A discussion arose in Societyvs's blog about whether reverential treatment of the pages of a Torah scroll can constitute a form of idolatry.

I have to admit that I am not comfortable with any form of spiritual reverence that is directed towards a physical object. I frequently attend a Taizé service that includes a period of "veneration of the cross", in which people bow before a cross that lies on the floor, leave a candle, and pray or meditate; I've always felt a little uncomfortable with that part of the service. The services at St. Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco include a period when a Gospel book is passed around for people to touch or kiss; I never cared for that either. The Catholic Church has strict rules about what can be done with the Eucharistic Host (none of it should fall onto the floor, for example). In the secular political world, many Americans treat their nation's flag with a similar form of religious reverence, with rules about folding and flying it, and much like a Eucharistic Host it is supposed to never touch the ground. Some people of faith, including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites, consider the pledge of allegiance to be a form of idolatry, and they therefore abstain from reciting it.

There is a corollary to this, and that is the idolatry not of a physical object, but of words that can are printed in a book--specifically, the words in the Bible. While this can exclude the veneration of any single, specific, physical book in one's possession, it does entail a belief in the infallibility of the words themselves, which can be abstracted from any particular printed form. One can thus spill coffee on one's Bible without feeling that one has done anything wrong, but to actually question that the Bible is literally the word of God is another thing altogether. The word for this form of idolatry is bibliolatry.

John Cobb, in his April column on the Process and Faith web site, refers to this kind of idolatry in his response to a "born again believer" who poses a question about the miracles attributed to Jesus:

It is probable that the questioner brings to the Bible quite different assumptions than mine, and that as I respond to his question, I will lose him. I say this because born again has too often become a code word for a view of the Bible that I consider idolatrous. For process thought to treat any creature, any person, any institution, any writing, as if it were God is idolatry. When one denies the creatureliness, and that means the fallibility, of any creature, one is idolatrous.
If object-worship is a form of idolatry, then isn't it also idolatry to worship a human being? This raises the question of whether Trinitarian Christianity is really a form of idolatry, since it makes a human being out to be God.

There is a flip side to this question, however. If you believe that God is within everything, as panentheism does (and John Cobb, referenced above, is a process theologian and therefore a panentheist), then there is something of the Divine within all of us. However, there is a difference between saying that God is in everything, and saying that somehow any individual object is characterized by divine perfection.

I've recently been reading John Spong's book Jesus for the Non-Religious. He often describes Jesus as revealing to us how we can be "fully human", and that it was through his own "full humanity" that he revealed God to us. This has been for him a persistent theme of late; on the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" web site, he recently wrote,
I do not believe that Jesus defied gravity to ascend into the heavens of a three-tiered universe to be reunited with the God who lives above the sky, but I do believe that Jesus opened the door to that realm in which life can become so whole and so fully human that we enter God’s divinity and God’s presence in a new way.
What does it really mean to be "fully human"? To be human is to err, as a common adage tells us. If to err is human, then does being fully human mean that you err all the time? Perhaps not, but in any case I would argue that Jesus could hardly have been both "fully human" and "fully divine", given that erring is inherently part of the human condition, and not erring is inherently part of the divine condition. Yet I think what Spong really means when he says "fully human" is that Jesus pointed the way to realizing fully the human potential for experiencing God's presence and thus being the best we can be. When we are most in tune with the Divine, we are realizing our potential. But while realizing the human potential is a worthy goal, and I think we should aspire to it, we should not forget that we humans are not God.

As a panentheist, I may believe that God is within us, but as a panentheist I also believe that God is more than the world as well. God is beyond any physical object, and God is beyond any human attempt at complete understanding. I can understand why someone would treat with reverence and awe a 3000-year old sacred document that was unearthed from an archaeological dig; such an object would be a rare, irreplaceable relic of an ancient time. But the awe in that case is more about the fragility of the natural world and the appreciation that any original copy of a document could survive that long. But to treat with reverence and awe a document produced, say, last year, that just happens to have a copy of the words that were written 2000 or 3000 years ago is another thing altogether. It's just a physical object, and the words printed on them are ultimately just human words, even if they are wonderful words that express deeply meaningful ideas about the sacred dialogue between humans and God.


Andrew said...

It is that question of "worshipping" Jesus as a form of idolatry that has really been hitting me lately. I grew up Trinitarian, and it is something that is just assumed. I am finding that it is bad form to even question it from a scriptural basis. For some, using the terms Lord, Savior, Christ, Son of God, etc. is not enough. He must be God.

Not that I could not make an argument for it scripturally, I just feel like I can make a stronger argument scripturally that he is not (though I would contend that he is more than man, but that is just me). The fact that I can argue it both ways makes me feel uncomfortable committing too strongly to any position.

I struggle with enough idolatry as it is. :)

OneSmallStep said...

**then isn't it also idolatry to worship a human being? This raises the question of whether Trinitarian Christianity is really a form of idolatry, since it makes a human being out to be God.**

I've wondered this as well. Is it even possible to worship Jesus without worshipping a human? After all, as soon as the word "Jesus" is brought into the conversation, it does seem to involve the man who walked around 2,000 years ago.

