Idolatry, Ecology and the Sacred as Tangible
Michael York

In his ‘Defence of Image Worship’, Swami Vivekananda extols idolatry despite the external worship of images being conveyed by the Hindu Shastras as “the lowest of all the low forms of worship.”

… idolatry is condemned! Why? Nobody knows. Because some hundreds of years ago some man of Jewish blood happened to condemn it? That is, he happened to condemn everybody else’s idols except his own. If God is represented in any beautiful form or any symbolic form, said the Jew, it is awfully bad; it is sin. But if He is represented in the form of a chest, with two angels sitting on each side, and a cloud hanging over it, it is the holy of holies. If God comes in the form of a dove, it is holy. But if He comes in the form of a cow, it is heathen superstition; condemn it! [1]

Though Vivekananda is speaking about the use of images in Hindu worship, the dilemma he expresses applies equally to paganism. He situates the paradox in humanity’s inability to see things through the eyes of another. David Abram is equally blunt. The ancient Hebrews, he argues, forsook their former corporeal religiosity and its responsiveness to the natural environment by shifting to a purely phonetic set of alphabetic signs. This allowed an epistemological independence from earthly sensuality. “To actively participate with the visible forms of nature came to be considered idolatry by the ancient Hebrews; it was not the land but the written letters that now carried the ancestral wisdom.” [2]

While idolatry is found throughout Hinduism and Buddhism and, among pagan practice, foremost perhaps in Chinese folk and Afro-Latin spiritualities (e.g., Santerìa, Candomblé, etc.), it appears not only in the hagiography of the Roman Catholic and iconography of the Eastern Orthodox churches but also in the basic use of symbols throughout the Christian church as a whole (e.g., the cross, the lamb, the dove and the fish-symbol). Christ himself is recognized as the physical embodiment of the transcendental God. While the daily cult paraphernalia that is otherwise attached to the Hindu murti may be largely absent, in rudiments, the same idolatrous process is detectable. In some cases, processional darshan and popular belief in miraculous powers being attributed to the image, representation or idol itself (e.g., Il Bambino of Santa Maria Ara Coeli in Rome) are little different than the idolatrous practices of dharmic and pagan faiths.

Among the Abrahamic orientations, the Jewish and the Islamic are the most vehemently aniconic. [3] The Muslim shahādah, in which affirmation is made in Allah as the only God and Mohammed as his messenger, allows no possibility of idolatry. Consequently, the 360 idols of the pre-Islamic pagan center in Mecca, the Kaaba, were destroyed when Islam’s prophet first conquered the city. The foremost Arabian deity was Hubal, a moon-god, and along with him there were the goddesses al-Uzza, al-Lat, Manat and Wudd. The pilgrimages associated with these figures were replaced with the Hajj as the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The Kaaba itself was retained as the ‘holy house’, and the black ovoid meteorite embedded into its south-eastern wall retains the magnetic focus associated with pagan idols found elsewhere. In Muslim legend, the Black Stone was originally given as a white stone to Adam by God. Subsequently, the stoned turned black due to the sins of mankind. The archangel Gabriel bequeathed it to Abraham who installed it in the rebuilt Kaaba. The stories and practices associated with the Black Stone, however, are reminiscent of the Roman Catholic denial of idolatry in connection with its veneration of saints. The customs may be overtly similar, but they are argued to be something different. Nevertheless, idolatry in both its persistent explicit and implicit manifestations would appear to betray a fundamental human need to symbolize the divine or supernatural in visible and embodied form.

The corporeal spirituality that distinguishes pagan religiosity from the approaches of other religions supports both idolatry or the adoration of physical images and a love of nature that merges into veneration as well as efforts toward ecological restoration as a sacred mandate. The use of graven images as vehicles for communicating with the divine is condemned in the Decalogue and has been a seminal factor in the formation and anti-pagan practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This condemnation extends to the idea that the physical world itself can be holy – a stance that is shared both by the Hindu doctrine concerning maya and the secular non-religious/anti-religion dismissal of the magical as a corollary operative to the measurable processes of nature.

In the spiritual materialism and tangible sacrality of paganism, the ideal that Nietzsche condemns is replaced with the metaphor. The empirical and the metaphorical or imaginal are two separate but interrelated realms of being. The pagan often understands the metaphorical as an independent ontology along with the observable: the latter perhaps as the natura naturata; the former as the natura naturans. In general, these may be approached as unconnected – with some people concentrating on the one, some on the other. The intersection of the two occurs usually as a synchronicity but also within the metaphor and instance of the idol.

Nevertheless, as empirical the one and non-empirical the other, we are still permitted to describe situations in which one dimension ‘influences’ the other. When and if the imaginal affects the empirical, this is understood as a miracle, as an instance of the miraculous. When and if the empirical influences or produces the imaginal, this is the very dynamics studied and appreciated by complexity theory – such as when the whole becomes more than simply the sum of its parts.

In my Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (2003), I sought to elucidate what I referred to as the ‘corpo-spirituality’ of pagan religiosity. From a pagan perspective, matter matters, and it matters much. The tangible is accepted as sacred in and of itself. If the holy ‘bleeds’ into a transcendental, it does not begin with it. Instead, the sacrosanct is understood first and foremost in material being. This love and cherishing of the physical are foundational to both the pagan’s unabashed affirmation of pleasure and the veneration of the divine in idols, trees, rocks, water and fire. The holy for the pagan begins with, and is most often found in, concrete tangible form. Whether this last is to be comprehended in a statue of Ceres or Apollo, or in the manifestations of the sun and moon, or in the whole panoply of nature, devotion toward it is to be understood in its broadest sense as idolatry.

