

It’s finally Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, NPR recently ran a story on ghosts. I’ve posted on the topic of ghosts several times since they are inherently a religious phenomenon, whether they actually exist or not. Empirical method only takes us as far as that terminal border, but not beyond. Since we all face death, the question of ghosts is intriguing to many people. In some parts of the world, according to the NPR story, up to about 90 percent of the population believes in ghosts. They have been part of the religious thought of humanity since writing began. Ghosts have haunted us from earliest memory.

What makes the NPR story so interesting is that there is a kind of moral consciousness that runs through the story. An interview with Tok Thompson, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, makes up part of the story. Thompson notes that ghost stories often concern unresolved justice issues. He cites the overused “Indian burial ground” motif as an example—where there is a collective guilt, ghosts tend to gather. Slavery is another such social injustice, and again, ghosts and slaves are no strangers. Christianity tended to push justice off into the afterlife. The fact is many people do not receive fair treatment in their lives. Some of them are very good folk who just never get a fair chance. That troubled early Christian thinkers into making Heaven into a place where the reward came. It also, unsuccessfully, tried to suppress the idea of ghosts. Ghosts problematize such easy theology. What are they still doing here when Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory should suffice?

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The NPR story even addresses the idea of possessed dolls. Tok Thompson notes that the word “doll” derives from the word “idol.” This sheds a whole new light on Barbie, I suppose. An idol is an image representing a deity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition religious statuary was problematic at first. Again, Christianity bucked the trend by allowing images because people naturally want to see what it is they believe. Stories of haunted dolls and statues and other inanimate devices are difficult to accept. They are, however, deeply religious. That’s because ghosts represent what we really believe. Death is the most parsimonious of thresholds. We can’t look over at the other side, but, if ghosts exist, they may give us a glimpse beyond human sight. And that seems like an awful decent thing to do.

Pipe Dreams

While I was off in Indiana, Jesus was coming down in New Jersey. Well, at least a graven image was. My wife saved the front page of Thursday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger that had a front-page, above the fold headline, “Workers give Jesus a much-needed lift.” The caption notes that in a gusty storm on Tuesday the 200-300 pound Jesus (this is America, after all) tumbled off his pedestal at Saint John’s School in Orange. A crane hoisting the fallen Lord dominates the first page. Clearly a bit of irony on a slow news day, the social commentary is thick indeed. Despite Magritte’s assertion, we still say the painting is a pipe. The representation is the object. This is the native logic behind the “idols” of old—to capture an image is to somehow to encompass some of the essence. This is precisely why the Hebrew Bible forbids images to be made.

I realize that “essence” is a disputed concept these days. Some scientists have declared that no such thing exists, along with souls, deities, and free will. Nevertheless, most mornings I wake up aware that I am me and not you, that my physical body is relatively near where I last remember it being, and that it faces the same hopes and limitations it did the day before and before and before. Perhaps this continuity is an illusion, but I can’t afford to treat it as such. It’s hard for an identity-less person to hold down a job. As usual, it is money that comes back to define us.

We recognize that it is disrespectful to mistreat representations of what we hold sacred. Does Jesus suffer any real harm for his image laid out on the ground? The nuance necessary to separate likeness from reality is something we obviously possess, but as we deal with the physical world the distinction frequently fades. Religion may have lost much of its explanatory value for the material world we inhabit, but images of a fallen savior demonstrate that we still operate otherwise. Much of our religious life concerns appearances. And for many people that step between appearances and reality is a very small step indeed.