Worshiping Idols

I am not a very profound man, but I am sometimes curious.  Of course, I used to say much the same thing to my ex wives when I wanted sex, “I am not a very penetrating man, but I am sometimes horny.”

Unfortunately, that did not amuse either one of them.

Tonight, besides recalling some of the more alarming ways in which I have in my time successfully — but unintentionally — brought about the destruction of two marriages, I have been thinking about idols.  If I understand the concept correctly, an idol is something that we worship instead of worshiping god.

Moreover, it is said we do not always know we are worshiping an idol when we are worshiping an idol, and not god.

I understand that last point — that point about not knowing — very well because both my ex wives were quite fond of pointing out to me (and sometimes to their friends, to the neighbors, to our community, and to the local newspaper and TV stations) how much there is about life (and the marriage bed) that I don’t know.

Now, it seems to me that, when people talk of idols, they most often mean statues, paintings, or other representations of their gods.  However, can a notion or an idea also be a representation, an image, that is worshiped in place of god?

If it can — if an idea can be an idol — then worshiping an idol might be at times a bit like loving — not your wife — but merely your idea of your wife.

For some reason, all that has been said so far reminds me of my friend Michael.  Michael is much more intellectual even than I am.  In fact, he is so oriented towards ideas, so oriented towards thought and thinking, that I used to joke to him, “Michael, you are so intellectual that surely you must at one time or another have been convinced you lost your virginity when you read the chapter on sex in your biology textbook.”

To give him credit, Michael would shoot back, “What do you mean “at one time”?  You are talking about my first love, Paul.  Please show her some respect!”

Michael is both more intellectual than me and smarter than me, but there is a way — a sense in which — he is more likely to worship idols than me.  That is, Michael is a bit more likely than me to love the idea of a thing more than the thing itself.

Now, all this talk of idols, to my mind, seems to raise an important question: How come that scamp Michael gets laid more often than I ever did? How can a belief be thought of as having the same relationship to reality as a map has to its terrain?

The fact I would ask such an abstract question in the very middle of a conversation that, it turns out, is largely about getting laid has perhaps offered you a fresh and disturbing insight into why that scamp Michael gets laid much more often that I ever did — even when I was married.  Nevertheless, I think we should be asking that question because that question might shed some light on precisely how an idea can be an idol.

So, then, how can a belief be thought of as having the same relationship to reality as a map has to its terrain?  Please allow me to suggest:

A map can be thought of as a way of stating (or symbolizing) the notion that “x is the case”.  For Example: “The map shows the tree is 500 feet from the house.”

A belief can be thought of as a proposition stating (or symbolizing) the notion that “x is the case”.  For Example: “I believe the tree is 500 feet from the house.”

Therefore, there seem to be at least some similarities between maps and beliefs.

But if those statements are true — if a belief can have the same relationship to reality that a map has to its terrain — then doesn’t that explain to us how it is possible for an idea to be an idol?  And doesn’t it explain that to us even if it does not explain to us the even more vital question — the question that is fully capable of driving men mad — the question of how it is the scamp Michael gets laid much more than I ever did?

Let’s review our reasoning here:

  • Images can at times be idols
  • Beliefs can be images
  • Therefore, beliefs can be idols
  • Hence, it is opposed to both reason and nature that the scamp Michael gets laid much more often than I ever did.

Yup.  We have a sound argument there.

Yet, if it is true that beliefs can be idols, then many, many questions come to mind.  Many genuinely serious questions.  Among those serious questions is a nagging one: When we worship god how do we know we are worshiping god and not just our beliefs about god?

That is, suppose, when I am worshiping god, I am also thinking of god (i.e. I have a concept of god, a concept of what I am worshiping). If that is the case, then am I not worshiping my belief rather than my god?  Am I not worshiping the map, rather than the terrain?

In asking those questions at this hour of the night, I am perhaps strangely reminded of something I wrote a few days ago: “It is in the night that our thoughts can become our hunters by pursuing us.”

What if  it really is the case that, when we worship god, with a concept of god in mind as we worship god, we are not really worshiping god then, but an idol?  What if that is really true?  What if the logic here is sound? And what if we took the thought seriously.   Really took it seriously.

Would that thought not become the hunter, then? W0uld it not pursue us with other thoughts?  Thoughts such as:

Can I worship god without experiencing god? Can I worship the terrain without experiencing the terrain?

Is it possible that so long as we worship an image of god, rather than god, we will not experience god?

Some long time ago, after a day spent foolishly sitting in the rain beside a lake, I wrote a short little poem to commemorate what an absolute idiot I was to have sat all that day in the light rain and drizzle.  I recently posted the poem to this blog, but here it is again — because I think it says something about how it might be possible through meditation to experience a thing without, however, experiencing an idea of it.  The poem is called, “Meditation” — That is, I thought it was somehow much better to call it, “Meditation”, than to call it, “An Idiot Sitting in the Rain”:

You sit in the evening
The rain on your face
Watching thoughts rise
And watching thoughts fall
And you don’t know the names
Of the things that you see
But you know what to do
Or not do.

“But you know what to do or not do.”  It might be said by some folks that, obviously, I didn’t know enough back then to come in out of the rain.  But I recall I was pretty happy right where I was that day. For one thing, that was long before I learned the scamp Michael was getting laid much more often than I ever did.