Consequently, paganism rejects the first two commandments of the Decalogue. This, along with its hedonistic emphasis, places it out of sync with the moral position of the Abrahamic religions as well as with those of the dharmic faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism. There is, however, also a disjuncture with secular orientations that might understand our world more in disenchanted and purely mechanical terms. Since the closing of the pagan schools of learning by Justinian in 529 ce, paganism is and remains a minority spiritual outlook. Its values and aspirations continue to find little endorsement by the media, academy and the publishing industry.

The naturism of core paganism is not the same as philosophical or theological naturalism. In general, this last is understood philosophically as explaining all phenomena purely in conformity with natural causes and laws while avoiding moral, spiritual or preternatural significance. From a theological perspective, naturalism refers to the derivation of religious insight from nature and natural causes rather than revelation. However, shifting philosophical naturalism to what we might refer to as religious naturism allows, and for many even encourages, the interplay of the imaginal and metaphorical as a quasi-independent ontological realm of nature. In other words, it brings in and appreciates the super-empirical dimension as real and non-empirically operative. In all, nature for the naturist pagan is both mundane and miraculous, ordinary and special. The earthly and worldly are no less sacred than the preternatural, while this last is simply an other, a co-form or co-dimension of nature, that is neither transcendent nor superior.

The interactive dynamics of nature naturing (natura naturans) and nature natured (natura naturata) for Robert Corrington is perhaps most strongly encountered in the sacred place – such as Delphi, Stonehenge, Carnac, Glastonbury, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, etc. He pictures nature naturing as an active potential that forever seeks resonance in manifest reality. When it finds a compatible locale, the resultant symbiosis produces what Corrington describes as ‘semiotic plentitude’ beyond the norm. This same richness of meaning is what can be attributed to the worshiped idol. The idol, in fact, is a locus in which the divine other and the divine this-ness are believed to interpenetrate and come together. It becomes a point of passage between the two worlds. Like the Hindu tirtha ‘ford’ or pilgrimage center, and like the key religious festival, the idol or holy place is where the possibility of egress between this world and the other world is understood to be the strongest.

Along with corpo-spirituality, the essential features of paganism include the appreciation of nature, this-worldly focus, an understanding of enchantment, a plurality of the divine, a humanistic grounding and the experience of enjoyment. The pagan idol is sacred first and foremost because the tangible and corporeal are themselves considered to be spiritual, ultimately holy. In other words, the idol is an embodiment of the sacred. But it is also a representation of the special. As such, it may be revered as holy in and of itself, or as the vehicle of something not immediately or visibly present, or as both. The idol, whether the lingam of Kashi Vishvanath, the solar disk of Amaterasu, a stone carving of Huitzilopochtli, the omphalos of Delphi, a statue of Osiris or the all of nature, is both the deity and a symbol of the deity. But not only is the idol a triggering vehicle for the imagination and spiritual insight, it is also a reflective device – a magical mirror for the worshiper by which to reflect and project her/his wishes, concerns, aspirations and fulfillments. 

Idolatrous worship for the pagan and those who indulge in it is a means by which polytheistic understanding is expressed. It grounds worship in this-world while allowing a portal to the otherworld of enchantment and the miraculous. And against its biblical injunction, idolatry affirms the ultimate unity of matter and spirit and, hence, of the human and the divine. The corporeal religiosity of paganism, one that expresses veneration toward the earth, nature and the physical world as well as toward the human herself, allows a different ethical operative than that which has come to constitute the norm for our species in modern/postmodern times. In other words, a pagan ethics requires its formulation to be based on the fundamental human need to symbolize the divine or preternatural in visible and embodied form. Delineating our goals and how we are to live in a proper fashion can take place within a framework that accepts and endorses the naturalness of idolatry – a naturalness that is expressed by Spinoza when he allows that the likeness or image of the object gives rise to the same responses of joy or sadness as may be forthcoming directly from the object itself. [4]

Pagan pantheism recognizes the ubiquity of godhead; pagan polytheism recognizes the plurality of godhead. While for the former there is nothing that is not an aspect of the divine, for the latter this same non-exclusion need not necessarily be the case. In other words, a pagan polytheist could entertain the possibility that there are ‘false gods’ (e.g., Mammon, a nation-state, an economic ideology, etc.) as well as genuine deities. In a word, paganism emphasizes the multiplicity of possibility over any monistic unity that may nonetheless underlie that multiplicity. For the pagan, there is no gap between the god and the world. Both are complex and challenging to human contemplation and ecstatic imagination, and the revered representation is simply one device that assists the worshipper in blurring any tendency to consider the two as separate. Paganism is instead comfortable with the notion of the idol as both acquiring the characteristics of the deity it represents and as something independently autonomous. For the pagan, divine diversity, as well as the access to it, is considered a phenomenon to celebrate rather than to shun. And as all this may be subsumed within the inherent and ubiquitous sanctity of nature, to reject the natural in both corporeal and intangible/ethereal forms is the supreme instance of human conceit. The formulation of pagan ethics, of any ethical/moral position from a pagan perspective, occurs beneath the aegis of this understanding. The world itself/herself is divine – including we humans, her children, along with whatever other product is derived from the earth, either directly or through us as intermediaries. This is the full implication of pantheistic/polytheistic idolatry, and, as such, there is implicitly for the pagan a tendency to respond to what Diana Eck refers to as the need to develop “a hermeneutic of the visible.” [5]

