Since I am in Canberra and writing a lot, my thoughts are full of these sorts of things (is Roland becoming a dull boy?)
The critique of idolatry (as in Isaiah 44: 9-20) 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. However, if we 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 statue 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 honour 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 neighbouring 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). Both may say: that 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.
But they 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. 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 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.