Idolatry: Worshiping an image of God

(This was inspired by the comments from my last blog, on The Blind Men and the Elephant.)

When I was practicing mediation at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in the 1970s, they decided to do a ritual. Incense was burned and members took turns bowing before an image of Quan Yin, the bodhisattva (or goddess) of compassion. My friend Nancy, who like me, was raised Jewish, turned to me with a horrified expression asking, “Are we going to do this?”

I thought about it for a moment, understanding her recoil at the thought, since bowing before idols seemed one of the fundamental transgressions for a Jew. I had an irrational fear of being struck by lightening. It was the fear that decided me.

I responded, “It is BECAUSE of my horror and fear that I must do it.” Bowing then was less about idols and more about not letting irrational fear control me. I have not been hit by lightening, so far.

Yet the prohibition against idolatry is something I value, as I have come to a deeper understanding its meaning. One should only worship God (or Life), not false idols, even if they claim to be representations of God. For if God is omnipotent, everywhere and all powerful, then to worship anything less becomes a distortion.

An insidious form of idolatry exists in many fundamental religious organizations. Whether it is the holy books (the Bible—whichever versions–, the Torah, the Koran, etc.,) or the religious leaders modern or from the past, when respect crosses over to worship, it becomes idolatry.

When people are killed because a book has been destroyed, that is idolatry. When phrases from the Holy Books are selectively quoted to justify hate or bigotry, that is also idolatry. Those that do so claim to be defending faith and God, but how absurd. If God is real, She needs no such defense.

I understand that believers feel hurt by acts of ‘desecration.’ However that doesn’t justify killing or maiming others. It seems to me that biblical literalists in essence believe in a dead god, written in stone at some point in time and culture, rather than a living god. In their desperation to defend that rigid viewpoint, they attempt to wipe out all that feels threatening, at times including people.

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4 Responses to Idolatry: Worshiping an image of God

  1. Steve Tanner says:

    I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with the actions you mention, except to classify them as bigotry and madness. You have clarified the matter well here, and I thank you. I hope the simplicity and elegance of what you have written will get the message across.

    • Thanks Steve. Most rigid thinkers will not be open to other perspectives. I hope my words help clarify some of the confusion that is sown by those claiming to speak the words of God. It is rather sad to me that such people are given so much respect.

  2. Pingback: the rebirth of God « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  3. treegestalt says:

    Several of us sharing a Berkeley attic in the 60’s, we started doing cave paintings along the hall. The Jewish guy wanted “to practice idolatry” with one of these pictures. I don’t know that he got very good at it; it was just something he’d always wanted to try.

    In your case… your bowing to Kuan Yin was a refusal to bow to the Gotcha God.

    Neither you nor my friend were actually practicing idolatry.

    People who fly a flag from their church… people who worship either NPR, or conversely, Hate Radio. Devotees of Prudence, of Reasonableness, of Activism… One could arrive at a very long list. William Stringfellow gave many examples of the more popular objects of worship of his time.

    “Stringfellow’s categories naturally overlap, and can’t cover all possible examples; ‘Sex, fashion, and sports are all among the angelic powers.’ So, particularly, is ‘money.’ [59]

    ” ‘Like all men and all things, the angelic powers and principalities are fallen and become demonic powers. “Demonic” does not mean evil; the word refers rather to death, to fallenness.’ ”

    [and so on… “Death” was his name for what a Buddhist might call ‘ego’, what an earlier Christian might have called ‘The Devil.’ He considered the war against Vietnam a manifestation of America’s worship of ‘death’– but predicted that when that ended, that this underlying condition would simply find other means of expression. Interesting guy, re the wider context of idolatry & why it’s bad for people.]

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