The principle of idolatry is central to pagan consciousness – whether the pagan bows down to idols per se or, rather, reveres nature in all its fullness. Idolatry is an acceptance of the ubiquity of the divine, the pantheistic undercurrent of all phenomenal existence. While idolatry may concentrate the divine in certain instances, creating a sort of primus inter pares in direct access to the holy, it is simply endorsing the use of a pragmatic vehicle in apprehending or communicating with the sacred all as the cosmos’ fundamental predisposition. However, this idolatrous propensity in pagan veneration puts pagan religious expression in a precarious and vulnerable position by default. Firstly, its idols can be destroyed – as occurred in the wake of the militant Christian church. But, secondly, matter itself inevitably allows betrayal in a manner that the pure realm of Platonic abstraction does not – ultimately, for the pagan, death itself is the ultimate betrayal against life. Invariably, incarnation entails pain and loss. These are the integral constraints to physical existence, and whereas this may explain the universal appeal of transcendental religion, the pagan, by contrast, accepts these constraints as the price to be paid for incarnational existence.

Another constraint on pagan idolatry, of course, is the biblical inheritance itself. For the West that has been shaped by the heritage of the Decalogue, the term ‘idol’ has long been used as one of opprobrium and condemnation. In this context, Jonathan Sacks considers that the idols of today include “self-esteem without effort, fame without achievement, sex without consequences, wealth without responsibility, pleasure without struggle and experience without commitment.” [6] While the current fashion is to reject such ideals as consumerism, faddism, multi-corporate capitalism, etc., what Sacks’ labeling makes clear to a pagan sentiment is that to refer to something – anything in fact – as an idol is simply to make a value judgment. Whenever an ‘ism’ is disliked and rejected, it becomes an ‘idol’ to the disparager – whether hedonism, narcissism or materialism or even such ‘bona fide’ religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity (Christism) or Islam (Mohammedanism). Whether the object is something to be revered, or it is something to be vilified and condemned, the consideration of the focus as an idol occurs within the eye of the beholder – more than it is to be attributed to any body of knowledge and practice or considered intrinsic to some tangible object. And whether Christians and Muslims have actually been hexed through some Magian conspiracy [7] or not, they are nevertheless illustrative of idolatry in its worst form, namely, that of the idée fixe which seemingly blinds them to the divine-human aesthetic as understood from pagan, naturist and vernacular perspectives and renders the iconoclast incapable of forming a participatory bonding with humanity as a questing affirmation. The question with idolatry is always one of treading the fine line between passion and obsession. One’s idols evoke fervent commitment – even zealous adoration, and as long as this devotion – even the occasional frenzied devotion – remains within the boundaries of organic sensitivities and decorum in consideration of others, pagan convictions hold that it is something to be encouraged. But when that fervor removes us from the collective human community of which we are part or, worse, sets us against our sisters and brothers, we are then encountering idolatry as anti-human and sacrilege.

Because, essentially, paganism is a plurality that includes its own opposites, there is no single paganism, and nor could there ever be. But the implicit earthiness of paganism in most of its varieties is what allows and even encourages an ethical idolatry. Against the perpetual diaphanousness of a cosmos of transcendentals, the positive idol lures to the corporeal and grounds the human spirit. In other words, a cosmic gossamer, a diaphanous cosmology, necessitates the tangible as a healthy antiphon. It is the idol that provides us with something to grasp within a sea of perpetual bewilderment.

Consequently, the historical and still current condemnation of idolatry as the worship of false gods has no viable foundation when paganism is understood as a legitimate religion that merits the same protections and tolerance as the other major faiths of the world. The pagan rejection of the biblical rejection of idolatry rests on two foundations. Firstly, the attribution of falsity to any god is to be recognized as a value judgment on the part of the attributer. The authenticity of a god or deity is not only beyond the scope of empirical inquiry, it is also a matter that can only be decided subjectively between the worshipper and the worshipped alone. And, secondly, the theistic denunciation of the use of any object, whether natural or man-made, to convey godhead because God is allegedly transcendent to each and all particulars is rejected by paganism’s intrinsic pantheistic understanding. For the pagan, it is not that God/Goddess/the godhead is beyond the visible, but rather that there is nothing that is not God or divinity. The pagan god is not some separate being or (non-)entity but is instead the all of reality and potential. Further, following in the line of Process Theology, this god is forever growing and augmenting. It is not static, aloof and detached. It is our world if not also all the worlds beyond.

If idolatry is understood in John Bowker’s terms as the “attributing of absolute value to that which is not absolute, and acting towards that object, person, or concept as though it is worthy of worship or complete commitment,” [8] the pagan response is to question the very idea or concept of ‘absolute value’. In understanding godhead as an organic and growing phenomenon, the notion of an ‘absolute’ is already precluded. Absolute worth could only be understood as the cosmos itself, and, for the pagan, the universe is conceived as an endless hologram in which the all is reflected and accessible through any part. Apart from the cosmos or nature itself, there is nothing that could be desired absolutely, or, conversely, any possibly total desire for a thing, object, person or idea is or becomes a yearning for the universe/multiverse itself. It is this connection with the all of reality that ultimately is central to the pagan, and any pagan understanding of ethics as either the goal of life or the correct way to live life is guided and informed by this interconnectedness between the individual, the community, the world and the cosmos. In fact, so central is this bond that, despite the pantheistic understanding of divinity as immanent, it is the cosmic connection itself that is the fons et origo of the divine. If the tie is holy, that which it connects is equally sacred.