I am not a very profound man because I am perhaps too often a thinker, and thoughts of something are never all that profound when compared to experiencing the thing itself.   Nevertheless, I am curious what you make of all this?  For instance:

  • Can beliefs be idols? If so, how?  If not, why not?
  • Is it possible for a strong man to be driven into blubbering madness by a mere scamp?
  • Can meditation open a way to worshiping without idolatry? Why or why not?
  • Does it not offend both reason and nature that the scamp Michael has gotten laid much more often than I ever did?

14 thoughts on “Worshiping Idols

  1. I feel as though beliefs in themselves, even without icons, can be a form of idolatry: think about how many people seem to have god-concepts that seem to share their exact style of thought.

    The most obvious type is like this: I’ve encountered fundamentalist homophobic Christian, I’ll call him Dave. Dave knows God loves the sinner but hates the sin and wants everyone to stop having sex with people of the same sex because it’s sinful and dirty. This is, ironically, also the person’s opinion. Dave may also think it’s important to oppose stem cells, since God hates them–like him. What an amazing coincidence that they have the exact same likes and dislikes, even down to politics. No doubt we have all seen people pray like; “Please God, let the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl this year” – from both players, to spectators. After all; God likes to take some time out to help people play sports.

    In my opinion, the more certain one is on their concept of God and the more they know “his” likes and dislikes, they are only manifesting their own thoughts as divinity, effectively worshipping their ego, albeit under a different name so they don’t actually realize it. I think there are other forms of idolatry though: from holding scriptures as inerrant, to worshipping in a particular way. It’s my opinion that sometimes worshipping through icons is more beneficial to aniconism, so long as one remembers to pray through the icons, and not to them.

    I think that meditation can definitely open up one to God–but who will teach the person how to meditate in a beneficial way, as opposed to just sitting there for an hour which may not be to that person’s “spiritual taste” to allow them to experience the Transcendent? It seems as though for some people, it does not come easily, and many seem to ‘get stuck’. Is this why a teacher is considered necessary by some groups, I wonder.

    It would have to be a very damn good scamp to drive someone to become a blubbering madness. Oh wait, I was thinking of scampi… still, my sentence remains unchanged.

    Wait a sec; Michael has had more sex than you? He must be lying! Heretic!

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    • Thank you for a very thought provoking set of comments, Keshin!

      I would like to add that there are many kinds of meditation, and they seem to produced different kinds of results. Some kinds of meditation might be more relevant here than other kinds.

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  2. Sure. They can. Idols can be ideas. Fundamentalists are in love with the belief that they can know God by reading the bible. I believe that books are my idols, the ideas they contain at least. But that all ties into God again, because God in me is me, and I am God (tiny tiny piece at least). When I act with good, God is really really me, and God is closing the closet door of my heart when I do bad. He tries to not listen, but can’t help it.

    As to Michael? I haven’t a clue, except maybe he uses a better after shave lotion?

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    • You know, Sherry, you strike me as far closer to god — whatever that might be — than most people. And yet, I don’t think you yourself would claim as much.

      By the way, I also think you are correct that even people, such as yourself, who in some sense might be said (said by fools and idiots) to be “close to god” have idols. I think that might be true of most of us. I put it down to human nature.

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  3. Idolatry abounds. I have always been intrigued by how Jews and Muslims skirt the issue of idolatry.

    Images of the deity are forbidden in synagogues and mosques. In fact, Islam is so vehement about the issue of false images that it was necessary for their art to evolve into the purest form of abstraction, which accounts for the exotic shapes and whirls that decorate Islamic art. And, it may be the fear of a possible worshiping a woman or her image that accounts for some of the more extreme forms of Islam to demand that women completely cover themselves up — although I am prejudiced to think it more likely that those fellows are chauvinist pigs who hate women.

    And as for worshiping the whatever without the whatever, we humans live by the metaphor and can’t do without it.

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    • In regards to idolatry in Islam it is a reflection of the absolute majesty of God. It is a recognition of the absolute transcendence of God that any attempts of recreating his image through idols would be an inherent downgrading of his power.

      The Islamic goal of achieving tahwid (unity) with God rejects any such intermediates and acknowledges both the depth between humanity and divinity and the fact that this journey is a very personal one. It is a reflection of the dualistic tendencies based on both a great ignorance and inability to grasp the nobility of God while being intensely familiar of his creation, after all his power is reflected in the nature that abounds around us and even our own symmetry and inherent beauty (the same beauty that drove the Greeks to spend their lives marveling at the perfection of the human physical state).

      “…When I have fashioned him…and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.” 15:29

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  4. Hello Paul,

    No the concept of tahwid does not signify a loss of self it is a stratification and purification of oneself to reduce the plurality of human emotions and desires through one divine facet. To reduce our contrasting disjointed nature into one singularity that fuses the mortal with the divine so that every action one takes holds a barakah (blessing).

    It is not asceticism or monasticism in that you still are involved with the mundane, but the trivialities of the mundane become sacred in their own right. That earning bread for the family or pursuing our sexual desires are manifestations of piety.

    This plane of spiritual divinity is not alien to us as the previous verse I quoted shows but we are innately derived from God. Or perhaps another verse I am sure you have heard before

    “And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein” 50:16

    Ultimately Paul Islam, as I understand it, is a reduction of the plurality of life that represents the chaos of the world and unifying these “threads” into one divine “ribbon”. It is a recurring theme that you will find in Islamic jurisprudence or reducing the many maddhab opinions into one implementation as well as the overarching definition of the oneness of God that fits into the entire scheme of things.

    Best Regards, Abibi.

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