On idols and symbols: a response to Colin Toffelmire

At last it is time to respond to Colin’s post from a while back on idolatry etc, which was actually a response to my earlier one on the same issue. I argued that the ban on idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is actually an effort to block what I called the signifying link between the object made and god. The logic goes as follows: someone uses a symbol to act as a reminder of their god, as a finger pointing to that god.  However, someone else (a biblical prophet, a monotheist or an atheist) comes along and points out that the god in question doesn’t exist; therefore, the object points to nothing and all that is worshipped is the block of wood, piece of stone or metal statue. In other words, you now have an idol; the definition of idol is therefore a broken signifying link between symbol and god.

Further, the second commandment forbids the making of any graven image. Why? Is it just the construction of idols that it in question? Is it the risk that someone will say, ‘hey, let’s make a nice figurine out of this drift wood and that will be my god’. No, the problem is that someone will make a symbol, something that points to God. That is what is forbidden: nothing may represent even the one true God. But why should that be forbidden? The making of a symbol relies on the construction of signifying link between symbol and God. And once you have that link, it too may be broken. Someone may well say: you believe all the other gods don’t exist, but why does the same argument not apply to your god? You too worship an idol. So the second commandment blocks the possibility of a signifying link between symbol and god so that such a link cannot be broken.

Now, Colin replies by noting a paradox: symbols are banned but human beings cannot avoid symbols. What are we to do? Colin makes a distinction between symbol and idol:

But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols?  This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me.  Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah.  The idol is a representation of the deity.  It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself.  But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god.  The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine.  There must be symbols to point to the Divine.

An idol seeks to capture the deity, contain God in this or that object or indeed person, but a symbol does not do so, for it points to God. Good argument, but in reply let me point out that much turns on the perspective one takes – granting the distinction between symbol and idol. What is a symbol to an insider is an idol to the critic. My symbol is your idol, and vice versa. In my discussion I attempted (imaginatively) to see the situation from the perspective of the so-called ‘idolater’: for him or her it is not an idol, but a symbol. My symbol is your idol and vice versa. To the Reformers, the saints and icons and images of the Roman Catholics were so many idols, but to the Roman Catholics they were symbols. To the Christian, Christ is the ‘son of God’, but to the Muslim that makes a human being an idol. The distinction between idol and symbol is not as watertight as it might seem, leaking all over the place. For that reason the ban on images makes no exceptions. I must admit to being very sympathetic to the ban, especially in the way Theodor Adorno made it into a leitmotiv of his philosophy. But that leads us into discussions of utopia.


6 thoughts on “On idols and symbols: a response to Colin Toffelmire

  1. Pursuing monotheism thoroughly is much like peeling an onion thoroughly.

    I liked George Soares-Prabhu’s ‘Laughing at Idols’, which discusses Isa 44. You seem to be on much the same page as him, Roland. Or is that what set off this discussion in the first place?

    Isa 44 calls God the only Rock. A metaphor like that could be seen as idolatrous, so will have to be the next to go in the triumphant march towards a thoroughgoing monotheism.

    1. Thanks for the reference, Deane, although I’ve never seen it. these thoughts came through an intense engagement with Marx’s persistent and varying uses of ‘fetish’ and ‘idol’ in Criticism of Earth.

      1. I thought the Soares-Prabhu article was a little ripper – so if you ever check it out, I’d be interested in your reactions.

  2. Very good response Roland, thanks. I do have some further thoughts, but I’ll have to mull it over a little. I’d also be interested to see how you’d push the conversation into the realm of utopia. That’s outside of my area of study, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts. In any case, thanks very much for taking the time to respond.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s