Consequently, the controversial aspects of pagan ethics involve the corpo-spirituality of nature, the endorsement and sanctification of pleasure, and the approach to the divine that includes and validates idolatry. The idol for the pagan is a pleasure, and veneration or worship can include being physical and pleasurable. Among other things like human survival and honoring nature (‘Mother Nature’), environmental concern entails protecting humanity’s arena for the pursuit of pleasure. The corporeal world or nature is the ultimate idol for the pagan. Sensual delight is the grounding principle and experience that unite pagan idolatry with ecological focus and reverence for the natural.

For Aristotle what people do and believe is of paramount importance. In his thought, there is not some vague platitude concerning the sacred as non-institutionalized and “widely diffused in the population” but the “mundane, popular, and temporary” – and immediate – forms of the sacred that are the very instances that someone like Richard Fenn (Princeton Theological Seminary) rejects. [9] Fenn’s argument is founded on an understanding of the idol as the penultimate standing for – and precluding – the ultimate that is beyond it. [10] This attitude, a form of theological snobbism, is a further rejection of corpo-spirituality and the vernacular.

Unlike Fenn whose argument rests on the supposed existence of ultimates – or an ultimate, Aristotle is a bona fide pagan for whom there are no absolutes, transcendentals or ultimates. Matter is the foundation, and yet, as contemporary science with its understandings of quantum mechanics, complexity and string theory, there is no final center or component. In this, we are reminded of Plato’s cave in which prisoners only know reality to be the shadows that appeared on the wall but were caused from the light behind them. [11] Plato’s point is that if they could but turn around, these ignorant people would see the light, the truth, that was causing their shadows to appear. But the truth of the matter really is that, while we welcome and rejoice over the sun’s existence, we cannot live on it or even look let alone stare at it. We need the bright light of the sun and other truths, not as our foci, but as our guides and assistants. The over-dazzling light of the sun is not our target. Consequently, reality must lie somewhere between the extreme of blinding light and the obscurity of shadows – the kind of mean or balance that Aristotle suggested as a way of life, one that navigates between the ultimate and illusion or mistake. [12]

Considering the physicality of pagan spirituality, we might consider for the moment the role of the stone in idolatry. Pagans use, even can adore, their stone idols, but they are not bound or restricted by them. To be so would be to strike against the essential humanistic chord of paganism that encourages emancipation and openness as prerequisites for growth. The irony is that, for pagans, a false idolatry is to cast one’s commandments in stone. Instead, the stone or idol is intended as a vehicle, not a prison. The pagan cherishing of the natural in the communication with the divine through stone, water, trees, fire and sentience allows that the idol is not an absolute end in itself but something that aids and assists devotional focus and concentration.

However, while employing typical transcendental language, Immanuel Kant upholds the biblical commandment prohibiting the making of graven images as the most “sublime passage in the Jewish law” and as a prevention of the kind of fanaticism or delusion that wishes to see beyond the limits of the senses. [13] He conceives in terms of ‘higher degrees of moral perfection’ against which he posits both ‘fanatical theosophic dreams’ and indulgent convenience. Morality for Kant has no necessary and proportionate connection to happiness. The counter-argument to Kant posits that even quantum science ‘represents’ things it cannot encounter such as quarks, photons, leptons, gluons, bosons and gravitons, and the pagan aspect of spirituality is likewise comfortable to represent the unmanifest and other as a means of expressing adoration, of experiencing the dynamics of awe and wonder or of accessing the miraculous. The real irony in Kant’s Lectures on Ethics argument is that the iconoclastic Abrahamic traditions have consistently produced a ‘reverse fanaticism’ – but a fanaticism nonetheless – that in terms of ethical consequence appears indefensibly immoral.

Kant’s anti-idolatry position is one that categorically dismisses the tangible as a legitimate vehicle for the divine. Idolatry for the pagan, however, represents the occasion for ecstatic affirmation of divine materiality. Not bound by any Kantian obligation to preserve a transcendental realm as absolutely other, the pagan seeks the divine principally as immanent rather than transcendent – at least in the Kantian a priori or non-experiential sense. Instead, in pagan non-theism, the divine can manifest through or even as the corporeal. Once again, the pantheistic understanding of the cosmos as god/goddess in and of itself is what provides the persistent rationale behind pagan proclivities of idolatry. In other words, Kant’s Platonic ideas of subject, cosmos and God become for the pagan transformed into something more reminiscent of Bryan Wilson’s humanity, world and the supernatural in which the human and the cosmos are now substantial and concrete presences and the supernatural or, better, the preternatural is understood as an intrinsic awesome other, the co-natural rather than the non-natural or anti-natural.