The other reason why I mull over this is Paul's reference in Romans 1 about people worshipping created things. Jesus was created, in a way. If he was given a human body, or born, that means there was a point in time in which that human element did not exist. So if one worships the same Jesus that walked around 2,000 years ago ... isn't one worshipping something that was created? How can you even make the division between man/God like that?

Matthew said...

Onesmallstep said;

"So if one worships the same Jesus that walked around 2,000 years ago ... isn't one worshipping something that was created?"

What many people forget is that the Postmodern view of the world is different from the Modern different from from Early different from Middle Ages...etc. Taking only one period step back can make you wonder why you believe what you believe!

If memory serves conception around Jesus' time held that a person originated from the man's 'seed'. The woman wasn't thought to add any physical quality, or sinful nature to her offspring. Thus Mary, giving birth to Jesus without Joseph's sinful seed implanted in her, wouldn't make Jesus 'created' and sinful.

If this was the understanding of human used as the basis for the stories about Jesus, how will you translate this 'meaning' for Postmodern man...and not create your own version, which probably has less to do with with who Jesus was, and more about what you favor to believe in this Postmodern Western world?!


SocietyVs said...

Idolatry is literally the worship of an object - which might entail more than just a high respect/reverence for the object - in my opinion.

Idols were created things concerning making God as an image - now I think the bible or a Torah Scroll does not really fall under that definition per se - unless we see that as idolatry by our definition of what idolatry means.

I can respect Yael's belief about the Torah scroll - those are God's words to the Judaic community - and need to be respected (I would say even revered). But they would never reach a point of actual worship per se - like offeringgs to the the scroll or what not (or the bible for that matter).

I think there is some confusion over what idolatry really is in most Christian circles. Is not idolatry connected to 'making a graven image' and then worshipping it? Isn't that the original definition of this idea in commandment 2?

I mean, we are looking deeper into the idea - as in idolatry of the heart - and the way some people revere some object (like a cross or a bible). I kinda agree - I am like Mystical in this regards also - a bible is a bible to me - even if someone burnt it in front of me - I know the teahcings are alive in me (and not only on the page).

Does anyone in any faith put their images and things ahead of God? I know it seems like some do - but this is not the common notion. Most people gain a reverence for something religious based on their faith in God - so they take some high esteem for certain rituals or a scroll. God enfuses the object with some meaning to the person of faith - the scroll is God's words or the cross is a symbol of an act of Jesus for humanity (which means a lot to us).

That to me is not idolatry - unless one starts worshipping the actual object and removes God from the equation altogether (this thing becomes a replacement). The object would lose it's meaning if removed from the connection with God one feels - so I am not sure of idolatry.

As for Jesus, I raised this issue a while ago and how a human is getting God status - and seems to break commandement #1 and #2 (of number 2 I am not sure). But Jesus does become a human image of the Creator - which is quite convenient for a human.

But I am also similar to Yael - the teachings mean a lot to me - they are my guidance and I first read them on pages and heard them spoke upon before I acted upon them. There is a sense for me of the sacredness of the teachings - but also in the sacredness of doing them (there is a weird combination there that can look idolatorous but is in fact not).

Mystical Seeker said...


I struggle with enough idolatry as it is.

One of the reason I brought up the example of the American flag is that I think that there are many forms of idolatry, and they manifest themselves in the secular world as well as the religious world.

Mystical Seeker said...

Onesmallstep and Matthew,

I was just reading a book about David and Solomon that talked about King David's accomplishments and also his failings as a person. After listing those failings, the author concluded that David was clearly "deeply human". Which is to say that his failings were a direct consequence of his humanity. This is pretty common language when we talk about humanity. I remember that song by Level 42 from back in the 1980s, "There's Something About You", that had the line "I'm only human after all."


I hear what you are saying about idolatry referring to worshiping a manufactured object as a deity, and that this is not the same thing as reverence. That being said, my own take on this is this. I think that some forms of reverence can take on characteristics that resemble in some way "idol worship" even if it is not, strictly speaking, idolatry in the sense of the Second Commandment. Ultimately, as far as I am concerned, a book is just a book, and a national flag is just a national flag.

I do not wish to take away from you or Yael the importance of revering sacred teachings that mean a lot to you, however. I think that great words and teachings should indeed be revered and respected.

Thanks for your comments.

OneSmallStep said...

**. For some, using the terms Lord, Savior, Christ, Son of God, etc. is not enough. He must be God.**

I think ANdrew is also mentioning a good point here. In the NT, I find all those terms applied to Jesus without heistation. Non-trinitarian religions all affirm those terms, as well. But the sticking point always comes down to the vaguest idea of all, and the one that requires the most inference: Jesus as God. It's just odd that the foggy one is the sticking point.


**Thus Mary, giving birth to Jesus without Joseph's sinful seed implanted in her, wouldn't make Jesus 'created' and sinful. **

How would this tie into the Son of Man element? Wouldn't Jesus still have to be considered "created" since he had a physical body?