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.