The idolatry question and its place within Kant’s philosophy also forms a part of the philosopher’s understanding of religion itself. Kant distinguishes between ‘natural religion’ and ‘revealed religion’ but rejects the first as too skeptical and the second as too dogmatic. His ‘true empirical’ or ‘universal’ religion is one in which the natural and revealed become complementary. [14] As Stephen Palmquist points out, Kant differentiates between two types of natural religion: the ‘naturalist’, who denies the supernatural, and the ‘pure rationalist’, who recognizes the supernatural but does not see it as central to religion. [15] While not an exact fit, these types correspond to two kinds of pagans, namely, those who reject the supernatural as an unnecessary fiction, and those who entertain the supernatural along with the natural – working with both. We invariably find that throughout paganism, both its contemporary and indigenous forms, personal attitudes toward the gods range from understanding them as metaphorical and/or non-existent to numinous presences, living material entities and/or capable of visionary and epiphanic disclosure.

As Graham Harvey recognizes, the ‘new animism’ that he explores has a near-synonym in personalism, the philosophical doctrine that accepts the person as ultimate [16] As a ‘school of thought’, personalists concentrate on the personhood of God in opposition to the positions of both pantheism and materialism. Approaching God as person, a divine person, is argued as a more relevant way than considering ‘him’ an abstract and absolute transcendental principle. Harvey’s emphasis on animism that encompasses both human and other-than-human persons is an attempt to locate the grounding for an ethics of relationship, responsiveness and responsibility. In extending the notion of personhood, he speaks of the possibility of ‘rock-persons’, ‘tree-persons’, ‘eagle-persons’, etc. From a pagan perspective, Harvey’s ‘new animism’ may be thought of as a form of ‘polytheistic personalism’. If we push the notion further in the effort to emancipate ourselves from confining subject-object dualistic frameworks and to include ‘man-made objects’ in addition to natural entities, we may extend this paradigm to include the idol as person as well. Idolatry then is to be seen as centered on the respectful relationship – the same as might exist between two human beings, between a human being and a spring, river or mountain, or a human being and a deity or locus or vehicle of deity. While animism or personalism stresses the idealistic, the non-substantial person or personhood, idolatry is even more encompassing in its inclusion of the very material or hylozoistic dimension of the sacred or divine.

Consequently, my own resistance to animism as personalism is the idealistic bias and basis of the latter. To be sure, Harvey approaches the ‘new animism’ not as an ontology or metaphysics but as an ethical mandate. He also stresses that animistic perception is something that is acquired and cultivated; it is not an automatic and infantile given. In other words, “animist knowledge requires education and effort.” [17] But whether the notion of personhood (of rocks, trees, rivers, birds, deities) is a projected fabrication or not, the thrust in much current thinking is to emphasize the interconnectedness of being and, as such, its relational capacity and concurrent responsibilities that occur in person-to-person transactions. Apart from the ideal or idealistic, an idolatry-centered spirituality stresses the more obvious and immediate bond-forming relationship, namely, the community or kinship of matter. If personhood also develops, it develops additionally as and from the material which unites all manifestation. Things, objects and subjects have in general a physical base or source. It is not that there is a panpsychic sentience that belongs to the material but that there is a natural impulse inherent in matter to become conscious or to produce consciousness. If humanity and/or personhood unite through the emergence of awareness, they are already unified in the tangibility of our collective origin.

Worship before – or of – an idol is part of the search for “better forms of personhood in relationships.” [18] In idolatry itself, there is no intrinsically significant distinction to be made between ‘nature-made’ idols (or ‘persons’) and ‘man-made’ ones. One can encounter venerational meaning in the oak of Dodona and in the Statue of Liberty, in the svayambhuva or naturally shaped lingam of Kashi Vishwanath and in the sculptured depiction of Athena Parthenos, and in the magnificence of the Grand Canyon or Mount Fuji and in the splendor of the Manhattan skyline or the pyramids of Giza. The ‘man-made’ and the ‘nature-made’ are not necessarily in conflict or opposition but equally provide locations of personhood, deity and/or contemplative reflection. The dynamic one encounters with either, as well as the dynamic between them, is relational and, as such, the very foundation for an ethics of respect and honor. Neither the natural nor the cultural need be achieved at the expense of the other. Instead the relationship between the natural givens of nature and the fashioned creations of civilization can be akin to the effort and working with the available resources that constitutes the garden. Perhaps the best metaphor for the recognition of and relationship with the other, the ‘person’ of the other, the community of selves and others, the collectivity of being and aesthetic output, is that of the gardening process. We may on occasion be required to clear a forest for reasons of settlement or agriculture, to dam a river canyon for needs of electricity or irrigation, or to mine an area in order to obtain necessary minerals or fuel, but for such activities to remain within a pagan spectrum of the ethically permissible – keeping to the etiquette entailed by the respectful and respected relationships inherent in a community of persons not all of whom are human, man-made changes to the environment must occur in full, acute and sensitive mindfulness of the full community and not just of a privileged few, for short-term and ad hoc goals, or for a profit that does not consider long-range consequences.

If ‘man-made’ and ‘nature-made’ are two alternatives, there is also the possibility of ‘god-made’. Pagans, however, are unlikely to give much credence to biblical notions of the world itself having been made by Yahweh. Nevertheless, in mythology, pagan gods themselves can intervene and produce objects by apport or deus ex machina means. In India, at the Hindu shrine of Tirumala on Tirupati Hill, there is a highly revered Vishnu statue of Venkateshwara (‘Lord of Venkata Hill’) which, despite its man-made appearance, accordingly appeared spontaneously as swayambhu or ‘self-existent’. [19] However unlikely, there is nothing inherent in nature to prevent the occurrence of a fully-formed anthropoid idol. According to legend, the figure of Venkateshwara or Balaji is ‘god-given’; it just was found, not made. But in this tale, there is no essential difference between ‘god-made’ and ‘nature-made’, and, for the pagan, nature and god are the same. Consequently, in pagan negotiatory relationship, the personages or parties involved are always humanity and nature. If the gods exist, they are primarily either aspects of nature or aesthetic humanizations or both. Ethics may indeed include honoring the gods, but full moral importance for the pagan cannot be divorced from concern with humanity’s relationship with nature and vice versa.

