idolatry


This is always an issue in bushfire season – more than 100 fires are burning in NSW alone at the moment. So what would you take with you if you had to evacuate in the path of a fire? My mother, for instance, needs a truck, which could be loaded speedily, up and down the 60 stairs, as the embers fly in. As for me, I’m a frugal type. Basically what’s in my shorts: a memory stick, wallet, keys and, most importantly, my pocket watch.

Advertisements

I hear this one in myriad variations:

‘Badiou’s use of Paul is merely as an example of his preconceived system’.

‘Does Negri need Job? No’.

‘Those Americans are not really exegetes’. (They are probably not many things, but exegetes?)

‘Is that really what Calvin is saying or is that you?’

And perhaps the best of all: ‘Do you need Ezekiel?’

On the surface they may sound innocent enough: we need to read carefully and attentively, exegeting the text for its true meaning. But beneath that are deeply held theological and autocratic assumptions. Earlier I had a dig at the theological side of things, but let’s look at the autocratic assumptions. The text and ultimately the author is the autocrat with the supreme authority; the task of scholars is to discern the autocrat’s meaning and will; in doing so, leave all of your petty preconceptions at the palace door. Here too theology is not far away, for autocracy traditionally argues: one God in heaven, one ruler as his representative on earth. Of course, the problem is which autocrat do we mean? During the period of absolute monarchies, myriad rulers – Russian, Prussian, Danish, papal … – claimed to be God’s sole representative. The implications for texts should be obvious.

 

 

(ht er’s father)

Of course the timing of this has nothing to do with Easter, but the Turin Shroud Center in Colorado has conned someone into giving them a shitload of money in order to recreate the face of Jesus from that 13th century forgery:

I don’t know about you, but he looks remarkably like those traditional pictures of some dude with a beard. But hey, why not use the Turin Banana:

Or perhaps the iron:

Or the KitKat found next to the shroud:

Or the Turin Dog’s Arse:

But the real question is: what would Jesus do in response to all of this speculation?

Or maybe …

Update: with thanks to Sean Burt.

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.

Slowly this new blogsite is being unpacked, but now I need to go to Canberra via Sydney – travelling by trains for the next three days – so the boxes will be opened more slowly. Meanwhile, I want to write:

a) a reply to Colin Toffelmire on idolatry

b) an argument for an unethical and unmoral position, since ethos (Greek) and mos (Latin) mean custom, habit, what is assumed to be the proper way to do things in society. That is, leave the class structures alone, don’t ruffle the status quo, grease social relations so they run more smoothly, in short, be ‘ethical’. Not for me, since I want an unethical and unmoral politics – aethikos and praeter more.

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.