In their Desirable God, with the subtitle Our Fascination with Images, Idols and New Deities, Roger Burggraeve, Johan De Tavenier, Didier Pollefeyt and Jo Hanssens rightly warn that even the prohibition against idols – as well as idolatry itself – can become a source for violence. [20] They allow that “fanatic exclusivism, with or without its violent intolerance, … rears its head in every religious experience…” [21] They also accept that humans possess a natural inclination to depict everything, both the visible and the invisible. While Marcel Poorthuis recognizes that ‘idolatry’ as a word signifies the normative rather than the descriptive, [22] the editors convey further that idolatry is an instance of yearning, that the idol is “an expression of one’s own desire,” [23] and that the natural use of images in worship is engendered as an act of passion. Coming from a Catholic tradition of liberation theology, the authors represented in Burggraeve et al.’s book question much of the prevailingly established attitudes toward idolatrous behavior, but this questioning still finally manages to become tailored back into a vindication of their own tradition.

Burggraeve, inspired by Plato, seeks to distinguish between the Greek eidoon and eidolon, respectively, ‘image’ and ‘idol’. For the pagan, they may be different but not in the sense that Burggraeve understands. If idols are “sculpted images” that afford “a concrete, localizable and visible point for worship, ritual and celebration,” [24] they are no more or less ‘shadows’ or portals than are icons, representations or pictures, and the artificial distinction between veneration and adoration is merely an unnecessary fabrication in a perspective that is founded upon the dynamics of pagan worship. [25]

For Burggraeve et al., “Idolatry is simply an expression of the narcissistic striving for omnipotence of the human person.” [26] Even further, “Idolatry consists in divinizing and absolutizing a worldly, created, finite reality.” [27] This divinization and absolutizing of manmade objects is the core of liberation theology’s attack on pagan idolatry. Despite the fact that few pagans seek to do this, the argument alleges that the idolater endeavors to make the divine transparent and completely comprehensible in an image, representation or concept. [28] The polytheistic understanding of godhead alone would seem to preclude this possibility. Allowing that worship or veneration of the lingam of Shiva Vishvanath in Varanasi or the statue of Vishnu Venkateshwara in Tirupati often crosses the boundaries of frenzied devotion, few Hindus would conceive that the deity is wholly embodied by the idol. The Freudian contention that idolatry is a narcissistic process of idealization overlooks completely that the idol is approached as a viaduct in much the same way that the Roman Catholic approaches his or her hagiographic icons. The idol is instead a localizing receptacle – a locus for the encounter of the magical presence of deity, of darshan or numinous witnessing, and not the whole of the deity himself/herself. [29]

Pagans of today, at least contemporary pagans of the West, have the same ethical concerns as Christians and others, but they reach the humility of service via a completely different route. For the pagan, the generosity of spirit springs from the divinity of an ubiquitous nature, a divine immanence that both saturates and is the tangible reality of the world, humanity and sentient life. Paganism’s pantheism not only justifies ethical behavior, it also sacralizes the all of everything, and in so doing it allows that any charity and concern for the other is worship of deity. [30] Nevertheless, it is important for pagans to recognize, if not their critics as well, that idolatry is not an attempt to evaporate or eliminate the other but is simply an iconic form that brings the other into an immediate orbit that the pagan, by virtue of her spiritual vision as well as the ethical behavior that grounds itself in that vision, appreciates in emancipation from biblical distortion and attempt at hegemonic intimidation. [31]

Consequently, idolatry is part of what the pagan cherishes as freedom. In the liberation from outmoded, imposed and stifling ideologies and theologies, the virtue-value of freedom is for the pagan sacrosanct. This freedom is not a New Age or wishy-washy ‘anything goes’ or self-pampering; the full range of pagan values ensure otherwise. But in delineating its own identity and space, the pagan’s insistence on and call for freedom include the iconoclastic rejections of strictures against both idolatry and blasphemy. The stature of human freedom for the pagan is a daring step into and beyond the void of the cosmos. This is a heroic venture – the audacity to say and do what one basically wills. Nevertheless, the pagan’s code of honor is one that stresses a mindfulness of the other, all others. The question of blasphemy has become centralized through the Danish cartoon controversy. While the pagan insistence on freedom includes the right to free speech, there is equally a call to be mindful and sensitive to the feelings and beliefs of others. There is no easy answer in the conflict that arises when one person’s freedom is understood to blaspheme another person’s holy convictions. What will always be called for is the judiciousness of wisdom – as well as the hope that people will learn to cultivate an indifference that transcends a ready ability to be insulted or offended. The pagan is not constrained by the recognition of his or her gods – a recognition that includes as well discussing the possibility of any faults adhering to deity. [32] For the aspiring human community, there need be the acknowledgment that Christ and the God of Mohammed are central to great swathes of humanity, but this appreciation ought not prevent the wider discussion of any faults encompassed by either as well as by any other cherished human focus. In this process of daring to discuss and exchange openly, we all need to learn to laugh, and this includes to be able to laugh at ourselves when necessary as well. In laughter, we can learn to be free. [33]

Ethics for Levinas is central to all philosophical reflection. Whereas Aristotle fuses ethics and politics, Levinas unites ethics and metaphysics. His train of thought, however, follows the Hebraic theology of the Old Testament and pictures a transcendental Other, God, as source and voice of all ethical obligation. Ethics represent a descent from an invisible, trans-natural other – the dark and mysterious world of the ‘il y a’ beyond immanent being, the ‘other-than-being’ (autrement qu’être). For the anti-idolaters like Burggraeve and company, Levinas becomes their hero with his insistent emphasis on the complete and utter Otherness of God who, at the same time, is the source of all that is good and worthwhile in this world. [34]

If Burggraeve and friends can claim that “one can only talk of idolatry when one absolutely attaches oneself to a reality that does not deserve this because it simply is not divine,” [35] the pagan rejection of such a statement is based on three points, namely, the pagan does not think in terms of ‘absolutes’, she/he modifies extreme attachment by her valorizing of freedom, and she/he considers that all is divine. This all or everything is physical reality, personhood, cultural production, in short, the cosmos itself. It is nevertheless true that a positive pagan ethic is always vulnerable due to “the suffering of the earth,” [36] but it does not link its spirituality exclusively to this suffering. Instead, moral behavior for the pagan is primarily joyous and affirmative, and, when these are not possible, it is then that it becomes stoic and resolute. The joyful part, however, derives its celebratory position in relationship – relationships that merit responsibilities but within the range of reciprocal behavior that concerns freedom, comfort and pleasure.

For the pagan, pleasure is something that is – or at least can be – profoundly physical and sensual. It represents a mental crossing point of intensity but frequently one translated into and expressed through tangible/corporeal contact. Along with liberty and honor, enjoyment is essential for the pagan in what constitutes the good life – whether as something as rarefied as the Burning Man Festival or the Queen’s Birthday in The Netherlands, or whether as our more prosaic day-to-day ordinary navigations. In the ensouled understanding of idolatry and paganism, Harvey’s “animist ethics are embodied, sensual and erotic,” and this in addition “requires them to be particular and pluralistic.” [37] Morality for the pagan deals with a multiplicity of specific situations and relations. In endeavoring to become better as human persons, pleasure with honor for the pagan does not translate into abstinence and the absence of bodily delights. To the contrary, it is enjoyment of education and worship in all their forms along with the carnal and sensual as well.

Within any pursuit through the ever-present realms of uncertainty, the idol serves as a refreshing anchor that allows the pagan worshiper a grounding oasis, a moment of reprise, a locus of contemplation and an ad hoc connection with the paradoxical beingness of our expanding multiverse. The idol becomes a cherished, welcomed friend – one upon which the pagan is not dependent, not fixed and not belittled but instead inspired to reach the fullest stature of her or his own humanity and beyond. The idol or icon is eventually centered with community and becomes a means by which the worshiper can reach within to reach outside and afar. But no pagan needs the idol; it is instead a sacred accessory – to be honored when available but perhaps only remembered when one moves into more independent realms. The idol is simply a sacred tool in an already sacred everything. If there appears to be a contradiction in there being a sacred primus inter pares that merits special honor within an all-embracing reality that itself instills the spirit of worship, the pagan merely laughs out of her acceptance of the freedom that is born of paradox. We both die and live – and perhaps always at the same time.



[1] Vivekananda, ‘Defence of Image Worship’ in Mumm (2002:22). Note too that Poorthuis (Burggraeve et al., 2003:41) mentions the cherubim and the cooper snake in the desert as “images that for some reason have escaped the prohibition of images.”

[2] Abram (1996:240); author’s italics.

[3] Nevertheless, even in Genesis (31:19) we hear of Rachel taking the idols or teraphim of her father. “Gideon’s Ephod and Micah’s Teraphim are remarkable instances of Israelitish idolatry” (Bell, 1790: II 4). Then too, of course, there is the story of the Golden Calf in the Sinai (Exodus 32).

[4] Spinoza Ethics III Proposition 16 [II/153] (Curley, 1996:79).

[5] Diana Eck, ‘Seeing the Sacred’ in Mumm (2002:15).

[6] Sacks (2004). The underlying notion of an idol as “a statue or image of some false god” (Bell, 1790: II 3) is still retained. An earlier yet similar usage is Francis Bacon’s idola fori, specus, theatri, tribus which the English philosopher (1561-1626) considers to be four fundamentally incorrect ways of understanding nature: the idols of the tribe (natural human errors based on the assumption that man is the measure of all things), the idols of the cave (errors caused by individual bias), idols of the market place (incorrect inferences and assumptions based on language), and idols of the theater (errors caused by the influence of faulty philosophy, illogical empirical inference, and/or superstition). A discussion of Bacon’s idols is also to be found in Burggraeve et al. (2003:122-5).

[7] York (1995a).

[8] Bowker (1997:465).

[9] Fenn (2001:74).

[10] Fenn (2001:10). While Fenn’s secularism is seductively appealing in and of itself, see McGraw (2003:109-136) for an analysis of some of the secular left’s shortcomings vis-à-vis the open forum of debate and exchange that constitutes the foundation of democracy.

[11] Plato, Republic 7.6.7 [514-518].

[12] For Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Golden Mean, see Nichomachean Ethics 2.6-9 [1106a-1109b](Edel, 1967:371-77)(McKeon, 1947:338-47).

[13] Critique of Judgment 4 (tr. James Creed Meredith):

[14] Palmquist (1992; etext:12). In his Lectures on Ethics (83f), Kant claims that “supernatural religion is not opposed to natural religion, but completes it.”

[15] Ibid. pp 10f.

[16] Harvey (2005:22).

[17] Ibid. p. 173. “Elders are more animist than children because they have learnt not only to know the difference between a person and a thing, but, more important, appropriate ways of acting towards and in response to persons – human and other-than-human.” “[Animism] is nurtured not natural” (p. 169).

[18] Harvey (2005:16).

[19] (accessed 19 April 2006).

[20] Burggraeve et al. (2003). “…violence from one religion towards the other is actually not far off [when one] considers ‘his’ god as the only one, the best, the greatest and the strongest, [and] all to [sic.] readily claims the ‘right’ not only to ignore the other gods, but also to reject and ridicule them as if they were ‘nothing’” (p.18). The editors call for “a suspicion towards an absolutizing of the prohibition against images and thus towards an absolute, all-destroying, violent iconoclasm” (p. 28).

[21] Ibid. 19. For pagans, early Christians were terrorists.

[22] Burggraeve et al. (2003:42).

[23] Ibid. 266.

[24] Burggraeve et al. (2003:22).

[25] Ibid. 77f. Indeed, thanks to Gertrude Stein, for the pagan, an icon is an idol is an icon. For the Roman Catholic Church, however, due to the ubiquitous veneration of saints, often in three-dimensional form, it is imperative to differentiate veneration from adoration – with this last being allowed only to be directed toward God.

[26] Burggraeve et al. (2003:265). Elsewhere, Poorthuis considers that idolatry is a form of adultery (43), while Burggraeve recalls Jean-Luc Marion’s understanding of idolatry as “an absolutizing way of looking at the visible” (86f). Jürgen Manemann holds that the misconceptive nature of idolatry links it to ideology, and, whereas an idol is a fetish, idolatry is understood as “a form of mimesis which makes itself like the environment” (97).

[27] Ibid. 31.
[28] Burggraeve et al. (2003:25). The authors contend that “Something only becomes something absolute when it not only is utterly dominating but also demanding, in the sense that it claims everything exclusively for itself” (31). For the pagan, this last is ironic because it is applicable to the Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic God above all. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas, the dangers of idolatry for Burggraeve’s position apply more to the fundamentalist than to the pagan per se, namely, to the absolutizing and idolizing of Scripture (67).

[29] From the theological position of Poorthuis, Burggraeve and friends, idolatry comprises the root of all moral deviance. Like pride, the idol is an abomination (Prov. 16:5; Deut. 7:26). In being completely humble before God – which for liberation theology translates into serving the humble, the poor, the stressed and the wounded, the Christian forsakes idolatry through the performance of self-giving deeds. In other words, the Christian is being ethical when she substantiates the Decalogue. The irony in all this for the pagan is that liberation theology translates the opposition to idolatry into an active concern for the ‘small people’, those who are persecuted – “the vulnerable, the wounded, the outcast and the forgotten” (ibid. 82).

[30] In Burggraeve’s take, transcendence is understood only as the further, invisible, different or distant, and the idol is seen to preclude any access to these. The visible and the immediate are rejected as idolatrous (Burggraeve et al.,2003:87). From the Christian perspective, any identification of humanity with divinity is idolatry – “meaning to say humanity would be reduced to divinity, at the cost of humanity” (89, my italics). Nevertheless, the pagan might wonder whether the elevation of the persecuted ‘small people’ that occurs with liberation theology is not itself an illustration of the very idolatry that is otherwise condemned. The poor and outcaste become in themselves idée fixes.

[31] For Burggraeve (loc. cit. 92), the image of God does not coincide “with the majesty of nature that overwhelms us and befalls us” – a much different understanding than the non-biblical faith of the pagan. Curiously, while Manemann perceives idolatry as occurring when a “man sets a work of his own hands in the place of God” (96f), he inadvertently allows the pagan veneration of the tree, rock or spring not to be an instance of idolatrous behavior. He also suggests that “An idol wants us to make ourselves in its image” (ibid., my italics).

[32] In respect of the Danish cartoon controversy, Zizek (2006) puts the following perspective forward: “While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other’s beliefs. Respect for other’s beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple ‘regimes of truth’, disqualifying as violent imposition any  clear insistence on truth.”

[33] In this context, we might note that a Christian, Jew and pagan arrive at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter interrogates each in turn. “Have you been good?” he asks of the Christian. “Yes, I have been good,” the Christian replies. “O.K.,” St. Peter answers, “you may enter.” The Jew is asked the same question next to which he also replies “Yes.” Once again, the Jew is permitted to enter. Finally, the pagan is asked, “Have you been a good person?” The pagan replies, “I’ve been mostly good, but sometimes I have been bad.” St. Peter reflects on this and finally says, “O.K., you may enter as well; everyone gets into heaven anyway.” “You mean, I have been good for nothing?” the pagan questions. St. Peter replies, “You said it; not me.”

[34] See - dated 8 December 2005.

[35] Burggraeve et al. (2003:121).

[36] Yves de Maeseneer, ibid. p. 258.

[37] Harvey (2005:172).




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